Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology
How, when and why do people start to see something as”broken”? Do objects around the home just have two states, broken and working, or are there many other kinds of states they can be in? Clearly, the significance of many domestic objects is in relation to the projects of home which surround them and preoccupy the groups of people living together in a household. In some ways, household things are materialisations of projects, and ideas of being broken and fixed express this.

The Broken Stories project involved a group of Masters students on the UCL course Materials/Anthropology/Design at UCL working with Fixperts on issues of what kinds of fixing happen in the home, and what kinds of situations the Fixperts might get involved in.

The UCL team interviewed a range of homes in London, in order to explore the issues of fixing in situ. They uncovered a wide range of ways that material things in the home might need fixing, and a range of ways they might be fixed. Different people may have very different intentions and expectations about fixing. The team found that the conception of what needs fixing is very different for different people. The realisation that something is “broken” is not always sudden, a moment when something breaks. The perception of brokenness can emerge in different ways at different times, as an embodied understanding, or in conversations and interactions. Sometimes, the realisation is not individual but socially contagious. We placed this at the core of the research, emphasising brokenness.
Convergent with the emergent perception of parts of the home as broken is the perception of exactly what is wrong and what is right. Not all brokenness is about function. It can be about colour, or about the kinds of social events which can or can not take place because of objects. There is a big difference between a cracked mug you drink from, and a cracked mug which you display as an antique.
These stories of brokenness also concern the capacity to fix. As households and relationships shift, one can feel able or unable to actually lay hands on some things to fix them. A sense of brokenness can also be a hyper-sensitivity to one’s own capacities and abilities. In many instances, it is not only the object world which changes, but ourselves who change. “It’s not you, it’s me” is the disturbing realisation which some people experience in their relationships with objects. Brokenness can again feel contagious, and very personal.
We analysed four kinds of fixing, and a spectrum of different kinds of corresponding brokenness. We outlined types of home situation for the Reinventor, the Recycler, the Reminiscer and the Removed, and tried to help Fixperts work out which areas of fixing and brokenness worked best for them. The project is encapsulated in this video:

If you want to study design anthropology, cultures of materials, and crafts, places are available on the MA programme in Materials.Anthropology.Design at UCL:

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