Star Turn

April 16, 1999

Watch out - a style guru is about. Olga Wojtas listens to what dramas a social anthropologist working in Edinburgh can detect around the kitchen sink

The citizens of Edinburgh should be very afraid. Social anthropologist Jonathan Spencer is preparing 110 students for fieldwork in the city. They are looking at spaces and the way they are organised. The course booklet's suggested locations for "the space programme'' range from shops and offices to "other people's bathrooms''.

Fortunately, Dr Spencer does not tackle anything quite so intrusive. He likes kitchens, which reveal more about their owners than simply being a place to open a tin of beans.

"What people say about their kitchens can link to the great mysteries of human existence,'' he tells the students.

He describespublished fieldwork on a North London housing estate, which found that the most outgoing tenantshad made the most dramatic changes to their kitchens, while the least gregarious, generally single males, had donelittle beyond buyinga kettle.

"The people who had done reallyextraordinary things were really active in the tenants' group and had loads of friends and family. The house opens inside out. It becomes an expression of your attitudes.'' Dr Spencer believes in breaking the hour-long lecture into chunks to keep the students' attention. This includes showing them an extract from a BBC documentary, followed by a discussion.

"Listen out for the clinching detail, one little phrase you note down and can construct an argument round,'' he instructs.

"It can be something people say, or that you see. Note down things that you think are particularly telling or revealing.'' Two couples sit cosily on sofas and explain how they have decorated their new homes.The students snigger and groan as one interviewee explains that the downstairs bathroom is still a victim of the previous owners' taste: "I feel very sorry for my nanny and my baby who have to use it.'' "It's like taste is something you step in and previous owners forgot to flush their taste away,'' says Dr Spencer.

The students have noted numerous "telling phrases'' such as "anyone looking in from the outside wouldn't know what was in it'' and "when you decorate a room, it's like having a baby, creating something new that's yours''.

They are struck by the similarity of both couples, who stress the superiority of the area in which they live, but go on to mock the neighbouring houses for the similarity of their bay windows or interior design.

"It's that curious trade-off between individualism and identity. You want to be part of it, but yet you don't want tobe part of it,'' Dr Spencer says. "Can you think of similar settings, where people are revealing themselves to you effortlessly?" "Pollock Halls,'' says one student, referring to theuniversity's largest hall of residence."All the rooms are supposedly the same, but they show individuality.'' One obviouspattern might bestudents who have taken a year out, the class decides. They might have rugs and masks from their travels, maps of where they have been, photographs of friends they have made, or of beaches with palm trees.

"Photographs are more feminine,'' says one female student. "So what do boys have?'' Dr Spencer asks. "Beermats,'' snorts one femalestudent. "Posters,'' shouts another.

"I haven't beenin a Pollock Hall bedroom since 1974.Do they still havethe same kinds of poster?'' Dr Spencer asks, remarkably not mentioning the words Athena or tennis.

The students are unsure about whether they are different from medical students. One social anthro-pologist knows ofa medic with a very orderly bedroom, while others have heard tales of skeletons under the bed.

Scientists areprobably less concerned with howthe room looks,while arts students, especially women, know that everything conveys an impression of some sort.

"And arts students have more time than science students,'' says a class traitor.

As the lectureends, there is a buzz as students startdiscussing their fieldwork.

"He's got a very good lecture style.He makes it sound really exciting - he's quite inspirational,'' says one student.

"I think it's really interesting. It's amazing what you can find out,'' says another.

"But I'm notquite sure what our group is going to do. We were going todo the inside of the mosque, but thatmay not be banal enough.''

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