Forced Discrimination: Selecting Housemates and Intimate Prejudice

This work is based on two studies that examined the explanations and justifications offered by those required to select housemates (Clark & Tuffin, 2015; Tuffin & Clark, 2016). In response to changing population demographics with increasing numbers of young adults sharing prior to purchasing their own home, this research set out to add to the limited literature looking at how we chose whom to live with. The economic and social advantages of living with others make this an attractive option but when sharing there is always the possibility of things going wrong. The possibility of interpersonal dispute and hostility means the introduction of new flat members warrants careful consideration and makes the question ‘with whom should I share a household?’ of critical importance.

In addition to addressing this important question, the research also aimed to add to understandings of the workings of prejudice and discrimination within the context of moral sanctions against openly discussing prejudice. However, finding the right flatmate requires discrimination, and this pragmatic necessity is protected by law. New Zealand Legislation (2008) and the 1993 Human Rights Act prevents discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, psychiatric illness, and psychological impairment. However, shared residential accommodation is a notable exception to this act, thereby situating the topic of housemate selection in the psychological space between the legal right to discriminate and the social sanctions against openly expressing prejudice. This makes the issue of how people explain their selection preferences of potential housemates a valuable site for the investigation of human prejudice. The usual wariness associated with disclosure of prejudice and the moral pressure to avoid the appearance of being discriminatory does not apply in this situation. Selecting house mates is unique in that discrimination is not only legal but also required, with the overlay that choosing the right person is vitally important given the domestic proximity involved.

Ten participants, average age 27, who had recently been searching for new housemates were engaged in face-to-face or Skype interviews. In detailing the reasons people gave for preferences, a number of key discourses were evident (Clark & Tuffin, 2015). Regarding the criterion of age, there was marked rigidity with strong preference for age-similar others. Gender was seen as less important, aside from the desirability of maintaining a gender balance. Ethnicity was approached with caution, especially with respect to cultural differences and language barriers. In all cases, previous bad experiences were cited to support and justify the unsuitability and rejection of unwelcome applicants. Similarly, prejudice was based around the personal shortcomings of the rejected.

The second study (Tuffin & Clark, 2016) went beyond the question of selection of ideal housemates and invoked common stereotypes suggesting substance abusers and the mentally ill would not be the most desirable people to live with. In particular, the acceptability of social groups usually afforded great social distance was considered (those with mental illness and alcohol and drug use). Stier and Hinshaw (2007) have clearly demonstrated a preference of increased social distance for those suffering from mental problems. And, it is useful to bear in mind that Link, Phelan, Bresnahan, and Pescosolido (1999) assessed social distance by looking at respondents willingness to live next door, become friendly with, work with, or have a mentally ill person marry into the family—all scenarios requiring less intimate contact than the minimal social distance involved in sharing a house.

The rhetorical resources drawn on to justify discrimination against mental illness included discourses of naivety, irresponsibility, controllability, and dangerousness. The rationale for rejection was framed in terms of safety, economic imperatives, and the much cited but little understood notion of the ‘social dynamics’ of the house. These dynamics are commonly understood to be complex and centred around the expectation that housemates make a contribution to the life of the house, not be an emotional drain or economic liability and, most importantly, that the safety and harmony of living with others not be compromised. Acceptance was conditional and subject to invisibility and controllability of problems. Recreational substance abuse was acceptable and talked about as an important facet of normal socialising. Problematic usage was indexed to frequency, type of drug, discretion, and the appropriate social context. Rejection criteria were associated with inferences of dangerousness, unpredictability, and both social and chemical dependency. In such cases, rejection was unambiguous and bolstered by the rhetorical absolute of needing to be safe and trusting those one shared with.

This analysis suggests firstly that discriminatory accounts and justifications were not denied but either clarified by invoking specific contextual criteria or provided highly qualified acceptance. This lack of deniability in the accounts of prejudice and discrimination makes this study unique in terms of openness, transparency, and frankness. Secondly, in the case of forced discrimination, highly specific reasons were provided to justify rejection. These highly contextualised criteria place this work in a space which goes beyond abstract judgements regarding ‘others’ and offers intensely psychological and pragmatic accounts of who one might be willing to live with.

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