Thrift and dwelling: popular media representations of 'appropriate' ways of being in the world 
Aneta Podkalicka (Monash University)
Alexa Färber (University of Vienna)
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Sui generis
KWZ 0.607
Start time:
28 March, 2017 at 8:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

This panel discusses how the ambivalence of thrift - e.g. between necessity and choice - is articulated in popular media with respect to the notion and practice of dwelling. The comparative analysis will address what is considered an appropriate way of being in the world.

Long Abstract

The past financial crisis has prompted an increased scholarly interest in the cultural and historical dimensions of thrift: from national interpretations (Yates/Hunter 2011) to urban politics of austerity (Peck 2012) or everyday low budget practices and spatial configurations (Färber/Otto 2016). Collectively, thrift appears as an ambivalent and multi-dimensional practice: e.g. based on necessity (out of existential need) or choice (ethical conviction) and competence (Podkalicka/Potts 2013), with a sense of an appropriateness of 'thriving' (Yates/Hunter 2011).

In this panel we want to discuss how the ambivalence and sense of appropriateness of thrift/thriving is articulated in popular media in relation to dwelling. Print magazines, user-generated YouTube clips and TV-shows cover stories from house sharing, DIY renovations to downshifting households, offering rich material for analysis of the culturally specific and normative representations of thrift and dwelling.

We invite papers that analyse the cultural semantics of popular media articulations of thrift and dwelling (historical and contemporary) to advance a debate on how "appropriate" ways of being in the world are being negotiated in varied contexts of austerity or prosperity.

Färber, A./B. Otto (2016): Saving (in) a common world: Studying urban assemblages through a low-budget urbanities perspective. In: Blok. A./I. Farias (eds): Urban cosmopolitics. London, 25-43.

Peck, J. (2012). Austerity Urbanism. City, 16, 626-655.

Podkalicka, A./J. Potts (2013) 'Towards a general theory of thrift'. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 17(3), 227-241.

Yates, J./J. D. Hunter (2011): Thrift and thriving in America. New York.

Accepted papers:


Silke Meyer (University of Innsbruck)

Paper short abstract:

TV shows on living with debts are a popular format in con temp. media. These formats give manifold advice, financially and morally on 'reasonable and appropriate ways of being in the world'. Within this discursive framework, I will analyse the production of the indebted self between debts and guilt.

Paper long abstract:

TV shows on debtors and on living in debt are a popular format in contemporary media (for example, "Raus aus den Schulden" in the German broadcaster RTL or "Life or Debt" on the US database IMDb. The experts in these media representations give manifold advice, financially and morally on 'reasonable and appropriate ways of being in the world'. While monetary suggestions help to balance income and expenses on the way out of debts, the popular media representations also offer moral guidelines to find the way out of guilt. The moral economy of debt relies on the hydraulics of debts and guilt: by balancing self-responsibility, agency and self-initiative and by demonstrating thriftness as well as the will to work more and cut back, the indebted self can learn to cope with outstanding bills and to actively negotiate its position in society.

Thrift and consumption are key concepts in these representation of lives in debts, visualised in conditions of dwelling (i.e. number of rooms recommended, distinction between the necessities and luxuries of everyday life) and narrated in debt biographies (for example, socially ratified reasons and motivation to go into debts). A discursive content and image analysis of the TV representations show how the ‚appropriate way of being in the world' when in debt draws on historical middle-class virtues and neoliberal ideas. Both contribute to a moral economy which reproduces an inner industry of the indebted self and suppresses transitions of economic structures like the employment market and in the state welfare economy.


Christine Hämmerling (University of Zurich)

Paper short abstract:

By analyzing US-sitcoms that show females living together as flat mates out of necessity, the paper discusses formal and thematic advantages of such a special setting of interdependence. It argues that normative ways of living are both reproduced as well as challenged in these narratives.

Paper long abstract:

Many television series depend on characters that spend a lot of time together. This necessity to have characters being and staying together in a common place might be one of the reasons, why sitcoms often focus on living-rooms or offices. While sitcoms often dwell on family life and affairs, they also often promote characters in an age in between or after family lives: young and older people, who are experiencing the freedom and bondage that comes from being on their own. In TV-shows the new found independence from former boyfriends, husbands, nursing homes or oppressive parents often leads to other kinds of dependencies: Since the leading character cannot afford his or her own flat, he or she has to move in with others. Characters become flat mates: They share their living-rooms, and their lives. This constellation and the fact that it derives from a financial necessity holds many advantages for storytelling. Looking at series like "2 broke Girls" (2011- ), "Gilmore Girls" (2000-2007), "Friends" (1994-2004), and "Golden Girls" (1985-1992) I will analyze how closeness is established between fictional characters by having them live together. I will also focus on narrations of female independence and female relationships. I argue that it is not only the advantages of community that is promoted in such series, but also the disadvantages of not having a choice. In the context of situational comedy these narratives both reproduce and challenge normative ways of being in the world.


Daniel Klug (University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

The reality show Alaskan Bush People documents a family surviving apart from civilization through thrift, barter, and hunting. This paper analyses how these aspects are presented and staged as social key values for a simple life but good life within reality TV entertainment.

Paper long abstract:

Nature adventure reality shows focus on people who by choice live in the outback under rough conditions and with only little modern technology. Such shows address social and cultural values of possession, consumption, self-support, and solidarity. Based on reality TV's "claim to the real" (Holmes/Jermyn 2005), they document living in and with nature and challenge the understanding of common standards of the good life.

This presentation uses the example of Alaskan Bush People (2014-), a show about a family surviving without money, electricity or a permanent home in the Alaskan wilderness. The show is aired on Discovery Channel in its fourth season with 47 episodes up-to-date. It is mostly filmed in the outback of Chichagof Island, Alaska, and uses documentary-style reality TV narratives and aesthetics, such as interview statements, dramatizing music, or hand camera shots. In this context, I will analyze the presentation and the staging of the show's recurring themes of thrift, barter, self-support, and home improvement skills regarding the family's struggle to build a suitable home with whatever they can find and afford. In contrast to their rough lifestyle all family members emphasize their freedom, independence, solidarity, and being at one with nature as advantages of living in the wild.

Overall, Alaskan Bush People deals with traditional social and cultural values of Western societies by presenting a more basic, 'wilder', and less materialistic life. However, the subtle themes of idealism and escapism are highly criticized due to the show's questionable reality status.