“It’s Just a Never-Ending Battle”: The role of modern hygiene ideals and the dynamics of everyday life in constructing indoor ecologies

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Human Ecology Review, 2018, 24 (2), pp. 61 - 80
Issue Date:
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© 2018, Society for Human Ecology. All rights reserved. Recent research suggests that the greatest threat to children’s health from home environments across much of the industrialized world may no longer be pathogenic microbes, but impoverished microbial communities and the chemicals used in everyday products, including those for cleaning. This paper proposes that concepts of hygiene should be updated, given this reorientation of harm. However, little research has been conducted, which a) integrates knowledge from the diverse disciplinary fields concerned with indoor environments (such as microbiology, chemistry, and design), and b) examines how individuals conceptualize and enact hygiene to create healthier indoor environments for their families, including the extent to which their practices achieve this. To gain insight into factors influencing how hygiene is enacted in the home, as well as the consequent effects on the composition of indoor environments, it is necessary to transgress traditional disciplinary approaches to investigate indoor environmental health and integrate knowledge from experts and lay people who inhabit these spaces. To do this, recent scientific and design literature addressing key determinants of environmental health in homes are consulted. This is combined with qualitative research into the ways in which parents define, perform, and measure hygiene within domestic spaces. The data collected concerns homes in Sydney, Australia, with the findings showing that common hygiene practices with potentially harmful outcomes often emerge from compromises between competing priorities within complexes of home practices. Factors influencing the dynamics that determine which activities are prioritized and how they are performed are dually highlighted. Some notable factors include confusion and uncertainty associated with the sensory proxies used to determine cleanliness and risk of harm, increased sensitivity to the potential presence of microbes over other potentially harmful microspecies, and the health histories and experiences of parents and children.
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