In the previous section, we presented examples of the ways that American popular media critiques traditional (and perhaps mythical) ideas about home that are embedded in US culture. Popular culture does not provide the only critique of home; in the 1990s and early 2000s academics in a variety of disciplines began to pick the concept apart (for extensive reviews, see Mallett, 2004 and Blunt, 2005). These efforts culminated in the 2006 publication of the book Home by Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling, which quickly became one of the central texts on the topic.
In brief, critical work on home during this period revealed a number of ways that traditional ideas about home fail to reflect the realities of people’s lived experiences. The resulting critiques fall into two broad categories: questions about the nature of home, and responses to nostalgic representations of home.
The place of home
As Mallett points out, scholars rely on varying ideas of what ‘home’ means, and are prone to conflating it with other things: “Is home (a) place(s), (a) space(s), feeling(s), practices, and/or an active state of being in the world? Home is variously described as conflated with or related to house, family, haven, self, gender, and journeying” (2004, p. 65). And although she notes these conflations throughout her review, most scholars work on the general assumption that home is a place.
If home is indeed a place, we must remember, as Massey (1994) argued, that places are not static entities, but instead are dynamic. The meanings of places shift over time, and places are interconnected via networks through which goods, capital, ideas, people, etc. flow. Home, if it is a place, is no different; following Massey’s lead, Blunt and Dowling argue that home is “a spatial imaginary: a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connect places” (2006, p. 2).
A few, however, go beyond the assumption that home is a place, presenting it as either a space of significance that does not necessarily have a fixed location, or as something that is more than place. Key among these is Douglas’s description of home as space:
Home is “here,” or it is “not here.” The question is not “How?” nor “Who?” nor “When?” but “Where is your home?” It is always a localizable idea. Home is located in space, but it is not necessarily a fixed space. It does not need bricks and mortar, it can be a wagon, a caravan, a boat, or a tent. It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control. Having shelter is not having a home, nor is having a house, nor is home the same as household. (Douglas, 1991, p. 289)
In this description, home is not a fixed or static place, but rather a process of turning space into place.
Among those who see home as more than place, Saunders and Williams argue that home “is a crucial ‘locale' in the sense that it is the setting through which basic forms of social relations and social institutions are constituted and reproduced” (1988, p. 82). That is, home is a space where we create, practice, and pass down our understandings of what social relationships are supposed to be like — and this informs how we are in the world. This is no small order.
Bowlby, Gregorie, and McKie (1997) offer a less grandiose and more intimate picture of home. While they assume that home is typically centered on a place, they argue that it is defined in part through daily practices that happen within it. In her review, Mallett describes this practice-centered idea of home as “a physical space that is lived” (2004, p. 80).
The second set of critiques focuses on the traditional ideas of home as a safe, secure, private site of family and belonging. In another critical review, Blunt (2005) turns to literature on domestic violence, homelessness, and transnational migrants to demonstrate how home can also be dangerous, precarious, alienating, and unsettled — for individuals and families alike.
Troubled or complicated experiences of home can have lasting impacts on individuals. Experiences of home that involve loss, conflict, or trauma have significant impacts on people’s identities, in terms of both how one’s identity forms and the personal sense of identity one carries (Manzo 2005). Likewise, continual disruptions of living situations and family relationships, as is often the case for foster children, can coalesce in what Samuels (2009) calls “an ambiguous loss of home.”
And for transnational migrants and refugees alike, home is complicated by experiences of displacement — of leaving (temporarily or permanently), resettling, reception, and acculturation (or, in some cases, assimilation). For the young New Zealanders that Wiles (2008) interviewed, migration between New Zealand and London prompted an unsettling reflection on home. While living in London, her subjects expressed traditional ideas of home, often associating it with family and familiarity, with easy access to their own possessions, and with places and landscapes that enabled familiar daily practices and lifestyles. Yet, on returning to New Zealand, many of them found that their wistful memories of home in New Zealand no longer seemed to fit them; their experiences had changed them:
What turns out to be disconcerting for those who return is that they cannot in fact return to that ‘home’ because as their sense of self and as a group changes so too do their relationships to home and their processes of meaning making. For many in this group, the return home and attempts to resettle ultimately lead to some of the most difficult changes in their sense of identity and exploration of difference. The actual return home abruptly challenges the idealistic and sometimes simplistic vision of New Zealand as home that structured their lives in London. (Wiles, 2008, p. 134)
We wish to close this section with two final critiques. First, traditional conceptualizations of home are highly localized (usually to a place of residence) — but as Blunt and Dowling (2006) among others point out, home is a multiscalar phenomenon. We will address this point in greater detail in Lesson 10.
Second, just as spaces we think of as ‘homely’ can be experienced in ‘unhomely’ ways — that is, supposedly ‘safe’ houses can be violated by burglary or domestic violence — people sometimes find (or create) home in unlikely spaces or ‘unhomely homes’ (see Blunt & Dowling, 2006). Because we perceive residences such as jails, school dormitories, squatter settlements, and refugee camps as temporary, uncomfortable, and distant from the familiar, we don’t think of them as home-like or ‘homely’ spaces. And while people sometimes actively resist designating or producing a sense of home in temporary residential spaces (see, e.g, Parrott, 2005), in some cases people do find home in these and similar spaces (see, e.g., Kenyon, 1999).
Blunt, A. (2005). Cultural geography: Cultural geographies of home. Progress In Human Geography, 29(4), 505-515.
Blunt, A., and Dowling, R. (2006). Home. Routledge.
Bowlby, S., Gregory, S., and McKie, L. (1997). “Doing home”: Patriarchy, caring, and space. Women's Studies International Forum, 20(3), 343-350.
Douglas, M. (1991). The idea of home: A kind of space. Social Research, 58(1), 287-307.
Kenyon, L. (1999). A home from home: students’ transitional experience of home. In T. Chapman, and J. L. Hockey (Eds.), Ideal homes? Social change and domestic life (pp. 84-95). Routledge.
Mallett, S. (2004). Understanding home: A critical review of the literature. The Sociological Review, 52(1), 62-89.
Manzo, L. C. (2005). For better or worse: Exploring multiple dimensions of place meaning. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(1), 67-86.
Massey, D. (1994). Space, place, and gender. University of Minnesota Press.
Parrott, F. R. (2005). ‘It’s not forever’: The material culture of hope. Journal of Material Culture, 10(3), 245-262.
Samuels, G. M. (2009) Ambiguous loss of home: The experience of familial (im)permanence among young adults with foster care backgrounds. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(12), 1229-1239.
Wiles, J. (2008). Sense of home in a transnational social space: New Zealanders in London. Global Networks, 8(1): 116-137.