Bursting the bubble fallacy: Lockdown and the problematic concept of ‘home’

As the past few weeks have starkly revealed, we can’t always conflate the occupants of a single residence into one neat group. Anthropologists Susanna Trnka and Sharyn Graham Davies explain. 

On March 23, New Zealanders were presented with a stark and unprecedented demand to get into our “bubbles” within 48 hours and stay there for the next four weeks. 

Now we have entered alert level three, we have the chance to slightly expand our bubbles, so now is a good time to reflect on how we put those bubbles together in the first place, and the implications of those choices.

While much has been said about the challenges of staying home and not contravening lockdown rules, there has been little commentary on the difficulties many New Zealanders faced in initially constituting their bubbles. With a few exceptions, such as what to do about children in joint custodial arrangements and people facing the threat of domestic violence, the government seemed to assume people would automatically know what their bubbles would look like. 

A bubble, however, is a complex thing. We can’t always simply conflate a family, a household and the occupants of a single residence into one unproblematic group. Nor will a single domestic unit necessarily function as a key site of shared responsibility and acts of care. As the following weeks starkly revealed, bubbles may be neither economically bound together, nor tied together by relations of love and care.

In 1991, anthropologist Kath Weston published a book entitled Families We Choose. Weston’s book was radical in how it presented “the family” as not necessarily connected by blood or an official piece of paper. Instead, Weston suggested you could choose your family, and that you show “family-ness” through acts of shared responsibility and care. Choosing your family was a radical idea in 1991, but what about 2020? What does the “bubble” narrative tell us about how we choose families, or are chosen to be a part of them?

Photo: Getty Images

Government directives for level four seem to have pictured most New Zealanders as living in nuclear households. This assumption included two fallacies. The first was the idea that people’s bubbles would map onto a cohesive economic unit, thus the advice that one member of each household do the grocery shopping. But what about students or workers who flat together? Clearly they are neither necessarily accustomed to sharing cooking responsibilities nor used to pooling financial resources to buy essential supplies.

The second fallacy assumed that people’s primary relations of care and responsibility would coincide with members of their bubble. But there may, in fact, be bubbles whose members have no obligations to care for one another. Taking again the example of students flatting together: if someone falls sick (and this is a likely prospect during a pandemic), who will take care of them? Should someone be incapacitated, who will make healthcare decisions on their behalf?

For many New Zealanders, the lockdown brought on fraught discussions about who might, or might not, belong to a single bubble. Many families are dispersed across multiple households, resulting in relations of care and responsibilities being spread across residences. Indeed, across many Pacific, Māori and Asian communities, movements of people between households are commonplace, activated by bonds of love, shifting responsibilities of caregiving, or motivated by needs to maximise resources. 

These connections raise crucial questions about who makes it into a bubble and who doesn’t. What would happen to elderly parents living on their own? Or adult children who, given the lockdown, were now out of a job but had rent to pay? What about nieces and nephews of parents who might be essential services workers? Or friends who are immunocompromised and in need of support? How do people continue to provide care for these loved ones?

(Photo: Getty Images)

In many ways, our lockdown bubble is built on the same fallacy as the national census. Both bubble formation and the census require us to identify household composition in an artificial way. When we fill in the census we do so based on the occupants of the house on a given night and we all know that with travel, foreign visitors and students away at school, for example, that it’s not a reflection of who we actually live with. Our hastily constructed bubbles also not do reflect our complex living relationships.

Level four regulations enabling members of one bubble to join up with another (i.e. lockdown buddies), or enabling movements of vulnerable persons into different bubbles (i.e., an elderly person living alone joins another bubble), do address some of  these complexities. But given the recent focus on supporting mental wellbeing during lockdown, we believe greater public attention should be drawn to New Zealanders’ diverse patterns of cohabitation: bearing in mind that those who live together do not necessarily equal a household, a household doesn’t necessarily equal a family, and ties of care, love and obligation many of us are involved in surpass these delineations. 

Across the nation, there’s been a visible rise in domestic care activities like baking and gardening, but the fact remains that for some people, the lockdown cannot be devoted to increased efforts to “make home better”, as their very sense of belonging, or “at home-ness”, isn’t necessarily where they feel at home.

For others, choices made in those 48 hours to determine the shape and nature of their bubble were not easy and will have enduring (and sometimes unanticipated) consequences.

If you are interested in taking part in anthropological research on the constitution of lockdown bubbles, please click here.



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