The material cultures of grandfathers’ homes; article in press

Last week, I had a journal article accepted for the journal Gender, Place and Culture, that should be in print soon. This is the fourth of a series of journal articles I have published from my doctoral research, which explored the everyday geographies of British grandfathers (to see the other articles and book chapters that I have published about this research, check my publications tab here). The article, entitled ‘The spatial and gendered politics of displaying family: exploring material cultures in grandfathers’ homes’, presents an analysis of the narratives of men who are grandfathers, with a particular focus on how they ascribed meaning to the domestic material cultures of their homes. In the article, I reflect on the implications of the ways in which the men discussed the value and importance of the various decorations and ornaments that were displayed around their homes.

The article has two main points. Firstly, that different ornaments and items represent the paradox of an ageing man’s identity – and that this paradox is realised spatially. Theoretically, older men’s identities are paradoxical. On the one hand they benefit from sexism and the privileges of patriarchy that come with being a man. Men are more likely than women to accrue status, wealth and power over the life course (although this varies between and within groups of men as well – class is an important intersection here). On the other however, they can be disadvantaged by ageism. Ageing is a feminised process and one that is characterised by fears about decline in physical and mental abilities, increasing dependence and loss of connection with social life. These ideas are of course fairly static and do not represent the diversity of identities and life experiences of all ageing individuals or the agency of individuals to challenge these constructs. However, such ideas are powerful and they emerged within the narratives of the grandfathers I interviewed. I observed that mugs and cushions carrying messages about contemporary grandfathers (see images below) were placed about the men’s homes and when the men referred to them they tended to re-enforce a paradoxical ageing male identity in reference to them.


On the one hand, the messages indicate that grandfathers are loving and caring, more feminine attributes, on the other, they relate grandfathering to masculinity and the ability to fix and to build, traits associated with an able, bodily form of masculinity. Family members such as children and grandchildren also variously buy into these items and their messages, making associations between them and the practices of their grandfathers. The grandfathers themselves variously identify or misidentify with their messages. One of the younger grandfathers in the sample, who was 52, felt he was too young to be receiving old grandad slippers or mugs telling him he was old and grumpy. He would much prefer an iPad. Others bought into the otherwise essentialist discourses relating to gender and age, emphasising their masculine qualities over the feminine qualities of being nurturing and loving.

The second point of the article is that an underlying family politics mediates the placement and prominence (or lack thereof) of items presented in men’s homes. Photographs for example, were not simply placed unconsciously and in fact represented relationships that extended beyond the home. During his interview, one of the widowed men who took part in the study, discussed the need to display a photo of every one of his grandchildren to avoid the risk of upsetting his children. The role of the central generation in surveilling these displays in this instance, suggests that men may not be completely in control of their domestic displays but are instead subject to intergenerational power relations that operate both within and beyond the homespace. Daughters in particular played an important role in mediating the inclusion of images in their homes, particularly if the men no longer lived with their wives. This suggests that the homespace is still a highly gendered space in old age, subject to the power available to different family members. The absence of particular images also indicated that family politics operate through the display of photographs. One grandfather had multiple photographs of his biological grandchildren and very few of his step grandchildren. In his reflection on these various inclusions and exclusions, he indicated that the quality of his relationships was much stronger with his biological grandchildren than with his step-grandchildren. The quality and character of these relationships were therefore also constituted in the material culture of his home.

More broadly, these findings support the notion that different ornaments, objects and photographs (material cultures) presented in the home are useful tools for uncovering the construction of identities both individual and collective. In analysing the narratives of men who are grandfathers in relation to the value and meaning they ascribe to these items, we further see that domestic masculinities not only re-enforce the paradoxes of ageing male identities, but also constitute men’s family politics and those intimate relationships that extend beyond the space of the home.

The paper is not yet published but hopefully this sneak preview and summary will encourage you to have a read when it is in print. Watch this space for updates…


One thought on “The material cultures of grandfathers’ homes; article in press

  1. Pingback: “Grandfatherhood: Shifting Masculinities in Later Life” in Sociology! | Dr Anna Tarrant

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