Talking and laughing together about the sensitive dynamics of mundane everyday practices

By Alison Browne, University of Manchester 

Laundrette. Photo credit: Michael Robinson
Laundrette. Photo credit: (c) Michael Robinson
Winter Wool Wash. Photo Credit: Alison Browne
Winter Wool Wash. Photo Credit: (c) Alison Browne
Fully loaded? Photo Credit: Alison Browne
Fully loaded? Photo Credit: (c) Alison Browne

When was the last time you washed your sheets, and why did you do it? Was it just part of your regular laundry routine? Were they looking a bit grubby? Did you want to get into a clean bed with clean pyjamas for a special Saturday night in? Were you expecting a new bedfellow and want to make a good impression?

Talk about household sustainability butts up against moral and ethical boundaries regarding the sensitivities and intimacies of our day-to-day lives. While policy or business interventions try to persuade us to use less water or energy, such interventions often unintentionally moralise certain types of behaviours. Recent research by the Pew Research Centre and reported in the Guardian (November 2015) shows that there is still a gap in terms of fair distributions of male/female family and household labour.  As such the practices which they try to influence and intervene with are often very gendered, for example, focusing on how to do more energy and water efficient laundry, a task that is still overwhelming performed by women.

As geographical and allied social science research has tried to understand the dynamics and patterns of everyday resource consumption, the range of methods we use has become increasingly nuanced. Some of these methods such as CCTV or video are often used as a way of understanding how people do everyday practices and give interesting insights into public practices like cycling and mobility.

In a domestic space these forms of surveillance are connected to increasing ‘big data’ capabilities to track and understand the use of resources such as energy and water in the home enabled through the internet of things. However, such methods might not be appropriate given how awkward and intimate some of these resource consuming practices can be (e.g., what motivates you to wash your sheets, or take a shower).

The research methods used to understand everyday resource use related to cleanliness practices in the home (laundry, home cleaning, personal washing) often pushes us towards these intimately political aspects of energy and water use.

In the article “Can people talk about their practices?” I reflect on the need to apply new research methods in order to access and articulate these sensitive dynamics of everyday practice. The research reflects on six focus groups on ‘bodies, clothes, dirt and cleanliness’.  Enabling people to talk together about their practices in light gossip style, with humour and laughter can undo some of the unease that can be experienced when talking about these issues in one-to-one research interviews.

The article explores the ethics and politics of everyday life research in geography, and responds to calls for greater consideration of gender and bodies within human geography research. However, it also highlights the ethical and moral issues of gender embedded in everyday consumption, which is often a target of sustainability policy.

About the author: Dr Alison Browne is a Lecturer in Human Geography and Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

books_icon Browne, A. L. (2015), Can people talk together about their practices? Focus groups, humour and the sensitive dynamics of everyday life. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12250

60-world2 Valenti, J. 2015. Men think they do equal work at home, when facts show otherwise. The Guardian

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