Saturday, December 10, 2005

D.I.Y.—Working Class Autonomy or Blokes in Skirts?

Hak Mao recently cast an incredulous eye over the mania for property development programs on British TV, which set me to considering why this should be a specifically British idiosyncrasy. Just by chance, I’d been pondering changes in male working-class leisure activity during the 20th century, as one invariably does after two bottles of Argentinean Malbec, and the thought arose that perhaps these social phenomena might be connected.

Apocryphal or pure spin it may have been, but during the 1970s I was frequently told that the largest participation sport in the country was angling, and NOT footie, as everyone usually assumed. This information was usually conveyed to me by blokes who were in any case too uncoordinated to be any good at footie—and who were thus just jealous of my brilliance—or by latent autistics who enjoyed nothing more than getting up at 4 on a Sunday morning to sit on the edge of the local pond or reservoir and stare at water for the entire day while sat in mud and pouring rain. Notwithstanding the dubious categorization of angling as a sport—I appreciate that it can be done competitively, but so can masturbation, and until they start televising it I don’t regard that as a sport either, however obsessively it is pursued—I’m willing to accept that it was a hugely popular pastime. At some point, however, it appears to have been superseded by a national passion for DIY. In the mid to late 70s you couldn’t move for B&Qs, MFIs, Homebases, and all those other megastores that still give cultural snobs the willies (the most recent manifestation of which can be found on the new Half Man, Half Biscuit album.) So why did this happen?

My suspicion is that the empowerment of women as a consequence of 1) the women’s movement and 2) financial austerity that made two incomes the sine qua non of home ownership (and which, incidentally, put the hiring of professionals out of the question) can account not just for the decline in popularity of pastimes taking place away from the home but also for the “masculinzation” of particular areas of the domestic sphere (Men doing domestic chores? Unheard of!).

The principle characteristic that led to angling’s decline and DIY’s rise is that one of them could be done at home while the other constituted an ESCAPE from the home. In the days when the man was the sole breadwinner and women were expected to stay home and raise the kids, the demarcation of gender boundaries was very clear, and the man took it as his prerogative as the breadwinner to spend his leisure time away from noisy kids, care of whom was a task assigned to the domestic sphere. Angling was a form of relaxation is a place where relaxation was possible. The actual catching of fish was incidental, as most anglers will tell you.

The increase in the number of women in full-time paid employment shifted the balance in gender relations, but there were also cultural changes that played a part in accentuating this shift, such as women’s demands for a role in the public sphere, that men do their share of domestic work in an environment where the workload was falling unequally on the female partner, and so on, as well as a decline in the traditional “masculine” manufacturing industries and a rise in “feminized” service industries.

The necessity of two incomes to pay the mortgage highlights the fact that we are dealing here with a particular class stratum here, rather than with the working class as a whole. This is a largely white, suburban-based working class, socially mobile (at least in their own eyes), and potentially Tory voting—hence the cultural snobbery, I suspect, of some on the left—Contrast this stratum, incidentally, with the sexist, racist white working class that laments the loss of the good old days when Dad could spend Sunday down the pub and come home to find his dinner ready for him (a lamentation I recall specifically made by BNP members on TV in an attempt to present themselves as “normal” and to validate the defence of their “culture.”)

The sharing out of domestic responsibility thus meant a loss of “privileges” for the husband, or rather, made domestic arrangements more equitable just as wage-earning arrangements began in the direction of equalization. DIY offered a way of providing the husband with a hobby while at the same time enabling him to “make himself useful around the house.” By way of compensation, DIY was “masculinized” in order to distinguish it from the feminine domestic sphere and get round suggestions of emasculation; the building and fixing of stuff required specialized tools, mechanisms, and knowledge that rendered it distinct from cooking, decoration, laundry and so on. It also helped that DIY required lots of banging and screwing (I use those terms advisedly), so that it made sense for them to be put at one remove from the living area. Thus, the compromise could be enhanced by letting the husband convert the shed or the garage for his DIYing, thereby giving him a retreat, an escape, while keeping him accessible and domesticated.

DIY remains hugely popular today but seems to have been modified in recent years, having dissolved into “interior design”—how else to explain Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen? I can only speculate that this continued blurring of the boundaries has arisen as a consequence of the increase in the number of single people living alone prior to committing to a partnership, the rise in single-parent families, and/or an increase in the number of people sharing non-familial homes so that all domestic tasks fall to each member without regard to genderization. It is something to be devoutly wished for, in my opinion, regardless of the causal mechanisms involved. As a nonacademic it isn’t my job to do the research, attempt to falsify the hypothesis, or seeks the finances to do either, but I DO think that this is the sort of work that cultural studies SHOULD be doing, i.e. I think it should be a sociology of culture, identifying causal relationships between cultural changes and wider social developments. It would thereby serve as a way of demystifying and clarifying the determinants of human behaviour and of demonstrating the rationality of cultural choices by bringing to light the conditions in which such choices are made (hopefully you've realized by now that the title for this post is facetious). For my part, I only speculate and hypothesize about these issues because I find them fascinating. I could be entirely wrong!

I haven’t even attempted to locate the source of the mania for property development that Hak Mao spotted. It’s a case, I think, of “What know they of Britain who only Britain know?” Someone living on the Continent, where home rental is far more widespread than in Britain, would most likely find our manias incomprehensible. Perhaps our compañeros in Catalunya can tell us. What’s the Catalan for MDF?


Jose said...

That's an interesting reflection. But let me tell you that owning a property is now more common than rental in Catalunya. Rentals are so high that people prefer to buy.
Anyway, as for your question, I had to look up in a dictionary what MDF stands for. If you mean "medium density fibreboard", I have no idea how they call it here. I'm not into DIY... yet.

1212121212 said...

DIY is very big here in Canada too (and most of the British shows that Hak Mao was on about can be seen on one or other of the 180 TV channels). This is also a society in which home ownership is at least as big a deal as in Britain (and Ireland?) or the US (but unlike in Japan, the only other country we've lived in, which is more like the Continent). So maybe there are two more factors in play:
(1) Doing DIY can add to the value of property and thus become a way for men - and, surely, increasing numbers of women - to contribute to the household income in addition to, or instead of, whatever wages they may or may not be getting.
(2) DIY fits in with the broader turn from collective action to individual action since the 70s - when social change appears to be blocked, changing your immediate surroundings may offer some compensation.
All that assumes, of course, that we're talking about people who are actually good at DIY. Your next project is to analyse the social and psychological factors involved in being crap at it.

John said...

Jose, yes, that's the MDF in question. It's generally used as a shorthand way of ridiculing DIYers as cheapskates.

Hi SIAW. Nice to see you guys here again. Your comments are spot on. What was originally a way of saving money has evolved into a way of making money. DIY has actually evoloved into property development as the boom in house prices has continued in recent years, although from the look of those shows that Hak Mao refers to, the message seems to be that everyone thinks they can do it but they all end up making the same mistakes. I must confess that my better half and I watch them fairly regularly just to exercise our schadenfreude.

There could be an entire thesis written on the psycho-social turn of the 1970s-80s, referring not just to the mania for DIY but also to a whole range of self-improvement therapies, from jogging to vitamin consumption to New Age therapies. I'm sure its already been written. One of the reasons why I enjoy the works of Norbert Elias and Georg Simmel and Bourdieu is that they're not afraid to attempt a sociology of the emotions. It's a fertile field for investigation, or at least it's one that fascinates me.

And I'll own up to being someone who writes about DIY rather than actually doing it.

1212121212 said...

“... watch them fairly regularly just to exercise our schadenfreude ...”; “someone who writes about DIY rather than actually doing it”: So it’s not just us, then (sigh of relief).
Sociology of the emotions is very interesting when Elias, Simmel or Bourdieu do it, but here’s a worrying thought - what if newspaper columnists, or TV programme-makers, get hold of the phrase and convince themselves that they’re engaged in it too?

John said...

Shudder. I suppose academics will have to call it "The sociology of affect" instead just to keep things clear.