Menu Close

Theories and Theorists of the Everyday

Here are short introductions to some of the thinkers whose understanding of everyday life inform this project.

Mass Observation

Mass Observation was a collective of artists, film-makers, and poets who conducted a massive study of everyday life in Britain beginning in the late 1930s.  These amateur sociologists were hoping to discover a politically progressive, collective unconscious through studying the everyday. They recruited more than a thousand informants, who kept day diaries, answered questionnaires, and recorded observations of their fellow citizens. They taught methods of observation to these non-professional volunteers and sought to break down the hierarchical relation between the observers and the observed. In the 1940s Mass Observation became part of the wartime propaganda effort. A new version of Mass Observation began in the 1980s and continues today.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English novelist, essayist, and publisher. Her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) offers a singular vision of everyday life, using stream-of-consciousness narration to tell the story of a set of characters on a single day in London in 1923. Her posthumously published essay “Moments of Being” offers a concise theory of everyday life. There Woolf separates daily consciousness into “non-being”—a distracted semi-consciousness in which we perform routine tasks—and “being”—a fleeting state of intense awareness and perception, grounded in the physical details around us but connected to a deeper, quasi-mystical state of connection with others and with the universe.

Rita Felski

Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She has written on a wide range of subjects but her most insistent intellectual move is to place women at the center of theory, literary history, and cultural studies. This emphasis informs the early essay, “The Invention of Everyday Life,” which has become a touchstone in everyday life studies. In it she disputes with Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, seeking a middle ground between Lefebvre’s dystopian view of they everyday as alienation (and women as the victims of everyday life) and de Certeau’s reading of the everyday as a sphere of resistance and self-expression. She insists that the everyday is constantly “both/and”—oppressive for some people more than for others, liberating at one moment and stultifying the next. Her essay provides the following durable analysis of the everyday: that its typical time-function is repetition; its typical space the home; and its typical mode of operation habit. Habit and repetition, her essay insists, are best understood as essential to the human ability to survive and thrive—not as symptoms of alienated modern living.

Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1999) was a French philosopher and sociologist whose life-work includes the massive, three-volume Critique of Everyday Life (1947, 1961, and 1981). Lefebvre’s theories are too complex to be summarized easily, but they hinge on an understanding of the everyday as the sphere where the forces of history, politics, and economics collide with the life of the individual. A Marxist, Lefebvre insists on modern life as “alienated” and finds that even activities that seem very personal and individual—such as how we spend our leisure time—have been commodified under capitalist culture. In a much-cited essay on “Work and Leisure in Everyday Life,” Lefebvre argues that the separation of our waking lives into seemingly exclusive spheres of “work” and “leisure” is a mark of alienation: modern people see their lives subdivided into distinct activities rather than experiencing their lives as unified wholes. In this way the existence of modern leisure is, for Lefebvre, a critique of the everyday from within the everyday.

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German Jewish philosopher and critic of popular culture. Among his most influential works is The Arcades Project, a massive set of personal reflections based upon areas in Paris, France. Written between 1927 and 1940, it was never finished (and is unfinishable, says everyday life theorist Ben Highmore) but still remains an invaluable source for the theory of everyday life. In the Project and other works such as Illuminations, Benjamin speaks about the modern everyday as the “overstimulation” of the senses, likens the everyday to cinematic montage, and introduces the concept of the “dialectical image.” A dialectical image represents contending historical forces in miniature, freezing a moment where the past gave way to the future and making visible the social, economic, and political forces battling at that point of transition.

Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) was Director d’Etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Visiting Professor of French and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life volume 1 sketches out a complex and ambitious theory of everyday life. Volume 2, co-authored with Luce Giard and Pierre Mayol, presents sociological studies based on the theoretical ideas of the first volume. The foremost theorist of everyday life, de Certeau distinguishes “tactics”—the small, improvisational, everyday decisions people make in order to make their lives livable—from “strategies”—the larger social forces (work, career, media) that determine and oppress individuals’ freedom. Strategies come from our workplaces, from the media, from society: the pressure to work hard, the rules of the workplace, and the media’s high expectations for living. Tactics are how we react to strategies, adapting to them in small, personal, and sometimes unconscious ways in order to cope and to enjoy life. While de Certeau’s thought has been considered obscure and idealistic, it remains unmatched in identifying and articulating in new ways the mysteries of the everyday.

Ben Highmore

Ben Highmore is a professor of cultural studies with an emphasis in media, film and popular culture at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. With seven books and dozens of articles to his credit, Highmore has been one of the most articulate voices in searching for ways of studying and representing everyday life for the last fifteen years. Key works include Everyday Life and Cultural Theory (2002), which works through the theories of a number of major figures, including Walter Benjamin and Michel de Certeau. Its companion volume, The Everyday Life Reader (also 2002), assembles excerpts from more than 25 scholars and groups who have worked on the study of everyday life. In later works such as: Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday and A Passion for Cultural Studies, Highmore turns from theory to practice, training his analysis on phenomena ranging from Indian food in British life to home decor, including a lyrical and critical meditation on an inexpensive, mass-produced chair from his parents’  house that now rests in his den. In Ordinary Lives, Highmore offers a description of the everyday as an “accumulation of ‘small things’ that constitute a more expansive but hard to register ‘big thing’.” Yet, the everyday is also “punctuated by interruptions and irruptions” such as a knock on the door, a stubbed toe, or an unexpected present among many examples. Highmore visited Muncie and took part in the seminar for two days in February.


In his most recent book on Everyday Life, Cultural Moods, Highmore asserts the existence of “cultural moods”—structured ranges of affect that are widely shared and substantially created by material, social, and historical conditions. Cultural moods are experienced with variations from person to person but they are not subjective; they are “experienced through our acculturated nervous systems and through our worlded skin,” he writes. The book seeks to identify and understand such cultural moods, to probe how they function as “relays between feelings and various cultural phenomena.” He traces how various, powerful cultural actors, including corporations and government entities expend resources (through advertising, marketing, “customer experience,” and other activities, to create cultural moods.

Kathleen Stewart

Kristen Stewart is professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her 2007 book Ordinary Affects attempts to attend to the often-fleeting emotional/sensory states that make up much of everyday consciousness. In Stewart’s view, “ordinary affects” are convergences of forces that flow through us; she describes them repeatedly as “circuits,” which are sometimes short-circuited before or immediately-upon-becoming conscious, but sometimes crystallize into something more conscious and lasting. She defines “ordinary affects” in multiple ways, as “forces that come into view as habit or shock, resonance or impact”; “something that throws itself together in a moment as an event or sensation, something both animated and habitable” (1); “varied, surging capacities to affect and be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences” (2). Crucially, ordinary affects circulate in the culture–they are public and shared (though not universally) even though they are “the stuff that intimate lives are made of” (2). They are the “contact zones” where “the overdeterminations of circulations, events, conditions, technologies, and flows of power literally take place” (3). Ordinary affects are thus not something we control but they are rich in potential for change and knowledge; they differ from ideologies in being “more fractious, multiplicitous and unpredictable than symbolic meanings” (3).

This territory is laid out in the introduction to Ordinary Affects, which then proceeds through a series of small, focused, experimental essay-meditations on everyday life and affective phenomena—many of them based on personal observation (though typically written in third-person and a number of them reflecting travels in the U.S. southwest and people or moments in Stewart’s own life. This episodic structure is in keeping with Stewart’s sense that the everyday resists social-scientific generalization and should not be approached as a stable object of study. Her book rejects “demystification and uncovered truths that support a well-known picture of the world” in favor of a position of “speculation, curiosity, and the concrete” (1).