Doing House and Family. Material Culture, Social Space, and Knowledge in Transition (1700-1850)

With its central focus on transitions of the domestic sphere and the family in the 18th and the early 19th centuries, this research project brings together several methodological and theoretical perspectives of cultural and social history. Twelve senior and junior researchers from four Swiss universities are working on the three subprojects ‚Material Culture and Consumption‘, ‚Social Space and Conflict‘ and ‚Knowledge Production and Communication‘.
This project has received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation for the period 2015 to 2017

Summary of the Research Project

In the international scientific community, the history of household and family has become a widely acknowledged field of research. However, under the influence of the ongoing ’cultural turn’ and the new interest in ‘space’ in the social sciences, the socio-cultural micro-space of the house and domestic relations in a wider sense need to be revisited with fresh perspectives. Hence, the objective of the proposed sinergia-project is to rethink and reshape the categories of ‘house’ and ‘family’ which are commonly used in a successive order for traditional and modern societies in Europe. Accordingly, well-known concepts and topoi – if not myths – such as the clear-cut dichotomy of public vs. private, the emergence of separate spheres of men and women and the transformation from an early modern open, socially heterogeneous ‘household-family’ to a modern closed, homogeneous ‘nuclear family’ will be revised in the light of new evidence and with new historical approaches, namely: material culture, social space, knowledge, as well as communication and emotion. The main focus of the entire project lies on continuities and changes in gendered domestic practices in the period of transition ca. 1700–1850 (‘Sattelzeit’, R. Koselleck) with the emphasis on Switzerland. To come up with an appropriate understanding of the socio-cultural micro-space of house and family, it is not enough to concentrate on the domestic sphere alone. It is essential to consider the interactions between the members of the households and families and their changing social and cultural environments, as has been recently underlined in the concept of ‘the open house’ (J. Eibach). The shared perspective of the proposed project is on the changing intertwined construction of social openness and social boundaries of the domestic sphere. This perspective includes specific social practices and social relations of the different actors involved. Following this line, the research plan encompasses material and spatial arrangements, modes of accessibility and transparency of the domestic sphere, the relations to external groups (such as kin, neighbours and friends), control by institutions (especially courts) and the production and transfer of knowledge in the house. The hypothesis of the entire project is that the early modern open house(hold) was not just turned into a private family venture. It seems rather that the modes of social openness and public relevance changed depending on social, economic, cultural and political factors. Thus, the guiding questions of the entire project are: a) how house and family were done in practice and b) how these practices changed in the period of transition between the so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ European society, taking Switzerland as the example. The overall approach pays tribute to the importance of ‘social practice’ in cultural history in general and more specifically in the works of Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Michel de Certeau and Anthony Giddens. In contrast to structuralist assumptions and discourse-oriented purism, the underlying concept thus emphasises the relevance of social action and interaction in everyday life – hence the title: Doing house and family. The practice-oriented questionnaire includes rituals and routines, performances and other repertoires of the actors. The project will be divided into three subprojects with three individual projects under each.

Subproject A: Material Culture and Consumption
Subproject B: Social Space and Conflict
Subproject C: Knowledge Production and Communication