Saturday, January 12, 2019

Social Infrastructure in Cities Today: Eric Klinenberg's “Palaces for the People”

I just finished reading Eric Klinenberg’s excellent new book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Klinenberg 2018). The book is about social cohesion and its value for life and society today. Social cohesion refers to solidarity and togetherness within a society or social group. In one definition:

“Social cohesion is defined as the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper. Willingness to cooperate means they freely choose to form partnerships and have a reasonable chance of realizing goals, because others are willing to cooperate and share the fruits of their endeavours equitably. Social cohesion contributes to a wide variety of social outcomes such as health and economic prosperity” (Stanley 2003:5).

Social cohesion is a positive value in societies today, and there is a HUGE scholarly literature on the topic. Klinenberg’s primary insight is to show how the built environment can promote social cohesion. When people gather in places like libraries, parks, playgrounds, churches, or open markets, they interact with one another. These social interactions often occur with persons who may differ from one another in various ways. Social cohesion is a common outcome of these interactions. By building, protecting, and promoting such places, governments and authorities can promote the development of social cohesion, and “help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life” (to quote Klinenberg’s subtitle).

I find Klinenberg’s approach particularly attractive for two reasons. First, his emphasis on social interaction as the cause for development of social cohesion, cooperation, and community makes sense. This is an idea that goes back to the great sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argued that religion contributes to social solidarity not because people share the same beliefs,
but because their religion leads them to participate in common rituals and ceremonies. Anthropologist David Kertzer’s book, Ritual, Politics, and Power (Kertzer 1988) is an excellent study of this phenomenon, in both modern nations and the non-western small-scale societies studied by ethnographers. In Kertzer’s words, “Solidarity is produced by people acting together, not by people thinking together” (p. 76). Klinenberg puts it like this: “It’s long been understood that social cohesion develops through repeated human interaction and joint participation in shared projects, not merely from a principles commitment to abstract values and beliefs” (p.11).

**DIGRESSION ALERT!!** This focus on social interactions goes far beyond cohesion and solidarity. In settlement scaling theory, face-to-face social interactions within the built environment of settlements are the primary force that generates settlement agglomeration, social change, and economic growth. Luis Bettencourt derived the quantitative model that predicts a number of quantitative attributes of settlement based on population size (Bettencourt 2013). The resulting empirical regularities of settlement size have been identified in systems from the contemporary U.S. to Medieval Europe (Cesaretti et al. 2016), to the pre-Inca Andes (Ortman et al. 2016) and even some small-scale ancient North American societies (Ortman and Coffey 2017). I’ll stop here, and refer readers to the website of the Social Reactors Project. I explore some of the issues in a recently-published paper (finally!!) that uses the concept of “energized crowding”  to discuss the outcomes of social interaction in growing settlements (Smith 2019). I’ve blogged about the scaling research in a bunch of prior posts, including: Is There a Science of Human Settlements?; Cities as Social Reactors, and My Journey in Settlement Scaling (or search for the keyword "scaling" in this blog).  This is getting beyond Klinenberg’s book, but his discussion dovetails nicely with the scaling research. **END OF  DIGRESSION**

Let me give an extended quotation from Palaces for the People that give important details:

“Social infrastructure is not ‘social capital’—a concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and interpersonal networks—but the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to-face interactions—at the school, the playground, and the corner diner—are the building blocks of all public life. People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationship inevitably grow” (p.5)

This leads into the second reason I particularly like Klinenberg’s approach—the importance of the built environment, and of the social and physical attributes of specific places that promote social cohesion. As an archaeologist, I study buildings and spaces where interactions once took place. Of course, the big problem for archaeology is that the physical remains—of a room, a building, or a formal open place—do not include the rules, norms, or practices of ancient patterns of behavior. Furthermore, archaeologists rarely encounter the furniture and other semi-fixed feature elements (Rapoport 1990) that are a crucial component of any setting for activities.

In a few cases, however, social cohesion and its physical context can be recovered archaeologically. I am thinking of well-understood historically-recent contexts where the archaeology is supplemented by written records. My student April Kamp-Whittaker is writing her dissertation on social cohesion, neighborhoods, and social dynamics at Amache, a World-War-II Japanese internment camp, and I am envious of the level of detail—both archaeological and documentary—she has to work with. Her research will make a contribution to our understanding of social cohesion, both in specific difficult conditions (an internment camp), and as a general phenomenon.

A less direct use of Palaces for the People for archaeologists is that it provides likely details and patterns for some of the contexts we study in ancient cities. For example, one might infer that premodern societies with more collective forms of governance had more, or larger, facilities of social infrastructure, compared to societies with more autocratic forms of rule. (See my post, "Ramses II vs. Pericles, or Darth Vader vs. the Rebel Alliance") This is something that is always on the minds of those of us who deal with ancient Teotihuacan. But, I’m not sure how far this can be pushed. In modern societies, civic life, social processes, and government are radically different from those of any ancient society. It requires some thought to figure out how well concepts like “social infrastructure” translate to early or nonwestern contexts. I am mulling these ideas over, and perhaps will blog about them in the near future.

Palaces for the People is Andrew Carnegie’s term for public libraries in the U.S. Carnegie funded hundreds of libraries around the country, most of which are still active today. The book has a nice contrast between Carnegie's attitude and works and those of a modern equivalent figure, Marc Zuckerberg. Klinenberg devotes a lot of space on libraries. While reading the book last week, I went to use a small branch library in rural Texas (to use the internet connection). The first thing I did was look for the public spaces, and yes, there was a big community room where local groups can meet. There is much more in this book that I don’t have space to go into. I highly recommend it. It will make you pay more attention to social infrastructure, and will help you appreciate its value and importance in society today.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.
2013 The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Cesaretti, Rudolf, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Scott Ortman, and Michael E. Smith
2016 Population-Area Relationship in Medieval European Cities. PLOS-One 11 (10): e162678.

Kertzer, David I.
1988 Ritual, Politics, and Power. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Klinenberg, Eric
2018 Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Crown, New York.

Ortman, Scott G. and Grant D. Coffey
2017 Settlement Scaling in Middle-Range Societies. American Antiquity 82 (4): 662-682.

Ortman, Scott G., Kaitlyn E. Davis, José Lobo, Michael E. Smith, Luis M.A. Bettencourt, and Aaron Trumbo
2016 Settlement Scaling and Economic Change in the Central Andes. Journal of Archaeological Science 73: 94-106.

Rapoport, Amos
1990 Systems of Activities and Systems of Settings. In Domestic Architecture and the Use of Space: An Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Study, edited by Susan Kent, pp. 9-20. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Stanley, Dick
2003 What Do We Know about Social Cohesion: The Research Perspective of the Federal Government's Social Cohesion Research Network. The Canadian Journal of Sociology ' Cahiers canadiens de sociologie 28 (1): 5-17.