‘I can’t just go up to a person to ask what’s going on.’: How Dutch urbanites’ accounts of non-engagement enhance our understanding of urban care.

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In the context of increasing appeals to informal care in Western welfare state policies, questions concerning urban sociality acquire new significance. This paper aims to contribute to the emergent thinking on ‘urban care’ by situating it in policy debates concerning care responsibilities between citizens. We used small-scale focus groups among urban residents in The Hague (the Netherlands) to inquire into the accounts urbanites give of engaging or not engaging with perceived care needs of a stranger. Informed by Goffman’s ‘civil inattention’, we found that accounts of non-engagement highlight urbanites’ orientation towards maintaining friendly social interactions in the face of strange or worrisome situations. Urbanites feel that they should respect people’s choices even if these might hurt them. They fear that interference might be humiliating and they attribute to themselves the task of sticking to normality, while family members, friends or professionals might take on the task to intervene. This careful non-engagement, contrasted with long-standing accounts of urban indifference, enhances our understanding of urban care.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalUrban Studies
Volumeonline first
Early online date26 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2021


  • care responsibilities
  • civil inattention
  • informal care
  • stranger
  • urban care

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