A Hands-on Approach - The Do-It-Yourself Culture and Economy in the 20th Century

25.-26.04.2014, Workshop, DHI Washington

Do-it-yourself-activities as they emerged by the turn of the 20th century both connect and blur the categories of production and consumption, work and leisure, experts and amateurs. Instead of hiring professionals or buying ready-made items, parts of society engaged in the maintenance, improvement, make-over, and design of their homes, cars, clothing, or radios during their free time, increasingly supported by an ever-growing do-it-yourself-industry. The workshop takes this phenomenon as a starting point for investigating preferences in the employment of time, money, and material resources as they reflect changing living conditions, lifestyles, expectations regarding standards of living, and ideas about the role of the individual as well as demographic groups in the (emerging) consumer societies of the 20th century.

The term "do-it-yourself" implies that there are - at least theoretically - other ways of acquiring goods, namely the availability of (mass) produced commodities. Engaging in do-it-yourself-activities therefore usually presupposes a decision on what and how to consume. The reasons for engaging in these activities, however, differed between cultures and demographic groups, and have changed over the decades. The practices and notions of do-it-yourself were shaped by different factors: characteristics such as gender, age, and class; contexts such as capitalist or socialist economic systems, political regimes, experiences of war and peace, affluence and scarcity, and the membership in the mainstream or in sub-cultures; and, not least, by technological and product developments.

The workshop seeks to explore do-it-yourself as a cultural, social and economic phenomenon shaped by individual preferences, social expectations, economic interests, as well as political and pedagogical considerations. In doing so, we aim to shed light on the diverse, at times contradictory developments in the shaping of modern consumer societies which demanded strategies of making sense and the legitimization of decisions relating to ways of obtaining goods or spending time.

We welcome case studies, comparative analyses, and theoretical reflections from the fields of history, economics, anthropology, design studies, and other related fields. Submissions may address but are not limited to the following topics:

  1. Production and consumption: Where is do-it-yourself to be located in the spheres of production and consumption? How did the development of new products influence scope and techniques? How important was repairing and maintaining as opposed to producing something new?

  2. Skills and knowledge: Which skills were necessary to engage in do-it-yourself, where and how could one acquire them? Which role did creativity and improvisation play in relation to skills? How can do-it-yourself be related to theories of a modern knowledge society? 

  3. Role models and social relations: Which gender roles and intra-familial role allocations were both shaped and reflected through do-it-yourself? What was the meaning of working together with other persons such as family members, neighbors, colleagues, or friends?

  4. Taste, aesthetics, and design: Were there "aesthetics of the self-made"? How was the work of do-it-yourselfers evaluated as compared to ready-made items or work done by professionals?

  5. Mediation, interpretation, and identity: How did the social sciences, media (magazines, books), and popular culture (TV series, songs, novels) address and interpret do-it-yourself? How did do-it-yourselvers depict and present themselves? Which imagery did manufacturers and retailers use to advertise their products and services?

DHI Washington