January 2nd, 2010

forums, me, non blog

[FORUM] How does your physical community break through social boundaries?

I blogged back last February about the geographic boundaries of people's mental maps, of the territories that they considered to be (and not to be) in their realm. The acute blog Understanding Society has a new post up, "Separate Social Worlds", that takes a look at the social boundaries of people's mental maps.

It is an interesting and important fact that most of us live our lives on orbits that seldom intersect with the orbits of some other categories of people in society. The boundaries of our social worlds are often marked by major forms of social separation -- race, income, residence, work, region, or age. And this creates the result that we have very little understanding of how people from other social segments think, reason, feel, and organize their experiences. We think in terms of stereotypes about other people in other segments of society, rather than having a concrete experiential basis in common with them.

When geography is a large part of this separation it is easy to understand -- a suburban tax accountant in Massachusetts has very little daily experience that would permit him/her to gain knowledge of the thoughts, values, and experiences of rural Thai villagers. But the striking fact is that there is often an equally deep separation between the phenomenal worlds of the suburban tax accountant and the homeless person in the nearby city or the blue collar woman who drives the local school bus.

A divided society, one where different demographics lack a real understanding of the behaviours and motivations of others, has obvious problems with cohesion. In Toronto's case, I'm thinking of the "Three Torontos" paradigm that describes the geographic and social segmentation of the City--and the wider metropolitan area--between definite winners and definite losers. How could one get past this?

Social institutions that help to allow people to connect meaningfully across these social divides are particularly valuable. This is how the social value of "diversity" gets actualized. Sometimes religious organizations offer this possibility to their members, when different economic or national communities come together to worship. Military service can also have this effect -- especially in countries with wide or universal military obligations such as Israel. Community service organizations like CityYear and AmeriCorps provide young people with an environment where they can have the opportunity of coming to know other people from very different social backgrounds. And universities have this potential as well -- though colleges haven't been as successful as they should be at gaining this kind of cross-group understanding. Service-learning courses are one way that faculty in some universities have found to give their students meaningful exposure to the social realities that surround them -- and therefore to give them a broader avenue through which to encounter the experiences and worldviews of the segments of society that don't wind up in their middle-class orbits.

Is your society characterized by considerable gaps? Are they narrowing, widening, staying the same? How is your community dealing with these barriers? What's your personal experience of these barriers?