Essays > Communal Apartments > Everyday life and housing
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The study of housing is a key part of the larger body of scholarship on everyday life.
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Scholars have devoted much attention to the study of "everyday life" over the last century. Work emerging from the French Annales School and German Frankfurt School in the 1930s and 1940s, and from social scientists and cultural theorists like Erving Goffman, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel deCerteau from the 1950s on, forged theoretical foundations for critical analysis of the basic elements of life in industrialized societies—central among them food, housing, furnishings, and commodities. Examinations of everyday existence share an essential duality of focus: while they draw close attention to the banal features of the quotidian world and people's modes of interaction with them, their analysis of these features illuminates the broadest and most vexing issues of modernity: state institutions, ideologies and bureaucratic practices; wealth, class, "social capital," and poverty; cultural knowledge and individual behaviors. With its similar tendency to explore the culturally significant "big picture" by examining seemingly mundane objects and practices, the discipline of anthropology has also contributed much both theoretically and methodologically to the study of everyday life.

Housing is a key object of investigation in everyday life studies. Far from just the backdrop of social life, domestic spaces both reflect and structure core cultural values, political priorities, creative processes, productive capacities, and the organization and style of labor. Building materials and technologies evolve historically in tandem with the social functions of space, as do aesthetic distinctions and class privileges. Annales School historian Fernand Braudel demonstrated this well in his broad tour of the materials and tools of domesticity from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. For example, Braudel detailed how among European upper classes, notions and practices of privacy developed as the number of rooms multiplied; in the early 1700s, increasing wealth made it possible—and fashionable—to differentiate the functions of various rooms as well as to arrange spaces in a continuum from very public to very private. Braudel contrasts these special practices with those of most families, for whom housing consisted of one or two rooms, crowded with people and sometimes animals, with all areas of space serving multiple functions.

The symbolic meanings of everyday space came into view in Pierre Bourdieu's 1970 work on the housing forms of the Kabyle (Berber) of Algeria. Traditional Kabyle homes are organized around cultural oppositions of male-female; outside-inside; public-private, and Bourdieu outlined an intricate cosmology reflected in every object, feature, and function of the space. Since the house is a microcosm of the universe in Bourdieu's structuralist treatment, any element of space—whether jars of dried figs or the benches for sleeping and working—may be brought within the scope of analysis. Every object speaks to wider questions of cultural order and social life. Bourdieu's fieldwork on everyday life among the Kabyle was foundational in his development of a broader theory of practice, which has profoundly influenced social theory to the present.

Provoked by the commodification of "design culture," in his 1968 book The System of Objects, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested the need for a "sociology of interior design." He analyzed not only the functional aesthetics of modern dwelling spaces and furnishings, but more crucially, the kind of personhood which develops in interaction with contemporary domestic commodities. "Man the interior designer," as Baudrillard called this person, "is neither an owner nor a mere user—rather, he is an active engineer of atmosphere" (1996: 22).

In a similar vein, in an essay published around the same time, Henri Lefebvre wrote about the significance of the French "pavillon"—the detached house. In reaction to the massive housing estates sprouting on the peripheries of most French cities after WWII, suburban housing tracts full of small individual houses for families of somewhat greater means were developed. Outlining the ideology surrounding this mass phenomenon, Lefebvre argued that the pavillon marks the "individualization of social space" through these miniature domestic utopias with their tiny gardens, lawns, ornaments, and picture-perfect facades (Lefebvre 2003: 131-2). Though the objects which furnish it are mass-produced, like Baudrillard's "interior designer," pavillon-dwellers imagine themselves as the creators of their own worlds, detached from and independent of society. Contemporary American culture clearly reflects this same ideology, in which the home is an essential ingredient in the functioning and class positioning of individual persons.

From the 1960s on, inspired by the seminal work on proxemics by E.T. Hall, studies of dwelling and cultural space burgeoned, with much collaboration between scholars in anthropology, architecture, geography and other disciplines. The book Housing, Culture, and Design edited by anthropologists Setha M. Low and Erve Chambers, focuses on functional, ideological, aesthetic and political issues related to housing. Globally ranging studies such as this one provide essential comparative background for the analysis and evaluation of everyday life in Soviet communal apartments.

While cultural considerations and built environments differ widely across cases, scholars of human dwelling often encounter similar issues. There are, for instance, often quite significant tensions between the goals of government or private planners of modern urban dwelling-spaces and the families and communities that come to inhabit them. These may result in conflict over the structure and use of space, creative modification by residents (not always officially sanctioned), and complex practices of adaptation and adjustment. Ensuring socially appropriate forms of privacy and control of familial dwelling spaces is at the heart of conflict and accommodation everywhere.

Particularly in circumstances of severe social crowding, such as in the communal apartment, how do people create security and comfort? What does the aesthetic or "sacred" embellishment of personal space mean to apartment dwellers? How do people use the accoutrements of dwelling spaces to project identity or status, delimit social or functional boundaries, and provide symbolic contrast to or refuge from the indignities of public or shared spaces? These are key questions to be dealt with, alongside inquiries into the basic logistics and economies of everyday life.

expand/collapse this text box Further Study
Baudrillard, Jean (1966). The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. London and New York: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1992). "The Kabyle House or the World Reversed." In The Logic of Practice. Translated from the French by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Braudel, Fernand, (1992). The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible. Volume I of Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Certeau, Michel de (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goffman, Erving (1978). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York, Penguin Books.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson, eds. (2001). Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, E. T. (1990). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books.

Highmore, Ben (2002). Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Highmore, Ben (2002). The Everyday Life Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Lefebvre, Henri (2002). Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday. volumes I and II, London: Verso.

Lefebvre, Henri (2003). "Preface to the Study of the Habitat of the 'Pavillon'." In Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings, Stuart Elden Elizabeth Lebas and Eleonore Kofman, eds. New York and London: Continuum.

Low, Setha M. and Erve Chambers, eds. (1989). Housing Culture and Design: A Comparative Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mira, Ricardo Garcia, ed. (2005). Housing, space and quality of life. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Miller, Daniel, ed. (2001). Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. Oxford: Berg.

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

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