Sociologist on “DIY”: people like to do something creative

Illustrative photo: Pxfuel, CC0

Czechs like to describe themselves as a nation of people who are innovative and manually skilled. There is even a saying in Czech – zlaté české ručičky, which translates as golden Czech hands, and points to the nation’s ability to create and innovate under all conditions. Kutilství, as we describe the DIY phenomenon in Czech, has always been a strong part of the Czech national identity.

Petr Gibas,  photo: archive of Sociological Institute in Prague
I discussed the topic with sociologist Petr Gibas, who has been researching the phenomenon as part of a project at the Sociological Institute in Prague and I first asked him if kutilství really was a unique Czech national feature.

“I would say no, not really, but at the same time, it’s an image that Czechs use to describe themselves. But the thing is that other nations also use this image to describe themselves, so it’s not specifically Czechs in terms of both the image.

“But there is a specificity that comes from the historical development. So DIY is a kind of world-wide phenomenon and kutilství is an example or a subtype of DIY.

“It has a specific socio-historical development. There is a specific context in which the DIY takes place and that context really influences what people do and how they perceive what they do.

“So there is a specificity to DIY in the Czech context but it’s not very unique in terms of Europe, for example.”

How would you define the phenomenon?

“I would say it is a whole array of practices. They generally tend to be self-led manual projects to create, or repair or maintain different objects of everyday use, including home-art, home-decorations, homemaking in general.

“So this would be a very general idea of what DIY in terms of kutilství encompasses. It is different from DIY in a general sense, because DIY in the Anglo-Saxon context also encompasses a kind of subversive feel. There is a tendency to DIY because you don’t want to be part of the capitalist system. This aspect of DIY is not part of kutilství.”

Socialist support for DIY activities

We tend to associate kutilství with Communism, when many products were unavailable, so people made things on their own because they couldn’t buy them in shops.

“Yes, that’s a kind of a general idea of how kutilství in socialism worked. I wouldn’t say it was only because things were not available. Sometimes they were available but not in a sufficient quality.

“But the socialist state very actively supported this kind of DIY creativity, not only because of the kind of emphasis on manual work in general in socialism, but also because there was this kind of ideology that scientific technological revolution would free people from the hard labour, so there would be more and more free time.

“It is not about money, it is not about generating profit, it is about the work as such. That is really surprising.”

“The idea was that people not only should but they would want to spend the free time in a reasonable way to make themselves better, let’s say. So the state provided lots of support to different arrays of activities, including DIY.”

“The idea was that if you were an intellectual, manual labour in your free time would be the right thing to do, because you would develop yourself in a harmonious way.

“So this idea of a harmonious development of a new man was a key thing in socialism. There was a whole production of manuals, books and magazines for DIY, and the underlying idea was this: Let’s allow people to develop in a positive way.”

Is it also connected with the popularity of cottages in this country?

“That’s interesting. Because of this obsession with free time, sociologists in the 1970s were really focused on how people spend their free time, and there are a number of things they were surprised by.

“One of those would be that people would spend really a lot of time in front of TV, so they wouldn’t really productively engage in their free-time activities.

“The other thing was that people tended to buy cottages rather than chatas, which were standardized pre-built constructions. People wanted cottages because they could use their DIY skills there and recreate the buildings. So there is a link between cottages and kutilství.”

What about the fact that people couldn’t freely travel to foreign countries? Did that also have an impact on the phenomenon of kutilství?

“This is a general retrospect argument. People tend to say, well, Socialism really prevented people from travelling, so they had to start gardening or DIYing.

“But the thing is that even today, many people don’t travel and they do DIY or they garden instead of travelling.

“So to a certain degree definitely yes, people had to spend their time in a meaningful way. But to a certain degree, not necessarily, I would say.”

Origins of DIY linked to emergence of free time

Illustrative photo: Michal Jarmoluk,  Pixabay / CC0
You have been studying the phenomenon for several years but it actually dates further back in history.

“I mean in general, DIY as a kind of specific activity, which is different from the manual productive labour that was part of human lives for centuries, is very much connected to the emergence of free time. That’s really a matter of high modernity, the end of the 19th century, industrialization and urbanization.

“Lots of changes to societal order were brought along with those changes of society, like gender reforms and the fact that women entered the public space and workforce, henceforth men would have to take more part in house duties.

“There are studies in the US, for example, which show that it is exactly this change of the gender order that would force men to start doing things at home as well.

“So they started doing DIY stuff, such as taking care of the house, because these would be the skills the men would have and it would also make them contribute to the household and retain their masculinity.

“So the whole market emerged around these handymen. That’s the beginning of DIY as we know it in Europe and the rich North.”

It is true that we do tend to associate kutils with men. Even the word is masculine and we don’t really have a feminine form of that word.

“We can create that, but it is not really widely used, that’s true. There is this kind of association with masculinity. It’s historical, definitely.

“These small things such as DIY can tell you a lot about what is happening to the society and the people living in it.”

“It’s also a matter of marketing and that is also historical. The market really emerged around men in the US. For example there are studies from West Germany that this whole market was transferred from the US to Germany in the 1950s.

“All those hobby markets that we now have in the Czech Republic emerged at that time in West Germany under the influence of the US capitalist system of supporting DIY but also capitalizing on it. And that was really masculine oriented. But that does not necessarily mean that only men would become kutils or DIYers. Women also do DIY. It may look a little bit different, but maybe not necessarily.”

How has the phenomenon of kutilství changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain?

“I would say that what happened in Germany in the 1950s happened here in the 1990s. There was this kind of book of German hobby markets and German market- system that surrounds DIY and that was imported to the Czech Republic.

“It really merged with this tradition of kutilství. So it was really kind of a smooth take-over of capitalism of that phenomenon, which was incorporated into capitalist, profit-driven production.

“Over time, we observe this influx of ideas that are part of the general DIY, of that subversiveness, ecological sensibilities and environmental concerns.

“So there are different kinds of people who do different types of DIY. For some of those people there is a continuity in what they are doing. If you talk to them, it would look very similar to what they did or what their parents did in the 1980s, for example.

“But there are completely new types of DIY that are not really linked to this specific, socio-historical development of the Czech DIY.”

So do people today have different motivations why they do DIY?

“They always had, but the scope of these motivations has really widened, at least in the last couple of years, definitely.”

Do these motivations differ according to age?

Illustrative photo: Pxfuel,  CC0
“Not necessarily. There is a scale from economic necessity to spending free time in a kind of productive way, let’s say. So the people would fit on that scale somewhere depending on their economic situation.

“So because of the economic situation, older people would tend to be on the economic part of that scale. But there is also continuity in what they had been doing. They did DIY in socialism, so they are doing it now.

“But you can find young people as well who do DIY because of economic necessity. They would build their house in a kind of self-help manner, for example.

“So it’s difficult to say. There is really a variety a scale of motivations and those motivations really overlap and intersect.

“But I think the umbrella idea or the emotions behind are that you should spend our time productively. People like creating stuff. It’s not really important what kind of things you create. You just do things because it’s good.”

Was there something that really surprised you while carrying out this research, something that you didn’t expect?

“Well, what is really interesting is these underlying moral principles. I mean the labour or work as such is really valued. In a post-socialist, neo-liberal, capitalist society, this is kind of surprising, isn’t it, that labour as such is of value.

“It is not about money, it is not about generating profit, it is about the work as such. And working is good. That is really surprising and fascinating.”

You have been studying DIY as part of a project at the Sociological Institute in Prague. What will be the outcome of the project?

“It is a research funded by the Ministry of Culture so it is really oriented towards public, in general.

There is a whole team of people who do the research. We organised one exhibition in Cheb which is still on until April. There will be another exhibition at the end of this year in Prague.

“And there will also be two books that accompany these exhibitions. Apart from that there are of course some scientific outcomes, like articles and so on. But generally the emphasis is put on exhibitions and on popularising the findings.”

Illustrative photo: Barbora Němcová
Will you continue to research kutilství or are you planning to move on to another topic?

“What we did last two years we focused really on people who DIY in a kind of manner where we could ascertain the continuity and discontinuity of socialist DIY until present.

“So we would like to focus more on the kind of modern or contemporary DIY, the one that is subversive and hipster and hyped and designed, so that’s what we would like to do this year.

“And then further on we’ll see. It’s a really interesting thing that connects lots of contexts, historical, social, political, but also in different kinds of localities, like here, in Europe, in the US.

“So there is a possibility to compare these things, which I think would allow us to see how the societies change. Because these small things such as DIY can tell you a lot about what’s happening to society and people living in it.”