Stories from the Home

To highlight how ethnographic concepts and categories emerged from our research, this section has several stories from our participants’ homes.

These stories show how ethnographic concepts and categories can emerge from a dialogue between ethnography and theory. These are not intended to represent the only findings of our work, but instead are examples of how we have worked to produce novel insights.

The invisible infrastructures and atmospheres of home

One of the participants in our research, Alan, had made a lot of alterations to his now four-bedroomed family home. Many of these had been related to improving the energy efficiency of his home, and included insulating the walls and the roof, and ensuring that there were methods and technologies in place for switching off technologies in the home.

As we toured his home with him, Alan showed us the loft, filled with insulation and described to us how, inside the walls that were now papered over with his children’s choices of decoration, there were also layers of insulation. Otherwise invisible to us, these hidden layers of his home were part of the ways in which he thought about and experienced its walls and atmospheres.

Alan talked to us about the insulation in his roof and walls as a means of understanding energy use

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Alan was also very conscious of the need to switch off all the digital technologies in his home at night time. He told us his daughter felt uncomfortable if the electricity was switched on at night, and described to us how his family used a wooden stick to turn off the otherwise out of reach wall switch for the TV and related equipment, and how he had ensured that all the devices in his son’s room could be switched off at night by using an extension cable. However at the same time, some of the ways that digital media were part of his home, and always ‘on’ were invisible. For instance, as we learned, the wifi router was never switched off.

When Alan showed us the route he took to bed at night, we were able to get a sense of what the home would be like once the switching off activities he described had been undertaken. Alan worked nights, so he would actually get home once his family had already switched off their TV and computing equipment for the night. He showed us how he would navigate this night time home.

Alan’s home was framed by digital and material infrastructures that were crucial to his household’s uses of energy and digital media. But, these were things that would be unknown and unseen in ordinary interview of observational studies. It was by working with him to explore his home and ask how it had been made, was managed and experienced that these very mundane, but important elements of the home were made visible to us.

Invisible Architectures

As we left Alan’s house, our researchers started to discuss how Alan’s home was full of ‘invisible architectures’ – those that he knew about behind the walls, but also the digital infrastructures that from his ‘always on’ wifi which supported the ways in which digital media were used. What made this even more interesting was that these invisible infrastructures were precisely those things that made his home ‘feel right’ for him and his family. That is, they created a specific sensory aesthetic or ‘atmosphere’ of home that he also carefully maintained as he set out on his route through the night time home. Both of these ways of knowing, encountering and making the environment of the home were important for our research. The ways we encountered people’s homes as researchers are not necessarily how they are experienced by the people who live in them, and as ethnographers it was important for us to get under the surface of our participants’ activities to understand what was really happening.

We discuss our research with Rhodes who insisted that you should just ‘put a jumper on’ instead of turning up the heating in our article at Sociological Research Online

These elements of everyday life are often invisible when doing interview based research, because people who we interview would often not even consider them relevant. For example, participants who went to a lot of effort to save energy in one area of their lives might then in another activity or use of technology simply take for granted that use and not reflect on its energy consumption.

The clip below shows that how Alison and her family, despite being very conscious of energy use in one particular way (by making sure the TV was not left on standby overnight), still left other things on overnight that they considered more difficult, or less important.

Alan, who we have mentioned above, similarly stated that he switched ‘everything’ off at bedtime, but actually left his wifi and radio alarm switched on all night. The difference between what people considered important to switch off overnight versus not became one of our main interests, and it were unspoken notions of what made the home ‘feel right’, via invisible infrastructures that supported the way of life participants wanted in their home, that dictated this. Our methodologies allowed us to uncover these unspoken and unrecognised behaviours around both energy and media consumption in the home.

Making the night time home

We had a hunch that the four key routine moments we wanted to investigate – getting up in the morning, going out, arriving home and going to bed, would be key moments of transition for energy use. This hunch proved to be true.

Other insights relevant to ‘making’ and the home are also evident in Rhodes’ routine, as described in our Sociological Research Online article

The example of the transition of going to bed best shows how this played out in our project. We learned that going to bed is a key transition moment in regard to energy use in the home, but we also learned that the transition was actually quite complex. Part of this was about the relationship between light and darkness; the night time home and the evening home are lit differently and light tends to be used in different ways as people move up to bed. We also learned that it was not simply a matter of ‘powering down’ the home at bed time, but that rather the night time home was alive with energy use in new ways, as dishwashers went on, phones were charged, televisions and music playing technologies were left on timers to go onto standby while participants slept, radio and other alarm clocks waited for the morning, and wifi was left on all night.

The routines reveal the ways in which participants, who often seemed very surprised that we were interested in such detail, and often had to stop and think about what they ‘usually’ did, drew on tacit embodied ways of knowing (about) their homes to show us these activities. They were showing us routines in their days that they never usually talked about or shared with other people.

Our methodologies showed that the process of making the home was important to participants’ lived experience of it, and that the configuring and reconfiguring of energy and media use as they transitioned between different modes of ‘being’ in the home were integral parts of their routines. The ‘making’ of the night time home, via the conduction of light and darkness, was an important insight that showed that these transitions mattered, and that the house continued to ‘live’ through energy consumption in different ways.

Presence (Digital media and standby)

One of our core research questions focused in on how digital media are part of everyday life in the homes of the UK households who participated in our project. While conventional media studies research has tended to focus on media in terms of its content or its use for communication, we added to these an interest in digital technologies and content as part of the atmosphere and environment of home.

In part our analysis was inspired by existing studies of the ways in which energy consumption of information, communication and entertainment technologies have been used in in standby mode in UK homes.

Coleman, M., N. Brown, A. Wright, S. K. Firth (2012) ‘Information, communication and entertainment appliance use—Insights from a UK household study’ Energy and Buildings 54: 61–72

An article published in 2012 set the scene for this. Its authors argued that “There is a ‘current consensus that ICE appliances have become a significant domestic electricity end-use and that much of this consumption can be attributed to standby.”

From a UK, 14 household study they suggested that:

Coleman et al call for action: ‘e.g. education, information campaigns, and feedback devices’ to ‘encourage energy saving behaviour’ as well as the ‘expansion of mandatory energy labelling to ICE appliances’ (2012: 71-72). Existing research about attempts to change behavior in this way have tended to show that this is difficult to achieve.

We found that the data and arguments made in this article raised questions because our materials both implied it would be difficult to change behaviour – that is to convince people not to use standby mode – but also suggested where alternative approaches to change through co-design might be developed in this area.

We have written about this in two publications:

Pink, S. and K. Leder Mackley (2013) ‘Saturated and Situated: rethinking media in everyday life’ Media, Culture and Society 35(6): 677-691. doi 10.1177/0163443713491298

Pink, S. (forthcoming) ‘Ambiguous states and statuses: accounting for On, Off and Standby in everyday life’, in E. Ardevol et al eds. Media and Social Change

Our research has shown that we need to understand digital technologies as part of the home, and of how life is lived and organised in the home, rather than as things that people simply use to view content (e.g. TV programmes, films, web sites), make online purchases in the home, or use to communicate with other people outside the home (i.e. using mobile phones, sms, social media and more). By taking this approach we can also see how digital media infuse the home with meaning and practical use through their presence.

‘On’ or ‘off’ is not binary

To show how digital media infuse the home with meaning, we have explored how participants in our research use standby. While other studies would consider leaving technologies on standby to be a form of waste of energy, the ways our participants use the standby mode has led us to make a different argument. Our research has shown that standby has become embedded in people’s lives as mode of use of technologies. Indeed the question of if technologies are ‘on’ or ‘off’ can no longer be seen as a binary, in that we live out our everyday lives with technologies in a range of different modes that are neither on nor off.

One of the key examples that we discuss in our article relates to the ways in which participants used standby mode at bed time. A number of our participants went to sleep watching TV or with music or the radio on a timer. This meant that these technologies did not get switched off when they went to sleep, but rather that they would automatically switch onto standby mode and remain in that mode all night.

Our conclusions take us back to the questions about the atmospheres of home. The use of standby mode helps to create specific atmospheres of home at particular moments of the day. It might be used while people are asleep because having media on at night creates the right atmosphere in which to fall asleep. Or it might be used for rapid access (eg to a laptop or ipad or iphone) once people get up in the morning.

Laundry and the material and sensory home

Another of our findings to emerge from the sensory ethnography encounter in the home, in dialogue with material culture studies, was a focus on the materiality of home and how the textures of home were constituted through everyday activities. We developed this through a focus on how our participants did their laundry.

Read more in Situating Everyday Life by Sarah Pink

Our work was informed by existing research in to everyday laundry, which has identified the ways in which laundry flows around the home, and encounters technologies like radiators, and people. It was also informed by the work of Colin Porteous and his colleagues at the Glasgow School of Art who had undertaken a project called Environmental Assessment of Domestic Laundering, of which details can be found at

We published an article about this in 2013: Pink, S., K. Leder Mackley and R. Morosanu (2013) 

Our work sought to respond to some of the questions that the reports on the work of Porteous and colleagues raised for us. Menon and Porteous had reported that from a survey of 100 and case studies of 22 respondents ‘95% of respondents used some form of passive drying and 50% perceived internal drying as a problem or issue’. Thus showing how the use of indoor drying in UK is extensive. They also showed that this was a problem for both environmental health and energy demand, since it caused moisture in the home and led to the consumption of energy sources (eg heating) to dry the laundry.

What indoor drying ‘means’

Their findings sparked our interest because we had also found that many of our participants dried their laundry indoors, however we wanted to take this research in a different direction to find out what indoor laundry drying meant to our participants and how it fitted into their everyday lives. One of the things we were interested in was the materiality of home and how laundry connected to this. In the anthropology of home, and material culture studies the materiality of home has been an important theme (eg Miller 2001, 2008). While this theme has been advanced further through the idea of the sensory home and atmospheres of home, there is still a need to focus in on the ways in which the materiality of home is related to atmospheres, to how the home feels emotionally and sensorially.

In our article ‘Hanging out at home’ we argue that the way people in the UK dry their laundry in their homes however has meanings that go beyond how it is a ‘problem’ for environmental health and energy demand. Indeed these meanings indeed make it a difficult problem to confront through ‘design solutions’ if it is addressed directly. Indoor laundry drying is something that is part of people’s everyday routines, but also part of the materiality of their homes. The ways in which laundry is distributed through the home to dry becomes part of the familiar ways in which people live. Indoor laundry drying is part of their ways of making the home feel right, part of the ways they negotiate with the sensory and material qualities and affordances of their homes and the technologies that are part of them.

In these two examples, we see how for our participants hanging out the laundry in the home was a pretty much unquestioned activity, it involved their knowing particularly well the ways in which their homes and the laundry would react to each other – where it would dry well, what smells it would produce, when there was warmth for drying, or not.

Although laundry might seem one of the most mundane and usually undiscussed areas of everyday life, it is in fact important to look at. This is for at least three key reasons.

To change the ways that people dry their clothes, wider attention is needed not  necessarily to the uses of individual appliances, as commonly studied, but to how people go about creating the sensory aesthetics or atmospheres of their homes and what they require in order to try to accomplish this.