You might have missed the New York Times article “My Neighbor, My Pandemic Pal” in the Real Estate section last month about neighbors getting to know one another during the pandemic. It was an uplifting account of residents learning more about each other but not through social media, occupations or networking. Because of pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, many of us have discovered connecting within our own community and maybe this is the time to get back to basics.
Neighboring – the act of knowing and connecting with neighbors – is a simple tenet in rural, urban and suburban communities. Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and political scientists such as Robert Putnam and Frank Bryan have stressed in their notable books that few Americans connect with each other. But when we do, we can address various community concerns.
Putnam stresses that since the 1980s few of us know the party living next door. We are too busy with our jobs and families and we’ve become politically and media-divided by paying attention to specific online media sources. Putnam also acknowledges that few of us are engaged in social capital – the ability to connect and engage for a cause or issue.
According to Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, there is a significant generation gap when it comes to community and social capital. Older generations tend to do more in-person engagement (attend meetings, fundraisers, etc.) whereas younger people are prone to more social media activities and little personal interaction. Better yet, Putnam offers in his latest book, “The Upswing,” that the combination of technical, political and economic divisions has become a “dizzying vertigo” that few have control over.
Neighboring and social capital are basic elements to politics and community relations as they require individuals to know one another, develop trust and eventually work toward addressing a concern or issue. This sounds pretty simple, but these social elements have essentially become lost arts in the ability to connect and effect change.
Now could be the opportune time for generations to learn from one another and connect with each other as neighbors — across generational and political divides during the social media and technical age of the 21st century.
As an example of connecting in our own backyards, the Times article highlighted one Oxford couple in their 70s and how they became acquaintances and then friends with a 40-something neighbor couple during the pandemic. They looked after their cats and helped with each other’s grocery shopping, even if the couples were different generations and political parties. The couples admitted that it was unlikely that they would have connected but the pandemic forced them to do so.
Similarly as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve been fortunate to have neighbors getting me through the pandemic even if we sometimes disagree about politics. Neighboring and the ability to know one another can be taken for granted. But they shouldn’t be — especially during a pandemic. This time reminds us that something as simple as relying on neighbors can empower us through a pandemic and maybe help understand what divides us politically.
Often many conflate my state and local government subfield in political science mirroring national government politics, with its ongoing dysfunctional and partisan problems. Thankfully my research instead centers on local elements of politics like neighboring and social capital, not the national political morass. Historically, community connectivity like neighboring and social capital are simple elements for many New Englanders. Imagine if these elements were applied to our longstanding hyper-partisan era. Could neighboring and social capital address our nation’s political tensions? Connecting with one another is a start. The good news is, we have neighbors and we have to find ways to live with each other – pandemic to politics.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR.