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April 22, 2014

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Help, it’s too much! Surviving the overflowing home – Orvar Löfgren

 

Home

photo credit: Pixabay

What does a stockbroker in Istanbul navigating the rush of incoming trading figures have in common with a mother in Stockholm trying to organize a growing pile of baby clothes? They are both coping with excess or overflow. In a new book entitled Coping With Excess, Orvar Lofgren and his co-editor Barbara Czarniawska explore the ways in which institutions, corporations and individuals define and manage situations of ‘too much’ – too much information, too many choices, too many commodities or too many tasks.

In the following article, Orvar examines what ‘too much’ can mean when it comes to our homes.


 

The perfect future

When you got up this morning, did you notice the happy people gliding past outside? All dressed in the same practical white overalls and in a relaxed holiday mood, because they don’t have to work more than three days a week now.

Knock on the door of a typical contemporary home. Watch the minimalist and practical interiors, no furniture, but beds and table and chairs that by a button press emerge from the floor. Go into the kitchen and look at the electronic systems that have made cooking superfluous. Just press the button and your favourite dish is ready…

Well, this scenario is taken from future-gazing books of the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years I have been interested in this genre of utopias of future domestic life, forecasts for the new millennium made since the 1950s. Many of these predictions worked reasonably well for technologies of communication, but went totally wrong when it came to changes in habits, cultural values and emotions in domestic life.

What is striking in much of this future gazing is the dreams of a minimalist home life, uncluttered, spotless, and oh, so practical. No friction. People themselves are unstressed and sophisticated – very cool.

Too much of stuff, activities and feelings

Now it is 2014 and the future is here. It looks rather different. Domestic life in the 21st century was supposed to be cyber-light and friction-free, thanks to all the new technologies that would simplify people’s lives. Most Western homes are, however, more than ever veritable jungles of clumsy objects and gadgets, utensils and tools crammed into every available space. Cupboards and wardrobes are bursting, cellars and attics cluttered. Little gadgets let out green or angry red blips in the kitchen, electric cords create jungles under the tables. People devote a large amount of energy and resources to handling this abundance. Things are shuffled back and forth, rearranged, recycled. Every day, new objects enter the home and old ones are lost, forgotten or leave by the back door.

In an ongoing project on managing overflow an interdisciplinary group of us have been looking at ways people cope with excess. “It is simply too much” is a complaint that crops up in discussions of consumer behavior and sustainable living, of media flows and of the administration of both information and people. A great amount of time, resources and worry is spent trying to control such overloads. It is a topical issue in both private and public lives and discourses, but still little studied. The home is one arena we are looking at, and let me return now to this setting, which is not only flooded by stuff but also with activities and emotions.

What is a home?

… the anthropologist Mary Douglas once asked. Her answer was, not just a building with four walls, but an internal order with rules, rhythms and morals. The home is above all a web of routines, silent agreements and ingrained reflexes about “the way we do things here”. Homes can be seen as laboratories for developing new routines as well as safe havens for clinging to old ones. There are techniques of synchronizing, multitasking and sequencing, as well as constant whole- or half-hearted attempts to gain control and install some kind of order.

The home is not only crammed with stuff; it is also overflowing with feelings. Passion, boredom, guilt, longing, nagging irritation, explosions of home rage and moments of bliss try to co-exist with, and also charge, material objects (like that ugly sideboard we inherited from your father), as well as everyday activities. (Who has turned down the thermostat again? Where is my cell phone charger? and What are these towels doing on the bathroom floor?).

It is the constant clashes and recycling of these three dimensions which interests me. So I check all kinds of material – from interviews and surveys of domestic living to interior decoration magazines and total-make-over TV shows.

A moral economy

Returning to Mary Douglas, she discussed the home as an entanglement of conventions and totally incommensurable rights and duties. What she was describing is very much a moral economy, constantly tackling questions of solidarity, sharing and assistance, as well as questions of fairness. The home has to synchronize not only tasks and activities but also needs and longings.

It is a moral economy that produces many tensions, for example between individual aspirations and activities and “the family or household good”. There is a diffuse “we” often hovering in the background. “Do ‘we’ really need a new TV, a bigger house, dessert for dinner?”. Home is a site of constant wheeling and dealing, trying to make different priorities and interests co-habit.

The moral economy of the home also reflects different positions, and thus engages questions of class, gender and generation. It is rarely visible in grand declarations about rules, rights and duties, but hidden in mundane situations, which explains why seemingly trivial routines all of a sudden result in a flare of emotions. Power and hierarchies are reinforced or challenged.

By looking at the entanglements of commodities, practices and feelings inside the home, something more may be learnt about more consumption. Accommodating all the activities and projects, dreams and disappointments calls for constant creativity, but also produces many half-hearted attempts and unfinished projects. This is nothing new. Modern consumer history is full of such tensions, and in the background there are science fiction dreams of minimalist and rational living, a home under full control.

 

Orvar Lofgren photoOrvar Löfgren is professor emeritus of European Ethnology at the University of Lund, Sweden. His research is focused on the cultural analysis of everyday life and he has written on national identities and transnational processes, as well as on consumption, media, culture and economy.  Currently he is leading a project on “Managing overflow” together with Barbara Czarniawska.

Coping with Excess has recently been published by Edward Elgar Publishing.

Also available for subscribing libraries on elgaronline

Book cover

April 16, 2014

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The Governance of the International Political Economy – by Anthony Payne & Nicola Phillips

Hands in the airIf you ask most people by whom they are governed or, more pointedly, from where they are governed, they will probably answer by referring you to the ‘government’ of the country in which they live. Some might throw in a reference to the local government of their city, region or locality; some, especially those living in Europe, might also mention their sense that they are increasingly being governed by bureaucrats and politicians who work beyond national borders in regional institutions.

Hardly anyone will allude in any way to the international or global stage. Doesn’t everyone know that there is no ‘world government’? Isn’t international politics just a matter of state opposing state, with every country using its power to get away with whatever it can? Well, yes and no. Continue reading…

April 14, 2014

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Scottish Independence and International Organizations – by Richard Woodward and Michael Davies

Edinburgh

photo credit: Francisco Diez via Flickr cc

Last month, the debate about an independent Scotland’s relationship with the EU spluttered back to life when a group of financiers observed that staying in the UK posed the biggest threat to Scottish EU membership. Given the EU’s growing intrusion into the everyday lives of European citizens and the importance of unimpeded access to the Single Market to the economic prospects of a newly independent Scotland, the fixation with prospective Scottish membership is understandable. Nevertheless, the almost exclusive focus on the EU has deflected attention from Scotland’s potential relationship with other international organisations and the problems membership of these organisations might pose both to Scotland and the remainder of the UK (RUK). 
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April 10, 2014

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Elgar Book Reviews

pile of open books

Our books are reviewed in a variety of places – from specialised journals to blogs, online newsletters and websites.

Please find below a selection of some of our recent reviews.

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March 28, 2014

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Searching For Mandela: What a Study of Mandela Tells Us About Studying Leaders – by Joanne Ciulla

Nelson Mandela Statue in London

photo credit: Carl Milner via Flickr cc

For the past 12 years I have had the pleasure of editing the New Horizons in Leadership Studies series for Edward Elgar. The aim of our series is to publish genuinely new ideas, perspectives, and approaches to the study of leadership. I was very pleased when Donna Ladkin and Chellie Spiller proposed doing a critical collection of original papers on authentic leadership, Authentic Leadership: Clashes, Convergences, and Coalescences. While there was quite a bit of mainstream literature on authentic leadership, Ladkin and Spiller’s book offered new approaches and formats for critically examining the conventional idea of authentic leadership.

I have always been skeptical about the usefulness of constructs such as authentic leadership in part because they often claim admired iconic leaders as exemplars of their theories. When Ladkin and Spiller invited me to write an article for their collection, I thought that it would be a nice opportunity to write a piece that illustrated the limitations of authentic leadership using an in depth study of Nelson Mandela.

Continue reading…

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