Call for paper – Material culture in closed spaces

Plan for a bed in a Belgium asylum (1930s)

Interest for closed spaces played an important part in the critical renewal of the humanities from the 1960s on, as demonstrated in particular the work of Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault. For the past ten years, the spatial turn has provided new impetus for a greater consideration of space as a place of socialisation. These approaches, devoted to the empirical study of institutions such as the mental hospital and prison, have put the actors and social dynamics at the center of their interest. In keeping with this line of research, we propose to shift the gaze to the material cultures of these spaces.
Be it the prison, the convent, the boarding school, the nursing home, the (psychiatric) hospital or the camp, the material culture of these institutions has gained little consideration till now. Objects, however, configure the experience of closed spaces as well for those who can leave them as for those who are locked up. They allow for a detailed classification of the different populations who constitute these places. How does the staff working in confined spaces appropriate these workplaces? How do the inmates arrange this enclosing physical framework, a framework which among other things, prevents any intimacy of the daily rituals, which are open to the gaze of others. How do these two groups of actors interpret, confirm, deny and/or transform this reality?
These spaces are commonly perceived as hermetically closed. On closer inspection, it appears that they constantly open themselves up to the outside: in particular, the maintenance of buildings and of the infrastructure requires the intervention of people (artisans, gardeners, surveyors, architects…), which are commonly not associated with these spaces. But there are also objects (letters, cigarettes, combs …) that make these enclosed spaces porous. People use objects to occupy the space and to manage the time in those places. These material items provide the framework of the social construction of space. They shape the possibilities for acting of the multiple actors.
The biography of an object – the imagined object, the produced object and the acting object – allows us to rethink spatiality. Its materiality opens but also limits the actors’ scope for manoeuvre. Professional items (medical devices, weapons, handcuffs …) as well as the infrastructure (toilets, tables, beds …) must be examined in relation with the people who use them. We would like to direct the attention at the techniques applied by the actors in order to use this arsenal of objects. The unspectacular objects and the daily rituals in using them are our main interest. The interaction between actor and the materiality of the objects produces focal moments where power relations become visible and that allow us to examine the material and bodily aspects of experiences and human practices.
This workshop is aimed at social scientists and hopes to bring together two methodological trends: on one hand the interest for the analysis of social practices at the micro level and of the different meanings that actors give to their experiences and on the other hand the attention given to objects by assigning them a certain agency, an approach advocated currently by the science studies.
The workshop will be held from 11 to 12 October 2012 at the University of Luxembourg. Proposals for papers (1 page) and a brief CV should be sent by 1 March 2012 to the following address: The working language will be English.

Elissa Mailänder (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales / CIERA Paris)
Benoît Majerus (University of Luxembourg)

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