What would the analysis of a household look like? What would a discipline inquiring into the socio-economic relations within a household look like? Even though the taught subject of Home Economics captures the essence of economics in it’s recognition of resource allocation, it is a no brainer because it is all built on capitalist assumptions which is reflected in its unbounded choices of the consumer. Perhaps Sociology in a nuclear family would better capture socio-economic relations. Perhaps Anthropology of polygamous homes. One of my favorite descriptive lenses is Marxism, even though I have only cursory knowledge of it. I find its analyses enlightening and refreshing even while disagreeing with its fundamental assumptions; hence my disagreement with its prescriptions. The Marxist analyses rests on the belief that social relations can be (solely) explained by means of production; therefore social relations should change as means of production (technology) changes, or else social contradictions (class struggle) will result. Means of production is the base, nature of social relations is the outcome. Economic systems are build on social realities. Therefore economic systems built on contradictory social relation, results in a contradictory economic system, which is Capitalism.
I wonder if this Marxist approach could be used to analyse intra-household relationship; the social relations within a domestic space. Although borrowing from Marxism, the economic relation within a household is not relevant because little or no economic activities take place completely within the house, and also because the societal economic atmosphere affects the household social relations, perhaps manifesting significantly in home architecture (more on this ahead). As the real Marxist looks at means of production, I would like to look at home architecture to see how it affects or results in the social relations in a household. It is tempting to attempt to understand this matter through the lenses resembling Marxist spectacles.
Due to my limited understanding, I am not able to use the equivalent of Marxist “scientific” jargons but shall attempt to use plain language to understand the power relation within a typical nuclear household;; ignoring extraneous influences for now. Even more specific is to focus on the relationship between a husband and a wife; and by extension their respective house guests. Power (social) relations can only be interesting for analysis if one side enjoys more privilege than the other. What better framework to use to discuss systemic inequality than Marxism, or something inspired by it.
So, architecture. I am more familiar with the architecture of a typical North-Nigerian households, which I find quite consistent even across religions. I wonder why I haven’t paid attention to architectures of different cultures within Nigeria. But this is not comparative exercise, it is an inquiry, with some hypothesis for descriptions. Perhaps other cultures shall be examined at another time. How could the architecture of a typical North-Nigerian household be different from any other in cosmopolitan cities like the capital where tenants rent buildings regardless of cultural background? By architecture, it is not meant the physical architecture, but the effective architecture which is imposed on the physical architecture.
Physical architecture simply provides physical space. With the exception of special-purpose spaces like kitchen and toilets, other spaces are essentially rooms which could be molded into whatever the tenants decide (except those dictatorial capitalist landLORDS who coopt tenants to use certain rooms for sitting rooms and nothing else using contracts; that essential weapon of a capitalist). Assume such capitalist overseer is not present, for now. Therefore tenants have the choice to decide whether to have a sitting-room or not, to have a sleeping-room or not, to have shared rooms or separate, if separate which room belongs to the husband or the wife, will there be a room reserved for guests, will the guest room be dedicated to guests or will it double as something else? This effective architecture will hopefully reveal what underlies and defines social relations within a household, and it is what is meant as architecture in this post. Since no “scientific terms”, we shall explain with examples.
First let us take the simple case of a household with two sleeping rooms, a sitting-room and the special purpose spaces (kitchens, toilets etc.). Assume the husband and the wife have separate sleeping rooms, one for each. The scene is set, now the social relations can be observed. A typical situation is that when the husband has guests, they OCCUPY the sitting-room. The wife is confined to the inner room. This default allocation of spaces in presence of husband’s guests comes from tradition, which is external to the house architecture, and which we take as a given since we are dealing with the typical North-Nigerian household. Beyond this, we shall observe the effect of architecture which is our interest. Now if the wife has to get to the kitchen and the kitchen requires she crosses the sitting-room, then she is likely to make prudent use of her passes to and fro the kitchen. It is expected she doesn’t interrupt the occupiers every now and then. If however to get to the kitchen, she doesn’t need to cross the sitting room, then her ecosystem has been defined. She can now transition freely between room and kitchen. The right place of a woman?
So in this scenario, the choice of the woman’s room and how it is accessible to her “favorite” rooms, would decide the liberty she enjoys in the presence of husband’s guests. The more liberty she enjoys, the less free she feels amidst the husband’s company because she might not have cause to interact with them when she can move between her room and say the kitchen without meeting them. Is this what Marxists call dialectic?! In the opposite case, the opposite follows. The implication of this to social-relation between husband and wife is the degree to which the two live a double life, as a couple and as individuals with friends, given a particular architecture.
Still on the same scenario, assume the wife receives guests. Unlike the husband’s friends, they wouldn’t occupy the sitting room because she has her room; again due to traditions external to the house. So her guests are hosted in her room and are OCCUPIED within it. This time the wife is free to get to the kitchen because only the husband is probably in the sitting-room; however her friends probably wouldn’t feel so easy. Interestingly, when the husband is out of the house, the wife and her friends are able to occupy the sitting-room, just like the guys. Is being male or female a relative status depending on the presence of competition?… In the two variations, given the same architecture and tradition/culture, the social relation between husband and wife mainly reinforces the culture which was decided outside of the house architecture; even though the choice of architecture influences the degree of double life.
One thing that is rare, or which I have seen rarely, is for the husband to retreat to his room and allow for the “girls” to occupy the sittingroom as was granted to the “boys”. What if the husband has the equivalent of a kitchen, if not THE kitchen, to keep busy if needed; a garage would be the American equivalent but it is difficult to picture Nigerian married men having a hobby other than watching TV.
Let us look at a second case of the same house with a slight variation to the first architecture: assume the husband and wife share a sleeping-room. Therefore there is a spare room which in this case is used as the dining room. When the husband’s friends visit, they occupy the larger sitting room as in the previous case. When the wife has guests, they cannot use the sleeping room since it is also the husband’s private area. It means the husband would have to allow the girls to OCCUPY the sitting-room, while the husband is OCCUPIED in their shared sleeping-room! In other words, architecture subverts external cultural dictates which defined social relationship between husband and wife.
Between the two architectures explored, are interesting points to speculate about domestic social relations. Simply put, the external social tradition (North-Nigerian) is reinforced by the first architecture, whereas the second architecture is defiant. In both cases where one of the spouse has to make way for the other, double life is a consequence, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps not completely avoidable. Would it be possible to manipulate household architecture to minimize gap between the double life?
Other interesting scenarios in these two cases is what happens when there are mixed guests; either the husband hosting female guests or the wife hosting male guests. In that case is there consistency e.g. does the location of hosting guests determined by who the host is, or the sex of the guest, or a mixture of both, or does one of the factors seem to dominate in determining the hosting location? What about when the guests are neither for the husband or the wife alone but for the couple, where are they hosted; which factor dominates in determining the location? See how the social relations is getting complex?
To map the socio-economic aspect of this, we need to map these simple and complex social relations to economic realities. For instance, the assumption here is a family where the husband is the breadwinner. What if the woman is the breadwinner, does everything attributed to the husband get reversed and fall on her? Or is there a glass ceiling for wives? Or is glass ceiling the wrong way to look at it and should be called accommodation instead?
So far, what was explored are very simple cases (husband and wife, with one sitting room and two other rooms). What if we add a second sitting-room, or a dedicated guest-room etc? This envisioned complexity is why a Marxist-type analysis may assist in making sense, even if simplified, of this relations using a “scientific” approach. Perhaps a theory could come out to make sense of the apparent complexity of the socio-economic interaction between physical architecture, culture, and means of production of a family. Charity begins at home. Marxism should begin at home!