On the Practice and Politics of Everyday Cleaning

Sweeping (Figure 2224), 2016, Lisa Torell

An interview with Fanny Ambjörnsson by Ale Låke

for #III. pure danger / dangerous purity

Differens Magazine, winter 22 / 23

Fanny Ambjörnsson is a renowned social anthropologist and professor in gender studies at Stockholm University. In 2018 she published Tid att städa: Om vardagsstädningens praktik och politik (Time to Clean: On the Practice and Politics of Everyday Cleaning) on Ordfront förlag. In this book, she investigates the state of cleaning in contemporary society, inquiring into the source of the practice’s low status. She does this through a temporal lens, concluding that cleaning has a timeline that goes opposite to that of modernity. If the latter points forwards, upwards, cleaning points backwards, downwards. This, she argues, is important to investigate in order to understand ourselves and the contemporary. 

Ale (A): Cleaning is interesting in that it is simultaneously mundane and charged with symbolism. It seems to me that it should be a natural area of interest for the social sciences and the humanities. Still, you report that there is a lack of research about cleaning. Has this changed since 2018, when Tid att städa was published?

Fanny (F): No, there is no field of research about cleaning. However, I do think that we talk much more about cleaning as a practice today than we did around seven years ago, when I started this project. I think that it has to do with the Zeitgeist, in terms of the attention that is being paid to climate and environment, the importance of recycling, and taking care of what we have. We seem to have a resistance towards it, but it lies there as a kind of next step on the way: if we are to take care of what we have, we need to look after our own house, turn the gaze backwards instead of forwards. I think that it is interesting that it is an area that is quite unexploited commercially. Lifestyle magazines are sold about almost everything, but not about cleaning – but this is slowly changing as well. There still are no lifestyle magazines, but there are books about cleaning. And then of course one has to mention Marie Kondo, who has made a huge success with her TV-shows about arranging and sorting one’s things. However, I think the least sexy part about cleaning is the dust, the dirt, and the stickiness. Organizing one’s things can still be associated with prosperity and a kind of orientation towards the future, while dust is just a reminder that we are all mortal, kind of.

A: Right. Marie Kondo is about getting rid of stuff, decluttering, resulting in having less things. Not necessarily taking care of things.

F: Indeed. So I think that we are on our way, but we are not really there yet. 

A: Why do you think that the sciences, and society at large, have so far failed to acknowledge cleaning?

F: Of course, there are various reasons for this. I think that it has a lot to do with its association with the female sphere and femininity. Household cleaning is seen as private rather than public, which has always been a sphere that has not been recognized as interesting, serious or universal. It also does not count as productive, in the sense that it doesn’t produce anything new. Since the Industrial Revolution and the system of commodity production, housework has come to count as so-called reproductive labor. And cleaning is per definition the least productive of those chores, since it doesn’t produce anything at all, but rather faces backwards and downwards, toward that which we leave behind. I also think that it has to do with this thing about time, which I try to explore in the book. In our world it is seen as meaningless since it doesn’t face forwards and doesn’t climb upwards, but rather goes in circles and slowly downwards, and needs to be repeated ad infinitum, is never finished.

Our resistance towards it has to do with all of these factors taken together. It might not be very surprising that mainstream science has ignored cleaning, but also the feminist discussion has been reluctant to touch on these matters. One doesn’t want to get dragged down in the dirt, and get stuck in this place to which one has been limited historically. However, this is a bit strange for a scientific gaze, since this is exactly what should be interesting to explore: what is this place? what does it look like? what can we take from it and what not? how has it been constructed? of what does it consist, and all that. It has been imbued by a fear of contact from a diverse array of directions. 

A: You said that recently, society starts to take interest in cleaning. How about feminism, it is ready to revalue cleaning as a practice?

F: I think so. Feminism is so broad and multifaceted today with a plurality of branches and movements within it, and I definitely think that there are possibilities to avoid the trap of merely reappropriating an old housewife lifestyle. I mean, that is where the risk lies for feminists: when talking about the small life and trying to revalue it, one risks being locked into the household again. I definitely think that there is a potential here, not least in some form of alliance with the environmental movement and also with some kind of radical critique of work. How much do we want to sacrifice, producing our way right into death? What do we want to do with our lives? Here, cleaning is central. 

A: In the book you mention a lesbian couple – you name them Annika and Stacey – who argue a lot about cleaning. Annika ends up doing all the household cleaning since Stacey seems both unable and unwilling to do it. While fighting about this, they seem to agree on one point: Annika’s is the extreme, neurotic position, whereas Stacey’s refusal to clean is associated with something healthy and progressive. You discuss this case in relation to a discourse of gender equality in Sweden. Could you say something about that?

F: Yes. It wouldn’t have been possible for a man to take Stacey’s position without being seen as a male chauvinist, disqualifying oneself as a modern Swedish citizen. But since she is a woman, it is possible to claim that she is more visionary and less bound to antiquated gender ideals. In the modern project of gender equality, women are first and foremost encouraged to move their focus away from the household, progress and personal success being measured by these ideals. This is understandable since, through the centuries, women have been bound to the household and the tasks there. Simultaneously, for no one to do these things is an unsustainable way to live – unless you have a slave doing them for you. 

It also becomes clear in this case that you just can’t solve the problem in the way that they do. Because they haven’t solved the problem, that’s why they fight all the time. They have tried to solve it in a way that is very modern seen from a Swedish perspective: they have a RUT-person coming to clean every second week. [1] But this doesn’t mean that they solve the everyday problem of cleaning – it actually has more of a symbolic value. They can pay a little for someone to come every second week.1 But this doesn’t do away with the sand in the hallway or the breadcrumbs on the dinner table. It is a kind of chimera; it doesn’t solve life. It was exciting to try and explore this change in the discourse around having a cleaner in the house.

In the Swedish context, traditionally valuing both gender- and economic equality, it has not been considered okay to hire cleaning services in one’s own home. It has been understood first and foremost in relation to a class project. And when household cleaning services once more become a legitimate solution to a hectic life, I wanted to explore what exactly it is that is solved, other than creating a middle class and an idea about the independent woman. But it doesn’t actually solve the problem of cleaning. The task is still there. Even before the cleaner comes, people are cleaning for this person to be able to do their job. Not much can be done by someone else, unless you actually have a maid living in your home. 

A: Right. You also write that economic inequality is a prerequisite for there to be a market for household services like at-home cleaning.

F: Yes. Or else people can’t afford it. The person who cleans can very seldom themselves afford to have someone else cleaning their house. 

A: But still the RUT reform has been integrated in a discourse of gender equality by liberal politicians. And by some of your informants, it is understood as a solution to their private conflicts. 

F: Yes, a solution to the problem of gender equality, which of course it isn’t.

A: Initially, the reform was controversial, the debate about it at times even emotional. But already when Tid att städa was published in 2018, it had become naturalized in Swedish society. Today even more so, I would say?

F: Absolutely. When I conducted the interviews, people were still quite torn, feeling like it was a bit embarrassing. Now I would say that people don’t really feel like they need to explain themselves for having a cleaner anymore. Rather, this is just something you do if you can and want. I also interview another couple who try to divide the housework by making lists and so on to make it fair, but it doesn’t work, they just fight anyway. One of them, the woman, is tasked with doing what they both agree is the dirty work, which makes her depressed. She might not think that it is worse to wipe the window frames than it is to put things in the fridge or whatever, but it is something with the symbolic intensity, and this might be helped by hiring someone else to do it. Politically, this does not sound very attractive, but I can imagine that this is an aspect of it. 

A: Hiring a cleaner just feels better? 

F: Yes, exactly.

A: You discuss the implementation of this reform in relation to the Swedish context, which is a bit different seen in a European perspective, with statist individualism and ideals around gender- and economic equality. In this context, you mention the trope of “Taking care of one’s own shit,” which has been seen as a virtue in Swedish culture. Would you say that this is about to change?

F: Yes, I think that it might be changing. I believe that these ideas exist on several different layers. They are not only about a kind of 1970s struggle for equality and solidarity with women, but also about a kind of working-class ideal about being clean and proper; you take care of your own shit, and you don’t let others do the work for you. So, in different ways it is probably deeper than that. But I think that the moral-political basic view is disappearing among the broader masses. We are approaching a more European culture in relation to household services. 

A: Handling both cleaning and private conflicts in this way, what consequences might it have?

F: This is difficult, because there is also the perspective of “Why shouldn’t this count as a job?” It’s a balancing act. Some of my informants expressed something like “I can’t clean because I never learned to. I might be upper middle class, but if a working-class woman comes into my house to help me clean, this is because she has learned how to do it and is good at it, and this is a profession that I respect.” In this way it is not so easy. We hire people to do a lot of things and to hire people for example for window cleaning is not at all as sensitive a topic. Services that are not as controversial to pay for are mostly coded masculine, like “Of course a man has to come and make a mess with his shoes, not cleaning afterwards, quickly fixing the dishwasher, and we just pay him for that, because we don’t know how to do it ourselves.” Cleaning, on the other hand, is considered to be something that all of us should be able to do ourselves, because it is something that women do. In this way there is an alternative interpretation of it having to do with an idea about professionalizing everything – cooking, childcare, elderly care – and then why not also cleaning? Cleaning used to be in a kind of limbo here. It fell between the cracks one might say, in the sense that it was neither the state’s responsibility, nor something that women wanted to take responsibility for, nor something that was okay to hire other women to do. It wasn’t seen as solidaric or progressive. 

If we ignore that the question is not at all a simple one, I simply don’t think that it is possible to hire someone to do everything for us. Life needs to be lived and if you don’t live life in your immediate vicinity, I don’t know where it could be lived. Life is not only eating your sandwich but also putting away the plate after eating it. But hiring people to do these tasks, I think that you lose meaning as well as connection to the present. Here there is always a risk of becoming moralizing, since it is considered more dignified to be someone that cleans, whereas it is seen as a bit sloppy to be someone that doesn’t. We need to avoid these kinds of moralizations. 

A: You mean judging a person merely for their inability to clean, regardless of whether they hire a cleaner or not?

F: Right; I mean, it is easy for me to say since I am a person who cleans. One of my informants talked about cleaning as a way of taking care of her things. Cleaning is often seen as routine household work that people would rather hire someone else to do. Other kinds of household work, like cooking or childcare, is considered to be care work, and these chores we have somehow decided that we should not hire someone else to do. But I consider cleaning to be much more about care work than it is usually understood to be. If this would be recognized, maybe we would also see that it connects us to the material world in another way. And if we want to be a bit pompous, it can also allow us to simply be present, something we often lack today. To, like this informant describes, be with and feel your things, asking: “What does this chair need? – It requires that I wipe it in a certain way.” This would imply that we would work much slower because it would be so time consuming. Which goes against our times. 

A: Yes. It is not productive. I wonder if cleaning as care work is a threat against productivism?

F: Absolutely, I see that potential. However, since I am situated in a feminist movement, and in feminist research and discussions, I know how easy it is to fall prey to moralism, that one “ought” to clean in a certain way or something. There is a danger in romanticizing the cleaning person too much in feminist contexts. I do not think that this discussion will necessarily end up there. But I do understand if many would feel like that since historically, women have been told that they need to clean more. It is as a society we need to recognize these kinds of chores and this kind of being-in-the-world. Of course, people can choose for themselves how to live. It is more about how we take care of what we have around us. 

A: You mentioned time, which is one of the central themes of the book. Why cleaning and time? Can you talk about your itinerary toward this perspective?

F: I ended up there because I tried to explore the kind of naïve question of why cleaning as a chore is so undervalued, unrecognized, trivialized and swept under the carpet. I found a number of reasons for this, like classic feminist analyses of why this might be. But repeatedly, I saw it boiling down to this thing with timelines, a time pointing upwards and ahead, and it was exciting to ponder upon what in this way seemed like the kernel of it all. And, like you say, the potentially subversive and disturbing, what is uncomfortable for the contemporary individual are exactly these movements that go in the opposite direction, downwards and backwards. It is probably the worst thing that we can imagine today to appear as if we are stuck in the past or that we are moving backwards and aren’t forward-looking individuals. Therefore, I wanted to explore the aspect of time further, because I saw in it a kind of explosivity, or a kind of radical potential. 

A: You mentioned a labor-critical perspective before, and you finish the book with a labor-critical section. Why?

F: I arrived at labor criticism through the analysis of time, the concept of time that I landed in by analyzing not only what cleaning is, but also what care work is, and that care work simply can’t be integrated in a linear concept of time. It can neither be analyzed, nor commercialized, nor exploited in a simple linear idea about past, present and future, because it goes in circles. It is much messier and more difficult to delineate, much harder to make profitable, less exploitable. Considering this, not least in relation to earlier feminist discussions about care as a kernel of existence and broadening this also to care for the material surroundings and environment and the like, it gets quite clear that ideas about what is productive and effective and considered a real work must be rethought. An alternative to this would be to find a sustainable way to exploit care commercially. Through the different analyses in the book of cleaning as care work, I can’t see that it would be possible, or even desirable. And then you end up in some kind of critique of the production-oriented society as it is now constructed. 

A: I appreciate your book partly because I think it is original in its perspective on cleaning as potentially subversive. It is more common in critical research to focus on ideals of purity being associated with oppression, but you write about cleaning as care. These perspectives are probably compatible, in that both are about accepting, handling, and living with dirt, but your perspective seems new to me. 

F: Yes, one needs to guard against hygienism. Rather, one needs to learn to live side by side with, and together with, the perpetual decay. Taking care of it, removing it, recognizing that it will soon reappear. It is like living with others and living with animals and plants that grow. Living with life, so to speak. 

A: Has the research on cleaning changed you as a researcher?

F: Yes. Seemingly, I shift quite radically between different topics and cleaning doesn’t have a lot to do with the color pink, or teenage girls’ sexuality, or whatever it might be. So, in a way it is a track that I’ve started to take that is quite different from earlier ones about queer theory and constructions about femininity. At the same time, I do think that it also has to do with different forms of femininity. I have gone from an interest in individual constructions of corporeality and identity to a focus on care work. That’s where I’m at now. This might partly have to do with age, but also it is about a shift of interest. As it is now, I will probably continue to write more about care work. I’ve written now about functionality, not least in relation to unlicensed assistive personnel and substituted judgment.

A: The book Om Najda, about your sister?

F: Yes, exactly. And I think that everything is connected and that these are actually similar questions, but on the surface, they look quite dissimilar. I am always interested in questions that are ubiquitous and in your face, but still unexplored. In the book about the color pink, I use a similar dramaturgical approach, where there is something about which everyone can have an opinion, but still no one has bothered to investigate it a bit closer, since it seems trivial. And the same goes for cleaning. But Tid att städa definitely had more to do with an interest for the repetitive and slow, another type of direction, where I’d say there are connections to the Nadja book. And I feel like this is what I am more interested in doing now. 

A: One last question. As we posted the call for contributions for this issue of Differens on Instagram, we mentioned Mary Douglas’ idea about dirt as something relative. Journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman made a comment on this post, saying: “I remember that thought seemed cool at the age of 19. Now being a single mom taking care of 3 kids fulltime, dirt is not a ‘relative idea’”. What is your opinion, is dirt relative or absolute?

F: I am an anthropologist by training and at heart and in this question, I am very much an anthropologist. I definitely think that dirt is relative and is a matter of socialization. And perhaps I think so even more after having children, since you get very aware that you have different ideas about what is dirty and not. I live together with a teenager and my partner – one of my kids just moved from home – and every day I am reminded of “Right! That kind of order is also possible”. The order of my teenager is very different from my order, and this is not because she is a particularly immoral or dirty person or wrong somehow. I mean, she has her order in check. I come into her room and think “Oh fuck, this is messy”, wanting to clean up. But then I realize that when I am on my way to clean up – because I think that as a mother, I have a right to do so – I have actually displaced things that she has put in their different strange places to know where she has them. She simply has a different order. And the same goes for my partner, who is a bit of a hoarder. That’s an order that I just have to adapt to, because that is her life and her hobby, to collect a lot of things that according to my opinion just lie around, gathering dust. So, I think that cohabitation really makes one realize that dirt is relative, and that order is relative, and that there are all kinds of reasons for having it in one way or another. 

A: Relative, and relational, it sounds like? Negotiating, sometimes simply having to accept each other’s differences. 

F: Yes, indeed. We live in several places, and now that I arrived at our part-time home, my partner had already been here a week. Since I am more, well, have another order, she tries to clean before I come, because she knows that otherwise I will feel that it’s messy. But what happens is that I come into the room and immediately, I start to clean up, putting things in places where I think that they should be, automatically somehow. Which is kind of rude. So, I try to not do this, and she tries to remind herself that this is not a rude gesture, but merely my way of taking possession of the space. There are so incredibly many ways to exist in relation to objects that don’t necessarily have to do with being orderly or not. It has to do with our relations with materiality and togetherness.


[1] RUT-avdraget is a Swedish reform that was implemented in 2007, enabling buyers of household services like cleaning and gardening to make a tax deduction of up to 50 % of the costs.