The social fabric

Last Saturday, a contributor to our letter columns mentioned the “social fabric of our society.” It is a term we are likely to encounter repeatedly as the political parties stake their claim for power in the coming months. On the same day, this newspaper carried reports of two murder cases, a drug trafficking charge and a robbery. A year ago today we reported on an armed ambush in Bush Lot, a shooting incident in Wismar, corrupt practices in the Customs and Trade Administration and private sector businesses in default of payment on rates and taxes.  Two years ago today news items included three murder inquiries, an armed robbery in the interior, two petty robberies, a preliminary investigation into charges of advocating a terrorist act and three separate cases of assault. A tally more in tune with a teeming metropolis of millions than a nation of barely 770,000 souls.

Newspapers report on the news as it occurs, the minutiae of daily life. They provide a ‘snapshot’ of the state of the nation. We tend to rely on social analysts and commentators for deeper insights. They sift the news reports, conduct their own fieldwork and research and place their analysis in a historical context: they try to provide a broader perspective and identify the larger themes that underpin and help to explain events. A survey of recent academic literature on Guyana and the wider Caribbean region is equally sobering. All analysts agree on one thing: our civil society is in crisis. The social fabric of the country (and the region at large) is threadbare, tattered, torn.

What, exactly, is the social fabric? The social fabric is generally taken to be the norms and values of a society or a community. These are not static: they change over time and are constantly under attack from within and without. People are testing the strength of the fabric of society all the time. These norms and values support a consensus on desirable social and cultural behaviours. In order to imbibe these values, an individual has to undergo a process of socialization. According to two UWI scholars, Hyacinth Evans and Rose Davies, the agents of socialization, in order of importance, are the family, the school, the church, the peer group and the media. (Caribbean Families; diversity among ethnic groups, 1997).

The family (in its myriad forms) is the basic unit of society; when it “functions well and performs the socializing role adequately, society as a whole is more cohesive” assert Evans and Davies. The corollary is obvious: when family groupings fray or fragment, children are less adequately socialized and society suffers. Evans and Davies mention a study of the development of criminality in 70 male Jamaican adolescents: absence of the mother was “the most powerful structural family factor associated with criminality.” The scholars cite mother absence and child shifting as two particularly strong challenges to the socialization of the Caribbean child. Another is that, across the region and across socioeconomic groups, Caribbean parents “value a punitive, restrictive approach to discipline and child rearing. Obedience and docility are valued especially for girls.” Boys and girls are socialized differently.  In most households, girls are assigned the domestic chores; these are structured, repetitive and closely supervised. Ironically they learn skills and a level of discipline (which may serve them well in task-oriented environments such as schools and offices) while their male peers do not.

One wonders, after a bit of research, whether Guyana (or the wider Caribbean) ever had a cohesive social fabric. Davies and Evans identify four basic family structures in the Caribbean: the martial union, the common-law union, the visiting union and the single parent household, “each associated with socioeconomic and lifestyle variables, values, aspirations. and norms for interacting with and rearing children.” In a region where women routinely engage in paid work, but also routinely dominate the lower paid echelons of the workforce, a quarter of household heads in Guyana are female. How does this affect the life chances of the children in these households ? Other commentators speak of a ‘mosaic of subcultures’ (Glasgow, 1970), “specific but also interlocking histories and geographies” (Trotz, Peake, 1999), “plural and heterogeneous ethnic and cultural groupings historically rooted in distinct communities” (Matthews, Danns, 1980) and “inherent” contradictions (Beckford, 2000). Our social fabric, it would appear, has always been a patchwork of (often competing) influences and experiences, rather than a seamless skin of universally held beliefs and traditions.

There is debate too about the causes or agents of our current condition. Some see the root of all our current social traumas in the patterns transmitted by the plantation society, from the mentality it created (subservience, patronage) to the family groupings it encouraged (non-nuclear) to the “segmental economy” (Bacchus, 1980) it enshrined where each plantation was a self-sufficient unit almost independent of the rest of the economy.  Others point to the pernicious effects of uneven globalisation which not only “results in social fragmentation but represents clear threats to human society ” (UNDP Human Development Report 1999). They cite “widespread poverty, ethnic breakdown or rising ethnic tensions, crime, violence, a culture of drugs, marginalisation, rampant HIV/AIDS, increasing alienation of youth” (Benn, Hall, 2000) as the fallout. Others, as mentioned in the letter last Saturday, blame forces much closer to home for these social ills.

Like any patchwork, our social fabric has always included significant inconsistencies in its weave; these were perhaps held in check in the past. The roots of colonialism, our own political shenanigans, the pressures of globalisation, the symbiotic trilogy of poverty, unemployment and the drugs industry have all conspired to place further pressure on these existing areas of weakness and ambiguity. The resulting social upheaval is echoed daily in the news reports and the literature speaks rather eerily of a large chunk of the nation simply waiting to flee: “families who expect to migrate and thus are in a holding pattern.” (Roopnarine, Brown, 1997).  Yet the ambiguities in our social fabric and the turbulence of recent times have also ushered in a period of unprecedented social mobility and spawned a breed of (largely female) micro-entrepreneurs such as the traders; some of us have managed to thrive in the maelstrom.

Through it all, the family unit endures, frayed perhaps and shifting in form, but still a huge source of support and sanction to the individual. As other social institutions (the education system and the church and the community) have lost ground, the family unit has borne the brunt of the pressure and has, in some cases, buckled under it. What of the future? There are many forces beyond our control. Several are not. We need to rekindle our family spirit. We need to take a long hard look at how we socialise our children; to celebrate the successes (the culture of hard work and learning that many Guyanese families still enshrine and transmit) and to recalibrate the failures. We need to work outwards from the family to rebuild our crumbling social institutions. We need to stop waiting for the outside world to step in to sort out our problems. The very idiosyncrasies of our social fabric may yet save us. The solution, at least in part, lies within.



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