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July 1, 2015

Where ordinary kindnesses can flourish

An interesting report just out from Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies a source of everyday help and support that often goes unnoticed but which can be crucial in allowing people to lead ‘liveable’ lives. This informal support operates in what the report describes as the ‘middle layer’ – somewhere in between the interpersonal (friends and family) and where contact begins with the formal agencies. Examples cited are a supermarket, a library, the local café and a church choir. These places create the conditions in which ordinary kindness can flourish.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation


To see report click here

This study examined low-level or everyday help and support and the role it can play in allowing people to lead ‘liveable’ lives. It explored the ways in which the need for (and availability of) such support is shaped by social context, biography and relationships. It also looked at how support actually happens (or not) and how it is sustained over time.

Key points:

 • Small acts of help, support and kindness were often mundane and barely noticed (even by those involved), but had fundamental consequences for individual and community well-being.

 • Although this everyday help was often practical, it could have important emotional consequences, creating opportunities for talk about feelings or simply through physically ‘being there’.

 • The physical characteristics of residential and public spaces shaped everyday help and support by creating and restricting opportunities for engagement and civility. However, the perceived image of places and neighbourhoods also played a role in facilitating or constraining interactions.

 • Individual circumstances, life stage and life events (e.g. parenting, ill health, retirement) created needs for informal help and support, but also ways of potentially meeting those needs.

 • Powerful emotions and moral considerations attached to these apparently straightforward acts, particularly notions of reciprocity and who should be considered deserving of help. These surfaced most clearly when rules or expectations about helping or being helped were breached.

 • Many of the perceived risks of helping or being helped related to people’s concerns about their self-image or how others saw them. Strategies and practices to manage these complexities included helping ‘by the by’, and ‘helping the helper’ by accepting some offers of help even when not needed. • Collectively, these acts and relationships of everyday help and support had an ‘infrastructural’ quality. They made possible other aspects of social life, but needed attention, maintenance and repair in their own right


Executive summary of report

Everyday help and support – low-level, ordinary and often routine acts and relationships that help us to manage the practical and emotional challenges of our daily lives – is little noticed, studied or understood. Much of this takes place in the realm of the wholly interpersonal. But there is also a ‘middle layer’, between the interpersonal and the world of formal service provision. This consists of diverse groups, associations and organisations which typically lack any formal remit for help and support but which nevertheless make an important contribution to an overarching ‘infrastructure of kindness’. The main report from the Liveable Lives study focused on experiences of everyday help and support involving family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and even strangers. This supplementary paper looks at the related issue of the wide range of local ‘middle layer’ groups, organisations and associations and at the role these play in enabling, sustaining or constraining such relations. Specific settings examined included a supermarket, a library and a group working to create a community garden. The middle layer has an important role to play in creating the conditions for ‘ordinary kindness’ simply by encouraging social interaction. Groups, organisations and associations in this realm draw people together through shared interest or purpose; they provide spaces within which interaction can happen, and sometimes actively facilitate access to those spaces. As such, they serve as junction boxes, connecting diverse strands of community and social networks. But spaces and opportunities in this layer are experienced differently by different people and in different social and economic contexts. For example, the research suggests that those from middle class, professional backgrounds may feel more confident about engaging with self-organised groups and associations, such as ramblers, book groups or other interest-based activity. Those in a predominantly working class area like Maryhill can set greater store by known, informal connections; and there is a greater role for ‘provided’ spaces and activities, such as those based in local community centres. While there may be an apparent fit between the not-for-profit sector (such as the library) and notions of everyday help and support, ‘ordinary kindnesses’ are evident in 4 corporate or commercial settings too – whether a supermarket, café or corner shop. The significance of all these middle layer settings varies from one community to another, depending on what other facilities are available and the extent to which people live highly local or more geographically extended lives. Within the more formal organisational settings of the middle layer, it is often when individuals transcend their formal or scripted roles that there is the greatest scope for small acts and relationships of help and support to emerge. While this might carry some risks for organisations – if for example, staff in a library or supermarket are distracted from the core tasks of lending books or selling groceries – it can also be seen as congruent with good customer service and as part of what attracts people to those particular settings in the first place. Groups, organisations and associations at this level can also learn something from the way that everyday help and support is navigated and negotiated between individuals – for example, about the difficulty that people have in acknowledging vulnerability and asking for help; the way that help and support often happens most easily ‘in passing’; and the scope to derive benefits that are mutual from participation and engagement in community settings. A sense of achievement and social connection reported by members of the community garden is an example here.