Technologies of Householding: Morality and Materiality in Domestic Economic Life

Sunday, June 26, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
258 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Mateusz Halawa, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland; Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland; Department of Anthropology, The New School for Social Research, New York, NY
Marta Olcon-Kubicka, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warszawa, Poland
Based on 24 ethnographic case studies of young family households in Warsaw, Poland, this paper offers an empirical study of the practices of handling money and financial instruments at home and around it. It attends to the household as a process in time, household-ING, and describes practices in which a social unit so often taken for granted is actually accomplished by individuals pursuing ideals of a good life together. We argue that practices of household-ING, making a life together by negotiating both economic and emotional lives in the context of powerful moral frames organizing both, are not only enabled, but also shaped and constrained by a set of things, technologies, and devices. 

Domestic moral orders and disorders are enacted in material practices. Paper envelopes help create domestic monies with unique qualities out of uniform, quantitative market money. A couple decides to eat healthy and creates a food budget that enacts a moral vision of conjugal support in living a good life; an individual craving for chips and soda at the supermarket has to be funded from a separate, illicit source. In a household which does use bank accounts, a wooden box is a thesaurus of bills earmarked for a mortgage down payment, which are regularly counted as the couple discusses their future together. Facebook, text messages and e-mails extend the coordination of household spending beyond face to face encounters; electronic forms of money and online forms of banking create new possibilities for mutual transparency, but also for surveillance. Household dreams and capacities are weighed together as couples sit in front of online calculators of creditworthiness. Finally, many of our middle-class interlocutors bring home from the office the habit of using Excel spreadsheets, which they use to settle accounts between each other, enacting fairness and equality, togetherness or autonomy inside the couple. Such spreadsheets make the household a visible and actionable epistemic object, facilitating conversations about the legitimacy of past purchases or about the necessity of future discipline.   

This research offers an ethnographic study of technologies of householding among cohabiting couples. We argue that envelopes, boxes, wallets, online interfaces and forms of offline software not so much operate in households as are constitutive of them. To observe this, we have focused on 8 couples who have recently moved in together and had to negotiate workable arrangements regarding the control and management of money; on 8 couples who have been living together longer, but recently took out long-term mortgages to finance new apartments and had to consider their shared future and mobilize their social ties to secure the down payment; and on 8 couples who have recently had a baby, who had to face new questions of care, provisioning, and financial security. In all cases these life events become turning points for economic life which carry a strong ethical load. All under the age of 35, our interlocutors belong to Poland’s first postsocialist generation, who grew up after the social and economic reforms of 1989 and are now going on their own in social and economic realities that would be unrecognizable to their parents in their youth. As is the case of Excel spreadsheets, they also navigate a set of technological innovations around money and household finance. These concern new forms of money, like credit cards, consumer loans, adjustable-rate mortgages or investment funds, but also new forms of infrastructure, including apps, “user-friendly” interfaces of bank accounts, and online tools for budgeting.

How is domestic calculation distributed between people and technologies? What are the interplays between domestic moral order and disorder on the one hand, and tools that people mobilize to know their household, manage it in the present, and ensure its good life in the future? Economic sociologists have paid more attention to markets than to households, focusing on profit-making rather than making ends meet. Many have largely treated this unit as an obvious and given element of the social reality, rather than an accomplishment of practices, and as a stable and coherent whole, rather than a contingent outcome of bargaining around converging and diverging needs and desires. This research seeks to restore the complexity to our understandings of the practices of householding, but at the same time emphasize the role of technologies in the making of the household. The question of embeddedness of economic action in material infrastructures, while itself only emerging in economic sociology, has interestingly been pursued in markets much more often than in households. Our paper seeks to bridge these gaps through an ethnographic exploration of three problems.

(1) Orchestration of economic actions and creation of common knowledge and common sense, all oriented towards visions of domestic moral order. How does a household cohere around share understandings, analog and digital forms of information and transmission? Here we explore householding technologies which enable the couple to “see their situation” and coordinate actions so that resources are practically or imaginatively pooled. While there is strong ethnographic evidence supporting the claim that household materialities co-create sociotechnical effects of unity, technologies also participate in…

(2) Power struggles and negotiations around control and management of money in the household. How are technologies mediating the allocation of resources and in what ways do they participate in creating equalities and inequalities in respect to these resources? Here we demonstrate the capacities of budgeting tools in delegating moral notions of conjugal relations and describe household trust, partnership, but also surveillance and conflicts as sociotechnical effects. 

(3) Future-planning and creating expectations. How do technologies make visible and available speculative and fictional future capacities of the household? Here we explore the interplay of moral visions of future good life on the one hand, and infrastructures of financial demonstration, calculation and projection, on the other.