Uncommon Sense – Part 2: Home

hi there and welcome to uncommon sense the podcast that sees the taken for granted afresh through the eyes of sociologists i’m rosie hancock in sydney australia and i’m alexis hutron in ottawa canada and we’re part of the team at the sociological review a place for critical thinking for questioning simplistic ideas about society and imagining better alternative futures as well yeah and we believe sociology should be for everyone not hidden away in universities burying in jargon or trapped behind paywalls and it’s for all of us because it’s about all of us so on common sense gets away from the college campus and looks at stuff that affects us all so today we’re talking about home it’s a word that promises so much and conjures up heaps of images from those annoying diy ads with implausible couples and dungarees you know the ones i’m talking about to huge migration patterns that shape global history and it’s at the heart of so much of our pop culture films like the wizard of oz and well home alone novels like yagyasi’s homegoing tv shows on tiny houses and finding a place in the sun it’s behind every news bulletin entails of inequality borders and more in fact the word home brings with it ideas of security and insecurity inclusion and exclusion the private the public taste design and so much more alexis i guess to me home makes me think of two places new zealand where i was born and where i grew up and australia where i live now but is it kind of cheating or do you think it’s kind of common to have more than one home alexis what does it what does it mean to you no i definitely identify with what you’re saying like as a as a person born in canada from a quebec mother and a vietnamese father but never having been in vietnam home is kind of just like the smells of getting back into the house and smelling vietnamese soup and quebec poutine type of thing yeah i mean something that we both have in common alexis is that we’re both based in places where we’re living and working on unceded indigenous land so i’m on the land of the gadigal people of the euro nation and alexis you’re on algonquin land where you are in the ottawa region right now yeah that’s correct uh so on algonquin dancing laden and actually that’s something you can read more about in the episode notes for this show today we’re talking to someone whose work speaks to pretty much all of those teams we mentioned earlier she’s mikhail benson professor of public sociology at lancaster in the uk so michaela it’s really nice to have you with us hi alexis hi rosie it’s great to be here with you today home is at the heart of so much of your work whether it’s in your research on the london skyline or on people building their own homes or moving across borders why does the concept grab you yeah just listening to you in that opening yeah i was just like mentally ticking things off in my head because all of those themes around migration around those kind of lifestyle shows that you were talking about around our own feelings of where we feel at home are really central to my work but also to my experience as well so i don’t think it’s that surprising that i have focused on home quite extensively throughout my research whether it’s looking at how british citizens who live in the eu experience home in the context of brexit and the changing of their rights whether it’s the work i did earlier on in their 2010s with people who were building their own homes whether it’s the research i did very very early on in my academic career where again i was working with british citizens who’d moved to france to kind of live the real dream it’s really been right at the heart of things and i think for me it’s really the entry points into thinking about home and migration that really drew me in my experience is similar to alexis’s i come from a mixed family my mother was born and brought up in hong kong a place which has changed beyond recognition since she was born there in the 1950s we also moved a lot when i was a child so for me it had a quite important resonance to think about where home could be in a context where actually until the age of 11 i moved every 18 months so thinking about home beyond place was really important to me your work on brexit is i think super interesting to to reference here because i think it shows um how shaky this idea of home can be because brexit has affected people in all sorts of ways and it’s changed their relationship to where they live sort of like i think there are lots of sort of political upheavals or um climate change related events thinking about the about floods in europe or or fire in australia any kind of event like that really shakes up our idea of home can you speak to that a little bit about being unsettled yes i think that’s really important because i think sometimes we take for granted particularly when we’re talking about people who we might understand as relatively privileged so what i mean by that is when i’m looking at the case of brexit british citizens who were able to move and settle in other eu member states because they were british because they were european and actually feeling you know the justification for that always a rationalization was well we’re here because we can be here we’re allowed to be here because legally they were allowed to be here and yet this massive political transformation whatever you think of brexit you know a situation where a state decides to exit a big union of multiple states and the transformation of rights that that brings for all of us who are british citizens but particularly for people who have used their eu citizenship to go and settle somewhere shows how kind of tentative those understandings of your place in the world can be and i think what really struck me when it came to brexit and speaking with british citizens who’d settled across europe was not only how that moment where britain voted to lose the european union affected their relationship with the places they’d settled but also how it transformed their understandings of what britain was to them so you mentioned people’s sense of what it means to be british i know there’s so much on tv about home both in the uk but also around the world i know where i am there are a lot of shows about celebrities making their own renovations selling houses for profit yeah we’ve got those in australia as well and i have to say i’m currently obsessed with a home renovation show on youtube actually i’m watching it every night i’m embarrassed to admit i think that’s really common rosie i mean this is how i started um out in my research really um when i was in the early stages of my phd noticing how prolific those television programs have become and this is in the early 2000s and asking myself well what what’s going on here i mean now they’ve just become so commonplace there are millions of them yeah i mean it’s interesting do you think uh maybe it’s appealing to some kind of anxiety that we share about place and belonging for me i think that actually yes there is that kind of kind of voyeuristic side of things isn’t there where we kind of want to have a look and and see what other possibilities are out there you know those shows are absolutely rife with kind of dreams of an ideal life i mean it kind of in a way it goes back to those conversations about the ideal home that were happening in the 1990s which were to do with you know making a particular type of domestic space but i think that the other thing about it the proliferation of these shows really speaks to me about how over the course of the last 20 30 years or so properties become really fetishized it’s no longer just about you know having a place to live and to settle which you know we all we all need that it’s something about the kind of aesthetics the kind of lifestyle that you can cultivate in and through your home what you mentioned here about dreaming an ideal life and kind of like this fetishization like really focusing on on home as as this element of lifestyle is quite interesting in a bit we’ll hear from activists trying to give a whole new meaning to home in one of the world’s most expensive cities london but first time for a word from our producer alice hi there you’re listening to uncommon sense from the sociological review where we take a sideways look at the taken for granted norms and ideas that shape our world through a sharp sociological lens we’re all about challenging everyday thinking and intervening in our current crises to imagine and perhaps even to create a better world if you like what you’re hearing just take five seconds to press pause now in whatever app you’re using and hit subscribe it takes just a few seconds and it really does help us to make more episodes for you and why not share the show with the student or the seasoned critic in your life remember you really don’t have to be a sociologist to think like one just head to the sociologicalreview.org where you’ll also find recommended reading from journal articles to films novels and music too for every single episode thanks for listening okay back to home mickala one group you’ve met through your work is rus that’s the rural urban synthesis society based in london they’re working to make sustainable community-led and truly affordable neighborhoods that will stay that way for the long term in short they’re what’s called a community land trust yeah so a clt russ’s founding chair was karim days who grew up on a street called walters way where his family was one of a group who built their own timber frame homes in the 80s it was part of a radical council-backed self-built project using the methods of architect walter siegel and right now russ is working to provide 36 truly affordable new homes at a site called church grove in lewisham a part of south london where average house prices are around half a million pounds so let’s hear from two people who’ve been part of the rust story so yeah my name is kwami i was the co-chair of russ i’m born and bred in lewisham i’m like a real local boy i went away to university and studied and i came back and i was wanting to find a way to get involved with the community i was from and the area i was from and i’ve seen a lot of changes happening and i actually had my first kind of full-time job on a council estate off the old camp road so i was working for the city of london and i did it for a year and i just became quite disillusioned but it was about i guess the system and the way that the system didn’t really speak to a lot of their needs and then i did another job that was unrelated but i also joined russ so my parents are friends with with kareem’s parents and i went to waters way a lot as a child and i didn’t really know it was self-built i didn’t know it was community led housing i just thought it was amazing it just had its own vibe it just felt very different to the kind of other streets in the area and i think that just stayed with me and i think when that russ kind of opportunity came back up and when i kind of got involved with ross that was somewhere in the back of my mind was that there were alternative ways to live in london my name is alice i also used to be a trustee of rus i live in walters way and one of my neighbors was kareem days and his parents and through that connection i heard about russ and that kareem was setting up a new housing project inspired by walters way and i just thought that sounded like a brilliant idea because living in walters way i knew that it was possible to form a housing development that had a really good strong community and it could be affordable the way that kareem designed it was setting up as a community land trust which means that the land is owned by a trust rather than by individual homeowners which means that there’s a chance for the homes to stay affordable uh rather than be sold and then end up on the housing market i actually remember in the 1990s that’s when i first heard about people of my age buying a home and i do remember a friend who had a salary of 15 000 buying a home in one of the outer suburbs of london and she got a mortgage which was three times her salary which was 45 000 pounds so it was perfectly within uh the imagination of me and my peers to to own a home a few years later i then also bought a home so because of having that opportunity with house prices being so much lower in relation to an annual salary i was able to get on that property ladder and i think the problem is today that the prices are so high compared to salaries that unless you already own a property the chances of buying a property seem to be very remote i think it’s really strange to hear that there was ever a time when people could afford to buy a home and it’s like almost unthinkable i think for a lot of people my age in london to ever aspire to that um and i think that’s really really difficult as a young person and i think to not ever kind of foresee yourself having that security and like a place in in the city you’re from i think is like a really strange thing to sort of grow into and that’s definitely a big reason why i got involved with russ and i think the other thing i’d say as well is just that whilst i think it is a generational problem i think it’s also to do with the kind of way land prices and and the prices of of homes in london is just so massively inflated because the economy in this country is just so imbalanced and it’s also to do with the global the global nature of investment in london as well i think is a big reason why people might can’t afford to live in places they’re from and i just think london as a city is almost losing very quickly i think every city changes but i think london is just losing the people that made the city what it was and that’s i just think the massive thing for about policymakers to think about i don’t think i’d blame an older generation necessarily i just blame people who have that kind of power to change the biggest structures i don’t know what you think about that alice i don’t know if you kind of feel any guilt or if you feel any responsibility or you think it’s a bigger problem i don’t really feel guilt because at the time in the 1990s it was possible for someone in a a regular job to buy a property i guess we we didn’t know that prices were going to shoot up so hugely and that houses would then become completely unaffordable i suppose looking at the factors that caused those prices to inflate i think that’s something that was really out of my hands and is to do more to do with sort of international finance rather than sort of regular people who were really just buying a place to live i know there is also the question of gentrification and by moving into areas that were relatively cheap and buying a property that does push the price up so in that sense then i am guilty in that sense because walter’s way was initially a social housing project it was for people who were in housing need what happened was with right to buy and leasehold reform the people who built their own houses the self-builders they owned their houses the majority sold their houses privately on the on the private housing market i remember when i first looked around walters way it was definitely marketed as being cheaper than other houses and walter siegel and his houses were not known about at all those houses now exchange hands at a very high price something that was initially affordable social housing no longer is and i think that’s why with russ it was set up as a community land trust to ensure that that wouldn’t happen in the future so much of what made london great and what still makes london great it’s just this diversity and that’s like in so many forms it’s like in terms of like places and the kind of character of places london’s like a city of kind of towns almost and um i just think the way that we’re developing in terms of the kinds of like houses we’re building the kind of affordability of them and the kind of the limitations on the kind of people that can live in them are just making london not as vibrant or as interesting and as creative as well and so much has come out of london i think because of that and so much may not come out of it because of that and so for me i feel like once i could always live in london it might not always provide me with what i feel like it has up until this point and i think i could say the same for for a lot of my peers who grew up in the kind of area that i grew up in so yeah that’s kind of how i see it going and i hope that yeah organizations like ross can can make a difference in kind of halting that or reversing it at least kwame lo and alice graham discussing housing in london michaela you’ve studied self-build in the uk that’s people who take diy to the next level and build their own place that is i think how you came to know rus i know that when i was in my 20s i never even stopped to think that i might be able to buy my own home let alone actually build it so if i wanted to pull off building my own home what kind of resources would i need and to be honest why would someone even want to i think that’s a really important question rosie building your own house particularly through a kind of community led scheme is a possibly affordable way of getting your own home now i’ve got big quotation marks around everything that i’ve said because you know in introducing this you also talked about how london is one of the most unaffordable places in the world and where we see something like self-build really working for people who can’t afford to get into housing is actually in parts of the global south i mean it’s been a very very long tradition of where people are struggling with housing that they’ve gone away and they’ve built their own now in the uk we’ve got a really long running series about people building their own homes grand designs and i used to love this show i mean i think they’ve got like grand designs australia as well so it’s about like these kind of seemingly completely impossible projects that people take on and you you know towards the end it all comes good but you see the struggle what i think we’re seeing when we see that struggle in those programs is actually how a housing market in a lot of places the uk is one of them are really not set up for people to build their own homes so there are lots of impediments first of all in the uk it’s land is really expensive that’s prohibitive to most people in terms of building their own homes and then it goes down into things like you know how do you even find the people who would do the work on those houses there’s a lot of time and energy that would need to go into building your own home if you were going to do it as an individual if you’re going to try and do it as a community this can provide support it can provide a way of championing a kind of community-led program which you know as in the case of lewisham can result in some backing from kind of local government but again it’s time and energy and a certain degree of what we could call cultural capital you know how are you going to network with the people that you need to network with to make something like this happen i think that’s really interesting um mikula particularly this idea that you need some kind of cultural or social capital um i think that’s really true i i research grassroots activism in my own work and i find that a lot of my own activists the more the more successful groups are groups that come with that kind of capital so in my case that’s people that have particular levels of education they might have the wealth in order to dedicate time to projects is this the kind of thing you’re talking about in this context as well i think that that’s definitely important and certainly when you start to work with well the work that i did with those community groups so ross was was one of them actually they were only just starting out when i was doing that research but i’ve been working with other community groups as well actually some of the early work they had to do was to actually kind of pull those kind of networks pull that kind of you know the kind of skills and knowledge base that they had and kind of think about who could be best positioned in order to navigate what is a very complicated environment to build those things up but i think that the other thing is you know we can’t we can’t really talk about this in london without talking about money money is really really important because as i said land is incredibly expensive and the final thing i would say is time these things take a really really long time so i did that research in the early well i finished that research in 2015 and russ are still building that’s interesting so those tv shows kind of they make you feel that anyone can do it and that maybe everyone should do it i know that working around the house here i’ve received a lot of help from my partner partner’s father and in the recording alice and kwame are candid about the differences between generations what do you make of alice’s comments on this whole issue of responsibility and blame i think that when we you know so i’m in my 40s and i think about what my parents were able to afford to do and then i think about what i’m able to afford to do and then i think about what my sisters are able to afford to do and there are notable differences but i think what’s really important about this is that rather than thinking okay well you know that this is caused by com some kind of selfish previous generation actually we have to ask ourselves the question of what was available to those to that to the people in that generation what was the kind of normative expectations about what they should do and what were the opportunities that they had they took those opportunities because the market enabled them to do it the market has changed we’re in this kind of a very different political economy of housing where the costs of everything have gone on but these are not necessarily caused by individuals they’re caused by a whole variety of factors coming into play from what the government decides to do about facilitating people into home ownership so you heard alice there talking about how the thatcher government in the 1980s in the uk introduced this scheme called right to buy which meant that this stock that had been set aside to provide affordable rent for people who couldn’t afford to rent through the private sector actually meant that a lot of that housing stock moved into private ownership and that’s not something that an individual could have necessarily any control over it’s something else there’s those bigger structures as we refer to them in sociology that really shape what opportunities are available to us so michaela i mean you’ve just said you know individuals versus the social structure right we shouldn’t be focusing on individuals what kinds of questions should we be asking as sociologists do we even do blame i think it’s probably worthwhile going back to that idea of diy and we’ve mentioned that a few times while we’ve been talking about housing doing it yourself and we need to ask ourselves a question about why in the current housing market people are expected to do it themselves what does that mean in terms of what is otherwise available to them the kind of social support the state support that we might have seen in previous generations so we kind of have to look at it from that perspective i think i mean i realize that i’ve just avoided the question about blame but i think it’s i think it really is it’s like a question of like saying okay well if if we focus too much on individuals and their actions i think we can miss the broader absence of those structures which might support people to do something otherwise you know markets don’t function on their own they’re not autonomous they are curated and constructed by governments and other types of stakeholders to make money for some people and actually yes the individual person who owns a house might have made money in that particular way but i actually think we have to ask about who the big winners are in that situation right okay so not the individual the social structure but then also who wins and who loses exactly so one of the reasons that we wanted to start this podcast is that there are so many ideas out there that we and the media take for granted um they’ve become so ingrained in how we live and how we’re told to live how we think about what’s right and what’s wrong and we don’t stop to question them so in each episode we’re pausing to cast a sideways eye something that seems to be common sense to see if we can think about it differently so today we’re talking about the idea that where you live affects your life chances that’s the idea that living in a more deprived neighborhood could have a negative impact on people’s prospects things like life expectancy for example but also people’s behavior it’s known in some policy and academic circles as neighborhood effects michaela how do you understand it and how can we shake it up a bit i think that this idea of neighborhood effect is one that attributes kind of negative characteristics to a particular place um and i think what this does is that it actually fails to consider what the other issues are that might be making that place in a particular way that might be introducing deprivation into an area so is it kind of like that places that have certain problems become labeled as problem places yeah and then because the places get demonized the people who live there do as well so like a young person growing up in a place that’s been labeled as problem that kind of negatively affects their progress through life in a way they get tired with that same brush that’s absolutely the case the place becomes demonized and the people who live within it become stigmatized and i think that that’s um it’s a really good way of kind of drawing attention to what the issues really are here because what it does is it stops us from having a look at you know what type of disinvestment has happened in those areas quite simply how have central government or local governments stopped putting money and resource into a place basically it’s a very very simplistic understanding it’s a simplistic understanding which stops us from looking at the kind of root causes of poverty and inequality i’m curious is there like a relationship here to um gentrification in the sense that a government doesn’t invest in a place it becomes a problem place but then there’s a certain cultural cachet let’s say for people to move to that place it’s also probably cheap right so you get these people moving in maybe artists queer people i say this is a queer person who moves who’s moved to kind of a cheaper suburb in my own city so i’m i’m in a way i’m talking about myself here um and that then leads to gentrification does that gentrification process end up reaching the people that live there though like i’m just curious about what the relationship is between problem paces and gentrification i think that there’s quite a lot wrapped up in what you’ve just said rosie i mean i think that we can also think that there are other ways of devaluing a place and and you’re kind of right to point to the kind of processes by which there might be a purposeful devaluation of a place in order to for example run it down make it so uncomfortable for people to live in so that other people could kind of and i’m not talking about people really i’m talking about kind of corporations development companies can move in can buy up at a low cost and then it can raise the value through building on that land or through developing those particular places in particular ways so yes there is a story about you know in a context like london for example um i’ve done work in peckham with my colleague emma jackson another one of the editors at the sociological review and we’ve watched how over a long period of time there have been various efforts and kind of contestations over what’s valued in that place and yes there are people who move in because the costs of living there are low and yes you know there is that tendency towards kind of displacing those populations who are already living there and that’s kind of what’s at the heart of that narrative around gentrification you mentioned being careful not to have over simplific understanding and if you’re thinking sociologically there are certain things you might do to avoid the risk of being too simplistic about how you understand a place not least actually talking to people there properly over a long period of time people are are more than statistics right absolutely and i think that when we’re thinking about gentrification the work of kirsten payton really does come to mind in this so she’s written this fantastic book called gentrification working class perspectives where she works with working class communities in glasgow and talks to them about how they experience that process of gentrification and yes you know the landscape is transforming the property market is transforming but she presents this really nuanced understanding where you know they’re asking well why why can’t we have this as well you know yes i want to be able to go and and buy a nice coffee from that coffee shop in fact that’s the opening example in her book so so people’s relationships to those places that are gentrifying are also quite complicated and i think it’s really important that we don’t over simplify that so it’s about not simplifying things too much but also not making assumptions about what people want based on who they are on the page anyway almost time to go but before that we want to ask mikela one book or film or music or artwork you’d recommend on this topic of home it could be nomad land or neighbors yeah i mean neighbors earlier part of my life and i just watched no mad land last weekend but actually what i wanted to talk to you about today is a book that i read recently by a first-time novelist catherine menon and the book is called fragile monsters it’s a book about a young woman who has been working in canada and because of a crisis in her life she decides to return to malaysia which is where she was born and it’s about her relationship with her aging grandmother and in this story we see that the health of her grandmother deteriorate over time and alongside it the kind of connections to a family home that has been a sight of a lot of memories good and bad um are at the center of the narrative what’s interesting is that this house is in a swamp and as floods and floods and floods come in malaysia is a very wet country the house basically starts to crumble into its surroundings now i think this book speaks to the themes we’ve talked about today because it’s about the relationship between the generations it travels through the history of this malaysian family from the 1920s onwards but it’s also about the myth of return the myth of return is a kind of central theme and a lot of work around migration the idea that if you go back to the place that you originate in um it’s a kind of dream that lots of migrants hold on to but what we get from catherine menon’s book is actually that being at home is not quite all it cracked up to be the house and actually the place are not the same the relationship isn’t the same so it ties in quite well to that question that you presented to me at the beginning about this process of unsettling just picking up on this idea of the myth of return is that something that you’ve ever experienced i think that i haven’t had that mess of return and actually i think in my family i’ve been reflecting on this a lot in respect to my family’s history with hong kong because the hong kong that they knew about wasn’t there to return to so they left a place that had been on borrowed time in the 1990s as it was kind of leading up to britain transferring sovereignty of the region to china and once they left my grandparents utters my mother had left years before i don’t think they ever imagined going back because there was nowhere to go back to in their mind because the place that they had left the colonial hong kong had been surpassed by chinese hong kong but what’s what’s interesting about this is i think that there was a moment of hope my mom went back in around 2010 um to visit my sister who was living there at the time and she was really surprised to find that that hong kong was still there all parts of it were still familiar to her the sights the smells even some of the street scenes but watching her kind of mourn through this now um what’s happening to hong kong what’s happened to her beautiful city has i i think brought once again this sense that her home is no longer there yeah that’s the myth of return really speaks to me i think because when i go back to new zealand my parents sold well they didn’t sell my parents moved from the house that i grew up in and live somewhere entirely different so going back it’s not going back to the same place it’s it’s going home but it’s not going home to the home that i knew growing up it’s a very bizarre kind of thing so my recommendation if i can jump in with my own recommendation here uh is also a novel as well so mine is unsheltered by barbara king silver it’s about a middle-aged woman and her family and they have their supposedly secure life with their good middle class jobs and the home that they own crumbles down around them and it’s a really good reminder i think that home isn’t always a place of security that we think it might be alexis what about you i’m quite into science fiction and maybe isaac as some of the foundation would be my recommendation because even though the team of home might not be like essential i do remember this part about one of the protagonists kind of coming with a spaceship and landing on a planet and coming out of the spaceship and just like really taking in the the smells of the planet and that kind of really uh connects to my own understanding of home like going into the house and and just like smelling food type of thing like these nostalgic or comforting uh smells i guess yeah uh i love that you i love that talking about home you jumped to outer space science fiction yeah out of space poutine well thanks so much for kayla it’s been really great to have you with us thank you very much lovely to speak with you both and that’s it from us for now if you want to see what the team here at the sociological review has recommended on home from the recent farming film inari to art on global migration you’ll find it all in our show notes and over at the sociological review dot org alexis today has been so interesting for me particularly hearing michaela talk about self build i’m trying to buy a house in sydney with my partner and tell you what buying property in sydney is so expensive so if i could just build my own place with my hands i think that would be much much easier yeah so me and my partner were really privileged to be able to buy our own place but we had to to do a lot of work around the house uh so i could definitely let you know about some of the things that went wrong with our diys oh no okay well maybe that’s uh maybe that’s a reminder that perhaps just buying something’s a bit easier if you’ve enjoyed listening today please subscribe and give us a rating in whatever app you’re using it takes a couple of seconds but it will make our day and if you’ve got longer why not leave us a nice review we’ll be back soon with more uncommon sense our producer was alice block thanks..





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