Conference report “Neighbourliness in Global Perspective”

Neighbourliness is a concept which refers to the most contingent and yet least evitable phenomenon of all social relationships: neighbourly relations. As space of enforced closeness the neighbourhood can be considered a microcosm epitomising all sorts of dynamics, processes and structures emerging in human interactions. Neighbourliness is thus a lens to pierce the ambivalences, intricacies and specifics of social life. Neighbourliness is also one of the topics which the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) – one of ten research institutes of the Max Weber Foundation abroad – investigates in the framework of its broader research profile relations. To explore it more, the OIB chose Neighbourliness as the overall theme for the Annual Conference (Stiftungskonferenz) of the Foundation. The conference was convened by OIB director Birgit Schäbler through OIB’s Cairo office as an international and interdisciplinary conference on “Neighbourliness in Global Perspective” from 12 to 14 December 2019. For the three days the participants from many countries discussed through different academic disciplines (History, Religious Studies, Literary Studies, Anthropology, Political Science etc.) the characteristics of neighbourliness as a spatial form of relationship with specific dispositions and practices. In eleven panels and based on selected core issues, such as for example friendship and enmity, theology and philosophy, gender, statehood, international relations and cultural practice, the directors of the institutes of the Max Weber Foundation and a number of their research associates, as well as many other international scholars, worked through the subject of neighbourly relations across space and time. They asked about how neighbourliness was/is imagined, performed, instrumentalized, regulated and regulating, gendered and raced in various world regions and epochs. This conference report will provide a glimpse of selected themes and arguments without giving a comprehensive summary of all the contributions.

For Max Weber, neighbourliness was a rational, pragmatic  action and an economically inspired brotherliness, the neighbour the typical “helper in need”. Thus, neighbourliness invites us to reflect on the human capacity of establishing relationships and co-existence in the context of mutual dependency. In pre-modern German societies of the Late Middle Agesfor example as REGINA SCHÄFER (Universität Mainz) showed us in Neighbors and frunde: negotiating the conditions of living together in the late Middle Ages – neighbourliness was of high importance, since it contributed crucially to strategies of negotiating living together in the absence of state organization. It encompassed all the three categories of neighbours/friends/relatives, and showed the increasing significance of the notion of kinship in jurisdiction and a stricter regulation of social relations.

Being the most contingent phenomenon within the triangle of “neighbourship, friendship, kinship”, relations with neighbours differ from relations with friends or family and make boundaries especially sensitive. JAKUB ZBRZEZNY(University of Aberdeen)elaborated in The Clash of Liturgical Calendars, the Clash of Neighbourhoods – Jewish Carnival in Christian Lent howin cities with mixed Jewish-Christian populations in the Byzantium of the 4th and 5th century, similar, yet differentliturgical rituals – the cults of Jesus` passion and death of Lent and the carnival-like festival of Purim with its cross-like effigy of Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther in the Tanakh – blended into a misleading mixture of the two figures and prompted Christians to perceive their Jewish neighbours as mocking Christian faith. Precisely because neighbourliness is based on a form of non-voluntary closeness, the concept provides fertile ground to explore aspects of interaction in shared space ranging from affection to aggression, features that might inhabit the same relationship in equivocal ways. In Neighbours as Brothers: Neighbours as Enemies – Memories of Neighbourliness in (former) Yugoslavia KATARINA RISTIC (Universität Leipzig) demonstrated how in contemporary post conflict-memories of countries previously known as Yugoslavia, perpetrators and victims of all ethnic groups draw on the same idealisation of pre-war neighbourly relationships. Idealising cross-ethnic neighbourliness and simultaneously remembering ethnic mobilisation as top-down process led by politicians, media and intellectuals play an important role in dealing with the past and in distancing oneself from the outbreak of ethnic animosities and violence.

Regarding the latent violence inherent in neighbourly relations, it is not without reason that neighbourliness becomes a crucial ethical concept regulating social interaction in world religions. In Love thy Neighbour as Thyself (LEV 19, 18) and the Concept of Neighbourliness, HANS-PETER MATHYS (Universität Basel) looked at neighbourliness as norms disciplining relationships between foreigners. Since Palestine as a transit country was always inhabited by many foreigners, already in the biblical texts the entire spectrum of human codes of conduct and rules of behaviour – ranging from utterly xenophobic to highly inclusive and from everyday neighbourly assistance (Nachbarschaftshilfe) to the commandment of neighbourly love (Nächstenliebe) – is revealed. In Islam, neighbourliness towards the other and God transgresses the spatial realm and becomes even something existential: an ontological commitment of hospitality and constantly conscious human responsibility to distinguish between good and evil. CHAFIKA OUAIL (Orient-Institut Beirut) introduced in Revisiting Jiwār in Islam: Towards an Ontology of Co-Existence its significance as one of the highest virtues of conduct a noble being may possessin all the three essential Islamic spheres – jurisprudence, theology and spirituality.

Not only religions used neighbourliness as a regulating force, but also the state. Drawing on the example of surveillance practices in apartment buildings under Soviet rule, BOTAKOZ KASSYMBEKOVA (University of Liverpool) argued in Neighbourhood under Dictatorship: Surveillance and Co-Existence in a Soviet Apartment House that the state housing policies in the Soviet Union were considered and implemented as tools for establishing a just and equal society.

In My Digital Neighbourhood: Local Internet Communities in a Globalizing World IRMGARD PINN (University of Tehran) presented digital neighbourhoods and local internet communities with hundreds of thousands of users and carved out the importance given to social media and network platforms in organising social spaces of cohabitation despite the high price to pay for this social asset: the subjection to a nation-wide monitoring system violating their citizen rights. How Neighbourliness as a social construct is being realized and comes into being through iteratively performed actions was demonstrated by FALKO SCHNICKE(German Historical Institute London)in Performances of Proximity. Using the English Channel to Stage Twentieth-Century British-Franco Relations. He showed how the special relationship between France and the United Kingdom was constantly staged as political alliance throughout the twentieth century through carefully orchestrated theatrical displays of mutual state visits.

JANE FREELAND and BALTHAZAR BECKETT looked at neighbourliness as a raced/racing and gendered/gendering category. In “If you hear a woman screaming, don’t leave her alone!” The Role of Neighbours in Addressing Domestic Violence in Divided Berlin JANE FREELAND (German Historical Institute London)claimed that gendered concepts of neighbourliness cross cut ideological and political systems by comparing the similarities in the struggle for gender equality in divided Germany. She concentrated on feminist activism and state campaigning for exclusively female neighbourhood networks in the struggle against domestic violence, in both East and West Berlin. In “Something Vulgar in a Holy Place”: African Americans as “Anti-Neighbours”, BALTHAZAR BECKETT (American University Cairo) critically evaluated President Franklin D. Roosevelt`s usually praised New Deal policy and its impact on racial segregation in the American urban space in the wake of the Great Depression. He argued that real estate policies and housing laws from 1930 to 1960 resulted in state-sanctioned divestment from urban neighbourhoods at the expense of African Americans. Representing non-white people as detrimental to a neighbourhood’s health and future prospects a newly created pan-European whiteness was propagated.

Besides the possibilities of neighbourliness in regard to its adaptability as an analytical concept to the realms of micro- and meso-level (i.e. interpersonal, inter-group relations), also its adaptability to the realm of the macro-level of international relations in political science were explored. Focusing on the politicisation of relations between neighbouring states in the Middle East, in My Neighbour, my Brother, my Enemy: The Politics of (De)Mobilisation and Securitisation in the Middle East AURORA SOTTIMANO (University of Saint Andrews) tested the applicability of the notion of neighbourliness for analyzing the seemingly volatile, yet calculable interplay of inter-state relationships in the Middle East, which are often exercised according to the binary frame of an either antagonistic or brotherly attitude, coinciding with the politicisation of national identities. NORIKO KAWAMURA (Washington State University) inspected in A Historical Inquiry into Neighbourliness and the Shifting Boundaries Surrounding Japan Japan’s international relations with its neighbours China, Korea, Russia/the Soviet Union, as well as the United States across the Pacific in the light of Japan`s adaption of the Western imperialist concept of territorial proximity to assert its hegemonial interests in the bordering areas until the end of World War II.

The theoretical discussions of the conference were rounded off with an excursion to the Cairene city district of Fustat, Old Cairo and with a visit to “Darb 1718”, a centre for contemporary arts and culture and a neighbourhood initiative. There, the final panel Shubra: a Neighbourhood in Cairo with MINA IBRAHIM (Universität Gießen) and GAETAN DU ROY (Université Saint-Louis Bruxelles)took place. In Egyptian popular discourse, Shubra is celebrated as a symbol of interreligious conviviality, a representation often invoked in novels, films, and TV series. Anthropological insider and outsider perspectives on Shubra yielded intimate insights into everyday practices of neighbourliness in urban Cairo and the vulnerability of the relationships between Muslims and Christians in an increasingly Islamised public space. The conference concluded with a screening of the touching documentary “We Are All Neighbours”. The film records the anthropologist Tone Bringa’s research on the effects of war on neighbourly relationships in a village outside Sarajevo in Bosnia.

In conclusion it can be claimed that the key finding of the conference undoubtedly was that there is great value in neighbourliness as a previously rather neglected analytical concept. Its potential lies in featuring as a prism through which to look at the constantly established, renegotiated, and reformulated boundaries of proximity and distance – dimensions inherent to spaces of human interaction and power – and its affective, historical, political, ethical and religious manifestations. This was reflected in the thought-provoking discussions and questions the topic was able to stir. The conference showed that this is only the beginning of a new field of research that can be approached from and be made fruitful for a wide variety of perspectives, themes and disciplines. The inspiring presentations have stimulated many innovative impulses which can lead to exciting studies in this field in the future. The conference sparked such a great interest that a sequel conference was set up and held in Erfurt (Germany) from 12 to 14 February 2020.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sarah El-Bulbeisi (May 31, 2021). Conference report “Neighbourliness in Global Perspective” OIB_upclose. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search