The emergence of the masculine 

in domestic space

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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The emergence of the masculine in domestic space


by Daniel WELZER-LANG and Jean-Paul FILIOD

The present paper addresses the relationships between the internal architecture of domestic space and the evolution of social relationships between the sexes. It brings together various works on that which we can characterise as masculine behaviour of the male :

  • studies of rape and violent men, including during the research, a number of home visits to these men (Welzer-Lang 1988 ; 1990 ;1991).
  • an ethnographic study carried out between 1988 and 1991 of the new types of behaviour in domestics space in which 15 domestic units were studied.

This paper deals with the problems involved in the construction of a social category " man " in the domain of anthropology and sociology of the sexes, where in France, the male is often absent. In fact, due to the necessity of constructing the social category " woman ", of giving due recognition to the importance of household work carried out by women and given the difficulty of becoming familiar with the practise of those who are dominant, the analysis of the relation man/woman has often been limited to that of social relations of sex. Men are rather more invoked or co than deconstructed as sociological realities. In spite of the numerous calls for research to be done in this field as a whole (Devreux,1985 ; Daune-Richard, Devreux 1985 ; Mathieu 1973, 1985), man remains absent from the social sciences.

The emergence of the masculine in the social sciences, as for feminist studies, coincides with the arrival of new researchers who have sprung either from the social antisexist movements or from the generations who, after the sexual revolution , after their education, grew up in a climate of change (Welzer-Lang 1989 ; Filiod 1992).

The study of the masculine in domestic space is faced, moreover by a double methodological difficulty : how to study the intimate and how to study those who are dominant ? Godelier (1982), Mathie(1985) and Dagenais(1988) are some of the authors who have underlined the difficulty of analysing those who are dominant in social relations. Dominance is based on men’s opaque social practices, sometimes hidden in the " men’s houses "(Godelier 1982).

As far as knowledge of intimate practices is concerned, then there is the problem of profaning the private. How can the intimate be explored ? There is obviously no one answer. We have selected a methodology which combines the idea of " living with " and " living at ". A researcher, after spending several months conducting preliminary, semi-directed interviews, lived in a number of households as an invited guest. This method of enquiry presupposes certain conditions : the drawing up a contract defining the limits of confidentiality, the situation of the guest room and possibly a sharing of the costs incurred during the stay. All the ethnographic studies were summarised and the subjects of the enquiry were given access to and could dispute the findings. Observations on certain intimate areas (particularly sexual practices or things told in confidence to the researcher) were integrated into the common parts of the analysis.


We will now take a look at some of the results of this research, particularly those concerned with the model of union, domestic spatialisation and cleanliness and tidiness.

The model of union : the evolution of social relations between the sexes.

Couples sometimes described as " traditional " who can be characterised as male-dominant couples are often seen to exhibit various forms of domestic violence and/or compartmentalisation of domestic space : the woman has priority within the home and the man is absent and/or excluded from domestic space. His territory lies on the periphery of domestic space : the garage, workshop, car... The man has no place in the heart of the household with the exception of some ritualised areas : armchair, place at table, television, hi-fi system...... This model makes the man a provider of money, of financial security, while the woman is primarily assigned to the work of reproduction and domestic production and is the one who is in charge of cleanlinesss and tidiness.

In the case of men who have wanted to question the social relations between the sexes, given that it is impossible within the limited framework of this paper to calculate the relative importance of this phenomenon, we can see the following facts which confirm the findings of previous research(De Ridder 1982) :

  • - A considerable number of men live or have lived alone, and those with children have a number of systems for sharing child-care.
  • - In their cohabitation with a woman, the men exhibit an important sequentiality : domestic changes are not irrevocable, but temporary and sequential. Thus, the decision to be a house man or to devote all one’s time to bringing up children and the desire to perform all the household chores like his companion has to be considered in relation to professional paths. We will see that some men interrupt their careers in favour of domesticity and then take up their professional careers some years later, abandoning all notions of domestic life.
  • - As for those who live as couples, they usually proceed from a model of fusion / lack of distinction to a model of joint autonomy.

In the model of fusion/lack of distinction there are states of insubordination or revolt against dominant masculine models. These are manifested as masculine identity crises produced by a feeling of guilt regarding women and/or feminism. Accordingly man adopts an attitude which imitates feminine know-how in the domestic space ; the one becomes the other and vice versa. On practices outside the home, the model of " saying everything " (Bejin 1982) is the norm. After several years of fusion, access to a common fund of confidence combined with a double professional life male and female practises become autonomous, within the domestic space each has his or her personal territory with a spatial and temporal translation.

Domestic spatialisation : the kitchen-WC axis

How should individual domestic space be interpreted ? Our observations lead us to conclude that a kitchen-WC axis is relevant for an analysis of domestic space. In the case of so-called traditional couples, for reasons of contamination (under the pretext of odours or hygiene) or aesthetics, enclosures and cleaning are evident in both the kitchen and the WC. The woman uses the kitchen as a refuge to escape the conjugal eye and control, while the man finds shelter in the WC.. In these domestic spaces the way in which kitchen equipment and products are kept behind multiple doors enables the wife to exclude other inhabitants : " you don’t know where it is and you’ll make a mess in my kitchen " becomes the refrain for reinforcing exclusive usage. As for the man, he maintains that in the WC " there at least I’m left in peace " and he describes the time spent in relieving himself as somewhere he can retreat to. Whereas in his workshop or garage he employs both his know-how and the norms of cleanliness and tidiness to assure his own exclusive use of these places.

In the evolution of social relations between the sexes, we see an opening of the places of refuge (kitchen, WC) and a greater freedom of movement of people, of odours between the different parts of the house. Parallel to the negotiated allocation of each personal territory ( people can be seen to knock and wait for permission to enter into the other’s territory even if the door is open) common space opens up. The door that is always open - ie removed - or the presence in the WC of personal traces (texts, iconographes) are all dynamically indicative of this opening up of domestic space which affects equally common space and intimate or private space. Moreover, this opening up goes hand in hand with the transparency to be found open shelves, glass jars for culinary products. Thus, the model of the loft - the " one for all " - where only the corners have a special function , is not the only architectural result of the transformation of male-female relations.

Freedom of movement runs parallel to multiple use (by men, women and children) of the kitchen and peripheral space. The way these rooms are arranged is simplified in such a way as to emphasise the autonomy of all (children included). The use of the kitchen or the WC no longer corresponds to voluntary regulation : conversations are continued while using the WC, the preparation of meals gives rise to collective rites.

Cleanliness and Tidiness

In the area of domestic work, defined as such by feminist research) Collective 1984) it soon became clear to us that the problematic issues of division of chores(De Singly, Glaude 1986) or debt (Bloch et al. 1990) did not enable us to deal with both male and female practise. Not only do a number of the men in question live alone, but the issues fail to explain the joint activity involved in cleanliness and tidiness. Dissatisfied with these analytical tools, we opted for an anthropological analysis.

Following the work of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1967) we made no distinction between cleanliness and tidiness. In our observations, untidiness and dirt are combined and indicate contamination and danger. Domestic space can be characterised in turn as " dirty " as " untidy " as " a tip " or as " a shambles ". Absolute dirtiness does not exist, " in eliminating dirt, we are simply creating a new order in our environment, " says Douglas. A place that is considered " in order " or " tidy " or " clean " by the person who makes this pronouncement confirms their model of domestic space and the social relations which must maintain this order. Conversely, the designation of disorder from the outside or the qualification (by the person who is tidying) comes to mean the internal borders of domestic space which do not match the ideal domestic space either hope for or expected.

We were interested in cleaning, in the action of tidying up, in other words in making domestic space conform with the representation of the normal(cleanliness and tidiness). The methodological advantage of " living at " lies particularly in the fact that when a man or woman is cleaning, it is possible to ask the reason why. Apart from exceptional clean ups (after a party or for a special event), cleaning, a secular rite of purification is carried out by the woman "  to stop the home from becoming too dirty ". They express a desire of not being invaded by untidiness and dirt. They exhibit a preventative attitude.

As for men, they can show what provokes their desire to clean, that which affords them comfort in the idea that the home is dirty and that it must be put right : dust balls under the furniture, a heap of laundry in the living room, the fact that they cannot find their things..... Men clean when it is dirty : they have a curative attitude.

This general attitude is borne out by other phenomena : the identification of domestic space with the person who cleans(usually the woman) ; the personal stigmatisation which is caused by the designation of dirty by the person who is in charge of tidying up ; the desire to conform to the image of " good housewife " or " good mother " ; the different tolerance between women who have been brought up to keep things tidy and men who have been brought up not to make too much mess.

Even if each individual has their own threshold of dirtiness, influenced by their social environment, education or cultural origin, the fact remains that, as products of different social constructions, men and women have different symbolic norms of cleanliness and tidiness .

It is therefore understandable that cleanliness and tidiness are an ongoing polemical element with couples, since the same concept (a clean and presentable space) means a different practise for him and her.

Without wishing to overemphasize this aspect here, we find the curative/preventative

couple in the washing of laundry, where the man washes when he sees the dirt( stains, spots...) or smells it ( many men sniff their clothes to find those which need washing), while their companion washes on a regular basis before the dirt becomes apparent. The same is true for washing the body or doing the washing-up.

Of course, this is a description of the stereotypical positions of the male and the female. Men and women, following the mobility of sex, modify social prescription. Some men and women, due to the disruption of sexual models and failure to submit to norms exhibit behaviour where the frontiers of order and disorder vary. Generally speaking, the more women are in a situation which conforms to positions of sex assigned in a dominant feminine mode, the more they exhibit and maintain a smooth order, undifferentiated where all objects belonging to the same class must appear equal. This brings to mind a string of onions, a library where no books project. They develop this facade of order or static order.

Opposed to this static order, men emphasize that "it’s tidy because I know where everything is ". They point to piles of paper, clothes or underwear (sometimes hidden in the wardrobe) stacks of different plates of different sizes....... For them this can also mean tidiness, since each object is in its place and conforms with their internal limits of domestic space. The hair brush in the living room, the iron always in a corner of the dining room, sheets bundled into the cupboard are, for example, all part of Dominique’s order. With no respect for the customary different limits of domestic space(the separation of bath room, bedroom, living room) this order is soon perceived as disorder by others. The more male or female visitors have internalised normal hierarchies, the limits of on contamination considered to be normal in our present culture, the more this particular order represents a danger. We will call this dynamic order.

The differentiation of cleanliness and tidiness will therefore serve as a generic benchmark. Each particular order (that of the woman or that of the man- whether or not seen as disorder by those close to them) becomes a sign of territorial approval. The limits of order and disorder become thresholds (Lawrence 1986) which permit the symbolic marking of his or her territory. Cleanliness and tidiness thus create material and symbolic orders.

In the model of planned autonomies, each marks their own territory by the symbolism of cleanliness and tidiness which the other respects and there is negotiation regarding the norms of cleanliness and tidiness in what is considered to be communal territory.

In our research, masculine territory extended from a single desk situated in the living room to the atmosphere of the entire flat, going from one room or frorm one corner.

The relative area of each territory, or rather a comparative study of the norms of cleanliness and tidiness in use in each territory, may serve as an indication of the emergence of the masculine in domestic space. Cleanliness and tidiness become, within this framework, a means of regulating domestic space and the practices of its residents.


This study of the emergence of the masculine in domestic space, and more globally the comparative study of the social categories of sex and their social practices, would seem to confirm the existence of an " asymmetrical double standard " (Welzer-Lang1992) : the preventative female, the curative male, masculine and feminine symbols in domestic space are different with respect to cleanliness and tidiness and translate different social constructions. This supports our work on masculine and feminine domestic violence where men and women, both violent and those who are subject to violence, fail to define violence in the same way.

On the other hand, our research is far too empirical to enable us to generalise masculine changes in a conceptual manner. However they do take their place in domestic space, notably by the symbolic appropriation of territories and by the accompanying opening of the kitchen-WC axis. The symbolic assimilation in the practice of refuge (women in the kitchen - the mouth - an men in the WC - the anus) goes some way in explaining the devaluation of the masculine in domestic space. In this respect, complementary work should be carried out to refine the analysis in other cultures and with different types of populations.

However, our research does reveal changes linked to the mobility of the positions of the sexes, which jointly modify masculine and feminine practices in domestic space. The appearance of the model of planned autonomies where the fact of living alone provide new data which we should address. Are we going to see the birth of an androgynous model where the difference in gender will no longer be the main discriminator in practice, symbol and function, thus creating a third order, or conversely a consolidation of masculine and feminine symbols, which could lead to an increased individualisation of living space ? This is a question which requires the perfection of analytic tools and research methodologies in order to understand the evolution of social relations between the sexes.


Lecturer /researcher in sociology and anthropology of the sexes at the University Lumiere Lyon 2 (France), research coordinator " Anthropology of the sexes and domestic life " at CREA(Centre for Research and Anthropological Studies) . Author of several studies of the masculine, rape, violent men in both France and Quebec.

Jean-Paul FILIOD

Researcher at CREA (Centre de Recherches et d’Etudes Anthropologiques)at the University Lumiere Lyon 2 (France). Has carried out research into the evolution of collective life style in a chosen area in France and Quebec

. Is presently writing a doctoral thesis on the management of autonomy in shared accommodation.

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