SIEF2017 13th Congress: Göttingen, Germany
26-30 March 2017

Dis)comforts of home: historical and cultural perspectives
Location VG 3.107
Date and Start Time 28 March, 2017 at 08:30
Sessions 2


  • Stella Butter (University of Koblenz-Landau) email
  • Nourit Melcer Padon (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) email
  • Stella Butter (University of Koblenz-Landau) email
  • Zuzanna Bulat Silva (University of Wrocław) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Our panel works with the concept of 'comfort' to engage with idea(l)s and practices of home-making from an interdisciplinary and historical perspective. 'Comfort' looms large in debates on home and dwelling because it taps into not only material but also social and emotional dimensions of home.

Long Abstract

Ideals and practices of home are bound up with notions of comfort or comfortableness. A case in point are the fierce debates over brutalist architecture: many people reject this architectural style due to its alleged failure to look and feel comfortable. Perceptions of 'comfortable environments' are intertwined with cultural traditions, group tastes and technological developments, but are also individualistic as each person may have different comfort zones. 'Comfort' arguably looms large in contemporary debates on home because it taps into the different dimensions of home. Hence, 'feeling comfortable at home' may not only refer to a physical or material dimension, but also include social and emotional aspects. One may feel un/comfortable even in one's language. Moreover, an individual may experience feelings of discomfort or embarrassment when behavioural norms are violated or one's own transgression of norms is sanctioned. The aim of this panel is to explore the usefulness of the concept of 'comfort' for engaging with idea(l)s and practices of home-making from a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary and historical perspective.

We invite papers from various disciplines that cover but are not limited to the following questions: How is 'comfort' / 'comfortableness' defined, invoked, represented, or conceptualized in the material (e.g. interview data, stories, pictures) you are concerned with? How does this specific notion of comfort connect to broader discourses on comfort and to issues of 'home'? How does the notion of 'comfort' and 'home' vary across cultures and time? What are the ideological implications of the way 'comfort' and 'home' are conceptualized?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


From a residence to a home: concepts of comfort and luxury of the Swedish ironmasters during the late 18th and early 19th century

Author: Marie Steinrud (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

My paper focuses on how a new elite, the ironmasters of Bergslagen in Sweden, constructed and re-constructed places they came to call home. How did they interpret the correlation between ideas of ‘home’ and ‘comfort’ as well as ‘luxury’?

Long Abstract

My paper is a part of my research project that focuses on the ironmasters of Bergslagen, a district in Sweden where mining and metallurgic industry have been important since the Middle Ages. In my project I study how the ironmasters build a common identity and common goals, as well as forming themselves as an influential elite group in society. This paper focuses on their mansions and the idea of creating a home, suitable for an up and coming ironmaster. From the late 18th century, many of the ironmasters lived permanently on their estates close to the iron works. Smaller and simpler houses were kept in the cities, mostly Stockholm, to ensure connections to the corridors of power and to the pleasures of the country's capital city. The mansions were often situated in remote places, depending on good roads or at least a decent winter that made it possible to travel and transport heavy goods, such as the vital charcoal and iron, but also goods to the mansions. What did the ironmasters discuss regarding their homes? How did they furnished (and re-model) their mansions and what did they consider needed to be there, to make it a comfortable home? And what was 'comfort' for them and how did this correlate with how the notion of 'home' was conceptualized?

Comfort in times of change

Author: Kerstin Gunnemark (University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

Expectations and experiences of comfort in private houses have changed during the 20th century. The aim is to discuss different generations of inhabitants’ homemaking and local identifications in an old villa district, with focus on various aspects of material and social comfort over time.

Long Abstract

Private houses and villas in old fashion styles have been more attractive on the house market during the latest decades in Sweden. But why do many people appreciate to buy old houses instead of new build ones? What kind of expectations do they have about homemaking, comfort and discomfort in houses which were built 100 years ago? The aim is to discuss homemaking and local identifications in a villa district in Gothenburg. Special attention will be given to different generations of inhabitants and how the image of the suburb has changed over time as consequences of local circumstances and new dwelling trends. It is notable that four generations have been living in this neighborhood; workers who build the houses; re-newers with functionalist ideals; creative class with low expectations of comfort; re- renovators with creative homemaking ambitions. Each generation has made efforts for realization of their dreams of good living standard; material comfort in their homes and social comfort in the area. Other citizens' imaginations of the area have changed over time. The district has not always been attractive. In a biographical perspective of the district it is obvious that the changes are similar to other working class areas where gentrification trends are visible. One main question is why young families nowadays prefer to settle down in old neighbourhoods. Are their interests related to imaginations of cultural heritage of their houses? Or is it mostly a question of making comfortable homes and expressions of their decoration skills.

(Dis)Continuity of comfort: notions of comfort in existing single-family houses in north-west Germany

Author: Benjamin Widholm (Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL))  email

Short Abstract

How can comfort be created in a house built for another family? Data material that has been gathered in an ethnographical field study provides insight into practices of making comfort in existing houses. The exploration focuses adaption processes as well as the transformation of notions of comfort.

Long Abstract

I use the concept of comfort to explore strategies of appropriation by families, who bought existing single-family houses. I utilise notions of comfort, and the transformation of discomfort, to get a new perspective on empirical material that I have collected in an ethnographical field study, a section of an intersiciplinary project (

This material gathered is a result of interviews and house-site inspections. The sample comprises 20 houses in north-west Germany, bought by the current residents within the last ten years. The houses were built between the 1960s and the 1990s. The inhabitants' autonomy in implementing their own notions of comfort is the distinctive feature of this housing type.

I consider making comfort as a reciprocal process. On the one hand, the inhabitants adapt their environment to get a particular ambient reality. On the other hand, given settings of space provoke the transformation of individual ideas. Questions hence arise regarding the fluid transition between comfort and discomfort.

My basic approach is to identify elements in existing houses which were remodeled or maintained with the purpose of feeling comfortable, and to comprehend the practices of the inhabitants. This approach to material culture raises questions about the variation of ideals between the former and the current residents that my paper seeks to answer: which adaptions are necessary to feel comfortable in a home environment built for another family in former era under specific circumstances? How does the given material environment influence the house owners' idea of comfort?

The idea and values of Ostrobothnian peasant house

Authors: Sulevi Riukulehto (University of Helsinki)  email
Matti Mäkelä (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Ostrobothnian houses are important cultural heritage in Finland. They are an essential component of the cultural landscape and people’s everyday life. They still serve as people’s homes and leisure-time houses. What values does the Ostrobothnian house culture involve?

Long Abstract

The Ostrobothnian house is the best-known icon of Finnish South Ostrobothnian culture. It evokes many positive associations. The University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute launched a series of projects related to Ostrobothnian houses in 2013. Apart from producing new knowledge, they aim at the cognitive, skill-based and institutional strengthening of actors interested in rural cultural heritage.

The concept of Ostrobothnian house can be regionally and temporally delimited, or by assigning content-related criteria to the house. The value of buildings can be considered from various perspectives. In most cases, value assessment is based on expert opinions. The most commonly considered factors are the cultural and historical significance of the building. Attention is paid to how rare, typical, representative or layered the building is. The building is also assessed as part of its environment. We also know and recognize value formation that is not based on external assessment. Such are experiential, utility value and the value of a house as one's home. It also shows in the living environment: everybody could ask themselves what things - for instance, peasant houses - define the experience of being in their home region. The fact that a house is a place for doing and events is even more important. The Ostrobothnian house is not merely a material building with its interior. An expert and an authentic experimenter recognize the values of the Ostrobothnian house as quite similar. Both encounter ecological, social, esthetic, economic and spiritual values in the Ostrobothnian house.

Dis)comforts of homemaking in the face of recurring military presence

Author: Elo-Hanna Seljamaa (University of Tartu)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores notions and sensations of dis)comfort as they are expressed by residents of an Estonian parish where Soviet military planes have been replaced by NATO’s ultramodern combat aircrafts. What are the dis)comforts of home and homemaking in the face of recurring military presence?

Long Abstract

This paper explores notions and sensations of comfort and discomfort as they are expressed by inhabitants of Vasalemma, an Estonian parish where Soviet military planes have been recently replaced by NATO's ultramodern combat aircrafts. The parish is the site of a military air base established by the Soviet army in the 1940s and taken over by Estonian air forces in the mid-1990s. Since 2012, this air base has re-emerged as a state-of-the-art military complex linked into NATO's collective air defence system.

Drawing on interviews and observations conducted on-site, this presentation looks at the dis)comforts of home and homemaking in the face of recurring military presence. What is it like to dwell in a multiethnic demilitarised zone that is being remilitarised after a short period of relative peace and quiet? How do the residents of Vasalemma make sense of and experience their home ground's military past and present?

Of particular interest is the aspect of noise: besides being a source of physical and emotional discomfort, noise is something that Cold-War era Soviet planes and contemporary NATO aircrafts share and is thus used to reflect on homemaking on a broader scale: Estonia's NATO membership and relationship to the Russian Federation, the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Estonia, tense international relations, the possibility of history repeating itself.

Dwelling with trauma: volcanic eruption and community transformation

Author: Sigurjon Hafsteinsson (University of Iceland)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I talk about trauma that a volcanic eruption in 1973 has created for visitors from the community of Westman Island (Iceland), with particular attention to how a "museum of memories" (Eldheimar) evokes difficulties memories of the eruption and its consequences for community dwelling.

Long Abstract

In May, 2014, a volcano museum of remembrance or Eldheimar opened its door for the first time. The museum is a "collection of memories" about the volcanic eruption in Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar ), Iceland, in 1973. The entire population of over 5000 people were evacuated from the island and transported to the mainland. The eruption lasted for over five months and had drastic consequences for the community. Quarter of the community housing was buried under volcanic material and destroyed. After the eruption large portion of the inhabitant did not return to the community. While Eldheimar is part of making Westman Islands a tourist attraction and therefore, a heritage site of a natural disaster, the museum plays a role in acknowledging traumatic memories and experiences of survivors and the community inhabitants. In this paper I talk about the trauma that the eruption has created for visitors from the community, with particular attention to how the museum evokes difficulties memories of the eruption and its consequences for community dwelling.

(Dis)comfort in domestic and care practices: historical and contemporary perspectives in a transnational and local Croatian context

Author: Duga Mavrinac (Institute for Anthropological research)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of this paper is to analyze how the concept of comfort can help us understand the deep interweaving of domestic and care practices and how different definitions of (dis)comfort are used in negotiating relationships and in the process of appropriation and (re)creation of home for the workers.

Long Abstract

In the last century, the Croatian informal domestic work sector has been characterized by both transnational and local networks and practices. Since the beginning of the XX century, thousands of women and young girls have searched for work in neighboring countries such as Italy, Slovenia, and Austria or in major Croatian cities like Zagreb, Rijeka, and Pula. Many of them found work as live-in elderly care workers whose employment is based on loose verbal agreements. Still, although their main responsibility is to look after the physical and emotional wellbeing of the elderly, by constantly cleaning, tidying up and reordering the domestic space, they are also actively engaged in (re)creating the sense of home and in maintaining continuity and consistency in the (material) narratives and daily routines of the elderly. However, due to geographical proximity these workers have two- or three-week-long work shifts and are constantly moving back and forth between two domestic spaces: their own and the ones where they work.

The aim of this paper is to analyze how the concept of comfort can help us understand the deep interweaving of domestic and care practices and how different definitions of (dis)comfort are used in negotiating relationships between families, the elderly and live-in care workers. By comparing archival documents dating from the Austro-Hungarian period with contemporary ethnographic field work data, I will try to disclose changing conceptualizations of (dis)comfort and its role in the appropriation and (re)creation of home for both the female workers and their employers.

(Literally) stuffed in the fridge

Author: Nourit Melcer Padon (Hebrew University, Jerusalem)  email

Short Abstract

The possibility of comfort in the home’s epicentre, the kitchen, is examined through two installations by Italian artist Mauricio Cattalan. Cattelan challenges preconceived notions relating to this particular space on the one hand, and to gender, nurture, death, and memory on the other.

Long Abstract

The Comfort of Home translates for many into the nourishment the home can provide, and accordingly, the kitchen is often considered as the epicenter of the house. Two works by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan forcefully challenge this idea: "Bidibidobidiboo" (1996) and "Betsy" (1999). Thwarting expectations and preconceived notions in both works, Cattelan manages to shock, surprise and create strong feelings of uncanniness, that are particularly disturbing in this part of the home. His works raise a series of intriguing questions in his viewers: any tentative answer necessarily re-determines the space of the kitchen in terms both of function and of the notion of comfort one can expect to experience there. Cattelan imposes a new way of thinking about what is natural - or not - in a kitchen, and the consequences of modern urbanization. Cattelan also provides a novel point of view regarding gender roles in the household and the centrality of memory, all "cooked" according to his private recipe regarding life and death.

Discomfort and agency: representations of the homeless in contemporary British drama

Author: Dorothee Birke (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

The talk discusses how in contemporary British drama, the figure of the homeless character is used to explore the connection between (dis)comfort and agency.

Long Abstract

In my talk, I will discuss how in contemporary British drama, the figure of the homeless character is used to explore the connection between (dis)comfort and agency. If, as the call for papers for this panel suggest, "ideals and practices of home are bound up with notions of comfort or comfortableness", having no fixed abode is usually associated with an extreme level of physical, environmental and sociocultural discomfort. I will discuss the different ways in which such discomfort is embedded and evaluated in plays by by Jez Butterworth, Alan Bennett and Nadia Fall. Is it represented as a deprivation, featuring the character as a victim of social inequality? Is it explained as resulting from a lack of homemaking abilities, i.e. a defect on the part of the individual? Or does the play focus on the characters' resilience towards discomfort, or even their embracing of discomfort as an alternative to conventional domesticity? While in the first two cases, discomfort is associated with a lack of agency, in the last case it is, conversely, connected with heightened agency. I will show how the plays negotiate all three cases, thereby evoking as well as critiquing cultural norms of 'proper' home-making behavior. I will further ask to what extent the plays employ strategies that are designed to discomfort the audience in order to emphasize their critique.

The comfort of home as an ethical value in Mick Packer's inheritance

Authors: Zuzanna Bulat Silva (University of Wrocław)  email
Stella Butter (University of Koblenz-Landau)  email

Short Abstract

By drawing on linguistics, literary studies and anthropology, this paper analyses how Mike Packer’s play Inheritance (2010) critically contrasts the idea of ‘homely comfort’ as an ethical project with a neoliberal understanding of ‘comfort’ in terms of lifestyle.

Long Abstract

The loss and search for comfort is at the heart of Inheritance (2010), written by the English playwright Mike Packer. This social realist play explores the burst of the housing bubble in England by depicting the declining fortunes of a family. The pensioner Harry decides to buy his council house as an inheritance for his sons, but when the economic recession hits, the house is lost. In our paper, we will gauge how the play negotiates meanings and sources of comfort by linking them with the theme of home. The semantics of 'home' and 'house' as well as the temporal dimension of 'feeling at home' play a key role when analysing what 'comfort' means for the different characters in the play. Packer's play is notable for the way it connects notions of comfort with models of the self, highlighting in particular how comfort may be understood as an ethical project and how neoliberal subjects reduce such 'ethical comfort' to a "sensuous appeasement [...] achieved through [...] appropriate technological devices" (Stefano Boni). In order to tease out different dimensions of comfort in the play, we adopt an interdisciplinary approach, conjoining literary studies, linguistics and anthropological phenomenology. In presenting our results, we rely heavily on the method of semantic analysis known as Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (Goddard & Wierzbicka 2014). This method enables us to not only explicate precisely what notions of 'comfort' and 'home' different characters have, but also to break down these conceptualizations into basic categories and cross-translatable words .

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.