What does your desk say about you? The geography of desks.

It’s not that I am bored, but that I need to take a break from interview transcription. As I looked around my study up in the eaves of my house, I got to thinking, what does my desk say about me? I even google-scholared it. And I found the following papers:

First up, a paper by Richard L. Zweigenhaft  on Personal space in the faculty office: Desk placement and the student-faculty interaction in the Journal of Applied Psychology Volume 61, Issue 4, August 1976, Pages 529-532

Conducted a study based on the interior design of faculty offices at a small, coeducational college in Greensboro, North Carolina. 85% of the 74 full-time faculty members responded to a letter. The remaining 15% were visited in their offices by an assistant E. Following R. Sommer’s (1969) findings that (a) certain architectural features promote human interaction while others promote alienation, and (b) individuals tend to sit opposite one another in competitive situations but adjacent to one another in cooperative situations, it was predicted that those faculty members who placed their desks between themselves and a visiting student–therefore advertently or inadvertently using the desk as a physical barrier–would be more distant from students in other ways. Faculty who used the desk-between design tended to be older and of higher academic rank, were rated less positively on those student evaluation items that concerned the nature of the student-faculty interaction, and in general were rated less positively as teachers by their students.

So it appears that older, higher ranking academics sit with their desk as a barrier (well they do often get the biggest offices), whilst others sit side-on, able to turn their chair and body to interact with the visitor to their office. Well, from my experience, it seems to be that most academic offices aren’t conducive to the desk as barrier system, so desks are placed to the side along the wall often in narrow corridor-like spaces. Not to mention the need for connection to a computer and the Internet in order to read blogs and the like 🙂

The second paper is by Susan Halford (2004)  on Towards a Sociology of Organizational Space Sociological Research Online 9 1

This paper aims to contribute to, and extend, the emergent Sociology of organizational space. It engages critically with labour process approaches, which position space within a control-resistance paradigm, suggesting that the conceptualization of space embedded within these accounts is limited and limiting. Drawing on insights from cultural geography the paper uses a new empirical study to show the ways that spatial meanings and spatial practices in the micro-spaces of office life are constructed through diverse experiences, memories and identities operating at a range of spatial scales.

In her paper, she visits an IT office that is undergoing a transition from assigned desks (with family photographs, mugs, post-it notes, ornamentation) to hotdesking (bland and anonymous). Employees felt entitled to personalise their desk and a right to an assigned desk in the first place. This transition left many feeling disconnected and unsupported.

Finally, I came across this paper about The Desk as a Social Institution by Philip J. Tyson (1992) http://www.xrce.xerox.com/content/download/6652/51392/file/EPC-1992-130.pdf who had a fair bit to say on the subject of desks (I think it might be by the same guy who wrote an ethnography of photocopier salesmen):

The approach taken here … has uncovered a richness of detail in desks and desk usage which other approaches have failed to achieve. From the position adopted here, a sociological one, desks are at the nexus of social life in offices. Understanding what goes on at a desk, who does what and when, is indicative of patterns of social relations incorporating rights, privileges and obligations. These are available to analysis simply because they are the very stuff of social life itself. (p.30)

I work from home and apart from on Skype my workspace is rarely shared with others (apart from OH when he chooses to work from home). But over the course of one day, I respond to emails from it, surf the internet from the computer, rest my coffee, tea, lunch on it, lean on it to write, stores papers and pens, host my lamp, telephone, computer and headphones, my bookchair, other paraphernalia – earrings, iPhone, bulldog clips, glasses case. It is sometimes silent and other times extremely noisy – as I tap my nails on it or throw my pen down. It is a comfort and it is a pain. It is a space to lean on and an object to push away from. It represents work, but it is in the domestic. It was once my OH’s desk and now it is mine. I often curse it for being too high and giving me back ache, I am often pleased to see it when I have taken the time to dust it, pile papers and neatly and start work. It is also the object around which all other pieces of furniture in my office are arranged: the Ikea bookcase, the John Lewis bookcase, the display case my grandfather built, the filing cabinet by the door, the printer, the wireless router, papers on the floor, the pen pots that move on and off the desk depending on how much clarity I think they might give me if placed elsewhere.

So as it turns out, there is quite a lot to be said about the geography of desks. Currently my desk says, stop writing about me and get on with transcribing those interviews with farmers. What does your desk say about you?

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