An anthropological approach
to the sexing of domestic space

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04en_mas ... Masculinity


An anthropological approach
to the sexing of domestic space


Jean-Paul FILIOD

Centre for Anthropological Research and Studies
(Anthropological Group for the sexes and domestic life)
Universite Lumičre Lyon 2


And men ?

How are men living twenty years after the re-emergence of feminism ? What are they doing in the home ? How are they adapting to cleanliness and tidiness? If we accept that not all men are the absent men who feature in some publications, that not all women are women subjected to male tyranny, then how is the emergence of the masculine being negotiated in the private sphere ?

In the social sciences, cleanliness and tidiness often serve as indicators for the weight of domestic work carried out by women in couples, for the " division of chores ", that is the degree of male participation. In daily life it is commonly thought that men do little or no tidying and that their thresholds of cleanliness are lower than that of their companions.

In recent researchwe wished to investigate these preconceptions of order and disorder. We wanted to know if, beyond the curse hurled at men’s pseudo-incapacity to tidy up, it might not be possible to determine the effects, still unexplored, of the construction of gender and the social and sexual division of work in the domestic sphere.

However, any study of the masculine in domestic space is confronted with a double methodological difficulty : how can those who are dominant and intimacy be studied ?

Godelier (1982), Mathieu (1985) and Dagenais (1988) are some of the authors who have underlined the difficulty of analysing dominance in social relations. The structure of domination is marked by the opacity of men’s social practices, sometimes concealed in the " men’s houses ".

Various previous works have shown us the heuristic pertinence of addressing the outer edges of social relations between the sexes. In order to study the emergence of the masculine in domestic space it is still necessary to find men on whom it is possible to impose a hypothesis of change. We therefore turned to men who claim or explicitly claimed that they wished to question male/female relations; we selected two groups of different men from the Rhone Alpine area with whom, thanks to previous research, a bond of trust had already been established.

As for knowing how to explore intimacy and how to study habits which have become sedimented and routine beyond memory and discourse (Kaufmann, De Singly 1990), there is obviously no one, exhaustive answer. As far as we are concerned we have chosen a methodology which combines " living with " and " living at ". A researcher, after spending several months conducting preliminary, semi-directed interviews, lived in a number of households as an invited guest. This method of enquiry presupposes certain conditions : the drawing-up of a contact defining the limits of confidentiality, the situation of the guest room and possibly a sharing of the costs incurred during the stay All the ethnographic studies were summarised and the subjects of the enquiry were given access to and could dispute the findings. Observations on certain intimate areas (particularly sexual practices and things told in confidence to the researcher )were integrated into the common parts of the analysis.


The transformations which have affected the family have made sociologists and anthropologists multiply the different angles of approach in order to deconstruct " the object of the family ". Divorce, conjugal cohabitation, types of upbringing, the type of conjugal functioning - exchange or debt, domestic work are all objects of study. But in many cases, there is an oversight or a lack : man - or rather men, taken here not as a neutral, hegemonic gender or an outlet for referral but as members of a social category in permanent interaction with the other or others, notably women.

Our research is part of a problematic of the construction of the social category " man ". Due to the necessity of constructing a social category " woman ", to earn recognition for the importance of the domestic work carried out by women and faced with the difficulty of becoming familiar with the practices of those who are dominant, the analysis of the male/female relations has often been limited to social relations between the sexes. Men are more often invoked or convoked than constructed as sociological realities. In spite of different calls for research into the whole field (Devreux 1985, Daune-Richard, Devreux 1986, Mathieu 1973, 1985) man remains absent from the social sciences.

The emergence of the masculine in the social sciences, as in feminist studies, corresponds, moreover with the arrival of new researchers from the ranks of either the social antisexist movements or the generations who, from the start of their school days grew up in a mixed society after what rapidly became known as the sexual revolution (Welzer-Lang 1989, Filiod 1991).


To a great extent we are basing our analyses on the pioneering work of Mary Douglas (1967). In order to make intelligible the internal and external limits of social relations which make up a system, she invites us to look at the artificial distinction each society creates between dirt and cleanliness, pure and impure, the body being the mirror of society.

Our language distinguishes between clean/dirty and order/disorder. Our way of considering clean as opposed to dirty and order as opposed to disorder combine and unite. According to Douglas, absolute dirtiness does not exist : "  in eliminating dirt, (.....) we are simply making a new order in our environment " (Douglas :24). Thus, that which is declared dirty must serve to make us understand the social order that such a declaration expresses.

In our study of the sexing of domestic space and its evolutions, of which the emergence of the masculine becomes a modern vicissitude , the division of the sexes can be studied by means of the categories of cleanliness and tidiness ; we therefore need to define more precisely what lies behind the generic term of " disorder ". Our observations show that disorder is placed in the same category as " contamination " and " dirtiness ".

Disorder is simultaneously the object of a designation and a qualification Apart from the social adherence which can be translated into the notions of disorder , self-qualified disorder and that designated and qualified by the cohabitants interact in the management of cleanliness and tidiness in domestic space.

Self-qualified disorder shows an individual’s personal threshold which allows us access in a projective manner to the ideal arrangement of domestic space : " It’s a mess, I must clean ", " it’s a real pig-sty, I’ve had enough, I don’t know where I am any more. " The person no longer seems able to act normally, everywhere seems contaminated. At other times this personal threshold is confronted with an external norm, regulated by the cohabitants : " I must clean up, she can’t stand it " or " he’s going to kick up a fuss, it’s such a tip ! " ; he/she internalises the norm of the other, he/she submits to the limit which defines the tolerance threshold of the other cohabitant.

As for designated disorder, this is often defined by the person who controls all or part of the tidying (in general the woman) for the person who does none or only part of the work of tidying (in general the man). In other cases disorder is formulated as a reproach by those close to the man who is in sole charge of tidying (whether he lives alone or not). Based on these observations, we can sketch a typology of disorder :

  • it can be punctual : when the person leaves their things everywhere, does not back them back in their place ;

  • it can be circumspect : it is a case of one or two rooms in the domestic space which have generally been appropriated and controlled totally by one or the other ;

  • it can be total : encompassing all the domestic space, the multiple signs of appropriation of the space signify the non-availability to anyone other than the person who occupies the space ;

  • finally it can be ordered, i.e. qualified as a "different order " ; while the network of friends qualify Antoine’s space as a " tip " " mess " or " shithouse ", he replies that it is an " Aladdin’s cave " a " grotto " or " museum " to indicate that it is a case of a different order, his own.


From an anthropological perspective, cleaning can be considered a secular rite of purification which permits the reestablishment of order. The aim of the rite is not to exhibit a different order of arrangement of the social relations in progress in the space under consideration, but quite simply to define and control unstintingly the symbolic order which it outs into place. From this perspective there are two sorts of rite ;

  • the rites of renewal : spring cleaning or moving ;

  • the rites of confirmation and control : ordinary, regular cleaning or cleaning after a party which enable the redisposition of the limits of the household.

Beyond reasons of hygiene or magic to legitimise the rite (against illness or its symbolic intrusion symbolised by dirt, in order to purify a space...), the rite, whether one of renewal or confirmation enables the precision of before and after. It is a moment of negotiation of the pure and impure, of the clean and the tidy in the domestic space. This Durkheimian approach to the collective representations which are the basis of the rite allow us to grasp the inter-relation between our categories of cleanliness and dirt and the social relations which underlie them.

We have taken advantage of the atypical nature of the spaces being studied to observe in particular what actually provokes cleaning. Whatever kind of disorder the person wishes to transform, whether it has been designated or not, we focused on what provokes the participant to start cleaning. Along with the variables linked to membership of social class, we observed a sexing in cleaning and tidying, i.e. different practices between the men and women who clean.

The result is that women act to prevent disorder where men act to cure it

The vast majority of women either invoke regular cleaning (" I do it every Saturday morning as the house is never really dirty then ") or a risk of contamination (" it was starting to get dirty.... I like it when it’s clean here ". Cleaning before it gets too dirty, before the invasion of disorder, they express in a more or less formal manner an identification between domestic space and the person who cleans it. They show that preventative action is linked to the desire to conform to the social model of " good wife " or " good mother ", thus to the normative pressure of society and to a cyclical management of domestic work presented as "simpler and more practical " ; " with the children, I don’t really ask any more, I tidy... ".

In other cases, they cite the intrusion of body fluids : " often when I have my period, I have to clean up " said one thirty-year-old woman. The association of blood-contamination-ill humour already studied by other anthropologists (Heritier 1984-85), also has a preventative virtue : " in any case, I know I couldn’t stand it if I didn’t clean , so... ". We note that the association of body fluid (in particular during menstruation) and decontamination-cleansing has also been observed in domestic spaces where the woman seemed not to adopt preventive measure for the everyday house-keeping and even denied having done so.

As for men, whether they live alone or not, those who decide to clean were able to show us why they did so : " it’s dirty, you can see that ". And the man points to a dustball near a piece of furniture, a mark on the floor, a pile of clothes in the living room, the fact that he can’t find his things etc. The mark of disorder is always the same. A man cleans when it is already dirty. Some of them mention their moods, but these are mentioned metaphorically : " when I’m on edge I clean ", "  it’s always the same, when things are OK I don’t care..... when I don’t feel good or when I’m in a bad temper, I clean, tidy up ".

Even if each individual has their own threshold of dirtiness, influenced by their social class, family upbringing or cultural origin, the fact remains that as products of different social construction, men and women have different symbolic norms for cleanliness and tidiness.



Moreover, in addition to the sexing of cleaning practices, the representations of tidiness as seen by men and women exhibit a sexed differentiation in models of order.

Generally speaking, the more women are in a position which conforms with the position assigned in a dominant female manner, the more they describe and make use of a smooth, undifferentiated order, where all objects of the same class must appear equal, often hidden behind doors and cupboards. This calls to mind a row of onions, a library where all books are aligned or a fitted kitchen. Women value a facade of order, a static order .

At the other end of this static order, men emphasis that " it is tidy because I know where everything is ". Some of them point to assorted piles of paper, clothes or underwear (sometime hidden in the wardrobe), stacks of different sized plates........For them this can mean tidiness, since each object is in its place and respects their internal limits of domestic space. The hairbrush in the sitting room, the iron in the corner of the dining room, the sheets in a heap in the cupboard in the lounge are all part of Dominique’s order. Since the different natural boundaries of domestic space (the separation between bathroom, bedroom, living room) are no longer respected, this order will soon be qualified as disorder by others. The more that visitors have internalised the usual hierarchies(i.e. the boundaries of non-contamination) considered as " normal " in our culture today, the more this individual order will represent a danger. This is what we shall call dynamic order .

Thus, cleanliness and tidiness create material and symbolic orders.

It is therefore understandable that cleanliness and tidiness are a controversial item for couples, since he or she understands different practices and representations when using the same expression (a clean and presentable space).

Of course, this is a description of stereotypical male and female positions. Men and women, exposed to the social mobility of sex, modify social prescriptions (Daune Richard 1990). Some men and women, following a departure from sexed models and by refusing to respect norms, behave differently as far as the limits of order and disorder are concerned. Differentiation in cleanliness and tidiness therefore serves as an intra-gender discriminator, as a means of distinguishing between male and female counterparts.

But whatever the individual variations, each particular order (that of the man or the woman - whether qualified as disorder or not by those who are close to them) becomes the mark of appropriation of territory. The limits of order and disorder become thresholds (Lawrence 1986) which allow the symbolic demarcation of his and her territory.

Thus, cleanliness and tidiness become a significant means of regulating domestic space and the social relations of sex which occur there. They constitute a spatial inscription which we will examine below.


In addition to the symbolic and actual norms of cleanliness and tidiness, how is a particular domestic space to be interpreted ?

Our research, following corporal symbolism as defined by Douglas, enabled us to isolate the relevance of a kitchen/WC axis for an analysis of domestic space and the social relations of sex which govern it. Our hypothesis is that the individual relation to bodily orifices underlines the internal or external limits of the system organised by social relations at work in domestic space.

In our enquiry - or during previous research - we saw that the kitchen/WC axis functioned as an axis of refuge for a certain number of couples. The kitchen is used by the wife as a place of refuge from the sight, the intrusion or physical contact with the husband. She cites reasons of hygiene (" the kitchen is open, open-plan as they say, it smells ")of aesthetics (" since I don’t always wash up after a meal, that’s not good, so I prefer to shut the door and go with our guests into the sitting room ") or the norms of cleanliness and tidiness.

In these domestic spaces, the spatialisation of the tidying of utensils and kitchen products behind multiple doors often conforms to the facade of order and permits wives to exclude others with whom she lives : " you don’t know where it is and you’re going to make a mess in my kitchen " becomes the refrain which affirms exclusive usage. Moreover, this is not questioned by their husbands or partners. After having listened to women during other studies (Welzer-Lang 1988, 1990) explain that " at least in the kitchen, when he’s in front of the box, I have some peace ", our hypothesis is that the specific arrangement of cleanliness and tidiness in the kitchen, the management of the risk of contamination by the presence or introduction of other members of the domestic space permit the establishment of internal boundaries for the family and in so doing give structure to the women’s place of refuge in this sort of domestic space.

On the other hand, men isolate themselves in the WC, with or without various kinds of reading matter. They give as reasons : " there at least I have peace and quiet " ; "  In our household we have agreed that she won’t bother me when I’m in the bog " ; " since it stinks, she leaves me in peace ". First of all let us say that some men, whatever their life style, will maintain this practice of enclosure and refuge in the WC. Learned in childhood, this model of sexing of domestic space remains ingrained, even when they control all their domestic space : " Even when I’m alone, I shut myself in the bog with a newspaper ", says Jullien (bachelor).

In certain domestic spaces, the man is not the only one to take refuge in the WC. Some children, even wives, also take reading material, making this practice of refuge into a family habit. But in this instance it would seem that only the father can legitimately use all the time-space that he wishes in the WC.

Douglas has shown that in the case of castes in India, the sexed division of domestic space finds a physical inscription. Here, places of refuge utilise the mouth (food) and the anus for spatial inscription. The kitchen and the WC display parallel enclosures. The layout of domestic space and its control organise symbolically our divisions between eating/mouth - a noble task- and expurgating/anus - a less noble and degrading task - whose scale of value is that of contamination.

This spatial practice of refuge in the kitchen/WC axis has a two-fold effect : it tends to exclude the man from domestic space or symbolically legitimise his absence and forefront the maternal roles of the woman. The symbolic assimilation of the man to the anus and defecation, within our current cultural schemes of values, devalues man in domestic space and induces him to seek gratification elsewhere : in the outbuildings of domestic space where his professional know-how is useful (workshop, garage) or in public space where man and the masculine are appreciated. As for the worth of women being measured by the kitchen, this is a matter of gratification not so much for the woman but rather for the nurturing mother.


The type of household organisation that has a double place of refuge is particularly common in the case of strongly bicategorised couples.

In the evolution of social relations of sex, we see jointly an opening of the places of refuge (kitchen, WC) together with greater freedom of movement of bodies, odours between the different parts of the house. Parallel with this negotiated allocation of territory (people are seen to knock and wait for permission to enter the other’s territory, even if the door is open) common areas also open up.

Physical movement is parallel to multiple utilisation (by woman, man and children) of the kitchen and peripheral space (garage, workshop, office...). The order of tidiness in these rooms is simplified in such a way as to forefront the autonomy of all concerned (children included). The utilisation of the kitchen or WC no longer corresponds with voluntary relegation :

  • in the kitchen, the preparation of meals gives rise to collective rites ; the odours, the dishes move with ease from the place of preparation to the place of consumption. Note that this observation has been made in very different social circles. It is only the difference in equipment, furnishings, even the utilisation of staff which mark the different social classes ;

  • in the WC, on the one hand there will be seen a permanent opening of the door or its absence and on the other, for WCs situated in the bathroom, the joint utilisation, But WCs also are symbolically open : when a man continues a conversation with another inhabitant of the house or visitor while he is urinating or having a bowel movement : or the iconography displayed on the walls, whether it is the result of personal work or not (poems, quotations, photos, cards, posters....).

Let us add finally that the double transparency which can be seen in the utilisation of open shelves and glass storage jars is an integral part of these new definitions of domestic space.


Cleanliness and tidiness, the thresholds defined by the limits of order and disorder and the evolution of domestic spatialisation also provide us with information which the men in this study experience with women. The management of cleanliness and tidiness is thus rightly part of the way in which domestic space is regulated. Although it is not possible for us to propose an exhaustive model on the basis of such a small sample, regularities can be seen in the sexual paths of these men.. The former show that masculine changes describe and important sequentiality and that they are articulated in the respective places of men and women in the professional sphere.

Most men, whether they have been male militants or not , describe an initial domestic questioning, which gives way to a questioning as a couple or as a group. Their " women-friends " as Denis calls them , ask them about machismo, obligatory virility, attitudes of poser and their non-participation in housework, but they teach them at the same time " a sense of colour, an eye for beauty ", how to organise and arrange domestic space and, in some cases, the basics of cooking. This apprenticeship, articulated as a feeling of guilt with respect to women and feminism, leads, for some men, to a mimetic behaviour regarding their female friends. Here we are in the presence of an androgynous model of fusion/indifferentiation where the man bases his norms on practices which are said to be feminine. Some will become " certified childminders " or house husbands who wait each day for the return of spouses. Others, in mathematically problematic attempts to be egalitarian, count each day the number of chores which each has carried out so that each can do the same. This androgynous model of fusion/indifferentiation, whether arithmetic or not) can be summed up in the formula : the one is the other (Badinter 1986)

There is then a generalised statement of impossible fusion, of the irrelevance of the model of " saying everything " (Bejin 1982 ; 1990). Faced with the multiple micro-conflicts which originate in the tendency of men to forget " their things ", in other words to leave various objects lying around, the necessity of being explicit about career choice, masculine - and feminine - desires to abandon the eternal temporary on the occasion of residential and/or amatory mobility, the model is redefined to become progressively what we call the model of joint autonomies.

In this model, each marks their territory by their symbolism of cleanliness and tidiness, which the other respects and there is negotiation of the norms of cleanliness and tidiness for those areas which are held in common.

This model shows us different male reactions marked by an important sequentiality linked to the differentiated inscriptions in the professional sphere of men and women. Masculine changes are precarious . Some men - more than half of the men in this study - decide to live alone for various periods of time, " so that they don’t have to worry about " cleanliness and tidiness and/or jealousy. In other cases the positions of the sexes take on more traditional divisions. The example of Eric is illuminating,

At the start of his life with Marianne, the couple tried a model of fusion/indifferentiation, with Eric taking part in domestic and parental management at the expense of his professional career. Following a series of conflicts about the disorder in Eric’s office, Marianne decided one day " to chuck everything out ". Eric did not react and invested more time in his professional life. Marianne, with fewer academic qualifications, decided to stay at home to look after the children. The model of a bicategorised couple then appeared ; today Eric comes home late in the evening and helps Marianne at weekends. The office is used occasionally (correspondence, administration, drawings,...) Eric is now present .... on the walls or shelves where there are photos, his own work, common souvenirs etc.


The study of the emergence of the masculine in domestic space, but more globally the comparative study of the social categories of sex and their social practices would seem to confirm the existence of a " double, asymmetrical standard " (Welzer-Lang 1992 ; Welzer-Lang, Filiod 1992) : preventive women, curative man, the masculine and feminine symbolics in domestic space are dissimilar with regard to cleanliness and tidiness and translate different social constructions. This confirms our work on domestic masculine violence where men and women, both violent and those who suffer violence do not define violence in the same way.

Moreover, our research is too empirical to permit any generalisation of masculine change in a conceptual manner. However, these changes do exist, exhibit an important sequentiality - to a great extent linked to interactions with the professional sphere - and are registered spatially in domestic space. Notably the symbolic appropriation of territory and the joint opening of the kitchen/WC axis which is diametrically opposed to the devaluation of the masculine assimilated to the WC/anus in bicategorised couples.

The appearance of the model of joint autonomies or the fact of living alone are new data which must be addressed. These tendencies can, in effect, lead to the affirmation of a model where the variable of gender will no longer be a main discriminator in practice, symbolic and function, thus giving rise to a third order ; or, as our research seems to show, a consolidation of masculine and feminine symbolics which can lead to an increased individualisation in the demand for housing.

In line with this research, it seems important to us that complementary work, in other cultures and with other types of population, should be carried out in order to make the analysis more precise. Cleanliness and tidiness are paradigms of the regulation of the social relations of sex at work in domestic space ; other sociological and anthropological approaches must enable us to unravel in the future the stitches of everyday life, the elements which are sensitive to an evolution of the social relations of sex.


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