Love Thy Neighbor: Sociability and Instrumentality among Israeli Neighbors

By Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna | Human Organization, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Love Thy Neighbor: Sociability and Instrumentality among Israeli Neighbors


Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna, Human Organization


The paper explores the tense dynamics among neighbors in a mixed middle-class neighborhood in Tel Aviv, based on three years of fieldwork (1988-1991) and a local survey. Considered within the context of the general community question, three case studies are presented as illsutrations of local relationships, their ambiguities and limitations: relations shifted from daily encounters to absolute disconnection; people concealed major life plans from presumably close neighbors; in some cases, residents took official measures against a neighbor. It is suggested that intensive, prolonged relationships maintained among neighbors were not necessarily intimate personal ones. Rather, neighbor relationships seemed primarily instrumental, centering on a continuous exchange of minor services and an enhancement of one's anchor in the locality. The intimate appearance of these particular relations can possibly be attributed to general traits characteristic of Israeli culture. Key words: Israel, middle class, community, neighboring, sociability, urban anthropology

In modern and postmodern contexts, neighbor relations appear to be stressful and ambiguous. While acknowledged as invaluable, neighbors, even good neighbors, are generally considered interchangeable. Although some neighbors become social partners, most neighbor relations are partial and externally conditioned. Nevertheless, probably owing to the relative simplicity of developing relations (Pogrebin 1987:56), neighboring has been found to be the strongest predictor of social contact (Blieszner 1992:78).

Theorizing on linkages between local relations and community structure dates back to classical sociological thought (Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Tonnies), in which urbanization and rationalization are viewed as disintegrating the traditional community, which was always viewed nostalgically as a "gemeinschaft" (Williams1983:76). This view, which dominated the field, materialized in the study of such issues as the erosion of family businesses (Warner 1963) and community boundaries (Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1937) in an age of mass media (Greer 1962; Vidich and Bensman 1958).

At the same time, and somewhat as a response, a new approach emerged, stressing the persistence of small groups as mediators between the individual and complex wider contexts. Following findings in the domains of organizations (Mayo 1945), the modern family (Litwak 1970) and the army (Shils 1945), this approach was applied to communal relations. It was argued that suburbs and urban neighborhoods maintained a social life that, although partial and loose, did exhibit traditional community traits. Moreover, the anchoring of social relations in physical proximity, previously considered anachronistic (Wirth 1938; Thomas and Znaniecki 1958), was now suggested as characteristic of modern society (Hunter 1978:191).

The new communities also differed significantly from their predecessors. A substantive deviation is captured by the concept of "the community of limited liability" (Janowitz 1967, 1978; Suttles 1972:58-61), indicating voluntary, conditional, intentional and differential participation. In accordance with this concept, neighboring was depicted as temporary and partial, dominated by conflict avoidance leading to "moral minimalism" (Baumgartner 1983), "quasi-primary" (Gans 1962) and "intimate secondary relations" (Wireman 1984:3), limited to emergencies (Keller 1968; Warren 1978). Furthermore, the very existence of neighbor relations was linked to negative attributes like mutual dependency, vulnerability, and interests shared by neighbors (Suttles 1972:34-58).

The ambiguity of seemingly close, yet dispensible relationships emerged as central in my ethnography. Focusing on three cases, this paper explores neighboring in a Tel Aviv residential area, hereafter called Givat Narkis. The high satisfaction of its residents and the growing demand for the location indicate that neighbor relations in Givat Narkis were perceived as satisfactory.

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