In her seminal treatise on dirt, the anthropologist Mary Douglas describes how persistent the ideas of cleanliness and its antithesis dirt are across cultures.* She explains, however, that dirt is not any one thing to all people; rather, it is an idea. It is that matter out of place that somehow resists classification and thus persistently threatens an orderliness that is hoped for but never quite achieved. To organise, tidy and eschew dirt are, then, aspirational acts. They speak of the unending hope to separate cleanliness from dirt, order from chaos, even good from bad.
In this talk, my primary focus will be on a recent, long-term ethnographic study of home and family life. Using a number of fieldwork excerpts, I’ll aim to illustrate the ideas that so many of us have of home emerge through the practical organisation of domestic life—that is, in ordering and classifying, and sorting mess from clean. The chores and routines that we toil over and that seem to endlessly occupy us are, I will suggest, what shape our homes into the places we cherish and feel safe in.