Allen Lane, £20

Respect: the formation of character in a world of inequality by Richard Sennett

An architect of sympathy faced by brutal reality

One of the boldest social thinkers of his generation, certainly the most humane and readable, Richard Sennett has always shown a special gift for the translation of ideas into images. Learned but always lucid, the American writer, based at the London School of Economics, practises sociology as if it were a creative art. He has a genius for seizing on some painful corner of modern urban life, and dissecting it to reveal the roots of our discontents.

At one point in Respect, Sennett steers attention towards the restaurant bill that so often wrecks a merry evening among friends. If some smugly affluent diner pays the lot, we may feel dependent, even humiliated. If the ideals of democracy dictate that everyone must fork out (say) £23.46 precisely, the convivial table may splinter into a rancorous rabble, squabbling over who scoffed that last tiramisu. Hierarchy fails us; but so does abstract fairness. The pursuit of mutual respect turns out to mean more than getting one's just deserts.

In a fragmented, unequal society, Sennett argues, traditional deference and modern meritocracy can damage mutual regard: at work, on city streets, in the distribution of welfare benefits. With smooth, giant strides, he bounds between his own experience (as son of a single-parent Chicago family, as musical prodigy and scholarship student), the contemporary urban scene and the philosophical origins of welfare policy. He ponders why we often "fail to convey mutual regard and recognition" across boundaries of status and talent, and how we might learn fresh habits of respect.

This is a pessimistic book, in that it confronts egalitarians with the brute facts of inequality and wonders "how the strong can practise respect towards those destined to remain weak". Sennett wants to strip the shame out of dependency, and wrestles with the politics of "self-reliance". His hopes stem from a belief that reciprocal respect can be designed into the public realm, just as civility can be designed into (or out of) architectural space. He refers to "the architecture of sympathy", a quality of benign impersonality in welfare systems that can deliver help without condescension. Sennett, you might say, operates like an architect of sympathy: master-planner for a model of mutual regard that may remove the sting of social distinction.

In this light, Respect resembles an elegant drawing-board, with not much bricks-and-mortar visible. As Sennett himself admits, his rapid shifts between chunks of memoir and capsules of theory (from Rousseau to Hannah Arendt) leave little room for policy prescription.

Yet the fine autobiographical interludes humanise this book. Sennett recalls his bohemian boyhood in Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project that began in racially mingled idealism and slid into despair. Almost in a Richard Hoggart vein, he writes about the conjoined pride and guilt of escape through academic triumphs. Most grippingly, he recounts his injury-curtailed career as a cellist of concert standard.

For Sennett, the watchful give-and-take of professional musicians yields a utopian glimpse of a society built on respect without conformity or uniformity. His book offers seductive sketches of that future harmony. Others, however, will have to transpose this enchanting mind-music into the everyday sounds of the city.

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