The practices, rhetoric, scales and paradoxes of thrift on a London public housing estate
Join the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation for an insightful online seminar with Professor Catherine Alexander.
Abstract - This chapter offers a historical account of changing meanings and practices of thrift in Britain, before exploring ethnographically how these different discourses have played out and clashed in the life of a London public housing estate and its residents. It extends historical analyses by showing the conjunction of these discourses, which are often inimical, and brings together concerns at different scales about minimising wastefulness and managing budgets.
Two linked themes skein the chapter together. The first is the double meaning of thrift as both thriving and the mechanisms to achieve this aim. The second is how ideas of thrift have migrated from self-sufficient smallholdings to both resource-poor urban contexts, and quite different scales: community, municipality, national economy even the EU’s environmental concern with wastefulness. What appears are shifts in discourses of financial and environmental responsibility as citizens are variously enjoined to save or borrow, spend or cut waste and the dramatic effects on households and families of thrifty practices at these other scales. Thus the housing estate was created through one kind of collective thriftinesss: Keynsian public borrowing for postwar national welfare or thriving, and eventually destroyed through another: Margaret Thatcher’s ideas of careful household thriftiness as a moralized financial strategy for the national economy.
The latter kick-started decades of public expenditure cuts and ultimately legitimized the estate’s demolition and the dispersion of its multi-generational residents. The savage irony is that this final dispossession has shattered the key means by which most residents managed to keep their households going and maintain the respectability they desire: kincare across disparate dwellings and generations had been both the aim and means of thrift before families were split up. This is the final instance in a century of thrift (as saving, borrowing or recycling waste) being preached to low-income urban families while their ways of being thrifty are either unrecognized, inaccessible, or undermined.
This seminar is part of an open webinar series, hosted by the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation.