[Paleopsych] Shelley Mallett: Understanding home: a critical review of the literature

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Shelley Mallett: Understanding home: a critical review of the literature
author at The University of Melbourne
The Sociological Review
Volume 52 Issue 1 Page 62  - February 2004


In recent years there has been a proliferation of writing on the meaning of 
home within the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, psychology, human 
geography, history, architecture and philosophy. Although many researchers now 
understand home as a multidimensional concept and acknowledge the presence of 
and need for multidisciplinary research in the field, there has been little 
sustained reflection and critique of the multidisciplinary field of home 
research and the diverse, even contradictory meanings of this term. This paper 
brings together and examines the dominant and recurring ideas about home 
represented in the relevant theoretical and empirical literature. It raises the 
question whether or not home is (a) place(s), (a) space(s), feeling(s), 
practices, and/or an active state of state of being in the world? Home is 
variously described in the literature as conflated with or related to house, 
family, haven, self, gender, and journeying. Many authors also consider notions 
of being-at-home, creating or making home and the ideal home. In an effort to 
facilitate interdisciplinary conversations about the meaning and experience of 
home each of these themes are briefly considered in this critical literature 


1. The place or a place where one lives: have you no home to go to?

2. a house or other dwelling.

3. a family or other group living in a house or other place.

4. a person's country, city, esp. viewed as a birthplace, a residence during 
one's early years, or a place dear to one.

5. the environment or habitat of a person or animal.

6. the place where something is invented, founded or developed: the US is the 
home of baseball.

7.a. a building or organization set up to care for orphans, the aged etc b. an 
informal name for a mental home.

12. a home from home a place other than one's own home where one can be at 

14. at home in, on, or with. familiar or conversant with.

25. bring home to. a. to make clear to. b. to place the blame on (Collins 
English Dictionary, 1979: 701)

Introduction: dream home

Sometimes when I am lying in bed at night awake and restless I play a game to 
induce sleep. I imagine all the houses I have lived in since I was born. My 
imaginary journeys invariably begin and end with a stroll through my childhood 
home [-] a place that I lived in for the first 18 years of my life, a place my 
family left nearly 20 years ago. Starting at the front door I proceed through 
all the rooms in the house. As I walk I try to remember the house fittings and 
furnishings in each room. Memories of my early life, our family life, flood 
back to me as I move through the space. These memories show no respect for 
chronological time. Nor do they come with an accompanying autobiographical 
narrative. A certain equality prevails in this remembered world. Eventful 
moments in my family life hold equal sway with the mundane activities of 
domestic life. More recently these imaginary journeys have taken me to places 
beyond our house, to our street, and the park across the road. Sometimes I see 
myself playing with friends and neighbours, going to kindergarten, catching the 
train to school, and walking along the pier or on the sand at the local beach. 
I observe myself in these places, but mostly the places and me seem as one. Are 
these happy memories? Perhaps they are best described as benign. Here in this 
imaginary terrain painful memories are leached of their power. I feel 
comfortable and secure. I am at home. Sleep comes quickly.

Wide awake, poised to write a theoretical reflection on home, it struck me that 
these nighttime experiences mirror many of the ways home is defined and 
discussed in the relevant literature. My journeys inflect ideas of home 
integral to the modern Anglo-European imaginary. In this realm, at once 
personal and social, house and home are related but not conflated. The birth 
family house holds symbolic power as a formative dwelling place, a place of 
origin and return, a place from which to embark upon a journey. This house or 
dwelling accommodates home but home is not necessarily confined to this place. 
The boundaries of home seemingly extend beyond its walls to the neighborhood, 
even the suburb, town or city. Home is place but it is also a space inhabited 
by family, people, things and belongings [-] a familiar, if not comfortable 
space where particular activities and relationships are lived. In my account 
home is a virtual place, a repository for memories of the lived spaces. It 
locates lived time and space, particularly intimate familial time and space.

Thankfully my nighttime recollections are not burdened by the need to provide a 
comprehensive account of contemporary meanings of home. Sleep would be elusive 
if that were the case! Absent in my story, yet present in the diverse 
multi-disciplinary research literature, is the idea of home as homeland, the 
land of one's forebears. While memories of home are often nostalgic and 
sentimental, home is not simply recalled or experienced in positive ways. My 
reflection, however, provides no sense of home as a space of tyranny, 
oppression or persecution. Equally, the relationship between home, gender, 
ethnicity and sexuality are overlooked.

In the following paper I review and critically reflect on these and other ways 
home is understood and discussed in the literature. Research on the meaning and 
experience of home has proliferated over the past two decades, particularly 
within the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, psychology, human geography, 
history, architecture and philosophy. This expansion of the field followed 
several key conferences on home and the publication of a number of edited 
collections (Gurney, 1997). Many researchers now understand home as a 
multidimensional concept and acknowledge the presence of and need for 
multidisciplinary research in the field. However, with the exception of two 
exemplary articles by Després (1991) and Somerville (1997) few have translated 
this awareness into genuinely, interdisciplinary studies of the meaning of 
home.1 Instead researchers generally limit their analyses to particular 
dimensions of home [-] typically those aspects that routinely fall within their 
own disciplinary orbit. They explore similar issues about home yet speak in 
their own disciplinary voice, often confining their discussion to interested 
researchers in their own discipline. Where criticism is leveled at research in 
the field it generally focuses on the efficacy and political implications of 
particular theoretical and methodological approaches used to understand the 
meaning of home. This should not surprise us because as Saunders and Williams 

Precisely because the home touches so centrally on our personal lives, any 
attempt to develop a dispassionate social scientific analysis inevitably 
stimulates emotional and deeply fierce argument and disagreement. The home is a 
major political background [-] for feminists, who see it in the crucible of 
gender domination; for liberals, who identify it with personal autonomy and a 
challenge to state power; for socialists, who approach it as a challenge to 
collective life and the ideal of a planned and egalitarian social order. (1988: 

It is the task of this paper to bring together and examine the dominant and 
recurring ideas about home represented in the literature. This is not a 
reductive exercise aimed at reconciling disparate dimensions of or disciplinary 
perspectives on home. Nor is it my intention to produce a definitive 
interdisciplinary approach to the study of home. My intentions are more modest. 
This project is designed to promote conversation about home in the literature 
and facilitate discussion between the disciplines that both reflects and 
accommodates people's complex and diverse lived experience of home. Of course 
there are elisions in my own analysis of the field. Most obvious among them is 
my regrettable lack of discussion of the cross-cultural perspectives on home, 
place and space. Although important, these perspectives fall beyond the scope 
of this paper.2

The question then remains, how is home understood, defined and described across 
the relevant theoretical and empirical literature? This question invokes 
another that is central to, although not always explicitly stated in, 
discussion and recurring debates about the meaning of home in the literature. 
Is home (a) place(s), (a) space(s), feeling(s), practices, and/or an active 
state of state of being in the world? Home is variously described as conflated 
with or related to house, family, haven, self, gender, and journeying. Many 
authors also consider notions of being-at-home, creating or making home and the 
ideal home. In an effort to reflect the multi-dimensional nature of home each 
of these themes are briefly considered below.

House and home

Many researchers have examined the etymology of the word home as part of a 
broader agenda to examine the historical antecedents of the term. In an 
expansive essay on the uses of the term in particular Western languages, 
Hollander (1991) notes that the Germanic words for home, Heim, ham, heem, are 
derived from the Indo-European kei meaning lying down and something dear or 
beloved. In other words, it means something like a place to lay one's head. He 
suggests that the German word for house, thought of as a building where people 
live, or a dwelling place for a family, is imbued with the sense of home (see 
also Rykwert, 1991).

In English, the term 'home' derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ham, meaning 
village, estate or town (Hollander, 1991). Berger (1984 : 55) notes that with 
the seventeenth century rise of the bourgeoisie, 'two kinds of moralists' have 
subsequently displaced this meaning of the term. The concept of homeland was 
appropriated by the ruling classes to promote a form of nationalism and 
patriotism aimed at protecting and preserving their land, wealth and power. At 
the same time the idea of home became the focal point for a form of 'domestic 
morality' aimed at safeguarding familial property, including estates, women and 
children. Rykwert (1991: 53) notes that the association between house and home 
was consolidated in English case law in the early 17th century by the Jacobean 
Judge, Sir Edward Coke. The judge declared, 'The house of everyman is to him as 
his castle and fortresse, as well as his defense against injury and violence, 
as for his repose' (Rykwert, 1991 : 53). Later simplified in the nineteenth 
century to 'The Englishmen's house is his castle' (53), this phrase was 
popularly appropriated to define and describe home as a haven which comprises 
both house and surrounding land.

Many authors assert that contemporary Anglo-European, Anglo-American or more 
broadly white Western conceptions of home privilege a physical structure or 
dwelling, such as a house, flat, institution or caravan (Bowlby et al., 1997: 
344; Giddens, 1984). It is a place where space and time are controlled and 
'structured functionally, economically, aesthetically and morally' and where 
domestic 'communitarian practices' are realized (Rapport and Dawson, 1998: 6; 
Douglas, 1991). House and home are often conflated in the popular media, 
typically as a means of selling real estate and promoting 'home' ownership. 
While the building and real estate industries clearly gain from a community's 
valorization of home ownership, so too do governments with particular social 
agendas. In fact, as some researchers note, governments of advanced capitalist 
countries such as Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have actively 
promoted the conflation of house, home and family as part of a broader 
ideological agenda aimed at increasing economic efficiency and growth. These 
governments have attempted to shift the burden of responsibility for citizens' 
welfare away from the state and its institutions on to the home and nuclear 
family (Madigan et al., 1990; Dupuis and Thorns, 1998). The expansion of the 
middle classes that occurred during the 1950's and 1960's and the global 
economic downturn of the late 1970's are cited as some of the reasons for the 
re-structuring of economies and welfare states that has occurred in these 
countries over the past two to three decades. As a consequence of this 
restructuring in these contexts, owner occupied housing has increased, public 
housing has decreased and housing tenure has increasingly featured in the 
meaning of home.3 As Madigan et al. (1990) indicate, the literature on the 
significance of home ownership variously argues that it is a source of personal 
identity and status and/or a source of personal and familial security (Dupuis 
and Thorns, 1996). It can also provide a sense of place and belonging in an 
increasingly alienating world.

In attempting to elucidate the relationship between house and home many 
researchers, particularly architects and historians, have examined the ways 
design, spatial organization, and furnishings of domestic dwellings influence 
and inflect concepts and/or ideologies of the home.4 Research of this kind is 
premised on at least two inter-related ideas. First, most authors uncritically 
conflate house and home. Second, they assert that the spatial organization of 
domestic dwellings both influences and reflects forms of sociality associated 
with and/or peculiar to any given cultural and historical context. In other 
words, household designs, furnishings and technologies constrain or facilitate 
cultural and historical modes of relating between the people who share these 

A prominent example of this kind of research is the architect, Witold 
Rybczynski's (1986) book, Home: A Short History of an Idea. Rybczynski examines 
historical and cultural ideas of home especially as they are inflected through 
the design of American and European houses, household furnishings and 
technologies since the Middle Ages and particularly from the seventeenth 
century onwards. He asserts that during the seventeenth century ideas about 
privacy, domesticity, intimacy and comfort emerged as organizing principles for 
the design and use of domestic spaces among the bourgeoisie, particularly in 
the Netherlands.5 These ideas gradually took hold in other parts of Europe and 
among other classes as the widespread social change heralded by the industrial 
revolution effected the constitution of households and participation in and 
organization of work. Of course how these ideas were manifest aesthetically 
varied according to social, cultural and historical contexts. The aesthetics 
themselves also reflected culturally and historically specific ideas about 
home. The ideas about privacy, intimacy, domesticity and comfort that 
Rybczynski identifies, are also prominent and recurring themes in contemporary 
analyses of the meaning of home.

Ideal house/home

The relationship between house and home has also been examined in extensive 
research on the notion of the ideal home or house (Chapman and Hockey, 1999a; 
Wright, 1991). Typically focusing on physical structures, this body of work 
both reflects and perpetuates common ideas about the ideal home in 
Anglo-American and Australian contexts. Although the notion of an 'ideal home' 
is problematized in this work, the authors who address this issue continue to 
privilege the relationship between house and home, de-emphasizing other 
idealised meanings of home. For example Porteous (1976) states that independent 
studies conducted in Australia, Britain and the United States on notions of the 
ideal home reveal that people from diverse backgrounds express a consistent 
preference for a free-standing house with a yard and occupied by a single 
family (see also Cieraad, 1999). Some of the social, historical and political 
antecedents of this aspiration are explored in an edited collection, Ideal 
homes?: Social change and domestic life (Chapman and Hockey, 1999a), that 
reflects on past and present models of the ideal home in Britain (see also 
Chapman and Hockey, 1999b; Hepworth, 1999; Brindley, 1999; Chapman, 1999). 
Reflecting on the 1995 British Ideal Home Exhibition, a version of the home 
shows that occur in many large Western cities, the collection' s editors, 
Chapman and Hockey (1999b), draw attention to the manipulative marketing 
techniques employed by the exhibition designers. Show visitors walked through 
sub-standard mockups of yester-year houses to finally arrive at a fully and 
luxuriously furnished, brick house of the future. The exhibition Guide booklet 
emphasized the inadequate design features of the historical houses, drawing 
attention to house designs and technologies that impacted on people's comfort, 
privacy, security and budget. The narrative also included descriptions of 
negative, even calamitous, social events contemporaneous with each historical 
house. In contrast, descriptions of the house of tomorrow were overwhelmingly 

Interested in the forces that influence people's perceptions of, and desire for 
the ideal home, the authors note that ideas about home are not simply shaped by 
the interests of capital and the manufacturers' marketing departments. Rather 
they assert that people's personal and familial experiences as well as 
significant social change, influence their perceived needs and desires in 
relation to house design. Changing patterns of employment, particularly the 
organization and location of work, together with shifts in the distribution of 
wealth, transformations in peoples' ideas about community, family, even the 
good life, all impact on the notion of the ideal home. Even so people have very 
limited choice about the design of their houses. Whether they build a new home 
or live in an established dwelling their choices are constrained by cultural 
and economic factors as well as developers, architects, urban planners, 
politicians, engineers and builders, interior designers all of whom have their 
own ideas about what is a desirable, appropriate and acceptable living space 
(Chapman and Hockey, 1999b: 5; Shove, 1999).

The association between home and the physical dwelling or house is commonly 
acknowledged in the relevant interdisciplinary literature, with some social 
researchers arguing that such a conflation reductively represents home as 
one-dimensional (Douglas, 1991; Rapport and Dawson, 1998; Porteous, 1976). As 
noted earlier, researchers routinely claim that home is a multi-dimensional 
concept or a multi-layered phenomenon (Bowlby et al., 1997; Wardaugh, 1999; 
Somerville, 1992). As such, the physical dwelling or shelter is described as 
simply one aspect of home. Moreover, it is generally recognized that the 
relationships between the terms house and home must be established in varying 
cultural and historical contexts.

As part of a broader attempt to define home and clarify the relationship 
between home and physical shelter, Saunders and Williams (1988), for example, 
distinguish between house, home and household. Home is conceived by these 
authors as a locale which, following Giddens (1984), they define as 
'simultaneously and indivisibly a spatial and a social unit of interaction' 
(82). It is the physical 'setting through which basic forms of social relations 
and social institutions are constituted and reproduced' (82). As such home is a 
'socio-spatial system' that represents the fusion of the physical unit or house 
and the social unit or household. While rejecting any form of environmental or 
physical determinism the authors argue that the physical aspects of the home, 
including the location, design, and size of the home, 'both enable and 
constrain' different relationships and patterns of action' (82).

Like Pahl (1984: 20), Saunders and Williams (1988) argue that the household, 
rather than the individual, is the most 'basic economic unit' through which the 
relationships of production and consumption can be analyzed. Although it is the 
'core domestic unit' of society, the household should not be conflated with the 
family as the 'kinship system has arguably declined in significance as a 
structuring principle of social life' (82). As such they stress that there are 
many and varied household types. In this social constructionist formulation, 
the home 'is the crucible of the social system' (85) representing a vital 
interface between society and the individual. It is invested with diverse 
cultural meanings that differ within and between households and across cultural 
and social settings. Within households, gender and age are the 'key dimensions' 
that differentiate household members' perception of the meaning of home. 
Geographical factors, especially residential location, together with issues 
such as class, ethnicity and housing tenure, explain some of the variations in 
the meaning of home that exists between households (Saunders and Williams, 
1988; Saunders, 1989).

By developing a theoretical approach to the meaning of home that neither 
conflates home with house or family, Saunders and Williams (1988) remind us of 
the need to develop a complex view of home that takes into account the 
interaction between place and social relationships. However, as Somerville 
(1989) argues in a wide-ranging critique of their work, the proposed 
relationship between house and household in Saunders and Williams' formulation 
of home is highly problematic. He takes issue with both their underlying 
concept of society as an atomistic entity comprising 'basic units' and their 
understanding of culture as discrete and autonomous. Somerville (1989) argues 
that empirical evidence suggests that it is 'far from obvious' that home is 
'necessarily or always' a fusion of house and household (114). In making this 
argument he points to the fact that there are many institutional contexts where 
the term home is invoked (e.g., home for the aged) in which the notion of 
household simply does not apply. Moreover he asserts that even if we were to 
accept that the notion of household is a useful construct in defining home (see 
Jones, 2000), Saunders and Williams offer no theoretical explanation of the 
mutually constitutive relationship between these so called physical and social 
units of interaction and their role in the reproduction of social action. This 
critique could be usefully extended to most of those who write on the ideal 

Between the real and the ideal, the actual and remembered home

References to the symbolic potency of the ideal or idealized home recur 
throughout home literature. For example, Tucker (1994) suggests that 'most 
people spend their lives in search of home, at the gap between the natural home 
[conceived as the home environment conducive to human existence, i.e. dry land] 
and the particular ideal home where they would be fully fulfilled'. This may be 
a confused search, a sentimental and nostalgic journey for a lost time and 
space. It may also be a religious pilgrimage or 'search for a Promised Land.' 
One's 'actual home tends to be our best approximation of our ideal home, under 
a given set of constraining circumstances' (184).

Discussion of the ideal home generally focuses on nostalgic or romantic notions 
of home. Critics of the ideal home reject exclusively positive descriptions and 
assessments of home as naive expressions of false consciousness that do not 
reflect people's diverse experience and understanding of home. In so doing they 
appeal to and inscribe a valorized notion of the real home. In other words the 
real and ideal home are established as oppositional terms. Those who promote 
the ideal home are thought to have a diminished grasp of reality or the real.

This approach is at odds with the views of researchers such as Somerville 
(1992) and Jackson (1995) and Rapport and Dawson (1998). Somerville (1992) 
argues that the concepts of home as ideal and home as reality are integral to 
the social construction of this term. Writing from a phenomenological 
perspective Jackson (1995) writes that home 'is always lived as a relationship, 
a tension. . . . [L]like any word we use to cover a particular field of 
experience, [home] always begets its own negation. . . . [It] may evoke 
security in one context and seem confining in another' (122 [-] 3). Although 
they write on home from quite different theoretical perspectives both authors 
promote a way of understanding home that holds ideas of the real and the ideal, 
or the real and the imagined in tension rather than opposition. Accordingly the 
real and the ideal are not pure and distinct concepts or domains. They are 
mutually defining concepts and experiences.

It is an approach that resonates with Doreen Massey's (1992, 1994) discussion 
of place, home, and memory. Massey writes that there is 'no single simple 
"authenticity" [-] a unique eternal truth of an (actual or imagined/remembered) 
place or home [-] to be used as a reference either now or in the past' (1994: 
119). Place is constituted by the particular social relations that occur in a 
specific location, the social effects that arise in this interaction and its 
'positive interrelations with elsewhere' or outside (1992: 13). By its very 
nature then the identity of a place is 'provisional' or in flux. The boundaries 
of place and/or home are permeable and unstable. Equally, places have no fixed 
or essential past. The identity and meaning of a place must be constructed and 
negotiated. However this does not mean that there is no role for remembering or 
that remembering will always be a counter-productive, nostalgic longing for 
something to be as it was in an idealized past. Rather, Massey suggests, 
following Hooks (1991), that remembering, even memories of the traditional can 
be important for they 'illuminate and transform the present' (Hooks, 1991: 147; 
Massey, 1992: 14). It is a point that is reinforced by Rapport and Dawson (1998 
: 8) who argue that home encompasses 'cultural norms and individual fantasies'. 
'Home brings together memory and longing, the ideational, the affective and the 
physical, the spatial and the temporal, the local and the global, the 
positively evaluated and the negatively' (see also Saunders, 1989).

Some who write on home and memory suggest that people's home histories, 
including their tenure in any given home, are crucial to their understanding of 
the meaning of home (Perkins and Thorns, 2000 ; Giulani, 1991) and their view 
of the ideal home. Others suggest that the relationship between home and memory 
is complex and fluid, and must take account of the significance of home 
experiences and memories at various stages of the life cycle (Csikszentmihályi 
and Rochberg-Halton, 1981) and in varying kinship and household configurations 
(Armstrong, 1993; Somerville, 1997).

Home as haven

Home is often described in the literature as a haven or refuge. It is depicted 
as a place and/or space where people can retreat and relax (Moore, 1984). This 
understanding of home is founded on several related ideas, most obvious among 
them, the distinction between public and private, and the inside and outside 
world (Wardaugh, 1999; Altman and Werner, 1985). According to this dichotomy 
the inside or enclosed domain of the home represents a comfortable, secure and 
safe space (Dovey, 1985). It is a confined space. Some say it is a feminine 
space, yet others dismiss this idea as simplistic. In contrast, the outside is 
perceived as an imposing, if not threatening or dangerous space. It is more 
diffuse, less defined. Different performative expectations exist for people in 
this outside space. There are different rules of engagement with people, places 
and things.

Related to this view of home, as a refuge is the idea that it is a private, 
often familial realm clearly differentiated from public space and removed from 
public scrutiny and surveillance. The public sphere is associated with work and 
political engagements and non-kin relationships. In contrast, the private realm 
of the home is typically understood as a space that offers freedom and control 
(Darke, 1994), security (Dovey, 1985) and scope for creativity and regeneration 
(Allan and Crow, 1989; Bachelard, 1969; Korosec-Serfaty, 1984; Cooper, 1976; 
Finighan, 1980). It is an intimate space that provides a context for close, 
caring relationships. Saunders and Williams (1988) argue that our understanding 
of home as a distinct private sphere is informed by three related concepts: 
privacy, privatism and privatization. In this context privacy at home refers to 
freedom from surveillance and external role expectations. Privatism is the 
process whereby people are increasingly withdrawing from communal life and 
centering or orienting their activities around the home. Privatization refers 
to the shift away from public or state owned housing towards owner occupied 
housing and privatized consumption.6

Challenges to the view that home is universally understood and/or experienced 
as a private haven abound in the research literature (Sibley, 1995 ; Wardaugh, 
1999). Most critics take exception to and focus their arguments on one or more 
of the binary oppositions (inside/outside, work/home, public/private, 
comfortable/uncomfortable, safe/unsafe) underpinning this notion of home. All 
reject the idealized view of home perpetuated by such ideas.

Some argue that home as haven is an historic and culturally relative idea which 
is integrally linked to equally fluid concepts of the family. For example, 
Hareven (1993) states that this view of home emerged among bourgeois households 
in Britain and France in the mid-eighteenth century and in urban middle class 
American families in the mid-nineteenth century as a consequence of 
industrialization, urbanization and the related transformation of family life 
and work. Prior to industrialization work was primarily situated in households 
which comprised family members and other non-kin workers and boarders. The 
organization of these households was predicated on sociability rather than 
privacy. As industrialization took hold, work was relocated away from the home 
and, in time, the State assumed greater responsibility for education and health 
care. As a consequence, households were increasingly seen as a domestic retreat 
for the nuclear family. Where once all able members of households contributed 
to work or related activities, in the new era women and children were 
marginalised from these activities and consigned to a transformed and valorized 
domestic realm. What began in the upper and middle classes, had by the 
mid-twentieth century extended into working class families.

As many historians, sociologists and human geographers attest, the division 
between domestic and workspaces and relations, between the private and public 
realms, was never as neat as the home as haven idea implies. Whether engaged in 
paid or unpaid labor, women have always worked within the home sphere. Men too 
have engaged in different and varying forms of domestic, home based labor in 
these spheres. Also, as writers such as Hepworth (1999) and Tosh (1996) 
suggest, houses were never exclusively private and/or restricted spaces. 
Public, social spaces such as the parlor also featured in historical house 
designs and people other than the inhabitants of the house entered, worked or 
socialized in this sphere. Contemporary house designs, incorporating open plan 
or flexible living spaces, parents and/or children's retreats, and studies or 
home offices increasingly challenge simplistic notions of home as a private 
haven or refuge from work and the outside world. The advent of technologies 
such as the personal computer, the fax/phone, email, internet services and the 
mobile phone has made it possible for more people, particularly middle class 
professionals and the self-employed, to engage in paid work from home (Duncan, 
1996). The reasons for such shifts in the organization of domestic life and 
work are obviously complex and beyond the scope of this paper, but include 
transformed gender relations and the consequent need for more flexible child 
care arrangements. While some experience this as an intrusion, others welcome 
the flexibility it enables.

Other critics suggest that the characterization of home as haven is an 
expression of an idealized, romanticized even nostalgic notion of home at odds 
with the reality of peoples' lived experience of home (Jones, 2000 ; Wardaugh, 
1999). They reject the view that this so-called private haven is a secure, 
safe, free or regenerative space (Wright, 1993), for a significant percentage 
of women, children and young people who are subject to violence and sexual 
abuse in the home environment (Wardaugh, 1999; Jones, 1995, 2000; Goldsack, 
1999). Home for these people is a site of fear and isolation, a prison, rather 
than a place of absolute freedom and ontological security (Giddens, 1984, 1990; 
Dupuis and Thorns, 1998). Goldsack (1999), argues that in contrast to men who 
face risks of violence in the public sphere women are 'more likely to be raped, 
assaulted and even killed at home than in any other place' (123).

Wardaugh (1999) rejects the characterization of home as haven, favoring a 
phenomenological understanding that 'counterposes inside with outside space' 
(96). Accordingly, privacy, safety, security, comfort and refuge are not 
necessarily associated with the inside or home but may be found beyond its 
reaches. Similarly, danger, fear and insecurity are not necessarily located in 
the outside world. Like Hooks (1991) and Ahmed (1999) and Massey (1992) she 
argues that home is not some purified space of belonging, with fixed and 
impermeable boundaries. Rather it is as Sibley (1995) suggests a space of 
unavoidable 'tensions surrounding the use of domestic spaces' (94). Wardaugh 
also argues that subscription to the home as haven idea actually contributes to 
the 'creation of homelessness'. She notes that 'those who are abused and 
violated within the family are likely to feel "homeless at home" and many 
subsequently become homeless in an objective sense, in that they escape [-] or 
are ejected from [-] their violent homes' (96 [-] 7). Equally those who reject 
or are unable to conform to conventional ideas and expressions of gender, 
sexuality and class might be both symbolically and literally 'excluded from and 
notion or semblance of home' (97). This resonates with Sibley's view of home as 
a potential space of 'exclusion' where a 'fear of difference', of 
'non-conforming people, activities or artifacts' can be projected onto the 
'objects and spaces comprising the home' (1995: 91).

Ironically many researchers who reject the idealized characterization of home 
continue to conflate home and dwelling and thereby preserve a clear demarcation 
between inside and outside. A more radical critique of the understanding of 
home as an enclosed, private space [-] a haven from the outside world is 
provided by some of the cross-cultural research. For example, Jackson (1995) 
implies that nomadic peoples, 'for whom dwelling is not synonymous with being 
housed and settled' do not focus on ideas of home as a private place clearly 
differentiated from the outside world. He states that for the Warlpiri of the 
Tanami Desert in Central Australia . . . 'home is where one hails from . . . , 
but it also suggests the places one has camped, sojourned and lived during the 
course of one's own lifetime' (122). Similarly, for the people of Nuakata 
Island, Papua New Guinea, home is variously translated as matrilineal 
village(s), or the island itself, and is not a private physical dwelling that 
is clearly differentiated from an outside world (Mallett, 2003). Rather it 
equates to the lands and places where one's matrilineal forbears stayed or 
dwelled. While these spaces are not private, enclosed dwellings, they are 
possessed spaces or territories with defined, though not always visible, 
boundaries that must be observed and respected by those who do not belong 

Home and family

An association between home and family has been noted by many researchers 
(Jones, 1995, 2000; Finch and Hayes, 1994; Bowlby et al., 1997), however the 
nature and significance of this relationship for the meaning of home remains 
keenly contested. So too is the meaning of family. Some authors, so-called 
traditionalists, suggest that the link between home and family is so strong 
that the terms are almost interchangeable (Crow, 1989; Oakley, 1976; Bernardes, 
1987). When conceived as inter-related or overlapping terms, home typically 
symbolizes the birth family dwelling and the birth family or family of origin 
(Gilman, 1980). Home encompasses the house or dwelling that a person lived in 
immediately after birth and/or their childhood family house(s). It also 
symbolizes the family relationships and life courses enacted within those 
spaces. As such it is the place where children are nurtured and reared and 
finally depart when they come of age (Bowlby et al., 1997; Hunt, 1989; Jones, 
1995, 2000). Without the family a home is 'only a house' (Gilman, 1980; 
Leonard, 1980). According to Bachelard (1969) this house or dwelling is our 
'first universe'. As such 'it shelters our daydreaming, cradles our thoughts 
and memories and provides us with a sense of stability. Throughout our lives 
the house in which we are born remains "physically inscribed in us" ' (Jackson, 
1995: 86; see also Domosh, 1998).

Critics of this view of the relationship between home and family concede it has 
currency in the Western popular imaginary, however they argue that it is 
ideologically laden and premised on the white, middle class, heterosexual 
nuclear family (Wagner, 1993; Passaro, 1996; Wardaugh, 1999; Bowlby et al., 
1997; Leonard, 1980 ; Hooks, 1990). Under this definition the home belongs both 
materially and symbolically to the heterosexual couple who enact and promote 
particular gendered roles and relationships (see Barrett and McIntosh, 1982). 
Typically children only belong there when they are young and have little power 
and authority although they have increasing status as evidenced by the 
increased space accorded them within modern house designs (Jones, 1995, 2000; 
Ainley, 1991; Finch and Hayes, 1994). Munro and Madigon (1999) suggest that 
governments and other institutions (e.g. religions, environmental groups) 
promote an ideological trinity of family, home and community (107). These 
institutions have a vested interest (material, economic, social, spiritual) in 
defining the types and expressions of ideal family relationships (Watson and 
Austerbury, 1986).

Saunders and Williams (1988) argue that the nuclear family is increasingly 
irrelevant in contemporary Western societies, and that other household forms 
might be equally pertinent to the constitution of home.7 A vast literature on 
cross-cultural notions of kinship, place and belonging also suggests that the 
nuclear family and the nuclear family house are of limited relevance to the 
meaning of home and family for many people. For example, the family comprises 
extended family members and home might encompass the places where these 
extended family members reside. Similarly research on migration, exile and that 
on home leaving suggests the significance of the relationship between home and 
family can change over the course of an individual life or in different spatial 
contexts. Hence, at some points and places in a person's life it may be 
pivotal, but at others it may be largely irrelevant.

Home and gender

Within the literature, reflections on the significance of family to the meaning 
of home invariably occur as part of a broader discussion of the relationship 
between gender and home. Women are often the focus of this material. This is 
not surprising given that much of the relevant research [-] whether it is in 
sociology, anthropology, social psychology, human geography, architecture or 
history [-] is inspired and informed by feminist theory and debates. Feminist 
theories, particularly second wave theories have often privileged women's 
experience, effectively, if not intentionally conflating women and gender 
(Mallett, 2003). Analyses of the relationship between gender and the meaning of 
home generally focus on issues of: work or production, consumption, spaces 
including house design, and/or housing tenure and the house as an expression of 

Early writers on gendered perceptions of home claim that men consider it to be 
a signifier of status and achievement whereas women view home as a haven 
(Somerville, 1997; Seeley et al., 1956; Rainwater, 1966). Almost without 
exception, second-wave feminist writers (of the 1970's and 1980's), 
particularly but not exclusively socialist feminists, identify home as a site 
of oppression, tyranny and patriarchal domination of women. Accordingly, it is 
in this private realm that women are consigned to a life of reproductive and 
domestic labor (Oakley, 1974; Eisenstein, 1984). While they manage household 
consumption they do not have economic control of it. Although their work in 
creating and maintaining (a clean, comfortable, aesthetically pleasing) home 
and family is, to some extent, valued, they remain socially isolated, with few 
opportunities to achieve the social, economic and political status accorded 
their male partners who engage in paid work in the public domain (Madigan et 
al., 1990). Despite home being generally considered a feminine, nurturing space 
created by women themselves, they often lack both authority and a space of 
their own within this realm (Darke, 1994; Madigan et al., 1990; Munro and 
Madigan, 1999). Their emotional and spatial needs are secondary to those of 
their husband and children. In contrast, for men home is a space in which they 
have ultimate authority, yet limited responsibility for the domestic and 
child-rearing duties that take place in it. Home is a haven from the pressure 
of the outside world, even a site of leisure and recreation. While home is a 
source of status for men, paid work and other activities in the public realm 
provide them with alternative and highly valued identities. Related, 
second-wave feminist research on the interaction between gender, space and home 
noted how these social and historical ideas about gender roles and 
relationships in the home environment are inflected in housing designs, 
domestic interiors and technologies (Goodall, 1990). The impact of and 
implications of segregated housing estates on women has also been examined. In 
these contexts women are often socially isolated, have a diminished capacity 
for paid employment and participation in wider communal and political spheres 
and often feel fearful, physically vulnerable and insecure (Madigon et al., 

Over the last decade or so these feminist critiques of home have been subjected 
to increased scrutiny by a range of social researchers, including feminist 
researchers. As Gurney (1997) notes, the work of Saunders (1989, 1990a, 1990b) 
on gender and the meaning of home provided impetus for some of this work. 
Convinced that socialist feminist critiques of home were skewing debates within 
the social sciences, Saunders (1990a) claimed his empirical research revealed 
that there was an enormous disparity between feminist critiques of home and 
women's descriptions of the meaning of home. Accordingly the women in his study 
did not describe home as a place of oppression. While many researchers in the 
field of urban sociology and housing studies have critiqued Saunders's work on 
methodological and theoretical grounds, Gurney (1997) refutes his claims on the 
basis of his own episodic ethnographies of working class owner-occupied 
households in East Bristol, England. Gurney found that while women initially 
provide emotional and positive accounts of home whereas as men are more likely 
to offer 'negative and instrumental meanings of home', this situation was 
reversed over time, in subsequent or later conversations (see also Richards, 

More recent research on gender, work and home has challenged the somewhat 
narrow, view of home as a private, domestic and female realm where reproductive 
rather than productive work occurs. For example contemporary research on both 
rural and urban outworkers or home workers reveals that many women engage in 
paid work such as sewing, washing ironing, cooking, clerical and administrative 
tasks, and child minding in their own home environments (Oberhauser, 1995, 
1997). Equally, some men, particularly self-employed tradesmen and 
professionals, routinely engage in paid work from home, be it full or 
part-time. Many researchers have demonstrated that the sort of paid work men 
and women engage in, when and in what spaces within the house, impacts on 
family members experience and their perceptions of home and familial 
relationships (Massey, 1996; Duncan, 1996b; Phizacklea and Wolkowitiz, 1995).

Discussion of women's increased participation in paid employment both within 
and beyond the home generally focuses on the double burden experienced by 
women. As such researchers claim that despite some evidence of men's increasing 
participation in household labor, women continue to experienced and/or describe 
home as a site of oppression. Women remain pri-marily responsible for domestic 
labor and over and above this they now choose or are expected to engage in 
either full or part-time paid employment. Despite this, however, there is a 
growing body of feminist literature that valorizes women's experience of 
domestic labour and mothering within home environments.

Early work on gender and space argued that certain rooms or space in the family 
home were gendered (e.g. the kitchen was a female space, the shed a male one, 
etc.). House designs reflected stereotypical gendered relationships peculiar to 
a given social and historical period (Hunt, 1989; Lupton, 1992, 1993; Sparke, 
1995; Buckley, 1996). More recent discussions of gender and space have argued 
for a more sophisticated analysis of the ways space is negotiated and lived in 
the family house/home. There is, for example, increasing recognition that rooms 
or spaces in the family home are not effectively gendered even when they are 
designed to meet the requirements of a man or a woman (e.g. height of kitchen 
benches). Rather it is the activities that are performed in these spaces at 
given times and in given relational contexts that reflect and/or subvert 
particular ideas about gender, age, and role (Munro and Madigan, 1999; Mallett, 
2003; Bowlby et al., 1997; Massey, 1996).

Despite these advances, general debate about gender and the meaning of home 
remains problematic, if not simplistic. For example many researchers in the 
field of urban sociology, and housing studies continue to conflate house and 
home and take little or no account of the widespread critiques of fixed and 
bounded notions of sex, gender and sexuality that have occurred within feminist 
and queer theory in the last decade or so (Butler, 1990, 1993; Gatens, 1983; 
Grosz, 1994; Young, 1990). Consequently many researchers unthinkingly privilege 
gender rather than say sexuality or a combined sex, gender and sexuality when 
reflecting on people's understanding and experiences of home (see Madigan et 
al., 1990; Gurney, 1997; Saunders, 1989). The intersection between gender, 
sexuality and ethnicity and age is also forgotten or elided in most of these 
analyses. There are exceptions of course but these largely fall outside of the 
dedicated literature. Both Hooks (1990) and Crenshaw (1994), for example write 
about the experience and meaning of home for African-American women and women 
of color. Crenshaw views the home as a site of oppression and disempowerment 
for women of colour rooted in the intersecting issues of race and gender. Hooks 
(1990) acknowledges that home is a potential site of patriarchal oppression for 
African-American women yet she also argues that it need not be seen as a 
politically neutral place. It is potentially a site for radical subversive 
activity for both Afro-American men and women who may feel marginalized in 
public spaces. Although detailed critique of the research on gender and home is 
beyond the scope of this paper it is clear that there is a great need for such 
an analysis in the field.


Cultural studies and anthropological literature detailing the experience of 
migrants and refugees as well as sociological and psychological empirical 
research on family formation and home-leaving claim that ideas about staying, 
leaving and journeying are integrally associated with notions of home. These 
ideas are in turn linked to, among other things, notions of dependency, 
inter-dependence and autonomy, continuity and dis/location. As such, home, be 
it defined as a dwelling, a homeland, or even a constellation of relationships, 
is represented as a spatial and relational realm from which people venture into 
the world and to which they generally hope to return (Case, 1996). It is a 
place of origin (however recent or relative) as well as a point of destination. 
For Ginsburg (1999) home is less about 'where you are from' and 'more about 
where you are going' (35). This sentiment is also expressed by Tucker (1994), 
who stresses that 'home-searching is a basic trait of human nature', one which 
arises out of the propensity of humans to migrate as a means of ensuring their 
survival (186).

Journeys away from home, for no matter how trivial or routine a purpose, are 
thought to constitute both home and traveler. Dovey (1985) claims that these 
journeys establish the thresholds and boundaries of home, particularly 
boundarties associated with time and the experience of being at home. 
Similarly, people's experience of home influences the meaning and significance 
of their journeys beyond it. Considered a realm where socio-cultural and 
historical ideas about family, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and age are 
reinforced, it is also a space where ideas about who may take particular 
journeys are enacted. For example, in Western contexts at least, it is commonly 
expected that young people will reach a point in their life when it is 
appropriate for them to leave the birth family home. At this time they will 
ideally establish an independent place of their own without severing all ties 
to their birth family or the family dwelling. This expectation is premised on, 
what many see as an idealized, ideological and ethnocentric view of home. 
According to this construction home is thought of as a nurturing environment 
underpinned by stable relationships that provide continuity of care and foster 
interdependence while also facilitating a capacity for independence. Ideas 
about the age and manner in which young men or women should leave home (i.e., 
to get married or establish an independent household, to travel, work or go to 
university) are culturally and historically contingent. Nonetheless usual and 
socially acceptable routes out of home remain and those young people who take 
alternative pathways risk social exclusion or marginalisation. The pathway 
taken out of home, whether chosen or imposed, is often crucial in how these 
young people and/or their (past, present and future) homes are identified and 
defined (Jones, 1995; Wardaugh, 1999).

These ideas resonate with some of the literature on migrants, refugees and 
people living in exile. Accordingly the conditions under which people leave 
their homelands, their journeys beyond and away from home and their 
destinations are all said to impact on their identity and understanding of 
home. Many who write about these experiences represent the relationship between 
home and away as oppositional. As Ahmed (1999) notes, in some postcolonial 
literature home is a space of belonging and being with clearly defined, fixed 
boundaries in which the subject is free of desire, at rest, secure and 
comfortable. In contrast, migration and nomadism are conceived as exceptional 
and extraordinary encounters with strange lands and strangers that engender 
homeless states of being or identities in perpetual flux.

Ahmed (1999) like others who write on home and travel (Bammer, 1992; Olwig, 
1999) rejects the idea that home and away are oppositional experiences and 
concepts. She argues that home is not a pure bounded and fixed space of 
belonging and identity that is as familiar as the away is both strange and 
inhabited by strangers. Home encompasses both movement and strangers. Home can 
be experienced as strange and/or familiar:

It is not simply a question then of those who stay at home, and those who 
leave, as if these two different trajectories simply lead people to different 
places. Rather 'homes' always involve encounters between those who stay, those 
who arrive and those who leave . . . There is movement and dislocation within 
the very forming of homes as complex and contingent spaces of inhabitance. 

In making this argument Ahmed (1999), like Massey (1992) and Hooks (1990) 
asserts that home is not necessarily a singular place or state of being rather 
it may be one's country, city or town, where one's family lives or comes from 
and/or where one usually lives. It may be other places or relationships. These 
homes hold differing symbolic meaning and salience. It is possible to be 
homeless in one, some or all of these categories at the same time. This view 
resonates with Mary Douglas (1991) view of home as a 'kind of space' or 
'localizable idea'. 'Home is located in space, but it is not necessarily a 
fixed space . . . home starts by bringing some space under control' (289). It 
cannot be simply equated with shelter, house or household.

For Ahmed, along with Gurney, Somerville and others, home and more particularly 
being at home is a matter, at least in part, of affect or feeling- as the 
presence or absence of particular feelings. It is also usefully theorized, 
following Brah (1996), as the lived experience of locality. Being at home 
involves the 'immersion of a self in a locality'. The locality 'intrudes' upon 
the self through the senses, defining 'what one smells, hears, touches, feels, 
remembers'. Equally the self penetrates the locality. Accordingly the 
boundaries between home and self and between home and away are permeable. As 
such when one moves away from home the movement itself occurs in relation to 
home, it is part of the very 'constitution' of home itself.

Being at home (in the world)

Ahmed's work is consistent with a significant stream of phenomenological 
research on home that describes the experience of 'being-at-home' in the world. 
Understood in this way, home is a (stative) verb rather than a noun, a state of 
being which is not necessarily bounded by a physical location. Phenomenologists 
do not attempt to define the essence of home or circumscribe people's 
experience. Instead they focus on practice, on the diverse ways people 'do' and 
feel home (Gurney, 1997; Jackson, 1995; Ingold, 1995) rather than the ways that 
they think about home. They are interested in the dialectical relationship 
between self and object in the intentional production of home and accord 
'epistemological status to the subject's meanings and experience' (Somerville, 
1997: 230). As such many explore the 'dynamic processes and transactions' that 
transform a 'dwelling unit . . . into a home in the context of everyday life' 
(Despres, 1991: 101; see also Dovey, 1985; Korosec-Serfaty, 1985). These 
temporal processes can include routinized activities as well as seasonal and/or 
cyclical events such as birthdays (Saile, 1985).

Others writers, inspired by, but not wedded to, phenomenology retain their 
fascination for people's experiences of being at home in the world, without 
appealing to fixed notions of society, culture or even the person. These 
writers de-emphasize without necessarily dismissing the notion of the 
intentional subject. Michael Jackson's work, particularly his (1995) book, At 
Home in the World is a prominent example of this approach. His work on home 
arises form a broader intellectual project to 'describe how in different 
societies, people work-in reality and through illusion, alone and in concert 
with others [-] to shape the course of their own lives' (123). As such '[h]ome 
is grounded less in a place and more in the activity that occurs in the place' 
(148). Home then is not simply a person, a thing or a place, but rather it 
relates to the activity performed by, with or in person's, things and places. 
Home is lived in the tension between the given and the chosen, then and now, 
here and there. Jackson comments that 'we often feel at home in the world when 
what we do has some effect and what we say carries some weight' (123). All too 
often the dialectical tension between shaping and being shaped by the world 
goes too far in one direction, swinging between 'world mastery' and alienation.

Many who employ phenomenological approaches to understand the meaning of home 
are attuned to people's experiences of injustice and inequality in the home 
sphere and draw attention to this in their work. Wardaugh's (1999) work on 
homeless women is a recent example. Wardaugh (1999) following Dovey (1985) 
notes that while home maybe located in space as a particular place (e.g. a 
house, an apartment, an institution, etc), it is always more than this. It is a 
physical space that is lived [-] a space that is an 'expression of social 
meanings and identities' (95). Wardaugh asserts that the concept of home cannot 
exist without the concept of homelessness. Home and homelessness exist in a 
dynamic, dialectical relationship. They are not, as some suggest, fixed 
oppositional terms. Rather they refer to 'complex and shifting experiences and 
identities' (Wardaugh, 1999: 93) that emerge and unfold in and through time.

Critiques of phenomenological or phenomenologically inspired accounts of home 
take one of two conventional forms. As Somerville (1997) notes, some critics, 
particularly sociologists, dismiss phenomenological approaches for failing to 
adequately consider or acknowledge the social and discursive fields that 
impinge upon and frame experience. Other critics focus on the adequacy, even 
accuracy of the representations of people's experiences. Prominent among these 
are the feminist critiques which claim that gendered experiences of home are 
often overlooked or misrepresented.

Surprisingly there has been very little sustained analysis of the methodologies 
employed by phenomenologically inspired researchers, even though ethnography, 
episodic ethnographies, in-depth interviewing, even quantitative surveys have 
all been claimed as legitimate phenomenological methods. The use of 
quantitative and semi-structured interviews is particularly perplexing given 
that phenomenology is first and foremost a study of people's accounts of their 
everyday practices and experiences.

Some researchers avoid using phenomenological and social constructionist 
theories together (Jackson, 1995), claiming that the emphasis on subjective 
experience integral to phenomenology is at odds with the focus on objective and 
discrete notions of society (and person) implicit in the social constructionist 
metaphor (Somerville, 1997). However, many researchers and theorists of home 
slip between and/or strategically employ the two approaches. This is perhaps 
best exemplified with brief reference to the work of sociologist, Craig Gurney. 
Gurney (1997), for example, employs a range of methods including in-depth 
interviews, episodic ethnographies and survey data to analyze how people make 
sense of home through lived experience. Although his interest in process and 
lived experience reflects his considerable debt to phenomenology, he cannot be 
described as a phenomenologist. Gurney's work is premised on a belief that the 
worlds people inhabit are socially constructed. By employing the social 
construction metaphor he appeals to a notion of a passive, ontological social 
world or society upon which ideas, discourses and practices are elaborated. 
People make sense of these socially constructed worlds through lived 
experience. Accordingly he argues that home is an ideological construct that 
emerges through and is created from people's lived experience. Gurney stresses 
the importance of emotion (love, intimacy, family, anger, depression, among 
others) in the discursive construction of the meaning of home, as part of a 
broader agenda to affirm and consolidate both a sociology of emotions and a 
feminist epistemology that does not separate reason and emotion.

Somerville (1992) is perhaps typical of those theorists who claim that 
phenomenological accounts of home fail to adequately theorise the social and 
discursive worlds that impinge on people's notion of home. Like Gurney (1997), 
Somerville argues that home is an ideological construct but rejects the view 
that the meaning of home is only established experientially. He writes:

Home is not just a matter of feelings and lived experience but also of 
cognition and intellectual construction: people may have a sense of home even 
though they have no experience or memory of it. . . . We cannot know what home 
'really' is outside of these ideological structures. (530)

Here Somerville makes a questionable theoretical distinction between cognition 
and experience and offers no account of how ideological forms emerge. 
Elaborating upon the empirical work of Watson and Austerbury (1986) Somerville 
postulates a provisional, conceptual construction of the meaning of home.8 He 
identifies six to seven key signifiers of home: 'shelter, hearth, privacy, 
roots, abode and (possibly) paradise' (332). In this construction, shelter 
refers to the physical structure or dwelling place that offers protection. This 
contrasts with a very minimalist notion of home as abode [-] a place, however 
unstable, where one can stay. Where hearth refers to a welcoming, warm, and 
relaxing physical environment, heart refers to a loving, supportive, secure and 
stable environment that provides emotional and physical well being. Home as 
privacy means a space where one has the capacity to establish and control 
personal boundaries. The term roots denotes home as a source of identity and 
meaning in the world and finally paradise refers to a constellation of positive 
idealized notions of home, evident in but not confined to the other key 

Despite his emphasis on the ideological construction of home, Somerville 
concludes that the most important thing to know is 'what the home means to 
different people and to attempt to explain the range of different meanings that 
we find' (115). In a later article Somerville (1997) elaborates on this view, 
positing a mulit-disciplinary hybrid approach that attempts to reconcile and 
integrate (hetero)phenomenological theories with constructivist sociological 
analyses of the meaning of home. He argures for a unitary social 
phenonomenology founded on a belief in the socially, historically and 
culturally contingent nature of social relations- relations that are understood 
to be 'constructed by the intentional activity of free agents' (238). However 
in striving for a singular theory of home founded on consistent epistemologies 
and ontologies Somerville's overlooks the benefits of keeping potentially 
contradictory theoretical approaches to the study of home in creative tension. 
There is a sense in which he believes that it is possible to achieve a 
definitive theory of home, one that 'strikes at the heart of the matter', and 
one that uncritically relies on a notion of the intentional subject.

Home, self, identity and being

Many authors refer to the relation between home and identity and/or the concept 
of the self although few elaborate on the nature of this relationship Some 
claim for example that the home, which they typically conflate with house, is 
an expression or symbol of the self. Accordingly the house itself, the interior 
design of the house, and the decorations and use of space all reflect the 
occupant's sense of self (see Després, 1991). Clare Cooper's (1976) article 
entitled the House, as Symbol of the Self is a prominent example of such work. 
In making this tentative claim, Cooper draws on the Jungian concept of the 
collective unconscious which links people to their primitive past and is the 
repository of fundamental forms of psychic energy known as archetypes. Symbols 
manifest these unconscious archetypes in space and time. Accordingly she 
speculates that one of the most fundamental archetypes, the free-standing house 
on the ground, is a frequent symbol of the self (Horelli, 1990).

Tucker also suggests that home may be an expression of a person's subjectivity 
in the world. Alternatively he states it may simply be a space where people 
feel at ease and are able to express and fulfill their unique selves or 
identities. The home of which he speaks though is not conflated with the house. 
It may be an emotional environment, a culture, a geographical location, a 
political system, a historical time and place, a house etc., and a combination 
of all of the above (1994: 184).

Authors such as Havel (1992; cited by Tucker, 1994) conceive of home as an 
inalienable source of identity. Havel, like Hollander (1991) imagines home in 
terms of concentric circles. These circles represent an aspect of existential 
experience that include, house, village or town, family, social environment, 
professional environment, the nation, civic society, the civilization and the 
world. Each is equally important and must be given its due although some may be 
more important to people at different times in their lives. Havel writes, 'All 
the circles of our home . . . are an inalienable part of us, and an inseparable 
element of our human identity. Deprived of all the aspects of his home, man 
would be deprived of himself, of his humanity' (1992: 31; cited by Tucker, 

For philosophers such as Kuang-Ming Wu (1993) home refers to the 
intersubjective relationships that brings a self, person or I into being or 
existence. Home is therefore understood as fundamental to being. It is not 
conceptualised as a place or space. Drawing on the work of Sartre and Martin 
Buber, Kuang-Ming Wu claims that 'home is being-with-other(s)' (193). This 
being with others constitutes the person. Following Buber, Kuang-Ming Wu 
understands the 'I' as relational. It gives expression to a relation while also 
generating a relation. As such 'I' comes into being in relation to an-other and 
the other can become my hell and my home. Accordingly, to say that I am at home 
means 'I am at home in you (singular plural)'. When you accept me as I am, and 
I accept you accepting me then I am at home and 'I am born in this reciprocal 
acceptance' (194). 'Home is where I both was born and am being continually 
born, within that womb called other people, in their being not me' (195).

Another strand of research on home and person or more correctly home and being, 
which has largely been inspired by Heidegger (1971), stresses the importance of 
building or making to our notion of home and our very existence. Heidegger 
claims that our building activities are integrally associated with and arise 
out of our capacity to dwell. In short the forms that we build, whether they be 
material or imaginary arise out of our immersion in the world- the very 
homeland of our thoughts (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 24; Ingold, 1995: 76). Ginsburg 
(1998), like Ingold argues that 'human beings are homemakers'. He writes:

We make our homes. Not necessarily by constructing them, although some people 
do that. We build the intimate shell of our lives by the organization and 
furnishing of the space in which we live. How we function as persons is linked 
to how we make ourselves at home. We need time to make our dwelling into a 
home. . . . Our residence is where we live, but our home is how we live. (31)

Conclusion: it all depends. . . .

How then is home understood? How should home be understood? Or, how could home 
be understood?

Clearly the term home functions as a repository for complex, inter-related and 
at times contradictory socio-cultural ideas about people's relationship with 
one another, especially family, and with places, spaces, and things. It can be 
a dwelling place or a lived space of interaction between people, places, 
things; or perhaps both. The boundaries of home can be permeable and/or 
impermeable. Home can be singular and/or plural, alienable and/or inalienable, 
fixed and stable and/or mobile and changing. It can be associated with feelings 
of comfort, ease intimacy, relaxation and security and/or oppression, tyranny 
and persecution. It can or can not be associated with family. Home can be an 
expression of one's (possibly fluid) identity and sense of self and/or one's 
body might be home to the self. It can constitute belonging and/or create a 
sense of marginalisation and estrangement. Home can be given and/or made, 
familiar and/or strange, an atmosphere and/or an activity, a relevant and/or 
irrelevant concept. It can be fundamental and/or extraneous to existence. Home 
can be an ideological construct and/or an experience of being in the world. It 
can be a crucial site for examining relations of production and consumption, 
globalisation and nationalism, citizenship and human rights, and the role of 
government and governmentality. Equally it can provide a context for analysing 
ideas and practices about intimacy, family, kinship, gender, ethnicity, class, 
age and sexuality. Such ideas can be inflected in domestic architecture and 
interior and urban design.

Together, the three questions listed above are relevant to interdisciplinary 
debates and studies of home. In responding to these questions interested 
researchers could usefully reflect on people's diverse experience and ways of 
understanding home while also considering actual and potential (i.e., how is, 
should and could home be understood?) theoretical and methodological approaches 
to the study of home. Clearly both the experience and the study of home is 
value laden. As such researchers in the field need to be clear and transparent 
about the motivation behind and purposes for their own research. They also need 
to recognise and acknowledge the limitations of their work and the implication 
of these limitations for their own and others' understanding of this term. 
Hollander (1991) puts this succinctly when he argues that both the meaning and 
study of home 'all depends'. Briefly, how home is and has been defined at any 
given time depends upon 'specification of locus and extent' and the broader 
historical and social context.


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their incisive critiques. 
Both reviewers approached this paper with generous spirits. Their commentaries 
were both invaluable. This research was supported by the National Institute of 
Mental Health, USA Grant MH61185. I wish to thank Jen Johnson and Alina Turner 
for discussing the ideas in this paper, Paul Myers for chasing references and 
Doreen Rosenthal for her academic support. I also wish to thank the Project i 
team at the Centre for Community Health, UCLA.


1 Wardaugh (1999) and Jackson (1995) draw on a diverse range of home 
literature, although they do not set out to posit an interdisciplinary approach 
to the study of home.

2 For a discussion of cross-cultural significance of home, place and space see 
for example, Low, S. and Lawrence-Zú [n] iga, D., (eds), (2003), Birdwell 
Pheasant, D. and Lawrence-Zú [n] iga, (1999), Feld and Basso 1996; Fox; 1997; 
Rapoport 1981; Mallett, 2003.

3 This project on the relationship between home and homelessness is being 
undertaken as part of Project i, a cross national, longitudinal study of 
homeless young people in Melbourne and Los Angeles.

4 This is not to suggest that housing and land tenure did not figure in the 
meaning of home prior to the latter half of the 20th century. In New Zealand 
for example, following the 19th century land wars the colonial governments 
appropriated indigenous Maori land which was them leased or sold to European 
settlers to farm. Later as the urban centres developed, colonial governments 
extended this offer to include urban home ownership. Legislation introduced at 
the beginning of the 20th century aimed at 'extending home ownership to the 
working class' led to nearly 60% owner occupancy rates in New Zealand by 1921 
(Dupuis and Thorne, 1998: 400).

5 This approach has been pursued by Hepworth (1999) and Tosh (1996) in their 
discussion of the design features of the ideal Victorian home. Hepworth argues 
that the design and organization of Victorian homes valorized notions of 
security, privacy and respectability, as demonstrated by an emphasis on rooms 
and external surrounds bounded by walls, doors, locks and keys. The home was 
conceived as a fortress from the potentially deviant realms of the outside 
world. As Tosh notes the bourgeois Victorian home was a gendered domain that 
valorized a form of domesticity founded on the separation of home and work that 
occurred as a consequence of industrialization. See Brindley (1999) for a 
discussion of the Modern house in England.

6 Heidi la Mare takes exception to view that the Netherlands was the place 
where this happened first.

7 Somerville (1989) dismisses Saunders and Williams (1988) analysis of privacy 
claiming it is simplistic and fails to grasp that the private domain is 
constituted by social, economic and political relationships both within and 
beyond the home.

8 Somerville (1989) rejects this claim, arguing that it needs to be supported 
by empirical research.

9 Watson and Austerbury (1986) claim form their empirical findings of a study 
of homeless that material conditions, emotional and physical well-being, loving 
and caring social relations, control and privacy and living/sleeping space are 
the key dimensions of home identified by their participants.


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Received 12 December 2002; Finally accepted 28 October 2003.

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