(This recording contains language that some listeners might find offensive.)
Through applying a sociological lens to everyday life, we make the familiar strange. We attempt go beyond surface behaviour, searching for unspoken rules, norms and routines that not only govern but constitute everyday life. We begin to appreciate how seemingly insignificant routines of everyday life are central to how our social worlds hang together. The sociologist Les Back tells us in his ‘The Art of Listening’ "It is a practice of scholarship that is committed to a profane illumination, or reading against the grain, which looks for the outside story which is part of the inside story" (2007). Key scholars of the everyday life, such as the French Sociologist Henri Lefebvre writing in the 1960s, explored the everyday as part of the alienating conditions of daily life in capitalist society. Lefebvre drew attention to how capitalist workplaces, such as the factory, with its dreary, repetitive cycles, alienated people from the true conditions of their existence, and kept them in a state of false consciousness. This had a pervasive effect upon everyday life: characterised by routine, repetition and regularity, punctuated by the occasional break that made this bearable. In this tradition of writing we often get a somewhat negative, and actually quite depressing image of the everyday, as something constraining, stultifying, and alienating. But there also those who have studied the everyday who have drawn attention to moments of resistance, creativity, and even positivity. One example being another French theorist Michel De Certeau. In his 'The practices of Everyday Life' (1984), De Certeau looks for those subtle seeds, moments of resistance, or “making do”. Showing an interest in identifying everyday spaces where power is routinely subverted/resisted. Thinking about everyday life in the domestic sphere, particularly in terms of ‘housework’, we are not surprised to hear that there is a long tradition of feminist work that has drawn attention to the role of the domestic sphere in reinforcing patriarchal norms and a gendered division of labour. The feminist scholar Anne Oakely(1974) went as far to argue that " housework was not only alienating, but the most alienating form of work under industrial capitalism.” Alternatively some feminist scholars while acknowledging that everyday life has been presented as a distinctively female sphere, suggest it should also be considered as a site of significant value. Here, the traditional everyday work done by some women - cooking, cleaning, caring, emotional labour etc- is indicative of women’s strength. Research has shown that in context of heteronormative families with a traditional patriarchal structure, the instances when men do domestic work, such as cooking meals, are only in the context of special occasions such as a BBQ, or a Christmas meal (Murcott 1995). The recording presented here is of one such occasion, yet some of these notions of tradition are morphed. The husband of the household is preparing and serving the christmas meal, while the wife, her two sisters, her daughter, and son-in-law, and nephew converse. Following on this theme of the everyday, particularly in relationship to the domestic sphere, the recording presented here provides an interesting insight into the kinds of everyday interaction that take place around the dinner table at Christmas. The structure of the family in attendance is perhaps reflective of an increasingly common form found in contemporary Western societies - mother has divorced and remarried, sisters are all single, and the (step) father of the household is retired and does all the cooking while the mother works. The daughter and son-in-law are in an internationally formed relationship (she is Canadian, he is British), and they have dual-nationality 3 year old daughter. DeVault’s 1991 study, found significant changes in many of the forms of eating and the organisation of household meals in modern industrial societies. Where more women are working, changes in daily schedules with household family members working different hours, and fast food and snacking replacing many 'proper meals’. Despite these changes, DeVault found that women predominantly still did much of the emotional labour involved in preparing meals, and especially in the task of ‘feeding’. Unlike cooking, feeding DeVault tells us involves connection with others, providing for loved ones, a gesture of love and caring. DeVault also discovered that despite certain changes, family meal time was still a rule governed social event - clear beginning and end, ritualistic features, some degree of formality, e.g. table manners. Importance of talk, looking cheerful, showing an interest in each other’s day. But of course there is a certain romantic attachment to a kind of ‘ideal’ of how the family meal should proceed as an event involving bonding, the satisfying or both biological and emotional needs, but also of pleasure. But as Nikie Charles (1995) has shown, the provision of a proper meal for happy family is often more of an ideal than a reality - family meals are often riddled with conflict and resentment, and a site for battles, not harmonious interaction. Ervin Goffman with his concept of dramaturgy made the argument that social life is much like a theatrical performance, and we are as social actors are performers acting with an audience in mind. Taking this analogy further he suggested we have ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ regions just like theatre. The front stage is where we put on all our performances, presenting our ideal selves that we think are most appropriate to the situation. The backstage region is where we ‘let our hair down’, it is the site where we express aspects of themselves that our audience would find (or least we think they would find) unacceptable. The recording of the Christmas meal presented is perhaps exceptional in that it shows very little evidence of conflict and resentment. In fact if we apply Goffman’s theatrical analogy of the front stage and back stage here: the topic of the conversations and the ‘feel’ of interaction seems to have a very backstage feel to it. But, I encourage the reader to make up their own mind in this regard, and hopefully seek out the work of Goffman to assist them in doing so. Maybe this dichotomy does not hold up? The conversation starts off with a discussion of how the Australian musician and actor Michael Hutchence died. The topic of auto-erotic asphyxiation is discussed, as are other potential ways of sexual self-stimulation. All this takes place with sound of Christmas music playing, and cutlery clanging in the background. This recording shows how the everyday is profoundly illuminating, extra-ordinary, and just sometimes f***ing funny. As suggested before, we have dominant cultural scripts and ideological/moral representations of how special occasions such as a Christmas dinner should proceed. But the recording presented here often seems to put such a script firmly on its head. Here we have strong, intelligent, independent women talking freely, and just having a laugh. In writing this I am heavily indebted to the work of my colleague and friend Susie Scott. Susie is an absolute expert on the work of Goffman, and Symbolic Interactionism. It is through teaching the sociology module at the University of Sussex that she designed, ‘The Sociology of Everyday Life’, that I learnt much of the material presented here. I also recommend the reader to consult her book ‘Making Sense of Everyday Life’ (2009) - an excellent introduction to sociological theories of the everyday. Karl Broome - 2015.
Dr. Karl Broome is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. He has been involved in the British experimental music scene since the early 1990s. He lives in Southern England and Vancouver.