Essays > Communal Apartments > Clean and dirty
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Practices and notions of cleanliness vary across cultures and communities. How do we understand the mess and dirt we see in many images of communal apartments?
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Some visitors to this site may be struck by photographs or scenes from video excursions showing spaces in communal apartments that seem especially dirty, messy, or shabby. There are many images of peeling paint, crumbling plaster, walls scorched with soot, worn linoleum, and stoves, sinks, and other surfaces encrusted with grease and grime. Lavatory walls and floors seem especially grubby, even though a toilet itself may be clean. Layers of crud accumulate around electric outlets, on kitchen pipes and wall moldings, and other places that are exposed to steam and oil and dust.

These images suggest a number of possible explanations: that people are indifferent to filth; that they are poor and haven't the resources to maintain their residences; that it is hard to manage all but the most minimal level of cleanliness in such crowded conditions, where all equipment and space is exposed to far too much use; that nobody feels "ownership" for shared spaces; that decaying and ill-maintained infrastructure (roofs, walls, plumbing in particular) lead to disintegration of spaces that most people who live in communal apartments are not capable of dealing with. There are many other possible interpretations. How do we know which of these or which combination of these explanations is correct? Is it possible that some of the assumptions behind such explanations are not quite accurate?

In her classic theoretical work Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas eloquently argued against the dominance of functional explanations of dirt and practices of hygiene, insisting instead that patterns of cleanliness and dirtiness are part of highly structured cultural or local systems for observing and maintaining an order among persons, things, spaces, practices, and realms of life. Observing ways that people classify and manage waste (or filth, rubbish, detritus, contaminants) and the practices through which they maintain clean spaces or objects reveals as much about the logic of social categories and values as it does about the practical constraints of communal living.

Many viewers might find it mildly repulsive to hang a bright yellow child's toilet seat on the wall of the kitchen, near a sink, as seen in this photograph and in the clip "Cooking Saltimbocca." The notion of washing hands, hair, or brushing teeth in a kitchen sink may seem disgusting to those who've grown up with fully-equipped bathrooms. Douglas's model asserts that such a reaction emerges from social ideologies about contamination through proximity—here for instance suggesting that toilet or body-cleaning functions contaminate food or dishes in the kitchen. We can think about such things through germ-logic or seek a more symbolic explanation.

To show how relative ideas about cleanliness and germs are, however, let's consider that while most American teenagers think nothing of throwing their "dirty" clothing on the floor, many Russians would be shocked by this behavior: why contaminate your shirt or pants further by putting them on the (dirty) floor? (Ironically, in contrast, Ilya reacts calmly when his little boy picks up a spark plug from the dirty stairwell shown in this clip.) Even in a communal apartment, where it is hard to control the dirt that unrelated persons create, people would rarely walk in street shoes within the apartment, instead wearing slippers as we see in a number of photographs and videos. In cultural systems, things have their proper places, their proper uses, and their proper proximity to other things. Revulsion comes from violation of these systems rather than from something "dirty" inherent in practices themselves.

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Douglas, Mary (1966). Purity and Danger. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Drazin, Adam (2002). "Chasing Moths: Cleanliness, Intimacy and Progress in Romania." In Markets and Moralities: Ethnographies of Postsocialism, Ruth Mandel and Caroline Humphrey, eds. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Shove, Elizabeth (2003). Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality. Oxford; New York: Berg.

Simpura, Jusse and Galina Eremitcheva (1996). "Dirt: Symbolic and Practical Dimensions of Social Problems in St. Petersburg". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 21(3): 467–479.

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