GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

9.3 Where the Heart Is


We’re going to begin this lesson with an exercise. Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, or pull up a new document where you can make some notes before you read the prompt. Your answers will be incorporated into the discussion for this week.


Part 1:
When you hear the word home, what immediately comes to mind? Don’t think about it; just write down the first five things that come to mind. These can be words, phrases, descriptions of mental images, memories, etc. — whatever comes to mind when you hear the word “home.”

Part 2:
Review the list that you made. Do you notice any patterns in how you think about home? What overall qualities do you ascribe to it, based on your list?

Traditionally, home is presented as 1) a place, that is 2) safe, 3) secure, and 4) a space of belonging. In the United States, it’s an image we see throughout both folk and popular culture. For example, the song “Home, Sweet Home” begins:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there
Which seek thro' the world, is ne'er met elsewhere
Home! Home!
Sweet, sweet home!
There's no place like home
There's no place like home!

Ads from organizations such as the National Association of Realtors and mortgage lenders regularly rely on similar visions of home, such as this ad from Citi (see video below), which is aimed at Black Americans, who historically have lower rates of homeownership than White Americans (Collins & Margo, 2011); the gap between Black and White homeownership is currently the widest it has been in fifty years (Choi, 2020).

Source: Citi

The idea of home as a familiar and comfortable place associated with family was a major theme for humanistic geographers working in the 1970s. Drawing on phenomenology (a branch of philosophy), they worked on the assumption that home is not just emotionally significant, but also a starting point or focal point for everyday life. This passage from Ted Relph’s book Place and Placelessness provides a clear example of this line of thought:

Home is the foundation of our identity as individuals and as members of a community, the dwelling-place of being. Home is not just the house you happen to live in, it is not something that can be anywhere, that can be exchanged, but an irreplaceable center of significance. (1976, p. 39)

A passage from Yi-Fu Tuan’s landmark book Space and Place shows this conceptualization of home in action:

Consider the routine of going to work in the morning and returning home at night… In the morning the office lies ahead, in one's future… At the end of the day the office worker puts on his coat and prepares to return home. Home is now in his future in the sense that it takes time to get there, but he is not likely to feel that the return journey is a forward movement in time. He returns—tracing his steps back in space and going back in time—to the familiar haven of the home. Familiarity is a characteristic of the past. The home provides an image of the past. Moreover in an ideal sense home lies at the center of one's life, and center (we have seen) connotes origin and beginning. (Tuan, 1977, pp. 127-128; emphasis added)

Return now to the list you made for the exercise above. Do the ideas of Relph and Tuan resonate with your own? For some of you, perhaps they do; for others perhaps they don’t. As we will see in the next section, geographers in the 1990s and 2000s started to question this approach to home.


Choi, J. H. (2020, February 21). Breaking down the Black-White homeownership gap. Urban Wire.

Collins, W. J, and Margo, R. A. (2011). Race and home ownership from the end of the Civil War to the present. The American Economic Review, 101(3), 355-359.

Relph, T. (1976). Place and placelessness. Pion.

Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and place: The perspective of experience. University of Minnesota Press.