Sarah Pink - Dirty Laundry.pdf

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SA RA H PI NK Dirty laundry. Everyday practice, sensory engagement and the ~~ constitution of identity I always use. . . some sort of softener, and even when they’ve been in the tumble dryer I do like that smell, but I do like it when they’ve been on the line.. . [although] I don’t like ironing them so much when they’ve been on the line. . . I’ve fetched some [laundry] in today when I got in from work, and they’ve obviously been out there all day and they were all stiff and got more cr
  SARAH PINK Dirty laundry. Everyday practice, sensory engagement and the ~~ constitution of identity I always use. some sort of softener, and even when they’ve been in the tumble dryer I do like that smell, but I do like it when they’ve been on the line.. although] I don’t like ironing them so much when they’ve been on the line. . . I’ve fetched some [laundry] in today when I got in from work, and they’ve obviously been out there all day and they were all stiff and got more creases in, whereas when they’re in the tumble dryer it’s a doddle really. If you just catch them in time and they’re just so easy to iron. Yes, I do like my clothes to smell nice. I definitely think about the feel of them though.. once I’ve ironed them they feel better.. . Helen, part-time company director and housewife, age 32 When I think of advertising for soap powders memories of the ‘window test” and claims that some products ‘wash whiter’ and produce ‘whiter whites’ come to mind. These notions of clean laundry emphasise visual experience and assessment. Such constructs bind domestic morality with images of families dressed in stainless clothing and sleeping in beds made up with gleaming white sheets. Visual appearance certainly figures in how people assess the cleanlin’ess of their laundry. However, as any modern western consumer should realise, our selections of soap powders and related laundry products and the pleasure and satisfaction we derive from finished laundry are contingent on multi-sensory experiences. In fact, the expectation that laundry processes will produce brilliant white stain-free items is unrealistic for many people because our visual understandings of clean laundry are also embedded in our knowledge about the biographies of specific garments and our plans for their use. Contemporary Britons who do their own laundry in their homes using standard domestic technologies expect that by virtue of having been washed in the machine with a detergent their laundry will emerge clean. In this article I examine contemporary English laundry as a case study to examine how people construct and sense cleanliness, and how this contributes to the constitution of private and public individual identities and moralities. Although most people expect the machine will get it clean, sensory understandings and processes of evaluation of clean and dirty laundry are more complex and individually varied. The example of sensory laundry shows how different individuals in the same culture use different sensory metaphors and modalities to narrate their everyday experiences and practices verbally and show them visually. They do so in ways that illustrate their agency, are constitutive of selves and moralities and ultimately contribute to processes by which conventions change. 1 The ‘window test’ is a memory from British television advertising for soap powders. In my recollection the housewife ‘tests’ her clean laundry visually using the daylight from her window. Social Anthropology 2005), 13 275-290. 005 European Association of Social Anthropologists doi:10.1017/S0964028205001540 Printed in the United Kingdom 275  Researching private everyday practice This article is based on a visual ethnography of laundry practices in England I developed with Unilever Research in 2000.2 The project addressed research questions with a product focus and provided general contextualising data about domestic laundry. Although I do not report on that applied dimension here it was important in alerting me to the sensory aspects of laundry. Van der Laan and Matthews 2003) suggest contemporary consumers relate ‘to the idea of using all their senses in many different areas of their lives’ which benefits the laundry products market by allowing products to become ‘more diverse, innovative and hedonistic’. They report that ‘addressing consumer needs through a multi-sensory experience is proven to be generally more memorable: the color, texture and lingering scent work together to reassure that the job has been done well’. Since at least the 1930s, companies that manufacture domestic goods have realised that attending to the sensory properties and experience of their products can bring market success Howes 2003: 21 1-12), which reminds us that social scientists also benefit from accounting not only for the visual and material aspects of everyday life but also for olfaction, tactile experience and sound. This sensory focus is not new; the anthropology of the senses is well established. However, I believe my emphasis on the relationship between sensory experience, self-identity, domestic practice and changing conventions is srcinal. With each informant in a sample of twenty I first conducted a tape-recorded in- depth interview, focusing on the informants’ life and self-identity, laundry routines and priorities. This was followed by a ‘video tour’ Pink 2004) a collaborative research method that involves the informant spending up to an hour showing me around their home while I video them. Prompted by my checklist, our shared task was to represent how the laundry process was constructed in the home the multiple sites for leaving, collection, transfer, washing and drying of laundry and the actual practices that occurred in them), the criteria used to decide what qualified as laundry and when something was satisfactorily washed, and which items in the home not laundered that day would at some point become laundry. This included clothing, sheets and towels, curtains, cushion covers, footwear and children’s toys. We discussed the sensory aspects of decision- making about laundry, the sensory experience of doing the laundry and the sensory qualities of domestic items that could potentially become laundry. The data this video ethnography produced includes informants’ verbal and embodied representations of their sensory, emotional and other experiences and practices of laundry in their homes. It by no means constitutes the more direct access to how people actually live their everyday lives, gained through participant observation, and diverges from the long-term field- work method some anthropologists insist is the defining characteristic of anthropology. My methods were influenced by the applied brief of the project, but were also shaped by my anthropological concerns and developed to suit a particular research en~ironment.~ As Miller 2001) stresses, doing fieldwork in contemporary modern western homes requires multi-sited methods that can focus on individuals and their relationships within a private intimate sphere in contrast with a community study set in one locality). To 2 3 Designed with Jean Rimmer of Unilever. Combining applied and academic anthropological research also forms part of my wider project to bridge the gap between applied and academic anthropology. I develop this in other publications e.g. Pink 2004) and through the Berghahn Studies in Applied Anthropology series, of which I am series editor. 276 SARAH PINK  access these worlds, rather than the anthropologist living informants’ private lives with them, the video tour asks informants to reconstruct their everyday practices by reflecting on, and enacting on video, what they think they ‘really’ do. Advocating an interview-based methodology, Desjarlais 2003: 6 suggests spoken narration supports a phenomenological approach to sensory anthropology because ‘the phenomenal and the discursive, live as lived and life as talked about, are like interwoven strands of a braided rope, each complexly involved in the other, in time’, and rightly insists we can achieve a necessarily limited) understanding of other people’s experiences through their descriptions. The weakness of Desjarlais’ emphasis on talk is that it elevates words over other ways of representing experience. By adding video to the process of telling- talking, to include showing-touring and embodied enacting, my collaborations with my informants produced not simply spoken narrations of their sensory experiences but also visual display, exposure to sounds, smells and textures, thus inviting them to ‘narrate’ their everyday lives with reference to multiple forms of sensory engagement, including a spatial narrative as we moved through their homes. Videotape did not ‘capture’ these sensory experiences, but rather allowed me to record their visible manifestations audio- visually as my informants articulated them through, for example, verbal descriptions, embodied performances of laundry practices, facial expressions, gestures and other embodied metaphors. Knowing that they were being video-recorded, they performed ‘for the camera’, just as people perform oral narratives for the tape recorder. The research encounter thus became a context in which researcher and informant intersubjectively produce an audiovisual account of the informant’s sensory domestic practices and experiences. Here ‘embodiment is the common ground for the recognition of the other’s humanity and the immediacy of intersubjectivity’ Katz and Csordas 2003: 278). Like other anthropologists who discuss the sensory nature of fieldwork e.g. Okely 1994; Seremetakis 1994; Stoller 1989; 1997; Geurts 2002), my task was to understand my informants’ experiences by sharing the smells, textures and visual appearances they demonstrated, and imagining those that they narrated. Since such collaborations are central to the production of ethnographic knowledge they themselves deserve to be scrutinised. Video facilitates this by representing both ethnographic data and the immediacy of the research encounter, permitting a deeper reflexivity than that created in retrospective written descriptions MacDougalll998). In the absence of long-term participant observation, video therefore provides alternative routes into other people’s lives that can produce both a record of the research encounter as it happened, actions as they were performed and experienced, and spoken and embodied narratives. After the study I contacted eight4 of the informants I interviewed personally to gain their permission to use their interviews in my published work.5 To preserve their anonymity I have changed the names of those who requested I did so, and do not include images. 4 This small sample is not intended to be ‘representative’ of the ‘whole population’ as a larger sociological study might be, and should not be judged as such. Instead it pertains to the tradition of anthropological writing on the home e.g. Miller 2001). Here I discuss just three of these informants, selected because they represent three quite typical approaches to domestic tasks that stood out from my wider research on the home Pink 2004). Dr Marie Corbin also collaborated with me in this work, by carrying out and interpreting half of the interview. I am indebted to her for our many discussions and the insights that emerged which have informed the ideas I express in this chapter. 5 DIRTY LAUNDRY 277  Individual experience and the anthropology of the senses Much existing research in the anthropology of the senses has focused on comparing sensory hierarchies cross-culturally Howes 1991; Classen 1993; Bubandt 1998), and understanding culturally specific forms of sensory embodied experience Stoller 1989) and constructions of sensoria Guerts 2002). In contrast, some recent work examines sensory differences within cultures with reference to gender difference. For instance, Classen 1998) analyses how the symbolic gendering of sensory experience from the pre-modern era to the end of the twentieth century associated women with the ‘lower senses’ of touch, taste and smell, and men with the ‘higher senses’ of vision and hearing, thus helping to maintain a gender-role segregation model that coupled women with housewifery and men with scholarship 1998: 93-4). Desjarlais, also departing from the emphasis on ‘culturally pervasive themes and dynamics’, focuses on individual variation to examine ‘how members of a single society live out different sensory biographies’ 2003: 4). His two ageing Yolmo Bhuddist informants share the cultural knowledge that informs the sensory categories they employ. Yet in practice, when narrating and making sense of their lives, they use these categories in different ways, which are inextricably related to their personal gendered biographical experiences and the ways in which they have been situated in relation to cultural knowledge and social relations. Desjarlais’ male informant’s ‘recounting of his life was dominated by motifs of vision and bodiliness’ whereas his female informant’s narrative ‘often linked in vivid, morally connative terms, the voicings of key actors’ Desjarlais 2003: 3). In my own comparative analysis of the sensory spaces in British and Spanish homes I also focused on the interface between cultural discourses that invest sensory experiences and qualities with moral values and individual sensory narrations and actions. I have suggested Pink 2004) that what is of interest is not simply how culturally specific values are manifested in and thus maintained through particular sensory practices, but how these values are challenged or resisted by individuals whose everyday practices go ‘against the grain’ Moore 1994: 82). Moore points out that even minor instances of ‘resistance’ such as re-ordering activities or objects can produce ‘shifts in meaning’ 1994: 83). In the modern western home how one senses ones environment, the sensory categories one uses to evaluate and narrate if it is clean, tidy or dirty, and the strategies one uses to create a sensory environment in the home can all be interpreted as acts of resistance or conformity that imply human agency. Below I discuss how three different people living in contemporary British homes represent their sensory experiences and perceptions of laundry. By analysing each representation in terms of how ‘acts of sensing’ are ‘inherently tied to ethical ideas and moral sensibilities’ Desjarlais 2003: 242-3) I suggest how these acts and related practices constitute identity statements that serve to stretch, resist, challenge or confirm the cultural discourses that support the relationship between ‘conventional’ practice and moral correctness. Laundry as sensory experience. Vision touch and smell An important twentieth century transition in attitudes to defining clean laundry was from the belief that boiling was necessary to disinfect and clean laundry to the 278 SARAH PINK
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