what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

POSSLQs - now and then

25 years ago or so, I made my first (of three) trip(s) to the United States – the initial purpose being to explore what lessons their experience of community economic development (particularly in the traditional industrial areas of Pittsburgh and Chicago) might offer for us in West Central Scotland. For that first 6 week trip I was indebted to the German Marshall Foundation in general – and Willie Roe in particular.
Sadly the subsequent report I did detailing the various organisations I visited (including the South Shore Chicago Bank where Obama was active as a community lawyer) is no longer available although I do have a record of the key lessons I took from the visit – which I will share in my next post

I have three vivid recollections of those visits – first the sheer incredulity I encountered when I tried to present our government system in Scotland to the people in places such as Washington and Denver (Colorado) “Wow – you are BIG” was the main reaction (we did, after all, then employ 100,000 professional staff – mainly teachers, police, firemen and social workers). I slaved over a powerful slide presentation in Denver of the Glasgow efforts to transform the city and will never forget the response that “your accent is so beautiful you could have read the telephone book!” So much for content!
The second recollection is the sheer theatre of New York streets (on a later visit as I undertook a mission in the early 1990s at the United Nations) where I rented an amazing flat (with saluting commissar!) right on Central Park.

The final memory is at a Pittsburgh academic party – at which I came across (in 1987) the acronym POSSLQ – "persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters" for use to describe one's "partner" or "bidie-in" as we Scots used to say!. Those were the days when marriage was just beginning to go off the boil.
I had been toying for some time with the idea of a post on the modern phenomenon of single living and an article on Open Democracy about the reaction of Turkish officialdom to some male and female students sharing their living quarters has given me the cue
On 3 November 2013, in his address to his deputies at an annual meeting closed to the public, the Turkish Prime Minister hinted at his ambition to take legal measures against unmarried male and female students sharing houses. He made the following statement:
“Nobody knows what takes places in those houses [where male and female students live together]. All kinds of dubious things may happen [in those houses]. ... Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, saying, ‘Where is the state?' These steps are being taken in order to show that the state is there. As a conservative, democratic government, we need to intervene.”
Although the full extent of Erdoğan’s surveillance ambitions is yet to be defined, one thing is clear in his follow up on the issue: opposite sexes sharing housing is disapproved of. Not only does such house-sharing grate against the “conservative democrat” [muhafazakar demokrat] values of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but it also contradicts the AKP’s strong stance on many other claims with regards to how social life needs to be ordered and governed in line with a conservative vision of public morality.
The following conversation took place between the Prime Minister and a journalist during a press conference en route to Finland. The excerpt reveals the kinds of boundaries that the Prime Minister draws on in conceptualizing social life.
Journalist: Sir, what power do the mayors have in supervising this [new regulation on house sharing/cohabitation]…
PM Erdoğan: They’ll be given the necessary authority after the new regulation.
Journalist: These are private houses right?
PM Erdoğan: Yes.
Journalist: People’s private houses?
PM Erdoğan: Yes… How appropriate is it for a young man and woman to stay in one’s private home?
Journalist: It depends on the person.
PM Erdoğan: Would you be fine with/would you tolerate your daughter or son undertaking such an act… When you’re a Mum one day, or maybe you already are, I do not know… if you find something like this appropriate for your daughter or son, well then good for you! [hayırlı olsun]
So the Prime Minister has assigned himself the sober task of ensuring that in these “houses”, citizens live “in accordance to” conservative (and one could argue, Islamic) values that the government holds dear. But cohabitation in Turkey is not a habitual practice. Nor is it widely accepted. And although the nature of the practice is in flux, only a small minority within Turkish society share housing. So, why all this debate, all of a sudden over the state of the living arrangements in Turkey? 
Persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters is now becoming distinctly unpopular in Western Europe. Single households, I was stunned to learn about Paris, accounted in the late 1990s for almost half of all households.
Single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values. Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity—these four trends lend our era its cultural contours, and each gives rise to solo living. Women facing less pressure to stick to child care and housework can pursue careers, marry and conceive when they please, and divorce if they’re unhappy. The “communications revolution” that began with the telephone and continues with Facebook helps dissolve the boundary between social life and isolation. Urban culture caters heavily to autonomous singles, both in its social diversity and in its amenities: gyms, coffee shops, food deliveries, laundromats, and the like ease solo subsistence. Age, thanks to the uneven advances of modern medicine, makes loners of people who have not previously lived by themselves. By 2000, sixty-two per cent of the widowed elderly were living by themselves, a figure that’s unlikely to fall anytime soon. Most people who were brought up in the past half century have been taught to live this way, by their own rules, building the world they want. That belief—Klinenberg calls it “the cult of the individual”—may be the closest thing American culture has to a common ideal, and it’s the premise on which a lot of single people base their lives. If you’re ambitious and you’ve had to navigate a tough job market, alone can seem the best way to approach adulthood. Those who live by themselves are light on their feet (they’re able to move as the work demands) and flexible with their time (they have no meals to come home for). They tend to be financially resilient, too, since no one else is relying on their income. They are free to climb.
The single life is inherently self-interested: it calls for vigilance on matters of self-preservation both large (financial autonomy) and small (dish detergent), and, in many cases, it frees the solitary from the sorts of daily interaction that help craft a sense of shared responsibility.
For one person, that may be a good deal. But, multiplied across a population, it becomes problematic. In a landmark study, “Bowling Alone” (2000), the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam noted a puzzling three-decade decline in what he called “social capital”: the networks of support and reciprocity that bind people together and help things get done collectively. His work considered the waning of everything from P.T.A. enrollment to dinner parties and card games, but the core of his argument was declining civic participation. Between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who held a leadership role in any local organization fell by more than half. Newspaper readership among people under thirty-five dropped during a similar period, as did voting rates. Why? Putnam pointed to cultural shifts among the post-Second World War generation; the privatization of leisure (for example, TV); and, to a smaller extent, the growth of a commuting culture and the time constraints of two-career, or single-parent, family life. “Older strands of social connection were being abraded—even destroyed—by technological and economic and social change,” he wrote.
Putnam, in other words, saw public institutions as a casualty of the same forces of individuation driving modern aloneness. And, unlike Klinenberg, who’s optimistic about solo life largely because he’s optimistic about the socializing effects of technology, Putnam believed that digital communication offers too weak a connection to reverse the loss of community skills. Good socialization is a prerequisite for life online, not an effect of it, he pointed out; without a real-world counterpart—the possibility of running into Web friends “at the grocery store”—Internet contact gets ranty, dishonest, and weird. What’s more, “real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous.” People lose the habit of reaching out to build bridges when they’re most needed. Technology may help us to feel less lonely, but it doesn’t really make us any less alone.
“Bowling Alone” appeared more than a decade ago—an eternity in technology years. And yet the intervening time has, if anything, intensified Putnam’s concerns. A couple of recent books re-articulate them for the Facebook age. One of these, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2011), by the M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle, takes issue with the basic promises of digital connection. She thinks that togetherness, far from being strengthened by technology, has been crowded out by “the half-light of virtual community.”

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