The digital home office: householding revisited

Published 1 May 2020 / By Chris Hann

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


The spread of COVID-19 was obviously hastened by high levels of mobility. Some countries have dealt with it more effectively than others and invidious comparisons will doubtless continue for some time.

Meanwhile, in some contexts, business continues as usual. For example, harvesting asparagus in Germany every spring requires large quantities of the 'fictitious commodity' labour (to use the terminology of Karl Polanyi, 1944). In April 2020 this workforce had to be flown in with chartered planes. Despite quarantine, one seasonal migrant (aged 57) died with the virus before his labour power could make the intended contribution to his household’s budget in eastern Romania (and to the profits of German agribusiness).

The conditions under which these EU citizens live and work in Germany are shocking. Many have no insurance. Der Spiegel, which drew attention to this case, has highlighted the moral incongruity of importing many thousands of migrant labourers to sustain the symbolic normality of asparagus consumption when the EU is incapable of addressing the needs of refugees in the Mediterranean camps (or indeed those already in the EU but not allowed to work).

The new era of the home office

In contrast to these well-organized examples of mobility, most of us have become much less mobile in recent weeks. Conferences have been postponed or cancelled, teaching and supervision take place online. The word “homeoffice” has entered the German language. Leading politicians of the Green Party have cast the emergency resort to homeoffice as the harbinger of a new era in human social organization (Ironically, the Greens’ call for a “right to homeoffice” aims not at diminishing mobility by absolving employees of the need to turn up at their organization, but to allow potentially greater mobility in the name of individual freedom). Thanks to digital technology, working from home has already made sweeping inroads. This is said to be one reason why COVID-19 statistics are lower in California than in New York or Chicago. Of course, the famed gig economy is precarious and exploitative. The German Greens therefore argue that labour law must penetrate the household workplace of the future: employers must guarantee home office workers not only best broadband access but all the benefits of social protection (and desk, chair and lighting satisfying stringent health and safety requirements).

No doubt many highly qualified young professionals will applaud such measures (the Greens are politically astute and this is their prime constituency). What about academics? Many of us have always preferred to do our “real work” at home, where we control the rhythms, undisturbed by the distractions of the department. Deceleration and reduced mobility might be highly beneficial for the quality of our research. The extension of the home office would be welcomed by those who currently suffer the consequences of institutions’ current reluctance to make “dual career” appointments; and also by cash-strapped university administrators: it will be cheaper to furnish the remote home office than to maintain individual offices for staff who can henceforth fulfill all their obligations online.

Householding revisited?

Are we in store for a more general reinvention of householding as a form of economic integration? The subject has a long history in economic anthropology. For Karl Polanyi, householding meant self-sufficiency in the sense of Aristotle’s oeconomia. Alongside reciprocity and redistribution, and prior to the rise of market exchange, it was one of the basic “principles of behavior” embedding economy in social organization (Polanyi 1944: 47-53). The rural household doubled as a unit of production and consumption. Its members married locally and led immobile lives. Their work was dirty and tedious, but at least its rhythms were largely under their own control.

The archetypal peasant household was transformed by industrialization, by new systems of production and marketing, and of education and military service. Migrants established new households in the towns, where they worked as proletarian wage-labourers.  A wedge was introduced between production and consumption. The mobility of both peasants and proletarians has taken on new dimensions with the acceleration of globalization.  The links between the opening of labour markets and the consolidation of populist, illiberal politics are well demonstrated, in postsocialist Eastern Europe as in Britain (Hann 2019).

Does the home office bode answers? While some of us are encouraged to reinventing earlier forms of the household in the sense of working and living in the same space, we are unlikely to approximate self-sufficiency, marry locally, or exchange labour services with our neighbours. For many, the new domestic fusion is deeply unsatisfactory: it is very difficult to write research papers when you have small children to take care of. Compared to the preindustrial peasant household, the provision of care, for young and old alike, is radically different in modern urban conditions. This cannot be reversed.

What is the impact for academia ?

Contrary to those who see in this crisis potential for a long-term “re-embedding” of the economy in social relations, I fear new waves of digitized dis-embedding, not least in our own academic communities.Video-conferencing works well for many purposes, but if the present emergency leads to the entrenchment of online teaching, the elimination of staff offices will be followed by the elimination of jobs. The difference between a traditional conference and a virtual conference will surely become clear at the annual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in July, no matter how good the Shindig software.

The tradeoffs are tough. Something would be lost if we cut back on the international conferences, but personally I could live with that. The further erosion of routine academic collegiality in particular places worries me much more. It is widely believed that the golden age of anthropology in Oxford and Cambridge depended less on the quality of the papers presented at the seminars than on the conversations before and afterwards, in the pub or the bar of King’s College respectively. At the Max Planck Institute in Halle this function is fulfilled by a Kneipe called Nexus. It is easy to mythologize this collegial interaction. But why should the Institute provide its researchers with offices and libraries if staff are encouraged to work from home? The dystopian virtual reality of the Zoom bar is no substitute for old-fashioned human corporeality.

Surely anthropologists have much to say about this?


Prof. Dr. Chris Hann is a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Halle) and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College (Cambridge).


Hann, Chris. 2019. Repatriating Polanyi. Market Society in the Visegrád States. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press.

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation. New York: Rinehart.