A space for quiet activism: A ‘public living room’ in an Edinburgh library
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Lisa Howard is a final year sociology PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the role of parenting and parenthood in everyday action on the climate and ecological crisis.
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What comes to mind when you think of activism? People gluing themselves to a road? Or, shouting and chanting with banners outside parliament? Did you know there is a quieter, more hidden form of organised political action which fosters and mobilises relationships as a key lever of change?
For my PhD I research relational and everyday forms of activism. This quiet activism is a lower profile, but potentially more enduring form than participating in demonstrations and direct actions. Scholars have argued that relational activism generates progressive change in ideas and everyday behaviours through networks of like-minded individuals (O’Shaughnessy & Kennedy, 2010; Mansbridge, 2013). However, as I have argued in my research, the power of relational activism can be more readily found between people who are not similar or like-minded. In today’s fraught public discourse and divisions around issues, listening to one another and appreciating different perspectives are crucial if we are to resist the atomising effects of a free-market capitalist society.
With this in mind, I’d like to share some of my insights inspired by feminist care politics, from an initiative I started up in my local library: Edinburgh’s first ‘public living room’. A public living room is an idea pioneered by Camderados, (https://camerados.org/) , a social enterprise which aims to create a movement of community-led gatherings for people to “be more human”. This is done simply by setting up a sofa or chairs and a pot of tea in a free space and inviting complete strangers to sit down for a no-agenda natter. The only rules are that people respect one another and don’t try to ‘fix’ one another.
In the 3 months since I started the public living room, I have seen a loyal attendance of around 4 or 5 people, plus a regular churn of new faces. Attendees come from all backgrounds, ages, and nationalities. We have enjoyed random chats about all sorts, from haircuts, second hand shops, book recommendations, regional accents, baking, the cost of a pint, and Scotland’s history, to the more serious issues of energy bills and living alone. It is the feelings these weekly gatherings have generated which have given me glimpses of the power of strangers connecting with one another to bring about change. We have had fun, and demonstrated empathy, compassion, and even flashes of affection. These feelings have transcended social differences and political orientations. We have listened to and respected one another in ways rarely found in encounters on social media.
In a 2020 study by Sheffield Hallam University (Friends and Purpose: Evaluation of Camerados Public Living Rooms), 60% of public living room goers felt that something had changed for them as a result of using a public living room. Of these people, 77% felt less alone, 83% felt more able to help others, 90% of people felt happier, and 62% felt more confident. However, looking at the effects and potential for effects in a less individualistic way, I believe that there is something far bigger to come out of these weekly get-togethers. Connecting with one another with feelings of care is important for social change because it is within ordinary relationships that people learn how to nurture and feel for others, intimately, locally and distally (Lynch et al., 2021). The shared perception of a situation we require for informal conversations builds up over time to create a deep mutual understanding and sense of identity. This is said to be the foundation of a social bond (Scheff, 2006). Social bonds are inherently loaded with emotion, we feel positive and negative emotions more acutely and intensely. We work to maximise the positive and minimise the negative emotions within our interactions; putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes – or, living in the mind of the other – is to feel their emotions, and this is an act of caring when we strive to promote good feelings in them; we anticipate what they need in the conversation and act in their interest. Thus, over time we nurture our skills of thinking with care and compassion. Nurturing a disposition towards care could undermine the competitiveness and individualizing processes of modern capitalist economic, political, and social systems, and draw attention to the interdependence that shapes all our lives (Cox, 2010). Conversations amongst a heterogeneous group of people act as a collective caring practice when they enable people to hear of and learn about the many injustices of everyday life, spurring moral indignation and making these issues politically actionable (Lynch et al, 2021). For example, one gentleman told us of his longstanding battle with a large energy firm, who had erroneously demanded vast sums of money for energy he had not used. The conversation generated a sense of solidarity with the man and his plight, which resulted in several people in the group swapping email addresses and promising to get to work on Twitter to “make a big noise” about it. No doubt there are many other outcomes of these blossoming relationships which I have not observed or captured, but I look forward to noticing some of them over time!
I did not set out to turn my public living room into a pilot study of relational activism, but this is the nature of sociology – it gives you the tools to use your sociological imagination in the everyday, which, in my opinion, makes life a fascinating journey!
Cox, R. (2010). Some problems and possibilities of caring. Ethics, Place and Environment, 13(2), 113–130.
Lynch, K., Kalaitzake, M., & Crean, M. (2021). Care and affective relations: Social justice and sociology. The Sociological Review, 69(1), 53–71.
Mansbridge, J. (2013). Everyday Activism. In Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, vol. I (A-E) (pp. 437–438). Wlley-Blackwell.
O’Shaughnessy, S., & Kennedy, E. H. (2010). Relational Activism: Reimagining Women’s Environmental Work as Cultural Change. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 35(4), 551–572.
Scheff, T. (2006). Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for Social Science. Routledge.