Social cohesion was an important theme in my medieval and early-modern research. Since receiving my doctorate I have expanded this field into the present. My studies on neighbourhood life, fraternities and social welfare coincided well with new developments within Dutch society:
In 2007 the Dutch government embarked upon a major reorganisation of social care and welfare. With the Social Support Act (Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning), the elderly, sick and handicapped are expected to be more self-supporting and less dependent on state-organised help. The government believes that informal social networks within the compassionate civil society will fill the gap and help people in need.
The new policy is a major break with the social policies that have been dominant for the past sixty years. Much can be said about this development, but what interests me are the underlying presuppositions. Can old concepts like neighbourliness be reintroduced from the top down? How do social networks function in our day and age? What features characterise present-day civil society? What role does solidarity play in our times? And how does the desired social support fit in with the ever-growing demands made upon individuals to be self-sufficient?
To answer these questions, I am now writing a book which is provisionally entitled Civic Sense and Compassion: Vistas in the Dutch Social Landscape, from 1300 Onward, Beacons for a New Social Perspective. This book is a structural analysis of socializing processes in Dutch communities over the last seven centuries, including prevailing attitudes towards poor people and people who are ‘different’. In this way patterns can be identified that still affect social policies and social cohesion and cause social friction. The analysis of social work practices clarifies why some are effective and explains why others are not, at least not for everybody. This historical survey may provide guidelines for dealing with social tensions, even leading to the transformation of age-old patterns. The name ‘Past in Present’ reveals the confidence that mutual understanding can grow, eventually leading to transformation, even of processes that took place a long time ago.
The broadened field of research is the main reason why I changed my business name in 2015 from Living Past Utrecht to Past in Present.