The Gender of Life at and in the Family Home in the Twenty-first Century

During a five year period (2001-2005), a group of physical and cultural anthropologists along with an ethnographic photographer (Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs) undertook an in-depth study of contemporary family life as a part of the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families.  Some of their findings are published in a short book—Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open their Doors.  The book itself is a dizzying array of information, beautifully depicted in ways that illustrate the rhythms of household life, transformations in social interactions between family members that may not have been anticipated by the architects who designed the homes they live in, the massive collections of stuff that American families collect and consume, and new data helping to understand both how members of the household understand their homes, how they use them, and how they feel inside of them.

The study itself is not generalizable for a number of reasons.  For one, the sample size is only 32 families.  All of the families self-identify as “middle class” (a problematic measure), representing a broad range of neighborhoods in southern California, including a range of ethnic and racial groups, with various occupations.  Most of the families were heterosexual, but two of the families were not.  As the authors put it:

Each family that joined the study consists of two parents who both work full time (or close to it), and two or three children, one of whom is 7-12 years old.  We sought families that were negotiating the many challenges associated with having both parents in the workforce while they were raising young children. (17)

The data collected is the really interesting part of this study.  In addition to interviews with family members, video documentation of their homes, photographs and counts of all of the objects and rooms in the homes, site visits at various points throughout the day, house history questionnaires, detailed architectural floor plans of the homes (included maps of when and how various rooms and spaces were used during the study), the team also had each family use a video camera alone and provide a self-guided tour through their home describing the various rooms as they deemed fit.

The premise of their study is eminently sociological (or anthropological depending on who you’re asking).  As the authors write,

The degree to which we are affected by our domestic environments—the internal configurations of houses and the furnishings and objects in and around them—is frequently underestimated.  Residential buildings profoundly shape the behavior of people.  Individuals who live in homes of distinct forms and contents internalize a spectrum of spatial and social rules regarding appropriate activities there.  They become socialized via cultural norms and kin to be sure, but also through interactions with their furnishings and built surroundings. (19)

Many of the findings in the book are those we might have anticipated.  Families in the study had a lot of stuff.  Their homes were saturated.  For instance, close to 90% of the square footage available in garages in the study was used for the overload of stuff from the house.  These respondents parked on the street not because they want to–they have to.  This is slightly more than the national figure that is closer to 3/4 of family home garages.

An interesting gendered finding is buried here.  When interviewed, both women and men stated that the messes in their homes (often partially created simply by owning more than their homes were designed to hold) caused them considerable stress.  But cortisol tests were administered throughout the study and this data indicated that women’s physiological health was harmed by the mess much more than men’s (father’s were “relatively unaffected by mess,” p. 26).

Homes have also become much more child-centered over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Children’s toys, artwork, tastes, and desires are now a much greater part of the household than for previous generations or for cultures less like our own.  This likely has something to do with the ways we buy for kids in the U.S.  While the United States contains just a bit more than 3% of all of the children in the world, we consume about 40% of the toys that are globally produced.

Also, families don’t eat dinner together as often as you might think–nor, interestingly, as often as they might self-report.  50% of the families in the study stated that they “always eat dinner together,” while only 16% stated that they “never eat dinner together.”  After collecting the data, this team found that about 17% of families always ate together (or almost always), while about 1/4 families never at together.

Leisure time was a scarce resource in these families.  More often than not, it was something that members of these families had for fleeting moments throughout the day, rather than in extended periods of time.  Most parents spent a great deal of money on their back yards and gave them a great deal of attention in the self-guided tours, but research showed that parents hardly ever used these spaces and children used them roughly an hour a week.

The most important thing I learned from this book (which confirmed my interests and desires if I ever do own and renovate a home) is that the kitchen is–without a doubt–the most important room in a home.  We spend more time (while awake) in the kitchen than in any other room in the home.  This is interesting and important because a great majority of American families live in homes which were designed roughly 30-50 years ago.  Kitchens were used very different among those families than they are today.  They were smaller, more closed off, intended for use by one person.  The families in this study, however, felt cramped and closed off in their kitchens in ways that previous generations may not have (primarily because of use).

Single bathrooms were also a norm in many of these homes.  Many families struggled to explain why a home would be designed with only one bathroom.  I think this has to do with two separate issues.  First, as Americans, I think many of us think that if we can have more of something, then we should.  But also, previous generations of families living in these homes may not have experienced the struggles of a morning routine in which everyone in a 5-person family has to get up, get showered, get dressed, and get fed on a tight schedule.  Many homes have yet to architecturally reflect these economic demands and changes in the workplace.  Interestingly, many families flexibly negotiated the bathroom, and parents used these moments as a time to teach young children about self-care and hygiene.  In this process, “Children learn how to take turns, how to be considerate of others’ needs, now to respect privacy, and how to share limited resources” (103).

So, despite the lack of generalizability, the study itself collected a massive amount of information to study the ways families live.  They put it this way: “A lesson emerging from the L.A. study is that while material affluence signals personal pleasure and economic success, it also entails hidden costs” (161).  I’ve written before about the history of home design that took women’s considerations of architecture and space into account (here) as making the home more comfortable for all of its inhabitants.

What kind of homes do today’s families need?  In what ways is the culture of consumption in the U.S. making it possible or impossible to be comfortable in their homes?  It’s a fascinating area of study and the ways in which spaces in the home become gendered is a small piece of this work.

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