13 September 2011

LIFE in the suburbs hinges on a delicate, unwritten code of conduct between neighbours, according to a UQ sociology researcher who last night won a prestigious award for her work on neighbourly relations.

“Neighbours seem to expect each other to keep their distance and respect privacy most of the time, but also to be there when needed,” said Lynda Cheshire, of UQ’s School of Social Science.

“Because no-one really talks about these expectations, we end up with a precarious balance between familiarity and privacy, where breaches of this unwritten code are almost impossible to avoid.”

Dr Cheshire says it is ironic that although there was a huge outpouring of goodwill and neighbourly support during the Queensland floods in January, in recent years councils have been dealing with dramatically higher levels of official complaints about problem neighbours.

This is part of a global trend: complaints lodged with councils about neighbours have reached unprecedented levels around Australia and internationally.

Dr Cheshire said actual numbers of disputes were not necessarily on the rise, but neighbours appeared to be increasingly choosing to take their complaints through official channels.

“People are often reluctant to deal with disputes ‘over the back fence’ because they dislike confrontation,” Dr Cheshire said.

However official complaints had always been just the “tip of the iceberg”.

“The vast majority of disputes and problems between neighbours go unreported,” she said.

Dr Cheshire last night was named as a winner of a prestigious UQ Foundation Research Excellence Award, which will provide $80,000 for her to continue studying conflict and relations in the suburbs.

“Neighbours can be a source of all kinds of nuisance, aggravation and distress,” she said.

“Excessive noise or odour, inadequate levels of property maintenance, roaming animals and general forms of anti-social behaviour can all potentially interfere with the enjoyment of one’s home and neighbourhood.”

Homebound residents — such as the elderly — were particularly vulnerable to the effects of neighbourhood stresses, Dr Cheshire said. People who were disconnected from family and other social support mechanisms also suffered when local support from neighbours was absent.

Dr Cheshire, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and a sociologist in the UQ School of Social Science, said it appeared expectations were changing about how neighbours should behave.

“Our research will use neighbourhood complaints as a lens for understanding changing expectations of how neighbours should behave,” she said.

Dr Cheshire said councils were keen to understand why complaints were on the increase.

“Our work will yield important insights about changing expectations and the patterns of disputes in the suburbs and in increasingly dense urban areas.”

Dr Cheshire said it was possible the rise in official complaints was indicative of a breakdown in neighbourly relations as society became more mobile and residents’ lives more privatised and “home-centred”.

“We are less likely than ever to know our neighbours,” she said.

Her research project would ask whether people were becoming less considerate of the effects of their conduct upon those living nearby.

“Perhaps we are less tolerant now when our neighbours’ private lives overflow into our own,” she said.

“Neighbourhoods are changing as a result of gentrification, increased density and urban expansion into rural areas. Influxes of new residents have come into existing suburbs.

“This has contributed to residents being less likely to know their neighbours. We suspect residents may be less tolerant of new neighbours if they perceive neighbourhood changes as being beyond their control.”

But Dr Cheshire said the enormous outpouring of community goodwill and assistance during the Queensland floods in January was an overwhelming indicator of the level of goodwill among neighbours.

“The floods showed us that community and neighbourly spirit is still very much alive and well, still overwhelmingly positive, and a much, much greater influence on most people’s lives than the conflicts that we are seeing reported to councils,” she said.

A record total of $915,000 was awarded to 11 UQ researchers last night at the 13th annual UQ Foundation Research Excellence Awards.

The winning researchers’ projects cover diverse topics and aims including:
• Improving music teachers’ transition to the classroom
• Reducing damage from stroke
• New nanomaterials for energy storage
• Understanding plant seed dispersal
• Harnessing power from waste heat using nanotechnology
• Multitasking and the brain: training and individual differences
• Blood and lymphatic vessel formation
• New treatment for brain cancer
• Better antibiotic dosing in patients with renal failure
• Understanding fear-related memory

A full list of winners and video on each of their research topics is available here.

Media: Dr Lynda Cheshire, 0407 572439 / 07 3365 2383
Fiona Cameron, UQ Communications, 07 3346 7086 / 0407 113 342
Kristen Bastian, UQ Faculty of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 07 3346 9279