Semi-detached Britain? Social networks in the suburban fringe of Leicester and Loughborough, 1950-2005
Once regarded as a nation central to the development of civil society, associational activity in contemporary Britain is perceived by some authors as fragile. Whereas the urban leadership provided by the middle classes was crucial to the trajectory and character of towns and cities all over Britain in the nineteenth century, it has been claimed that their relocation to suburbia has become synonymous with detachment, disinterest and the decline of the associational sphere. Depicted in literary and historical accounts, as well as in the popular media, as pursuing a suburban lifestyle that was both monotonous and disengaged, the middle classes of the twentieth century were assumed to have relinquished the management of a multitude of municipal and voluntary functions that defined an urban place. Yet such accounts stereotyped middle-class lifestyles, oversimplifying their relationship with the city, and prompting a ‘new wave’ of suburban research in America that has offered a revisionism that stresses diversity and challenges prevailing assumptions regarding middle-class behaviour. Assumptions of suburban detachment are contested in the research that underpins this study. The thesis ‘Semi-Detached Britain? Social networks in the suburban fringe of Leicester and Loughborough, 1950-2005’ provides a detailed analysis of social and cultural networks and reviews the consequences of relocation on civic engagement since 1950. Geographically the middle classes may have distanced their home lives from the urban centre, but through an examination of their participation in the associational sphere of clubs and societies it is evident that suburban living was not synonymous with disinterest and detachment. Furthermore, analysis of cultural changes post 1950, including the issue of conservation, the shifting nature of gender relations, and the process of racial assimilation, reveal how voluntary organisations, and their middle-class membership, continued to shape the physical, spatial and cultural landscape of modern Britain. Through the intricate networks of power developed in local clubs and societies, the middle-classes found a continuing utility in the transference of knowledge and expertise, often working as mediator between the citizen and the state. Far from being disconnected, the new ‘suburbans’ were ‘semi-detached’, demonstrating a vigorous and ongoing commitment to the public sphere that contributed to the stock of social and civic capital in both town and city. In this regard the thesis provides a revisionism concerning the middle classes, suburbanisation, and the construction of civil society in the modern era.