Asymmetrical Recognition: From Mutual to Non-mutual Indifference

As I have demonstrated above, mutual indifference and anonymity are very much intertwined. Anonymity protects individual freedom by making possible a wider range of personal expression, but it simultaneously creates the means by which individuality is glossed over. While anonymity may seem to negate what we usually think of as social solidarity, it is in fact an important element in sustaining urban social solidarity. Anonymity simultaneously is the condition of being in the midst of the many and being alone; it permits greater individual freedom yet because we are treated categorically rather than individually (Goffman 1983; Lofland 1973), it is also the near total erasure of our individuality.

At the danger of making ordinary interaction disappear in the mists of abstraction, let us backtrack a little to distil some key elements of the relationship between mutual indifference and anonymity. First, anonymity is a state or a condition, whereas mutual indifference is a shared orientation. If anonymity is the condition of urban life, mutual indifference is its mechanism. Second, our mutual indifference to one another makes anonymity possible, so for anonymity to be maintained, mutual indifference must also be maintained. It follows from this that anonymity and mutual indifference make one another possible, that neither is prior to the other. This being the case, they must also be in some way mutually conditioning. If each is a prerequisite for the existence of the other, then it follows that the presence of one impacts the other.

Treating mutual indifference as the basis for ordinary everyday life in the city is both compelling and plausible. We can hardly disagree with the claim that anonymity is diffused throughout the social space of the city or that mutual indifference is significant in upholding the urban interaction order. After all, we are dealing with interaction of a kind that we unceasingly encounter in cities; it both draws us to the latter as sites for the expansion of individuality and brings us to seek refuge from them as sites that appear indifferent to individual difference.

Couched in Simmelian sociology, these observations may be persuasive, but they speak only to an idealized kind of interaction, as the object of an abstract and somewhat dissociated formal sociology of the urban interaction order—merely the aestheticization of social forms, where the analyst seeks to abstract form from myriad contents, attending only to perfecting the theoretical articulation of the form and shying away from the variety of its instantiations.20 Forms only have autonomy as analytic objects in the social world. Their contents make things a bit messier. And so, while interesting as an exercise in theoretical development, formal examination of the means by which the urban interaction order is maintained leaves too much unquestioned. While mutual indifference may characterize mundane everyday urban life, the city is also a site for the intensification of structural inequality, particularly because, as discussed above, sharp structural differences frequently dwell together in close physical proximity in cities. The urban interaction order also depends upon constant bracketing of the range of disparities that the city exposes. What can be said of mutual indifference here? Needless to say, indifference is not always mutual, and I want to posit that the intensification of structural inequality in contemporary cities around the globe mitigates against the kind of mutuality that is favourable to the production and maintenance of solidarity. More pointedly, the need to explore the role of indifference, mutual or otherwise, in sustaining, justifying, and advancing injustice cannot be ignored.

Non-mutual indifference is also characteristic of the city. It is evident in situations where structural inequalities become pronounced. Returning to the interviews quoted at the outset of this chapter, one can recall that middle-class homeowners expressed some affection for and affinity with their neighbours but clearly used this term—neighbours—to refer to others like them and not to rooming house residents. Consider the kind of interactional life commensurate with the disappearance of rooming house residents from the narratives of new property owners. With this in mind, we might then posit that urban social relations between strangers operate on a continuum between mutual and non-mutual indifference, where the degree of mutuality corresponds to the extent to which each party both benefits from and is complicit in sustaining indifference. Indifference is mutual if it permits each to go about their everyday lives unencumbered by the other; it is non-mutual, or asymmetrical, if one party is negatively impacted in the course of the other’s indifference. Structural forces exogenous to an interaction do, of course, influence its course and its contents, but they alone do not determine whether or not any specific relation is to be characterized by mutual or non-mutual indifference.

Across all of the interviews that I conducted, when gentrifiers talked about their neighbours, they used the term almost exclusively for other residents who own property. This was the case regardless of duration of residency, ethnicity, sexuality, or marital status. For gentrifiers, neighbours form an elective community of like-minded people with similar structural positioning, living in spatial proximity, who share some sort of friendly relations with one another. But as the interview quotations show, spatial proximity alone does not mean that residents become neighbours. While gentrifiers and the marginally housed remain, for now at least, copresent in the neighbourhood, relations between them appear to be characterized by non-mutual indifference. Structural differences trump spatial proximity in maintaining the boundaries that are created and sustained through non-mutual indifference. The ‘interactional landscape’ (Horgan 2013: 189-190) of this neighbourhood may be said to be threaded through with non-mutual indifference. It may be that this is a unique case, though this is unlikely, and we can expect that urban contexts characterized by structural inequalities are also sites of non-mutual indifference.21

My assertion, then, is that relationships between roomers and gentrifiers in the above example are characterized by non-mutual indifference; while roomers are physically close, gentrifiers are largely indifferent to them, even though the actions of these gentrifiers have profound effects on their lives. In this case, indifference can only operate in one direction. Generally, indifference is productive in two respects: on the one hand, mutual indifference is a necessary condition for the urban interaction order, and on the other, indifference, when characterized by asymmetry, (re)produces the city as an exclusionary social form. Non-mutual indifference, then, operates as an interactional form of structural injustice, which is not to say that the former unidirectionally causes the latter but rather that non-mutual indifference is symptomatic of existing structural injustice and partially constitutive of persistent injustice. In short, non-mutual indifference bolsters and extends existing injustices, both structural and situational.

Embedded in mutual indifference is a kind of mutual recognition, albeit low intensity and weak or what I will call minimal. The mutual indifference upon which the urban interaction order rests is generally unproblematic, in the sense that the goals of a mutually indifferent relation are reached when problems do not arise, when nothing intervenes to alter that relation, when this mutual indifference benefits, is desired by, or is necessary to both parties. If indifference is mutual, then the generic social processes and interactional mechanisms that uphold the urban interaction order are in operation. Conversely, if indifference is non-mutual, one individual or group is disproportionately impacted by the indifference of the other individual or group. In this sense, nonmutual indifference produces a situational inequality that propagates and reinforces structural inequality. In the example of the gentrifying neighbourhood, while there are obvious differences in the formal-legal rights that accrue to owners versus renters, there is also a ‘softer’—in the sense of more subtle but nonetheless powerful—kind of inequality that plays out in the relations between them. An existing inequality is not just supplemented but extended through non-mutual indifference. Non-mutual indifference, then, can operate as a ‘sensitizing concept’ (Blumer 1954) that opens up some ways for sociologists to think through and elaborate the connections between ordinary interaction, recognition, and injustice.

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