Understanding home: a critical review of the literature



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 review.


  • n. 1.The place or a place where one lives: have you no home to go to?
  • 2a house or other dwelling.
  • 3a family or other group living in a house or other place.
  • 4a person's country, city, esp. viewed as a birthplace, a residence during one's early years, or a place dear to one.
  • 5the environment or habitat of a person or animal.
  • 6the 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 ease.
  • 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 write:

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: 91)

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 spaces.

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 positive.

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 home.

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 there.

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 status.

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., 1990).

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, 1990).

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. (340)

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 signifiers.

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, 1994).

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-Zúňiga, D., (eds), (2003), Birdwell Pheasant, D. and Lawrence-Zúňiga, (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.