Author: Daniel Miller, UCL Anthropology. Daniel Miller is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.
Fieldsite: Ireland (based on ethnographic research done for the ASSA project, as well as further research done digitally)
The problem with studying intimate and social relations is that this is best done during ethnography. I don’t feel that I am as fully engaged with people’s private relationships at this point. Much of this posting is really extrapolating from my prior ethnography onto the new situation. What I want to concentrate on is the issue of husbands and wives living together 24-7. Soon after lockdown started, the above meme circulated in my fieldsite on Facebook. It wasn’t an isolated instance. An excellent Irish video also appeared on Facebook of a woman who gives a short monologue about how everything is fine in her house during lockdown and all the support she is getting from her husband and daughters. But while she is speaking, she is simultaneously displaying a series of white cards at waist height, each of which entirely contradicts what she is saying. While she is telling about her happy family, on the cards she is telling how desperate she is to escape and how no one helps her with anything.
As an aside, we might note the gender bias of such memes. Jokes about women being oppressed by the presence of husbands at home are widely shared by men as well as by women. Here is another example.
There are much fewer jokes about husbands oppressed by the presence of wives. This is the exact opposite of the situation I recall as a child, prior to feminism. At that time all jokes about oppressive family relations comprised insults wives and mothers-in-law. They were hardly ever aimed at men. Unfortunately, I doubt this is an expression of equality, which would probably be represented by an equality of insult. It may rather be an acknowledgement of the continued asymmetry of relations, but this time manifested in humour in a way that is today regarded as ‘acceptable’.
The key issue, however, is that lockdown is experienced by most people as an abnormal situation of living together 24/7. The problem is the sudden intensity of the relationship. This is not just a problem of co-presence. Almost everywhere, one hears of screen fatigue because conversations through the screen are intense, there are no breaks, no pause or making tea, no side distractions, which make conversation easier in face to face. Within the home the couple may have lived together, but not so constantly together – one or both of them may have worked. They will have had other friendship circles that dilute the dependence upon the primary relationship.
Until I return to Cuan, it is more difficult to collect such private concerns as to the tensions within the lives of married couples. But as it happens, this very same subject was of major importance to my previous ethnography. In some respects, lockdown is an exaggerated version of what happens when people retire. Retirement is also a step-change in the degree to which couples now have to live together in the same house. Here, then, are two excerpts from the book Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland by Pauline Garvey and Daniel Miller, which is currently being assessed by the publisher. The first demonstrates the tensions and the second the possibilities of their resolution:
‘…and I came home and that’s when this thought – what am I going to do with the rest of my days? And my husband was already retired for about six years. We live in a bungalow, so it was very difficult. They try and prepare you for this on retirement. They give you retirement training, two-day retirement programme and one of the things is, if the man’s retiring, he should never ask the woman when she’s going out the door – where are you going and when will you be back? She had a life while you were at work and you can’t intrude on that. It was the reverse, you see. He had his own routine, and it was not easy now to fit in. My husband would have been the housekeeper, the house husband and has continued as the house husband. He cooks, he has a defibrillator, so he has got slower and now he’ll be 72 the end of this month, so he has slowed down considerably. I get to clean the house, but he’d do part of it. He cooks, shops, washes, irons, and has always done so. He used to do everything.’
‘…my wife, who was still working at the time. I had her evening meal ready for her when she returned home! My wife retired recently, nine years later than me. Again, this was positive as we can now plan to do things together more easily. A big advantage is being able to travel locally during off-peak hours and mid-week. Also, off-peak travelling for holidays both in Ireland and abroad is cheaper. Yes, probably even better if both partners could retire at the same time. It has given my wife and me more time together and also enabled us to see more of our children and grandchild who are living abroad.’
The first case may be unusual since the man rather than the woman was the ‘housewife’ but the issues are clear. The house is not just a material thing, it is a place of routines and established orders. When suddenly people have to live together all the time, things can become quickly strained (many newspapers report a higher incidence of domestic abuse during lockdown). Couples may resolve this in various ways, as in the second example – they may develop common pursuits. Alternatively, they may emphasise complementary traditional gender roles, as when the male does house repair and the female cooks. One important component of lockdown that my informants do comment upon is the presence or absence of a garden. This may be a relevant factor in allowing for differentiated activity as implied by the following two memes:
The issue, generally, is not whether husband and wives decide to do things in common or emphasis their different interests. Either seems to work fine as long as it accords with their common ideals of how couples should operate. The tensions tend to emerge when each partner comes to the new situation with a different idea of how their domestic practices should now evolve. The problem in lockdown is that there is no escaping these differences.