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The Study of Everyday Life

The sociological study of everyday life, as that was pioneered by Social Interactionists at the University of Chicago and whose most singular figure is Erving Goffman, takes as its topic the practices that loom in the background of social life and so envelop people like a culture. That is just the first of a series of unsatisfactory definitions that can be offered for this academic discipline which can better be described as a mental discipline since it is also practiced by psychoanalysts, philosophers and short story writers. This particular definition is unsatisfactory because what is background and what is foreground remains undefined. Social class structure is also background when one thinks that what people think about is their own paltry wages rather than the division of labor in society.

 

A second definition is that everyday life constitutes the culture in which we all reside and so is ripe for an anthropological approach, which is what Goffman claimed to be doing, but that also comes up short as a definition of everyday life because culture includes very self conscious matters like operas and not just unself-conscious matters like when one can pick oneís noseóeven if that is pretty self-conscious however fleeting a thought. Or one can go even further and say that everyday life is that which cannot be conceptualized as a topic and so is not strictly speaking a part of culture at all or else that it is the only thing that culture is truly about, for to treat it as a topic is to make it abstract, an object to be intellectually handled, rather than the not quite thing which one encounters as it were out of the corner of oneís eye, some thing prior to being conceptualized. That is perhaps the way Heidegger would treat it and it is certainly the way Roland Wulbert does.

 

A third definition is that everyday life is, as Durkheim might say, what makes people feel comfortable and familiar with their lives, and so makes live livable rather than a welter of anxiety, we all about to be crushed like bugs or plague and pogrom victims. But that is just not true, however much it is the major way American sociology goes about dealing with such matters. People donít feel stigmatized except when they have stigmata of the sort Goffman talked about: vile diseases, criminal records, lives spent in wheelchairs. Otherwise, their shame is a metaphor for something else, such as being the object of prejudice. You may feel embarrassed that someone speaks unkindly of you in racial terms, or as the feminists have it, when women are made to feel small by having their sexual attributes remarked upon, but that is not the same as bearing a mark of Cain. The mark of oppression is deeper than that. It may be anger; it may be cynicism. And certainly we do not want to reduce everyday life into being a residual category for whatever can go wrong, which is what happens when everything is treated as blameworthy, which is a criticism of Goffman (and Durkheim as well), who made people far too psychologically vulnerable to other people.

 

A way to avoid a residual definition of everyday life as whatever is let over after social class, social position and organizational position have been taken into account or as a consequentialist definition as the personally felt effects of social class, social position and organizational position, as when one refers to a worker speaking more politely to his boss than the boss does to him or grateful for the occasions when the boss speaks to him ďman to manĒ is to take one of the propositions that can be associated with everyday life and treat that as the definition.

 

It is a matter of some moment that many of the facts of everyday life are background in the sense that the human condition is background. They are there everywhere and so seem to be beyond sociology and so only subject to philosophical discourse. How come my mind inhabits my body alone?

 

That is a philosophical or biological conundrum that yields to being understood in a far more complicated way if the phenomenon of separate minds is treated as one of the possibilities of ordinary or everyday life. Sometimes I think I have a mind meld with my mate; some people are better at looking into someone elseís soul than are other people; some of what is in my soul is made visible in what I write or compose or say. We, after all, do get through to one another, and that accounts for much of what is meant by the privacy of the soul even if there is some presumable essence which cannot be conveyed or, even more, that the sense of subjectivity is by its nature not transferable or alienable at all. And yet even that may not be true in that brain science may find a way of injecting chemicals in one personís brain into anotherís brain. It is all a matter of degree and comparison. Cut off enough parts and there is nothing left to the philosophical dilemma. Everyday life is therefore the study of those matters in social life which seem to be unalterable and ineluctable until they happen to get altered.

 

So far so good. The problem with the foregoing analysis is that it still focuses on feeling states, whether existential or not, and so treats everyday life as a species of social psychology rather than a purely sociological discipline. Going beyond feeling states to social structure means including in the study of everyday life those matters which are practical and so to some extent rational. Where is the sociology of the practical? That is the subject of this essay: those practices that are so usual as to be taken for granted and have all the other characteristics associated with the everyday but are presumably without emotional burden in that they have to do with managing the activities that get a mind and body through the day as that is aside from providing for the succor to allow people the courage to get through the day. You wipe your behind because it has to be done as any doctor will tell you who is not too embarrassed to discuss the subject. (Three year olds learn quickly enough not to use this as a topic of conversation; it took Freud and the comparative religionists of his time to reinvent it as a topic. There is many a midrash in many a religion about proper toileting habits. So it is not that toileting is not a topic; it is just a topic spoken of only in circumstances, such as religion and medicine, which has made room for it as a topic.)

 

Consider a very simple and ordinary example of the ordinary as that is to be understood in the Malinowski way as those practical activities of life that crowd out religious meanings as just so much elaboration of what has to be done to plant a crop. Everyone has to open a jar of pills or pickles once in a while unless the person is one who has designated himself a klutz who has not or will not or cannot master this everyday task. People write humorous essays about the difficulty of doing so in the manner of Stephan Leacock, but that is to dismiss the topic as a way of addressing it. I might notice and record that banging a pickle jar on a counter runs the risk of cracking the glass and that running hot water over the rim is supposed to loosen it because the heat expands the metal more than it does the glass but I take that on faith, not knowing any physics, and so invoking that knowledge is to engage in one of the pretensions to knowledge that everyone does and noting so provides a human interest story about human foibles, and so is the sort of discussion of everyday life that can be recognized in a thousand and one essays about what I did on my summer vacation.

 

Pickle jars are funny while pill jars are not. Ask George Burns why one or the other of these two assertions is the case. Perhaps no harm is done if you donít open a pickle jar. The joke about the pickle jar concerns the seriousness with which the solution to the problem is pursued. While not getting pill jars open is less funny because you can die if you donít get the pill you need when you need it. Melodramas are full of such moments. But, then again, donít ask George Burns. To do so is to evaluate where the humor comes from which is to avoid in a very sophisticated way the idea of making opening jars into a topic, something humorless because it is worthwhile exploring for its own sake. Here again, it is so easy to avoid the everyday and the question arises, to be answered, perhaps, on another day, as to why we so assiduously do so.

 

Back to the pill jar, the opening of which I will describe in more detail than anyone wants to hear unless the description is done, as I say, for the purposes of humor, which is not here the case.  Never mind the old joke about how only a child can open a tamper resistant pill jar. What happens once you get it open? You can reach inside with a finger but you first have to remove the cotton and you need a knife or a fork for that, likely as not. Then, it is necessary to get out a pill. You can do that by pouring a number out and returning all but one to the jar. Or else you can fish around down there to get just one, but fingers are usually to clumsy to do that and so you are at one of those carnival games where you have to rescue a single toy from the pile by manipulating a miniature crane. Mostly the pill you touch will fall back because you canít get it up the inturning side of the bottle. One way to make doing that easier is to remove the paper you only punctured when you opened this pill jar the first time. The chosen pill gets more traction to make it over the lip of the bottle.

 

I know someone who did the arduous set of tasks for getting all her pills for an evening over and over again on a single night and deposited the pills for a week in one of those dated containers you find in the drugstore. It meant she could deal with the problem just once a week rather than every day, but the total time elapsed is the same whether you do it in batches or not. I discovered the same thing to be the case when I was sterilizing bottles and making baby formula for my children when that was done by boiling utensils and bottles on the kitchen stove. Making enough formula for two days took twice as long as making enough formula just for the next day. And I never could figure out what to do about the tail end, which is the name I gave to the last unsterilized piece that touched sterilized things. I couldnít boil the house or my hand, could I?

 

Isnít it interesting how we have names for the various activities and things that are part of the technology of taking pills or of making baby formula? So these activities are subject to description so general nothing has to be invented to describe it. Isnít it also interesting how satisfying it is to describe these things? These are activities mastered in fact and in understanding. It makes it all into a kind of art, which is what John Dewey would say, who was rather obsessed with finding everything to be art, however humdrum, even if he seemed to be stretching things a bit and so giving rise to the suspicion that he actually had no feel for art at all, only for what he had reduced it to, which was the contemplation of artifices found or constructed. And isnít it even more interesting that pill jars and baby formula are not forbidden topics to be contemplated by those who think about the taboo, such as religious figures and psychoanalysts, because their chosen topics are so fraught with meaning. These activities donít have much meaning; they just are.

 

Meaningless or not, they are important. They take up a lot of time in our lives and have other impacts on our lives as well. We may not be obsessed with our frailties, ďobsessionĒ another way of psychologizing our activities, of rendering them irrational, but merely note that our frailties get in the way of spending a long day at the library or require us to take more bathroom breaks. Philip Roth wrote a very good novel about the frailties of old age, Everyman, without descending to describing them as psychological except in consequence. You can be as Stoic as you like, so long as you know you really are sick.

 

I knew a woman, a long time sociologist, who noticed frailty in a way that made it subject to accurate description. She said that as time went on it took her longer and longer to get ready for the day. She meant that it was taking longer and longer to wash, to toilet, to work out the kinks in her muscles after a nightís sleep, to dress and then sit down for breakfast, which she considered part of her day rather than preparing for her dayówhich is different for younger people, more engaged in responsibilities, who often do think of breakfast as only something to get over with. When it takes much too long, you are an invalid, I add, and when it is nigh on impossible, you are nigh on death. And so it was with her.

 

If you care to, I suppose, these last observations open up everyday life as a sociological topic. We are now dealing with the social problem of the aged, and so you can get a grant to study how long it takes people to get dressed in the morning so as to design systems to alleviate this burden. But I am treating it not as a condition of a social group but as a part of the human condition and so sociological in the sense that it is open to description and only maybe to amelioration any time soon. It is just an easy way to point out any number of activities that qualify as practical issues in that they are structural, in this case having to do with the ability of the body to sustain the social self.

 

I could mention other topics of everyday life that are more obdurate to being understood as topics. How big does an apartment have to be to fit a life into it? One might think one room is enough because families have been living that way for a long time, but perhaps a modern sense of freedom requires more room, space to be alone, as it were, and so large apartments are not just foolish or the result of selfishness. (That is true everywhere except in Paris where it is the City that makes you free, not your miniscule apartment.) Then there is the phenomenon of using the mass media as background noise. That holds for television ever since the Fifties and especially since the assassinations of the Sixties. You need to leave the tube on in case something happens. But it also holds for people who carry their tablets everywhere to get news and opinion and restaurant reviews. People are ďplugged intoĒ their society and it would be a serious undertaking to try to understand that phrase as more than a metaphor. There just is no end to everyday life.


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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013


"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic


The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013


The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013

 

A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky