Richard Sennett on “Together”

Once more at the RSA, to hear Richard Sennett talk about his new book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”. (Audio here.) He had some very interesting things to say – it was thought provoking – but I was not necessarily convinced.

Sennett reckons that cooperation and collaboration is natural to people – indeed, he said he believed that it might be genetic in nature (though I’d have thought it would be easily explained through culture, especially as Sennett said it develops as we learn – a lot of play is about developing cooperation).

But he then said it is difficult and requires practice – if it is innate, there is clearly a learnt element. Still, it is clearly a complex skill: Sennett focused on three attributes which he contrasted with their modern antithesis, to show where we might be going wrong.

  1. dialogics v dialectics: education and legal systems (and much else) lead us to dialectic debate, often confrontational (anyone listen to the “Today” programme or watch “Question Time”: they may then understand that confrontational debate does little to promote understanding and collaboration…); in contrast, dialogic requires the exercise of listening skills – more listening than talking, and what talking there is is questioning and probing. Co-operation requires understanding built on dialogue

  2. subjunctive v declarative: Sennett lambasted the “fetish of assertion” – aggressively asserting “I think…” or “I believe…” demanding for a (usually confrontational) response. Instead of confronting others with our convictions, Sennett advised using subjunctive propositions – “It seems to me…” to open discussion and invite participation – building collaboration and teamwork rather than confrontation
  3. empathy v sympathy: identifying with others – sympathetically feeling their pain – closes down discussion: understanding another’s position without being able to identify with it, but accepting their need to attend to it, sends messages and builds understanding, It requires curiosity rather than compassion – an interest in other people

[I’m not sure that I am in total agreement with Sennett about these, particular his second and third assertions, though he maintained there is research to support his position.]

Sennett proceeded to discuss co-operation in urban society and workplaces; once more, he was interesting if not (to my mind), wholly convincing. He asserted that the way that we organise work and (his word!) community in modern [western?] society reduces and disables learning to co-operate with those who differ from us.

With regard to work, the focus on project work with short term timeframes plays lip-service to teamwork, but doesn’t let us develop the understanding required of each other to actually pull it off. We don’t have the time to spend with others building that understanding, instead focussing on our short term objectives – after which we move off to work on the next project. We do not have enough invested in the success of our enterprise, instead seeking the next fix.

I disagree about this: those working in a project environment rely on others in the team to deliver the result. We have to co-operate – and having the skills to do so is crucial to our success: those informal “people” skills which might not appear in the job description are necessary to help us build our reputation.

Sennett believed that despite cities being full of difference, we are living in more and more homogenised societies, and rarely mix with those from different races, religions or classes. We are segregating ourselves.

Whilst I can see some aspects of this, I do not believe it is new: surely society was much more homogenous one hundred or two hundred years ago? There are many more opportunities to mix in today’s multicultural society: it might be easier not, but the opportunities are still there.

Sennett had some interesting things to say about the Occupy movement – he has taken an active interest in the movement in the USA, and it seems to fit his model of dialogic, subjunctive, empathetic behaviour. Politicians of all flavours – the dialectics supreme – literally don’t get it: non-hierachical, self-organising, learning, the Occupy movement is about experiences rather than demands, and growing from the shared experience.

Much of what Sennett had to say resonated – particularly stemming from conversations at Tuttle and the C4CC, as well as institutions like the RSA itself creating space for discussion – but the very existence of these fora actually weakens Sennett’s thesis.

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