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Tyneside Neighbourhoods

Daniel Nettle

7. Conclusions and reflections

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But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song,
Of how you lived so fast and died so young.


1We’ve now finished the data chapters of this book, and some conclusions are in order. In this chapter, I summarise what strike me as the main things we have learned, and suggest what their implications might be. I then devote a more extended discussion to the issue of causes of patterns of social behaviour, and how our data might bear on it. From this follows a brief consideration of what kinds of interventions we might consider undertaking to try to improve people’s wellbeing in deprived neighbourhoods. I end with some further reflection on the ethical difficulties posed by conducting and writing up this research, leading to a modest defence of its value.

Summary and implications of findings

2We selected two Tyneside neighbourhoods that were similar in many respects, but fell at opposite ends of the spectrum of socioeconomic deprivation. We used multiple, at times improvised, quantitative methods to try to characterize as best we could the patterns of social behaviour in these two neighbourhoods, and the psychological variables such as trust that underlay them. I set out our enquiries within the framework of two broad narratives: the Kropotkinian view, that harshness and deprivation bring social cooperation to the fore, and the Mountain People view, that harshness and deprivation corrode cooperation and promote antisocial behaviour.

3There was some evidence for greater sociality in the deprived Neighbourhood B: people there socialized more on the streets; were less likely to be alone; greeted one another more as they moved around the neighbourhood; and their children were more likely to be found in multi-household groups. These behavioural observations bring to mind Young and Willmott’s (1957) portrayal of working-class community life in East London, and are readily viewed through a Kropotkinian lens. However, most of the other findings, including all of those based on private responses to surveys, suggest the opposite view. When we gave people the opportunity to cooperate with another resident in a monetary game, residents of Neighbourhood B were averse to doing so, even if they could choose the beneficiary themselves. Moreover, when we gave them the chance to steal from other residents, they did so to a much greater extent than the residents of Neighbourhood A. In the same game, they were also less likely to come to the aid of an innocent victim of theft. We observed more littering in Neighbourhood B than A, and letters lost in Neighbourhood B were much less likely to find their way home. Crime and antisocial behaviour was much more frequent, despite vastly greater police effort. All in all, it is hard not to see the bulk of the neighbourhood differences as supporting the view that deprivation corrodes the basis of prosociality and is a fomenting ground for antisocial behaviour.

4Underlying the differences in behaviour between the two neighbourhoods lay marked differences in the psychological variables that regulate expectations in social interactions. Residents of Neighbourhood B trusted each other much less than those of A; this included both strangers and people they knew well. The low trust was particularly striking in young adults. Respondents from Neighbourhood B also reported greater feelings of paranoia. They perceived social cheating by others in their neighbourhood to be much more widespread than respondents in A did. Data from children in other parts of Tyneside showed that the association of deprivation and low trust is not restricted to Neighbourhoods A and B, and suggested that as children grow up, trust declines steeply if they live in a deprived neighbourhood, but remains high if they live in an affluent one. It is hard not to see an echo of Turnbull’s (1972) claim that under severe deprivation, mistrust and fear become the predominant interpersonal attitudes. These attitudes matter for behaviour: our data suggest that unwillingness to cooperate with others was strongly related to lack of trust, and propensity to take from others was associated with the perception that others in the neighbourhood were cheating anyway. In other words, a kind of golden rule drove people’s social decisions: don’t cooperate if you don’t think others can be trusted to also do so, and get away with as much cheating as you can if you think others are doing likewise.

5It would be tempting to explain our findings in terms of the folk-sociological idea that working-class communities based on heavy industries traditionally had high social capital and cohesiveness, and the loss of these industries in the last forty years or so led to the social fragmentation we see today. However, the truth is that we simply don’t have the historical data you would need to establish that the golden age was ever really very golden. We have already seen that the suspicion of romanticisation hangs over some past accounts of working-class life. Thus, the best we can say is that social capital is low and social disorder high in our more deprived study site today. We must remain somewhat agnostic about whether this situation is a product solely of deindustrialisation or in fact represents continuity with earlier historical periods; economic conditions were hardly benign for working-class people in pre-deindustrialisation Newcastle, after all.

6We tried to address the question of whether the differences in social attitudes between the two neighbourhoods were set in stone by years of acculturation, or represented a more immediate response to context. Our minibus experiment (chapter 6) suggested that low trust and high paranoia might represent an immediate response to being in an environment full of visual cues of disorder. This is consistent with recent work on the spreading of disorder, and the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime. The minibus findings are perhaps the most intriguing and potentially useful of the whole project, not least since they suggest avenues for intervention, such as a thorough neighbourhood clean-up, that could be relatively quick wins.

7It feels odd to end an ethnographic study by talking about possible interventions to ‘improve’ the social life of my study site. As a social researcher, I naturally start from the principle that social life is neither better nor worse in either of my study populations, just differently organized. To problematize Neighbourhood B as somewhere that needs fixing strikes against this neutral stance, and, as I will argue later in the chapter, presents an ethical risk. However, there are times when the strongest professional imperative is to come off the fence, and this is one of them: social life is, in some important senses, worse for the residents of Neighbourhood B than for those of A. I think we can agree that is worse to feel paranoid than to feel secure, and it is worse to feel you have insufficient social support than to feel you have it in abundance.

8What is my justification for these evaluative statements? First and foremost, it is what our participants tell us. In Social Survey 1, we asked respondents how much they liked the neighbourhood. The data are plotted in Figure 7.1. As you can see, almost everyone from Neighbourhood A rated their neighbourhood as a 6 or 7 on a scale where 7 was the maximum. (To be precise, 77% of participants gave it a 7, and exactly one person gave it a score lower than 6.) By contrast, in Neighbourhood B, there is a much greater spread of opinions, and many more low ratings. The median is still 5, which is above the mid-point of the scale, but the difference from the distribution of ratings in Neighbourhood A is very marked. Moreover, the less the individual trusted others in the neighbourhood, the less they liked the neighbourhood. Thus, the residents themselves are telling us that there are things they would prefer to be different.

Figure 7.1 Violin plot of respondent ratings of how much they like their neighbourhood, on a scale of 1-7. The black dot shows the median for each neighbourhood. The curved shape represents the distribution of the data on an arbitrary horizontal scale; where the shape is wide, there are many observations, and where it is narrow, there are few. Data from Social Survey 1. Image © Daniel Nettle, CC BY.

9A related point is that Neighbourhood B is not a healthy place. At the 2001 census, only 57% of people there described themselves as being in good health, and fully a third of adults of working age reported that they had a limiting long-standing illness. Expectancy of healthy life is a good decade shorter than in affluent areas, and we saw in chapter 5 how there is a dearth of active senior citizens on the streets. We haven’t measured it directly, but if Neighbourhood B is like other deprived areas of the UK, then there will be an excess of depression, anxiety, and stress-related illness (Stansfeld & Head, 1998). I can’t demonstrate that the poor health in Neighbourhood B is caused by the low trust and low social capital; the causality could be the other way around, or both could be separate consequences of something else. However, there are plenty of suggestions in the literature that social capital affects health (Kawachi, Kennedy, & Glass, 1999), and it would be hard to argue that the low social capital and low social trust in Neighbourhood B have any positive benefits. Thus, it does seem justified to ask: how might social wellbeing be made — by the residents’ own lights — better in the deprived parts of Tyneside?

The economic grit and the cultural pearl

10The issue of possible solutions is inexorably bound up with the issue of causes, which is why it always strikes me as odd when applied researchers display indifference to fundamental explanatory theories; in general terms, how you think you might change a situation should follow from your theoretical understanding of the factors that brought it about. We could privilege economic factors in our account of the causes of the social woes of Neighbourhood B and places like it. The economic deprivation and uncertainty of life in that neighbourhood drive people to short-term self-preservation choices; low social capital and antisocial behaviour must follow. This recalls the Marxist view that the economic base determines the social superstructure, and it also foregrounds the agentic aspect of human nature: people respond to their environments with shifts in their social decisions. On the other hand, we could privilege cultural processes in our account: low social trust and antisocial behaviour are traditions that exist in communities like B. They are passed from person to person through acculturation and have their own replicatory dynamic that is at least somewhat self-sustaining. This account foregrounds the cultural aspect of human nature. In this section, I will try to sketch a view of the probable causes of the social problems of Neighbourhood B that gives weight to both economic and cultural factors. Hence, by implication, I am trying to do justice to both the agentic and cultural aspects of human nature in an integrative explanation of the causes of variation in social behaviour.

11Perhaps the most diagnostic difference between economic and cultural accounts of causes concerns the mapping between material situations and social results. Under a strong economic determinism, if you put twenty different human populations into the same set of economic circumstances, you would always get the same result. Economic circumstances X should always produce behaviour pattern Y, and in comparative work, the associations between economic factors and social consequences should be highly consistent. Under the strongest cultural approach, you could put twenty different populations into the same economic situation, and you could get completely different social results each time. What happened would depend on the cultural repertoire that each group started with, and would have plenty of scope to drift off in a different direction each time through the intrinsic dynamics of cultural replication. In the case of deprivation and social behaviour, a strongly economic approach would expect consistent effects of deprivation across multiple populations, whereas a strongly cultural approach would expect that the consequences of deprivation would be different in every case.

12The Tyneside Neighbourhoods Project is poorly designed to adjudicate this question, because it did not have twenty different populations all subjected to economic deprivation. It really had only one. Thus, we can’t say, on the basis of our data alone, that deprivation always has the effects of lowering trust and raising paranoia. Low trust and high paranoia could be an idiosyncratic cultural trait of Neighbourhood B that would not be replicated in other deprived communities. However, there are many reasons for thinking this is not the case. First, we did have some data from other Tyneside neighbourhoods, via the School Survey, and these data suggested that greater deprivation is reliably associated with lower trust across the conurbation. Second, I am impressed by Haushofer’s (2013) findings, which use the World Values Survey and demonstrate that, across 43 countries, every step down the income scale is associated with a measurable diminution of trust. There were no countries where the gradient ran in the other direction. Third, our findings of greater petty crime, increased interpersonal conflict, and greater squalor in the public space, can be found time and time again in ethnographic descriptions of communities facing severe economic hardship, from many different countries, and many different historical periods.

13Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there is the occasional natural experiment we can turn to. My favourite comes from eleven counties of North Carolina, USA (Costello, Compton, Keller, & Angold, 2003). In these counties, antisocial behaviour (basically aggression, violence, and minor law-breaking) was markedly more common amongst children from poor families than those from middle-class families. Many of the poor families were Native Americans. Halfway through the study period, a casino opened on the reservation belonging to the Cherokee. Native American reservations are outside of state laws and so able to host lucrative gambling facilities. As part of the agreement to host the casino, every Cherokee family started to receive a 6-monthly share of the profits, lifting them out of poverty. Within four years of the casino opening, the rates of antisocial behaviour in the previously poor Cherokee families looked exactly the same as the rates in families that had always been middle-class. It did not take generations of slow, gradual evolution for the antisocial culture of these families to disappear: it happened in near-real time as soon as their material difficulties were alleviated. Poor families that did not receive a casino income retained their high levels of antisocial behaviour. This argues for a repeatable and direct causal nexus linking economic factors-poverty and deprivation-to antisocial behaviour.

14Let us put this together with the edge principle I adumbrated in chapter 3. There I argued that when people are at the very edge of desperation, they are liable to flip into a short-termist state where they can allocate little or no energy to the social needs of others, and are prepared to risk doing others harm if it furthers their immediate interest to do so. I proposed this as a universal reaction underlain, presumably, by specific psychological mechanisms whose function is to provide some chance of getting through a situation of existential crisis. I did not claim that all of the residents of Neighbourhood B were in this state all of time. Probably the vast majority of them are in it none of the time, and the remainder only very occasionally. However, the probability of such a state being entered is increased by every increment you move down the scale of relative poverty and deprivation. This alone would be sufficient to account, for example, for the results of the Cherokee casino study.

15So far, this is a strongly economic account. However, it is not yet complete. What we observed in Neighbourhood B was not just the odd desperate individual performing the odd rash act, but generally low levels of prosociality in the economic games. Here’s where cultural processes come in. Cultural processes are, broadly speaking, processes by which people influence other people. They act as spreaders and amplifiers of individual poverty-driven decisions. For example, imagine that someone in a neighbourhood performs one violent and desperate act. Those that witness it notch down their trust as a result. With lower trust, those people are less inclined to participate in keeping the streets around their houses clean. Others see this and lower their trust too. There start to be small signs of disorder in the neighbourhood. People see this and internalize it as normative. They feel like they can get away with small vandalisms or thefts. These acts in turn leave signs in the environment to which others respond, and so on. The initial isolated antisocial act leads to cycles of sociocultural ramification that end up with the whole neighbourhood having a very different social equilibrium than it would have done without that act. Social mistrust and social cheating are particularly potent raw materials for cultural processes. This is because each has the potential for feed-forward loops: when one person starts to do it, it produces cues that cause others also to do it more, and this in turn can feed back to the originating person. Thus, cultural forces can take small and sporadic behavioural differences between two neighbourhoods, and turn them into a persistently and pervasively different social ethos.

16An apposite metaphor here is that of the grit and the pearl. Pearls start out when a small external irritant enters the shell of a mollusc. Processes intrinsic to the mollusc — repeated secretion of layers of calcium carbonate and conchiolin — then work to build up this stimulus into a much larger pearl. A pearl is much more substantial than the grit it started from, and its detailed shape would not be predictable from the shape of its gritty centre. (Its value and beauty are also greater, but that is irrelevant to the way I am using the metaphor here.) On the other hand, pearls don’t get going without the introgression of some grit. I feel much the same about socioeconomic deprivation and antisocial behaviour. If people are materially in a sufficiently bad situation, there will be a high enough rate of desperate incidents to kick-start the cultural evolution process that will very often spiral towards a low-trust, disordered community equilibrium. On the other hand, if people can feel secure that their material needs are dealt with, then the desperate incidents will tend to be so rare that the cultural pearl is relatively unlikely to get going. I am enough of a materialist to assign a causal primacy to the economic base: it is the grit at the heart of the pearl. On the other hand, I would not diminish the role of cultural transmission in amplifying and perpetuating the grit’s effects.

Structural change versus nudges

17The distinction between the economic grit and the cultural pearl leads us to a distinction between different policy approaches to social problems. On the one hand, you might feel that any attempt to improve the social lot of neighbourhood B needs to be structural: it needs to address the fundamental issue that the residents there face poor and uncertain economic prospects. This corresponds to the view that the economic issues are the primary ones. Set against this, there has been a lot of recent interest in purely behavioural or nudge interventions (Dolan et al., 2012; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). The idea of these nudge interventions is that you can have a big effect on outcomes by making small tweaks to the psychological inputs people receive. You can, for example, get people to reduce their electricity consumption by telling them on their bill how much more than neighbouring households they have used. In the domain of social behaviour, many of the possible nudges relate to the cultural amplifying forces discussed in the previous section. You might find ways for residents to communicate to one another all the things they liked about the neighbourhood. A bit more ambitiously, you might clean up all the litter and repair all the broken windows. By thus changing residents’ social diets, you would potentially interrupt the self-perpetuating transmission cycle of low trust and opportunistic antisociality.

18There is plenty of evidence that nudge-style interventions can work, at least in some populations for some kinds of problem. Findings concerning the spreading of disorder, including our own minibus study described in chapter 6, suggest that the payoffs to simple visible improvements in the social environment of Neighbourhood B could be rapid and quite large. Whilst I can see the value of this, I remain uneasy about the nudge approach as a general solution. It has proved popular with politicians, because it is ostensibly apolitical and hard for anyone to object to. It does not call for any major reform of how our economic system works. We have to ask, though, if the fundamental structural issues are not solved, how long will the gains last? How long before someone who is materially desperate and close to the edge breaks a few windows and the whole cycle starts again? Whilst it may be desirable to arrest the processes that turn grit into pearls, if there is constant stream of new grit, you risk failing to get to the heart of the problem.

19The West End of Newcastle has seen a whole series of well-intentioned superficial regeneration schemes. They look nice for a while — and do seem to have medium-term effects on wellbeing (Blackman, Harvey, Lawrence, & Simon, 2001) — but they eventually deteriorate, and as we have seen, the residents of those regenerated areas are still relatively mistrustful and paranoid. By contrast, areas like Neighbourhood A don’t receive any expensive makeover schemes and don’t need them: those more prosperous communities manage to create and maintain the social ethos they want without any nudging or other anti-entropic external input. And we have already seen the evidence from the Cherokee casino study suggesting that if you can — somehow — fix the structural economic issues, the downstream social problems simply sort themselves out. I find this very striking.

20The response I get from my colleagues in the behavioural sciences at this point goes something like this: you need to do both. The nudges may not be a panacea, but they are certainly a help, and they are also something we can get on with doing immediately whilst figuring out how to address the much more knotty long-term structural issues like low incomes, low human capital and insecurity of employment. This is a reasonable position, but there are two possible problems with it. First, when you focus on the easy stuff first, you tend not to ever get around to addressing the hard stuff at all. The hard stuff gets political, reasonable people can disagree over it, and it may require change to our current institutions. Devoting effort to non-structural interventions effectively puts the structural issues out in the long grass.

21The second problem is that resources are finite. Money spent on nudges and similar schemes is taken from something else. What might the something else be that would make a greater difference to the social life of poor communities? This question takes us far beyond the data of the present study. However, let me mention a personal view that we should not underestimate the importance of just raising poor people’s incomes. There seems to be a widespread perception that the social problems of chaotic lives, public disorder, and antisocial behaviour are somehow not economic: they are not caused by lack of money, and hence more money alone is not the solution to them. We do not actually know that this perception is right. The admittedly limited evidence suggests that raising poor people’s incomes improves social and psychological outcomes quite a lot, especially if people can thereby have greater control and security in their lives (in my terms, stop coming or fearing coming close to the edge). There is the Cherokee casino study I have already mentioned, and there are various experiments with minimum incomes policies or negative income taxes (Forget, 2011). These policies appear to have substantial positive impacts on a wide range of fronts. This means that the relevant cost-benefit calculation for any social policy scheme is not: does it have a positive impact? Rather, the question is: does it have a greater long-term positive impact than using the same money to raise the guaranteed incomes of people in the most deprived communities?

22Just as I tend to accord somewhat of a primacy to the economic grit over the cultural pearl, I would accord rather greater priority to tackling the structural economic issues than to other ways of addressing the social problems of deprived Tyneside neighbourhoods. The elephant in the room is the vast gulf in economic prospects for the kinds of people who live in Neighbourhood B compared to the kinds who live in Neighbourhood A. The concern to tackle the elephant head-on, having become unfashionable for a while, is being discussed by more and more people as the scale and social costs of current levels of economic inequality become clearer. It is not, or should not be, the exclusive preserve of the political left. People of all political persuasions should be able to agree that there is currently a problem. How you propose to tackle the problem will obviously depend on your predelictions. What is clear is that our present mix of institutions — state and private-sector — is not doing a good job for localities like Neighbourhood B. Inequality is increasing, and the gulf in social, health, and economic outcomes is widening. We need different institutions, institutions that give ordinary people greater security and control over their lives.

The ethics of representation and the value of ethnography

23The interests of deprived localities are not well represented in national discourse: people in those localities are subjected to derision, alarmism, or romanticisation rather than being recognized as normal citizens who have heterogeneous but particular experiences. This leads me to the issue of the ethics of representation, which I foreshadowed briefly in chapter 2. One of the central ideas in this book is to do with the cultural self-perpetuation of social problems. The perception that others are not trusting and do not help spreads from person to person through the cues they leave in the environment. Those cues are not just in the broken windows and litter on the streets. They are also in media articles, television programmes, and, if anybody reads them, academic books. The way I have described social life in Neighbourhood B here may be justified by the data, but it nonetheless risks contributing to the perpetuation of a negative social reputation, and hence of the very outcomes it represents. This has been a source of considerable personal struggle for me, as a committed citizen of the West End of Newcastle, as well as, I hope, an ethical professional researcher. The West End has had enough adversity and bad press; the last thing it needs, it would seem, is to be negatively represented by me.

24There is a temptation to allow what one wants to be the case to drive the way one describes what is in fact the case. We saw in Kari’s perceived norms experiment (chapter 4) that manipulating the information residents got about what other people thought of their neighbourhood seemed to have an immediate positive impact on their social expectations. If I had carefully and selectively written my book so as to accentuate the positive, it could perhaps itself have become a kind of experimental intervention along those lines, and could have made a small contribution to improving the social ethos of Neighbourhood B. However, my considered judgement is that this would have been an even greater wrong. The primary ethical imperative for an ethnographer is to bear witness to what is the case, without obfuscation. Bearing true witness — and contributing to the understanding of human nature — is likely to do my fellow citizens and their communities more good in the very long term than parochial advocacy or romanticisation. What I present here is information to be fed into the machines of human knowledge and of civil society, with results I cannot entirely predict. I fervently hope that it might eventually do some good. I can only apologise to our participants that it hasn’t led to anything concretely or immediately beneficial, which, in all honesty, it hasn’t.

25If the findings of the Tyneside Neighbourhoods Project make uncomfortable reading at times, I consider this a judgement not on the residents of Neighbourhood B, but on a political and economic system that continues to make the lives of the poorer half of society uncertain and insecure, despite historically unprecedented material abundance. In Selina Todd’s words: ‘We don’t need working-class people to be revolutionary heroes or helpful neighbours in order to make the point that inequality is damaging and wrong’ (Todd, 2014). I would go further. If people in the most deprived communities are not helpful neighbours, that can be taken as evidence for the proposition that inequality is damaging and wrong. If we continue to make the prosperity and security gap between the favoured few and the rest of society widen as it has done in recent decades, then there will be lower trust, greater paranoia, less help, and more harm for more and more people. That is an issue we all have to think about: political decisions, not laws of nature, determine levels of inequality. And in case you feel after reading this that people from deprived communities are somehow ‘other’, then you should not. My hunch is that the only important thing differentiating people from Neighbourhood B from people from Neighbourhood A is that they live in Neighbourhood B and face the material problems that Neighbourhood B faces, whereas the people from Neighbourhood A don’t. It is only a short bike ride from one to the other.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 7.1 Violin plot of respondent ratings of how much they like their neighbourhood, on a scale of 1-7. The black dot shows the median for each neighbourhood. The curved shape represents the distribution of the data on an arbitrary horizontal scale; where the shape is wide, there are many observations, and where it is narrow, there are few. Data from Social Survey 1. Image © Daniel Nettle, CC BY.
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k


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