Cultural Sociology of “Home” as a Research Program for the Post COVID-19 Sociology

Anna Durnová
Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

As a response to COVID-19 pandemic, governments all over the world induced several social distancing measures to flatten the curve of spreading the disease. Although these measures have differed from country to country, all included some form of ‘stay-at-home’ directives. Among others, such directives have recalled the dominant public discourse in Western societies of a home as a private sanctuary from external dangers. This private sanctuary of home lies in contrast to the public space, which might carry some of those dangers and – as Laurent Berlant (2004) reminds us – which might inhibit or even forbid expressions of private engagements to a socially acceptable level.

While recalling this modern narrative of a home as a private place to be where you can be in shelter from the outside world and where you can get recognition for your feelings (see Hochschild, 2003 for discussion), these stay-at-home orders have at the same time damaged this narrative. Domestic violence linked to the lockdowns experienced a terrifying surge worldwide, making the issue of “femicide” a prominent topic of the Western media. Not that it would be new to talk about domestic violence, but the extensive relying on home and the limited access of the affected groups to public space have created new conditions for discussing the issue in public. Similarly, stay-at-home orders have been accompanied by excessive patronizing or discriminatory behavior toward vulnerable citizen groups.

Putting an unusual stress on citizen, cases as these expose emotional boundaries of home. These boundaries become visible through the exceptional situation of a pandemic creating the urgency to discuss issues related to home outside the usual context of counselor services or expert circles. We can better understand these boundaries, and propose how to analyze them, if we observe the particular ways in which discussions on home surge in public debate and become part of a general discussion on societal developments and culture in times of COVID-19.

Public exposure of issues that were otherwise dedicated to particular spheres of society is understood by Jeffrey Alexander as a process of ‘societalization of social problems’ (J. C. Alexander, 2018). Societalization enables us to observe discursive conditions through which a specific issue is opened to a public scrutiny and becomes part of a broader discussion on societal conditions. Societalization is also an analytic tool to understand the culture we live in and that we see to evolve under sudden changes such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Anchored in the Strong Program in Cultural Sociology (J. Alexander & Smith, 2001), Alexander proposes to understand culture through meanings reflecting and creating the norms of behavior of society. From that perspective, ‘home’ entails a configuration of rules that are designed through individuals and are reflective of their feelings and emotional needs but that are at the same time affected by culture comprising public regulation as well as external events (i.e., the pandemic).

Understanding emotional boundaries of home through societalization means to assess the divergence of home by linking the emotional conditions of home with the way social conditions and regulations on home are discussed in public. While the home can receive drastically divergent contours and even represent a danger, the issue is commonly discussed primarily in dedicated expert circles and rarely in the public space. In addition, the emotional conditions of home are often tabooed, which is a  substantial part of the related public discussions on home. As we know from sociological research on emotions, home is an emotionally loaded sphere (Belford & Lahiri-Roy, 2019; Jupp, 2016) rife with negotiation of an acceptable equilibrium between individual longing and collective cultural norms(see Durnová, 2018 for discussion). Emotional conditions of those sharing a home are intertwined with societal  and cultural conditions enabling such spaces for sharing. Combining societalization with these insights on emotions’ capacity to impact collective understandings of the culture we live in (Berezin, 2009) might thus represent a research program offering a better understanding of evolving of cultural norms and their relation to emotions experienced in the context of extreme experiences  such as COVID-19 pandemic.

References:

Alexander, J., & Smith, P. (2001). The strong program in cultural theory: elements of a structural hermeneutics. In J. H. Turner (Ed.), Handbook of sociological theory (pp. 135-150). Boston, MA: Springer US.

Alexander, J. C. (2018). The Societalization of Social Problems: Church Pedophilia, Phone Hacking, and the Financial Crisis. American Journal Of Sociology, 83(6), 1049-1078. doi:10.1177/0003122418803376

Belford, N., & Lahiri-Roy, R. (2019). (Re)negotiating transnational identities: Notions of ‘home’ and ‘distanced intimacies’. Emotion, Space and Society, 31, 63-70. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2018.11.004

Berezin, M. (2009). Exploring emotions and the economy: new contributions from sociological theory. Theory and Society, 38(4), 335-346. 

Berlant, L. G. (2004). Compassion: The culture and politics of an emotion: Psychology Press.

Durnová, A. (2018). The Politics of Intimacy: Re-thinking the End-of-life Controversy. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The commercialization of intimate life: notes from home and work. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jupp, E. (2016). Families, policy and place in times of austerity. Area (London 1969), n-a-n/a. doi:10.1111/area.12263