Search for good in music of the street

June 6, 2003

Prime minister Tony Blair talks about the need to instil a sense of respect among disaffected, anti-social youth. A notice in my university's refectory ends its encouragement to return dirty dishes to the racks with a capitalised "Respect!" Ali G says "respect". Respect has become a universal signifier of some sort of mutuality, of paying attention to the needs of others. It evokes variously a sense of status, honour, admiration, pride, dignity, prestige, reciprocity, solidarity (often with the marginalised, excluded and undervalued). It is closely allied to other social virtues such as mutual care, responsibility, knowledge and curiosity about others. It suggests the need for, and assumption of, that most-valued requirement to combat our fragmented and suspicious but intertwined and globalised lives: trust. Respect is now a widespread popular injunction towards mutual recognition as well as a marker of the good society. And yet, as Richard Sennett suggests in his powerful and thoughtful new book, respect is a complex and ultimately ambivalent concept in a world riven with inequality.

Sennett's book is simultaneously a philosophical exploration, a partial memoir, a collection of epigrams, an analysis of the state of welfare and an attempt at a social democratic essay in a politics without illusion. But its unity and narrative drive comes from its sense of a history that is both personal and collective. Fragments of Sennett's personal life history become a means of illuminating and exploring a social history. This is done through two powerful autobiographical experiences that are constantly evoked in the book and become its organising principles.

The first is Sennett's experience of having lived for part of his early life on the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. Founded as a paternalist contribution to the promotion of racial integration, to help stem the flow of white flight from the inner city, by the time Sennett lived there it had already become 75 per cent black. But in the 1940s, "this mixed community of blacks, the white poor, the wounded, and the deranged framed the subjects of the experiment in social inclusion", as imagined by "a superior class".

The housing bureaucrats who designed and managed the project were well intentioned, Sennett suggests, but the experience of the managed life on the estate for black and white inhabitants undermined their sense of self-worth. Race and class shaped adult dependence, while the organisation of the project denied people control over their own lives. It was here that the inhabitants experienced the lack of respect that consists of not being seen or recognised as full human beings. Within 20 years, the estate had become a byword for all that was bad in public housing, and Sennett had escaped, like many others. Yet the project still haunts him as an example of a lack of respect, when good intentions but thoughtless practice rub against the diversity of human needs, and mutual recognition gets lost.

There is, of course, nothing unique about Sennett's experiences, or even about the lessons he takes from it. What makes it compelling is the way it is counterpointed by his account of the way in which he escaped from Cabrini, through his youthful precocity as a musician. He trained originally as a musician before an injury forced a change of career, towards sociology. The famous sociologist has long acknowledged his debts to music (one of his novels prominently features a musician) but here he uses a series of extended metaphors to illustrate his theme. For in music, he suggests, you can find many examples of mutual respect where individual talents are neither suppressed and denied, nor allowed to squash the contributions of others.

Within the frame of Sennett's two experiences of the ethics of respect - one (Cabrini Green) based on a fundamental lack of trust in the talents of the dependent, the other (playing music) reliant on absolute trust in the different talents of others and in what each can contribute to their common work - are the extremes in which the politics of welfare are played out.

Sennett tells us that he originally intended this book as a companion piece on welfare to an earlier work, The Corrosion of Work: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism . But it has become for him more an exploration of how we can find ways of conveying mutual regard and recognition across the boundaries of difference.

The book progresses in four movements, from an exploration of the scarcity of respect to an analysis of the distortions of respect in historical and contemporary debates over welfare, and moves to its coda after an extended reflection on the meanings of character. There is no programmatic outlining of the forms of welfare reform, no prescription on the politics of the present. Policies and plans are left in the gap between personal experience and high-level social theory. Treating people with respect, Sennett suggests, cannot occur by commanding it should happen. Mutual recognition has to be negotiated across the chasms, engaging the complexities of personal character as well as the barriers of social structure. Respect can be built neither on institutionalised inequality nor on an assumption of achieved equality, but on a mutual recognition of autonomy, accepting in others what one does not understand about them.

As the epigraph, Sennett quotes George Eliot's Middlemarch , about the growing good of the world being partly dependent on the unhistorical acts of those living hidden lives and resting in unvisited tombs. Sennett's book, in the end, becomes an extended essay on the importance of appreciating those hidden lives, and of listening to and valuing the music of the streets. There lies the root of genuine respect.

Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology, South Bank University.

Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality

Author - Richard Sennett
ISBN - 0 7139 9617 X
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 288

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