The past few days, I’ve been reading a set of sociological studies of new suburbs – mainly trying to get my head around methodological issues relating to the use of qualitative data. I’ve found Lyn Richards’ Nobody’s Home: Dreams and Realities in a New Suburb (1990) particularly helpful in clarifying some of the methodological issues with which I’ve been wrestling.
Methodology aside, however, I was struck by a particular passage in which Richards grapples with the issue of how researchers ought to deal with dichotomies such as the notion of public and private spheres. Her summary of the issue, and of the conceptual and methodological quandaries that remain even after critiques have been taken into account, is worth quoting at length, for the analytical frameworks she considers, as well as, I would argue, for a significant alternative framework she does not pursue.
Richards summarises the historical application of the concept of public and private spheres by both conventional and feminist researchers, and then notes (p. 97-98):
This dichotomy has become a fascination in the literature, and the number of references questioning it must surely now exceed those applying it unquestioningly. Indeed the sources most commonly cited and criticized for the promotion of that dichotomy never presented it as an accurate description of anyone’s worlds, let alone women’s. Thinking in terms of ‘two worlds’ has been attacked as a myth obscuring the reality of the state’s invasion of the home, the real and changing interpenetration of family and work in women’s lives, women’s vulnerability in private ‘havens’, and the reality of make power. Critics have questioned the application of the dichotomy to the understanding of urban space: ‘The idealized opposition of female, domestic, private, often suburban worlds and male, productive, public, usually urban worlds does not really describe the works of many people.’ Nor does it assist in understanding the no-man’s land between family and paid work, the ‘non-residential domestic sphere’ that occupies much of women’s lives and is also always changing, or the ways ‘her’ privacy was always experienced in interaction with the public world. Rather, some have argued, women are ‘positioned at the intersection of two social worlds'; the ‘boundary role’ is hers, not his. Empirical studies of women’s ‘incorporation’ in men’s work and of rural settings have clearly shown the dichotomy just does not make sense of the data.
So why do discussions of the dichotomy persist? Three reasons seem likely, all themes that will recur throughout this book. First, while the distinction of public and private spear-headed a critique on the traditional family, there have been few critical studies of that family form. The studies that query the assumption that the family is a private world are all of anomalous families – mothers on welfare, black families, ministers’ wives and rural town life! A suspicion remains that the hard core of the nuclear family is still home to the private haven, and that suspicion is maintained in the critique of suburbia.
Secondly, the dichotomy is seen as not only misleading but dangerous. Like the 1960s debate over conflict and consensus approaches in sociology, it risks becoming an attack on straw theories. Nobody ever seriously suggested that society was characterized only by consensus. But there was growing concern that this ruling theoretical approach made it much easier to see consensus than conflict, and that at least some of its proponents in the social sciences and in places of power, might want society to be like that. Somewhat similarly, critics of dualist images of women’s and men’s spheres point to the tendency of dichotomies, even when critically used, to obscure the crucial areas of confusion and change that fit neither sphere. Those who use dualisms to describe women’s place may confirm that placement, especially by policies allocating care for the dependent young or old to ‘the community’, which means women at home.
Thirdly, whether the world is in fact so divided and whether the researcher is helped or blinkered by looking at it that way, some people do. While dichotomies oversimplify women’s experience, they appear in women’s accounts of their lives, and they do make a lot of sense of men’s. However distorting and inappropriate to the patterns of social change, the division of private and public worlds remains the background to family life, the way we interpret its demands. Ideas about women’s and men’s places, duties, opportunities and options seem to confirm the assumption that the private world of the family is and should be segregated from that other real, hard world of work, and that it is and should be maintained by women.
Richards’ account raises an interesting question – to me, one of the most interesting questions about the… anthropology of capitalist society, and one that is not limited to the public-private dichotomy, but can be extended to a series of other dichotomies that characterise capitalism and differentiate it from other forms of social life.
Richards points out that enormous amounts of research demonstrate that the concept of public and private sphere is really not all that good at characterising the fine grain of men’s or women’s everyday life. For many families, the concept obscures far more than it reveals; even families whose lives conform more closely to the concept, still violate it in countless particulars.
And yet, the concept persists. Not simply as an academic concept – although its recurrent appeal to at least some academic researchers is part of the puzzle – but also as part of the self-understanding of the very men and women whose lives the concept seems to fail to decsribe.
In my opinion, Richards asks an incredibly useful question, when she asks to know why this should be the case – why a concept like the division of the world into public (male, paid work) and private (female, family) should persist and appear meaningful, when it apparently corresponds so poorly to the everyday fabric of most men’s and women’s lives.
Richards’ answers, however, suggest that she perceives this question to be about an *imaginary* category – that the issue is one of why we persist in perceiving things a certain way, why we have created and continue to reproduce a discourse of a particular kind, when the “real world” doesn’t really correspond to that category. Having posed the question in this form, she then argues essentially that there are internal academic and political reasons the category persists (explanation #2), and that the category may also persist because it’s a reasonable approximation in broad strokes terms of the lives of many families (explanations #1 & #3).
I would argue that there is another, unexplored alternative: the possibility that elements of the public-private dichotomy are *real abstractions* – that elements of the public-private dichotomy actually are real, (albeit historically generated and therefore potentially able to be transformed) *social* dimensions of capitalist society. Understanding which elements of the dichotomy are real abstractions can then assist with better understanding the more ideological aspects of the public-private dichotomy – identifying ideological elements that are more easily contested and criticised from within a capitalist context, from elements that would be very difficult to transform without a fundamental reorganisation of our society.
This is not a point I can possibly develop in full here, but I can give a general indication of how I’m thinking of the problem.
For those not familiar with the concept of a “real abstraction”, there are a few ways of getting into the concept. Some of Richards’ explanations for the public-private dichotomy rely on the notion of a conceptual abstraction, or a generalisation, from everyday experience – where the argument is that people look at all these instances of an object – say, a horse – and, from those diverse and individual and variable experiences their minds generalise an abstract concept – like, “horseness”. “Horseness” then might be seen as representing a truer (ideal) reality than our everyday world, or as a rough, imperfect, conceptual approximation good enough that we can “make do” with it, e.g., to navigate through social situations or, alternatively, as cultural constructs, where “culture” is tacitly understood as random or arbitrary. The key issue is that, in such a framework, conceptual abstractions are formed in the mind, and are only generalisations from or approximations of what is (tacitly or explicitly) perceived as the more concrete reality of the “outside” (social or natural) world.
A “real abstraction” is a form of perception or thought that, while historically and socially specific, is not arbitrary and does not reside solely in the mind, but is instead necessarily suggested by some aspect of how society has organised itself – it reflects that fact that there is some dimension of social practice that really does function in the way that the abstraction describes (even if the abstraction can then take on a bit of a life of its own, being adapted to describe dimensions of social life that are not necessarily related it, becoming laden with implications that are not socially inherent to it, coming to be perceived as naturally human and transhistorical, when it has a definable social and cultural basis, etc.).
In the case of the public/private dichotomy, I would suggest that the “real abstraction” is the real (social) difference within capitalism between value-producing labour – work that participates in the cycle of production-for-accumulation – and (without becoming more precise for the moment in this blog) “everything else”. There is a real (social) distinction acted out between these “two spheres”, a distinction that means, with reference to the drive for accumulation, it is socially plausible to distinguish between the world of work in the sphere of production-for-accumulation, on the one hand, and, for example, the worlds of leisure, of those who (for whatever reason) don’t work in the circuit of accumulation, etc.
Because these sorts of dichotomies are grounded in essential characteristics of capitalist society (essential in the sense that they are definitive – capitalism wouldn’t be capitalism without them), I would argue that they will continue to be generated as long as that social form persists. They are not purely conceptual distinctions; they are socially meaningful – they are the forms of perception and thought that correspond to the forms of practice that characterise an important dimension of our shared social life.
However, because this real abstraction entails social practices of perception and thought – which are still available to us when we perceive and interact with all dimensions of our social and natural experience, and not limited to those dimensions of capitalist practice that entrain them – these forms of perception and thought tend to be… portable. They are thus available to be applied to other areas, to be misrecognised as a natural characteristic of human consciousness (there is more to this last, but I can’t develop the point fully here), to be reinforced and overdetermined by other forms of perception and thought, to be laden with moral or practical “baggage” that, while nonessential to capitalist reproduction, derives a broader social plausibility precisely because it rides, parasitically, on the forms of perception and thought that are integral to capitalist reproduction, etc.
I’m very conscious of how ungrounded I’ll have to leave this discussion. For the moment, I’ll have to make do with pointing out that I believe this line of analysis can be expanded into a productive exploration of the way in which concepts like the public-private dichotomy can combine forms of perception and thought that do inhere in capitalism and are reproduced by and through the perpetuation of that social form, with other elements that are more “parasitic” on these core forms of perception and thought, and therefore, depending on the state of historical contestation *within* capitalism, may wax, wane, be created, or disappear entirely.
What I’m calling here “parasitic” discourses interact with capitalism in complex ways: they articulate capitalism in specific ways and can help to disguise its essential and nonessential aspects (think, for example, of the vast sociological literature on how the separation of the workplace from the home was an essential feature of capitalism – confusions like this then encourage the recurrent premature death-knells of capitalism, as nonessential features fall away over time, and this falling away comes to be perceived as fundamental transformation).
Finally, it’s possible that a number of both progressive and “regressive” discourses become successful, under capitalism, precisely because they manage to align themselves with sensibilities engendered by capitalism – to articulate social experiences shared because of the overarching capitalist social context, but in a way that resonates with their own ideological drives (drives which would be, reciprocally, shaped through the constant interaction with forms of perception and thought more inherently embedded in capitalist social practices). Exploring this analytical option would provide a way to explore the relationships between capitalism and ideology, while transcending a traditionalist attempt to reduce political viewpoint to class status (and then the inevitable follow-up tomes trying to explain why political viewpoint doesn’t seem to align all that closely to class status – it is possible that this question is… iatrogenic, a problem generated by the limitations of traditional class-based analysis).
To get back to the public-private dichotomy, this kind of analysis would suggest, for example, that there *is* a real (social) distinction made between different types of work (and between work and various non-work activities). This real social distinction relates to the social practices involved in the reproduction of capital, and it does not intrinsically “need” to be gendered, or to have implications for how socially “important” specific activities are regarded in other respects, etc. Yet other kinds of discourses – about gender relations, moral judgments, etc. – may express the forms of perception and thought that arise from capitalist social practices, because these forms of perception and thought are “always already” available. The “familiarity” of these forms of perception and thought may make a gendered, moral, or other discourse seem more plausible at face value. At the same time, these discourses whose plausibility is increased by their resonance with capitalism, may inflect how capitalism itself is perceived, articulated, and understood – clarifying some aspects of capitalist social practice, while obscuring others.
So, for example, the gender role difference between men and women comes to be articulated in light of the real social distinction between labour-for-accumulation and “everything else”, and the “naturalness” of sex difference is reinforced by the “always already” familiar social distinctions (and their associated forms of perception and thought) acted out in the course of capitalist reproduction; the pre-existence of sex difference, in turn, can assist in naturalising and transhistoricising social distinctions that are historically grounded in capitalist social practice… (While at the same time, other dimensions of capitalist reproduction may entrain practices of perception and thought that denaturalise or call into question these discourses – while supporting and engendering discourses of their own…)
But I suspect this is really all too much for a blog entry… so I’ll stop here.