EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(IW008)

Safe as houses? Turbulence, doubt and disquiet in contemporary domestic spheres (EN)

Location V212
Date and Start Time 11 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Tom McDonald (The University of Hong Kong) email
Razvan Nicolescu (University College London) email
Sabina Stan (Dublin City University) email
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Short Abstract

This workshop explores the relationship between the domestic sphere and the concept of uncertainty. We aim to re-evaluate the home's frequent conception as a site of filiation, family and safety, by considering the growing body of work arguing it also objectifies social tensions and anxiety.

Long Abstract

Anthropology has long employed the concept of the house to expound upon themes of cohesion, social order and stability. For example, Lévi-Strauss argued 'house-based societies' achieve social cohesion by materializing unity through the home. Bourdieu posited that domestic spaces are made meaningful through structured configurations of practice.

More recently, domesticity itself has become a major research area. Issues such as the moral economy of households, household routines (Shove), comfort (Miller), and care (Drazin) came under anthropological scrutiny, although still essentially focusing on stability and continuity.

These developments are mirrored by a growing anthropological interest in emotions, uncertainty, and risk. This workshop will critically engage with both domestic spaces and uncertainty, by challenging notions of homes as sites of self-assurance and comfort, and asking whether domestic spaces are also socially constructed through uncertainty and disquiet.

Papers are invited that engage with how new threats interact with contemporary global forces to unsettle domestic environments. Possible themes include: conflicts between concepts of home, household and family; the impact of changes in ownership regimes, planning and credit policies, or real estate speculation on home-making practices; homes and vulnerability (in areas affected by migration, disasters or foreclosures). How are homes considered as sites of decay and dirt, rather than comfort and cleanliness, with increasing concerns over energy waste and underuse of space? How do hazards such as infectious diseases, pollution, global warming and the world financial crisis create 'unseen uncertainties' in the home?

Discussant: Adam Drazin, Caroline Humphrey

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Ambiguity on wheels: caravan homes in contemporary Europe

Author: Hege Leivestad (Stockholm University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores caravans as expressions of alternative visions of home. With an ethnographic focus on British caravanners that have chosen to leave behind houses in change for a home on wheels, the paper places caravan-life within a context of turbulent working-class economy in times of crisis.

Long Abstract

Leading life in a caravan has historically been connected to cultural images of the poor loner, the "trailer trash" or the mobile gypsy. And indeed, for many working class Europeans, caravans and motorhomes have become means in a quest for the good life elsewhere. Ethnographically focusing on British caravanners on the Spanish Costa Blanca, this paper deals with the conflicts and ambivalence embedded in the process of creating a home on wheels. By examining individual itineraries that carry stories of moving and house sales, caravan life is discussed within a context of the European economic recession. Among the British caravanners introduced in this paper, the expressed motives for choosing a caravan as a primary home are however not exclusively economical, but rather intertwined with complex aspects of family, age and class. Placed on a continuum between leisure and everyday working life, blurring static dichotomies, the practice of caravanning become part of an ongoing construction of alternative meanings of home. Through such (re)constructions, I argue, the caravanners challenge traditional middle-class imageries of home and dwelling based on safety and stability. Caravans and motorhomes are regarded as emancipation from the stabile routines and material order of daily life carried out in apartments and houses, but also from the insecurities and unstableness that mortgages and loans carry with them. I argue that such tensions between stability on the one hand, and insecurity and uncertainty on the other, nevertheless form an essential part of how also caravans appear as ambiguous domestic spaces.

Uncertain basis: house as an experimental means of kinship relationships negotiations

Author: Alesya Krit (International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Giessen)  email
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Short Abstract

House is sometimes seen as a solid basis representing traditional values of family continuity in the modern mobile world. Research among British lifestyle migrants in Spain, however, reveals how ambiguous the house is becoming personal expression of preferences among kinship relationships.

Long Abstract

In an era when people, as well as money, are becoming more flexible and less bound to their place of origin (also known as globalization), the house is often seen as that last stronghold of those unbreakable family values. This research, however, demonstrates that the nature of home-building is much more flexible and very uncertain in many ways. Instead of being a strong symbol for the societal family institution, homes are more often redefined by possibilities of excluding the immediate family from both everyday arrangements and legal testaments.

The field where I am carrying out my research is south-eastern Spain, where many British lifestyle migrants reside full-time. An empty house that the British come to reside in becomes an apotheosis of such uncertainty of the materialisation of kinship relationships. Unlike in much classical anthropological theory, people are not automatically subjects to the many relational forces which are habitually transferred into material arrangements with and within the house. Rather, they find themselves in-between social tensions and personal anxiety. On one hand, they are confronted with their new destination community where the house is traditionally seen as a symbol of continuity and inviolability of the family. On the other hand, the British have their own much more personal understanding of who is their family and what role the house plays in those relations, like intergenerational contracts. By challenging the more traditional Spanish rules of all-children bequeathing, the British take advantage of relative testamentary freedom, exercising the power of benefiting only certain relationships they consider worth investing into.

Cyberhomes: restless transience or the new domesticity?

Author: Daniel Miller (University College, London)  email
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Short Abstract

Mobile Facebook and always-on webcam transform the internet from a means to connect people in distinct locations to a place within which people in some sense live. This can destabilise our assumptions about the significance of presence and raise fears about attention and transience.

Long Abstract

. The ideology of home and the domestic are based on several presumptions about the implications of mere physical presence. Evidence from the Philippines, Trinidad and London suggests that the advent of new media may produce a Copernican shift in perception. With always-on webcam and Facebook available through mobile media such as the smart phone we may be transforming the internet from a technology that connects people in distinct places, to a site within which people find that they in some sense live. This can destabilise our presumptions about the home as a domestic space. First they lead to uncertainty around the implications of presence and the attention of the co-present individual. Is the other person actually there or there for you? Then the teenager in their bedroom may be physically at home but seems more absent than present. An inability to relate to new digital technologies can lead to digital exclusion and alienation or sense of redundancy. Rather than linking people separated by migration new media can make it more difficult to be reconciled to absence, lead to a failure to relate to one's new home and increase the sense of ambivalence and transience. In all these ways new media confirm the suggestion in the workshop abstract that new forms of the domestic are emerging as signs of disquiet and the disrupted conditions of modernity.

Homes inside out: socialism, witchcraft and domesticity in Cuban cities

Author: Martin Holbraad (University College, London)  email
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Short Abstract

Exploring the effects of socialist housing policies on experiences of domesticity in post-Soviet Cuba, this paper shows how, in conjuction with witchcraft, such policies turn homes ‘inside out,’ rendering qualities associated with a public “exterior” integral to experiences of domestic “interiors”.

Long Abstract

Drawing on socialist principles of property distribution and Soviet-inspired social housing programmes, since the 1970s policies to meliorate urban housing shortages have been prominently incorporated into the ongoing project of the Cuban Revolution. Focusing on personal relationships within the home, this paper explores the effects of these state-sponored housing arrangements on everyday domesticity in contemporary, post-Soviet Havana. The paper argues that novel domestic formations that have emerged in Cuban cities are conditioned by the state's attempts to implement a vision of the "revolutionary home" that effectively turns the home, as it were, inside out. In contrast to the "bourgeois" representation of homes as spaces of retreat from the public sphere, or of familial trust and domestic intimacy, in Cuba socialism combines with distinct cultural and economic factors so that many Cubans experience the home as a deeply ambivalent space, often saturated with tension and suspicion. Rather than being a space of familial trust, the home is often a space of mistrust or paranoia, frequently expressed in potent local idioms and practices associated with witchcraft. Socialism and witchcraft intersect in the home, rendering it a site of state and community penetration, so that qualities normally associated with a public "exterior" become integral to the experience of domestic "interiors".

A Chinese earthquake rumour and its repercussions

Author: Charlotte Bruckermann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email
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Short Abstract

An earthquake rumour that shook the rural-urban housing terrain in central Shanxi, China, revealed contrasting pathways between people securing a home based on past trajectories into a knowable future and their reorientation when faced with the unpredictability of a cataclysmic housing event.

Long Abstract

Throughout the twentieth century anthropologists of rural China considered building a house, home and family central to life projects creating stability, security and happiness for Chinese farmers. In the last three decades, a widespread housing boom swept across China and interconnections between rural and urban environments increased exponentially. In central Shanxi diverse perspectives on value, habit, comfort, convenience and aesthetics are normally at the forefront of people's decisions on how and where to live in this uneven rural-urban context. However, during the Chinese New Year period in 2010, the circulation of a rumour that an earthquake was immanent ruptured the predictability of the knowable future. Unofficial networks of emergency communication came alive in the dead of night as everybody in the area spread the word through telephones, visits and generalized warnings of fireworks and sirens. Safety became the primary concern as people braved the subzero temperatures to move their belongings, sleep outdoors or climb mountain paths to their rural relative's homes until danger passed. The earthquake scare and its aftermath revealed the power of unofficial communication networks and the inversion of housing preferences as immediate coping strategies for the potentiality of disaster. Over the subsequent weeks, mistrust towards official safety proclamations and faith in the voice of prophesies emerged as central ways that villagers attempted to contain and overcome the uncertain possibility of a catastrophic future.

Radiators: a source of anxiety in Serbian homes

Author: Charlotte Johnson (UCL)  email
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Short Abstract

Belgrade's public heating system is being liberalised. As hot water flows from one home to another it undermines a sense of ownership, questions the construct of individual responsibility and permeates the domestic sphere with the anxieties of a liberalising state and a globalising energy market.

Long Abstract

Currently a majority of homes in Belgrade are supplied by the city owned heating firm and few residents can regulate the temperature of their radiators. The heating is switched on in October and off in April and residents pay a fixed fee for the service all year round. Arguing against the wastefulness of this system, the city is altering its material and regulatory landscapes to move from supply side operations which dispense equal amounts of heat to every radiator in the city, to demand side operations which aim to give residents control. Homes can be purged from the intrusion of a mistrusted and illegitimate state through the thermostatic meters which promise to create an autonomous individual. Calls that challenge the ethics of asking residents to pay for the new system with consumer credit are met by the argument that there is nothing fairer than allowing people to pay exactly for what they consume. This rhetorical ideal of a responsible consumer is undermined, this paper argues, by the technical reality that keeps the radiators connected to the city's system. Using ethnographic research carried out in two tower blocks and two low rise buildings this paper takes a material culture framework to explore the anxiety that radiators bring into homes. It argues that as hot water flows from one flat to another, it troubles the boundaries of responsibility, undermines ownership and leaves residents uncertain of their own role in the liberalising state and the globalising energy market.

Uncertainties of homes 'back home': Palestinian migrants' houses in the West Bank

Author: Nina Gren (Lund University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper focuses on Palestinians residing in Sweden and their sense of belonging to their country of origin. I explore the uncertainties and complexities within migrant families that arise from the inheritance, maintenance, purchasing and construction of houses in the West Bank.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on Palestinians residing in the south of Sweden and their sense of belonging to their country of origin. I explore the uncertainties and complexities within migrant families that arise from the inheritance, maintenance and construction of houses in the West Bank. Various practices of housing display multiple and ambivalent moral obligations as well as belongings.

Houses 'back home' can be understood as parts of economic and symbolic exchanges between migrants and their communities of origin. Research shows that people may feel belonging to several places and multiple belongings do not necessarily contradict each other. Transnational networks constituted of mainly family are often the backbone of such multi-local homes. Everyday practices may be transnational and localised at the same time since the socio-economic and political contexts in which people actually live are likely to influence their possibilities and wishes to establish multiple belongings.

Having a house 'back home' may however create several uncertainties, not least if houses are built in a contested area such as the West Bank. Like local Palestinians, my interlocutors risked land-confiscations and house-demolitions carried out by Israel. Neither were they sure to be let in through Israeli-controlled borders when arriving from Sweden. Through a material lens, this paper attempts to grasp ambivalence as well as conflicts within families concerning relations to the West Bank. How do family relations and the political context (including notions of return) influence migrants' negotiations and practices when it comes to those houses? In which ways may the building of houses, or refraining from building, create tensions and affect moral obligations within a family, a married couple or between different generations? What kind of conflicting moral and political obligations do the issue of migrants' houses display?

The ecology of risk in an informal settlement: conflict, uncertainty, and household food security in Mombasa, Kenya

Author: Adam Gilbertson (University of Oxford)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will provide an ethnographic account of food security and risk in a Kenyan informal settlement. It will address how conflict, power, and gender-based inequality contribute to experiences of, and responses to, uncertainty in the household context.

Long Abstract

In East African urban centres such as Mombasa, Kenya, informal settlements are residential spaces characterised by poverty, high population density, lack of infrastructure, sub-standard housing, "quasi-legal" land rights, HIV/AIDS, and social, political, and economic marginalization. For the majority of inhabitants in these communities, the most pressing everyday issue is food security or safe, sustainable access to sufficient, acceptable, and nutritious food. In terms of food security, households are the units in which resources are distributed and entitlement to food is negotiated. However, gender inequalities, power differentials, and attendant conflict mean certain household members may lack the ability and resources to attain food security while others may be more consistently successful. In this way, the household may be seen as the locus of both access and risk. While preceding research has thoroughly depicted informal settlements as biophysical, epidemiological, and economic risk environments, too few efforts have privileged the socio-cultural components of the "slum" as risk milieu. Through a biocultural approach, I will address the social and political obstacles to achieving individual (and collective) food security within these households. Furthermore, I will consider why domestic (especially intimate) relationships exist as a source of uncertainty and how individuals at risk respond to associated anxieties. My aim will be to offer an ethnographic account of the ecology of risk in an informal settlement.

Safe as show houses: an ethnography of the property crash in Ireland

Author: Caitríona Coen (NUI,Maynooth, Ireland)  email
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Short Abstract

During the Celtic Tiger period people reconfigured homes as assets, and 'dream homes' and investment properties soared in value. But in 2008 this dream was shattered. Today, spectres of cultural capitalism haunt the Irish landscape.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I use ethnography to understand the commodification of culture-bound dreams and the ramifications when those 'assets' lose their value. But this is not simply an essay on the free market. Drawing on Wacquant's 2011 idea that neoliberalism has evolved through, /state-crafting, /as opposed to how it portrays itself and is interpreted as, an economic system, my ethnographic research considers the emergence of Olcote Village, in West Dublin in 2004, as a by-product of a perfect storm of Irish people's home ownership obsession, the advent of the Celtic Tiger, an unregulated system of planning largely controlled through local government. Originally advertised as a fairy-tale, steeped in majestic history, Olcote Village is in reality a highly congested dense space of mixed housing units which sold as a life-style with the mystical promise of so much more. I ask: what are the socio-cultural consequences of the rise and fall of a powerful property market in which 'dream homes' were bought and what are the ramifications of shattered dreams for people's lifeworlds and for societal hope. In a country where home ownership was fundamentally important, people dreamed and were encouraged to dream about how they could achieve both use value and objectification of their dream commodity. Olcote Village remains an almost fully populated place whose dwellers remain affected by decisions they made or were indirectly linked to during this time frame.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.