There is no such thing as a normal person. This was the conclusion that Harvey Sacks came to in his writing on ‘doing being ordinary’, in which he suggested that we shift our thinking from ‘ordinary people’ as some sort of fixed category to the ways in which people go about doing ‘being ordinary’ (1984). In short, ordinariness is a constant preoccupation, it is a job that must be worked at. So how does one go about doing being ordinary? The answer is simple, by spending your time in ‘usual ways’, having ‘usual thoughts’, and maintaining ‘usual interests’ (Sacks, 1984: 415). What constitutes ‘usualness’ is evidently relative – it involves knowing what others ordinarily do. For instance, a ‘usual’ evening may consist of having dinner and watching TV. Such an evening is so usual, so ordinary, that if somebody asked, ‘what you are doing tonight?’, you could simply say ‘nothing much’ – this nothing muchness is perhaps the clearest marker of ordinariness.
Context is key
Sacks also draws our attention to the importance of context. If you were a prisoner, it may be normal for you to spend an evening staring at cracks in the wall. If you were a substance user, a normal evening may involve acquiring and using your substance of choice. However, if you were neither a prisoner nor substance user, then an evening spent staring at walls or taking substances may seem very unusual indeed. A situated approach to normality enables us to grasp what day-to-day life looks like within a specific context. Yet, these contexts are not entirely devoid of normative understandings of normality, rather such understandings may lurk in the background, subtly reinforcing the relative abnormality of those staring at a wall or taking substances. Residents at Holbrook House – a large, high support, male-only hostel – must negotiate this conflict on a daily basis. Take Shaun, for example:
Shaun removes the two stolen Yankee Candles from his jacket, brags about how easy it was to steal them, and makes plans to sell them. He talks about his ‘normal’ routine, ‘it’s easy being a junkie, you just wake up, use, run in a shop, grab, take out the security guard, go into a pub, and sell £400 of North Face clothes for £200’.
As most of the hostel’s residents take one substance or another, this routine of acquiring money, purchasing substances, and using is fairly usual, and has a ‘nothing much’ quality about it. However, those who live at the hostel are nonetheless aware of the relative abnormality of this routine, which some say is ‘addictive’ in itself, or simply ‘part of the lifestyle’. Further, many residents’ life goals are actually quite mundane and not dissimilar to mine or yours. In the same conversation, Shaun reflects on a period of abstinence, which ended when the death of a close friend (re)triggered his substance use.
He sighs, ‘I want a normal life more than anything and I’ve come so close… a flat, a job, a car, a Mrs, a little girl, and a holiday once a year. That’s what I want, but I can’t stop using.’ (Fieldnotes, 24/01/2020)
Becoming normal in an abnormal place
The real tensions are brought to light when normalities interact with mobilities. Holbrook House is a level one hostel, located within a four-level housing pathway. The idea is that people experiencing homelessness move into this pathway at level one, work their way through the various stages by proving themselves ‘housing ready’ at each level, before eventually moving out the other side and into independent accommodation. With no clear-cut criteria for housing readiness, decisions are often up to the discretion of individual support workers. Nonetheless, when asked ‘what makes a person housing ready?’ the responses of staff members were fairly consistent – engaging, linking in with support services, reducing substance use or alcohol consumption, doing ‘taken for granted’ things such as showering or buying food, developing a routine, and managing front doors are all indicators of housing readiness. These indicators are couched in normativity and suggest that movement through the pathway depends upon an individual’s ability to act in conventionally normal ways.
At the same time, getting by at the hostel in the short term requires individuals to acclimatise to the situated sense of normality which prevails within the walls of the institution. In other words, residents must learn how to ‘do being ordinary’ within the hostel context. In an ordinary day, residents may: take, be offered, or be asked for substances or alcohol; witness the symptoms of declining mental health; be asked for money, food, or cigarettes; defend against attempts at theft; have to ask permission for basic necessities e.g., access to the building or toilet roll; and be kept awake at night by noise. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. The danger is that those who adapt too well, or too fully, to the usualness of life at Holbrook House may find that they become ‘stuck’ at the hostel. A situated approach enables us to understand how normative ideas concerning normality may clash with what actually goes on inside the hostel. Housing practitioners, and housing models, may therefore benefit from tuning into these situated understanding rather than imposing more general normative ideas about what’s considered normal and what progress looks like.
Sacks, H. 1984. On doing ‘being ordinary’. In: Heritage, J. and Atkinson, J. Structures of social action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 413-429.
Fiona Long is a final year PhD student at Cardiff University. She is an urban ethnographer who undertook her doctoral research at a homeless hostel in the South of England. This blog post, together with the paper presented at the 2023 HSA Conference, are teasers taken from a findings chapter titled ‘Negotiating Normalities within a Homeless Hostel.’