Towards Interactionist Housing Sociology

It was my Housing Studies article “Defining Housing Reality” (1988) that encouraged me to work on an empirical interactionist study. The full reference and the Abstract are:

1988 “Defining housing reality: ideological hegemony and power in housing research” Housing Studies (October) Vol.3 No.4 pp.205-218

An understanding of the dynamics of the research process and an awareness of the power structure of research can contribute towards heightened awareness of researchers in developing new ways of thinking and breaking down hegemonic perspectives. The task of this discussion is to begin a process of internal dialogue among housing researchers based on moving towards a more explicated awareness of the implicit paradigms and opaque power structures which determine what become and what do not become accepted wisdoms.
When a constructivist perspective taken from the sociology of science is applied to housing studies it is argued that dominant paradigms can be discerned. These can be understood in relation to the organisation of housing research both institutionally and in disciplinary terms, while sustenance of existing paradigms, or the development of new ones, are achieved through pervasive interpersonal micro processes.

This was strongly influenced by the work of Mike Mulkay and his co-workers, but included work by Bucher and Strauss on professions in process, Mead, Blumer, Berger and Luckmann, Kuhn, Knorr-Cetina, Latour and Woolgar, Edge and Mulkay, Fine and many others.

Reading my article today, I am struck by its similarity to the early symbolic interactionist work in the critical tradition, like Harvey Farberman on criminogenic markets, and Peter M. Hall on politics. It is still continued in the work of Thomas Scheff on academic gangs., published  in 1995, 7 years after my Housing Studies article. The edited book by Tom Burns and Peter Hall on the meta-power paradigm (2012) continues this tradition today.

By that time I was at SIB (IBF’s predecessor) and in the mid-80s when I got a permanent post there I put forward a constructionist housing research proposal (as my “work plan” that we each had to get approved at a meeting of the SIB steering committee). I prepared the proposal carefully, as I hoped this would – at last – give me the opportunity to conduct a qualitative study of encounters between tenants and housing officers. I was particularly interested in the disadvantages that immigrants had in competition with Swedish home-seekers, including grasp of the system of decision-making, and language skills.

There has been a lot of work done in this tradition by Chicago sociologists from the interwar years that continues today. It is a rich tradition that I have discussed in several earlier posts, here, here, here, here, here, See especially Robert Prus‘ work.

I discussed my proposal idea with Åke Daun, who is now emeritus professor of Ethnology at Stockholm University. He was friendly and open and we had a useful discussion. But symbolic interactionism was not one of his areas of expertise. In retrospect I should perhaps have abandoned the attempt at “doing everyday life”. But the subject tempted me. It was about applying for tenancies in the housing market, how tenants go about this and the strategies they pursue, how their command of the Swedish language can make a huge difference to their ability to put their case without arousing opposition.

In the mid-80s after I got a permanent research post at the Swedish National Institute of Building Research (SIB) I put forward a constructionist housing research proposal (as my work plan that we each had to get approved) at a meeting of the SIB steering committee. A senior Swedish sociologist – quite well-known internationally – Robert Erikson (a traditional empiricist – see link below) trashed my proposal in a contemptuous tirade, calling it trams (the Swedish equivalent of words like “rubbish” and “waffle”). He made no attempt to suggest changes and so Erikson being the only sociologist on the SIB steering committee. and with no symbolic interactionists at SIB, it was turned it down. I did not bother countering his critical stance, I just abandoned the project proposal.

It was really this in the late 1980s that decided me to abandon empirical research by “doing everyday life” in housing and concentrate instead on developing theory. I immediately began to write Housing and  Social Theory at SAUS and did not look back after that. The book played a key part in the survival of housing research in Sweden after the Bildt Government tried to end housing research by closing SIB. Indeed, Bengt Turner wanted me to rename Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research as Housing and Social Theory. I resisted this as renaming the journal after a book I had authored felt too much like self-indulgence.

The other means I decided to use when taking up my post at IBF was to begin to recruit individual housing researchers to the symbolic interactionist perspective by jointly publishing with them. What I did not figure on was that after only 3 years at IBF I would become chronically ill with a deteriorating heart condition which resulted in having to take early retirement in 1995, so shortening the amount of time I had to do this.

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