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Everyday life, in the field of sociology, has been positioned as a condition, a social space, a political goal, and a methodological analytic. Its meaning has shifted with time, and its potential consequences have shifted with its meaning. One thing that has not changed has been the home of the concept, under the wing of the conflict school of theory. But while everyday life started its move into theory as a negative extension of Marx’s idea of alienation, it has evolved into a celebrated realm for modern-day feminist sociology.
Henri Lefebvre, one of the most important French Marxist sociologists of the mid-century, first wrote of everyday life as a mind-numbing, alienating set of social conditions. His book, Critique of Everyday Life, was published in 1947. In it he linked what he called ”everydayness” to Marx’s theory of alienation. According to Lefebvre, everydayness was a modern-day extension of the grip of alienation, part of the consequence of the rise of a modern form of capitalism. Lefebvre argued that capitalism had gotten so powerful that it had grown beyond organizing our productive and social relations in society; it also actually sucked the meaning out of everyday life. Alienation, the feeling of exhaustion, stress, and poverty consequential from the act of being forced to sell one’s labor, was experienced more painfully under modern capitalism precisely because the experiences of everyday life outside of work had been invaded by capitalism. Without the genuine meaning and connection that had once taken place in everyday life outside of work, modern workers turned to consumption to fill the gap. The lifestyle of consumption grew stronger and stronger under modern capitalism, and everyday life was marked by the purchase of commodities, which furthered the cycle of alienation.
Everyday life got a new set of meanings in the 1960s along with the reemergence of arguments about the public sphere and the private sphere. As the concept of the public sphere began to be increasingly defined as the world of work, politics, and the service of citizenship, the private sphere began to be seen as the space of everything else, or the space of everyday life. This loaded the idea of everyday life with the content of all that was seen as somehow being personal and private: love, family, sex, relationships, housework, emotions, etc.
It was in this context that feminist sociologists retrieved the idea of everyday life, and reinterpreted it as a social space that primarily contained that which was seen as belonging to women. The public sphere was the world of men, while the private sphere (and everyday life) was the realm of women. Feminist sociologists argued that the world of women and the social relations of everyday life should be celebrated and valued. Some also argued that the line between the public and private sphere should be obliterated, allowing women into the public realm and, more important, removing value judgment from the assessment of the realms in which people pursue social interaction. In other words, the obligations of everyday life – like helping a child with homework – are just as important as the work of the public realm – like participating in the work of a political party.
The women’s movement politicized the idea of everyday life. Home, and the private world, were sites for battle over the work and role of women. ”The personal is political” was a key theme for analysis and activism, and everyday life became a battleground.
By the 1970s, feminist sociologists such as Dorothy E. Smith had added an important new dimension to the concept of everyday life. They argued that the social reproduction of inequality could be seen in the normal interactions of everyday life. This analytical insight helped reshape the focus for feminist research. As a topic of analysis, the social relationships of everyday life became increasingly important. New empirical research during this time period began to focus on topics that had formerly been seen as banal, or unimportant, or too ”everyday.” Topics such as domestic violence, housework, mental illness, and childrearing emerged as critical – and controversial – areas for research. Everyday life was not just what was left over from the important work of the public realm, but was in itself a set of social relations that created and reproduced social inequalities. The experiences of everyday life are important pieces of knowledge about our social world, and everyday life became a key focus of empirical study.
- Lefebvre, H. (1992)  Critique of Everyday Life. Verso, London.
- Smith, D. E. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press, Lebanon, NH.