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by Sophie Bowlby and Eleanor Jupp
12th June 2020

How can we understand national crises through a focus on home and care? In The New Politics of Home, published last year with colleagues Jane Franklin and Sarah Marie Hall, we argued that the political and economic crises of austerity were being played out within the conventionally ‘private’ spheres of home and family, in very unequal ways, and with particular implications for many women.  

A year later, engulfed in a different kind of national crisis (although austerity remains relevant, Portes, 2020), it can no longer be argued that home is invisible in public discourse. In the UK, stay home, save lives was repeated endlessly at the early stages of lockdown. Whilst stay alert has now become our headline instruction, staying at home is still the underlying directive. A statement by Health Minister Matt Hancock in March evoked the home front of World War 2: Home is now the front line, and in this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease. (Parliament, 2020). The notion of household also acquired a discursive and material significance, as it described the only individuals we were allowed to associate with inside or outside the home space without social distancing. 

Within this imagination, the home space has been unproblematically figured as a place of safety and of care – as well as of education and work, while many workplaces and schools are shut.Stay home is seen as a simple instruction. Yet the more problematic realities of home remain largely undiscussed.  Using the metaphor of touch (de la Bellacasa, 2017), we can think about how the qualities of a surface are revealed as we press down onto it – thus the qualities of home and household become more intensely experienced as households are under pressure. These include the complex nature of home and household, inequalities in relation to care and finally resources for community and support beyond the home space.  

Current government directives assume an easy fit between a household group, material space and feelings (and materialities) of safety and security. However, whilst the idea of home may powerful, this does not necessarily fit reality neatly. Many people may fit into more than household or none at all. A room in a shared house, or hostel or friends house may not really be home. Home may be in the future or the past rather than the present.  

Home may not be a space of safety, or security, and may indeed be a place of violence and fear, especially for women (New York Times, 6 April), of isolation or insecurity. Even where home is not materially threatening, it may threaten our identities and wellbeing. This is especially the case for women undertaking the often-gendered task of home-making in both material and emotional ways. We know from research on households in crisis under austerity (Cappellinni et al, 2014), and the recent IFS research (IFS, 2020) that where the home space is under pressure, it is usually women who shoulder the burden of coping involved.  

There also will be inequalities within households around use of household resources and power over decisions. Access to space, time and technology are likely to be unequal. And whilst we are losing many aspects of our collective lives at the current time, we may also be losing our privacy, a room of ones own where we can study (especially for young people), work or be apart from the household, and can transition between different aspects of our identities (Ferguson, 2020).  

At the heart of many of these issues are questions of inequalities of care (Bowlby, 2019). The home is expected to be a place of care but is often not constructed to, or occupied in ways which, facilitate such care – occupancy may be precarious and the dwelling may be cold, damp and cramped. Inequalities in access to homes fit for care relate to class, gender, ethnicity and the complex assemblages of people, artifacts, institutions and discourses which are drawn on in order to care for others at home (Power 2019). These include the systems by which housing is produced and consumed and through which unequal access to housing has become a normal feature of society. Lockdown has accentuated the impact of many of these inequalities. 

The current emergency also highlights the importance of local infrastructures of care beyond the home – access to neighbours, local food stores and pharmacies, open spaces for exercise and contact with nature. We may think of home as the primary scene of everyday life, but home life may be made liveable by being able to leave and come back to it. Community spaces can offer connection and friendship, care and sociality, yet were under-valued and cut under austerity (Jupp, 2019). It is the loss of such connections that is often felt so keenly now (Shotwell, 2020). 

One way of accessing community and friendship now is via digital culture, which clearly involves inequalities of access, connectivity and voice. But the importance of very local living areas is also being revealed afresh, our attention drawn to the affordances of neighbourhoods, both in terms of potentialities and limitations, as we are thrown into new intense engagements with our immediate locality.  

Thus, coronavirus conditions can make us consider new aspects of home, care and the wider infrastructures that support them. Whether we are able to draw political attention to them and change them in the longer term is an open question. 

Eleanor Jupp is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Kent. Her research combines human geography and social policy concerns, with particular interests in policy interventions in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and questions of community, care and emotions. Sophie Bowlby is a feminist social geographer whose research focuses on access, care, friendship and experiences of bereavement. Whilst retired, she continues research as a Visiting Fellow at Reading University and Visiting Professor at Loughborough University.

The New Politics of Home: Housing, Gender and Care in Times of Crisis by Eleanor Jupp, Sophie Bowlby, Jane Franklin and Sarah Marie Hall is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £36.00.

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