Section 5: Meanings of Home

Witold Rybczynski “Domesticity” [1986]

Rob Imrie “Disability, Embodiment and the Meaning of the Home” [2004]

Claire Cooper “The House as Symbol of the Self” [1974]

Talja Blokland ‘‘You Got to Remember You Live in Public Housing’’ [2008]

Denis Wood and Robert J. Beck “Home Rules” [1994]

J. MacGregor Wise “Home: Territory and Identity” [2000]

Home, both a place and an idea, is complex and multifaceted. It resonates as a spatial metaphor in everyday conversations—“home is where the heart is” or “there’s no place like home”—and is the subject of scholarly debate across many disciplines. While some research suggests that home has such potent meaning because it is the locus of everyday family life and a repository of objects and memories, other accounts question whether this experience is true for everyone. Home operates at a variety of overlapping scales indicating how and where people feel a sense of belonging. At the same time, issues of homelessness and migration contribute to how we understand the impact of deracination and alternate ways of feeling attachment. In this section, we consider how home is lived and experienced by people as a place, sometimes with conflicted or variable meanings. Included are readings that pay special attention to how values of home are derived or constructed, as well as the ways in which experiences of home are denied or inhibited. These readings show that while home possesses a deep significance as a space where habitual and thoughtfully created life goes on, there are many ways in which these meanings emerge and are experienced.

Dwelling is a key term related to questions of home that German philosopher Martin Heidegger probes in an essay entitled “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1971 [1951]). He argues that people, through both language and action, regularly conflate building and dwelling. He gives an example through the word bauen:

The Old English and High German word for building, buan, means to dwell. This signifies: to remain, to stay in a place. … Where the word bauen still speaks in its original sense it also says how far the nature of dwelling reaches. That is, bauen, buan, bhu, beo are our word bin in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean: I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.

Heidegger’s argument in this quote is that all places we inhabit offer us the possibility of home through the way in which we dwell. The reverse holds as well: dwelling depends on a rootedness that comes through building. For Heidegger, dwelling and building form the basic character of being on the earth, though more recent work brings into question the degree to which we are bound to specific places. Tim Ingold, a British social anthropologist, picks up the question of dwelling in his book The Perception of the Environment (2011), where he discusses how people make a home in the world, especially in relation to the landscape.

Domesticity, like dwelling, is a word which suggests a pattern of activity and the role people play in those activities as much as a particular type of environment. Witold Rybczynski is an architect and historian who looks at how the conventional understanding of home as a single-family dwelling has been transmitted through time and space. His chapter, “Domesticity,” locates the start of this convention in 16th-century Netherlands. Rybczynski attributes its development to a number of factors, including the physical geography and resources of the Dutch lowlands, a growing middle class, and social standards that valued family, thrift, and neatness. Within this milieu, home came to signify the domestic abode of the conventional family—father, mother, and children—overseen and distinguished as a female realm.

Home does not mean the same thing to all people, especially when it is inaccessible. Social geographer Rob Imrie elucidates the experiences of disabled people in their home environments, and shows that conventional attitudes and design of homes are not sufficient for all people. The people he interviews point out ways in which traditionally designed homes do not offer adequate privacy or security, and often neglect other basic needs. These examples indicate how residences perpetuate disability and fail to provide a sense of belonging when houses do not fit people’s physical abilities. In elaborating this friction between home and user, Imrie brings the normative idea of home as a place of comfort and satisfaction into question.

Talja Blokland is an urban sociologist who, like Imrie, complicates the conventional interpretations of what home means. By studying people living in public housing, she suggests how power dynamics and socio-economic conditions inform the ways in which people view their homes. For the residents she worked with, public housing was not and could never be their home, as it was seen as a temporary situation. Blokland demonstrates that for these residents there is a disconnect between their idealized view of home (e.g., a single-family residence surrounded by a picket fence) and the place in which they actually live. In fact, her work highlights how home—a sense of connection to a place of dwelling—is often denied to different groups, namely the poor and people of color in Western cultures, and relates to larger issues of injustice and social structure.

While physical access and domestic inhabitation are important ways in which we connect to our homes, our psychological connections and ideas of home are equally profound. Clare Cooper, an architect and psychologist who draws on the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, suggests that home may be understood as a shared archetypal experience in which people express themselves through a language of symbols. For Jung, home was a combination of a strong tower and a sheltering cavern. Cooper uses Jung’s symbolic interpretation to understand what people desire in their homes, and how those things affect people at a psychic level. Addressing the idea of home as an expression of the “separate, unique, private, and protected” family unit, she cites statistics that 85 percent of Americans hold the single-family residence as ideal. Cooper argues that these psychic desires play out at a social level in the cultural patterns of suburban housing and how we speak about our homes, and questions whether these attitudes are sustainable in the forms they have taken.

Geographers Denis Wood and Robert J. Beck take a structural approach to the question of home, but at a very intimate scale. Their detailed analysis of the physical features and social codes that organize our experience of home reveals the cultural meanings of our living spaces. Like Rybczynski and Cooper, they indicate that our understanding and sense of home has been deeply engrained through cultural patterns. The authors offer evidence by closely examining every object and surface in a typical family living room and articulating the set of rules and restrictions that go along with each artifact. The plan drawing at the beginning of Section 5 shows the types of details from which these rules are constructed in Wood’s home. By looking at the rules, they show how family members across generations learn how one should behave in a living room, which through action (and expected inaction) constitute the meaning of the place.

Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, communications theorist J. Macgregor Wise argues that the way in which we define home can be much looser and less regulated. Wise suggests that we can understand home as a territory—one that we take with us—defined by something as simple as a song that makes someone feel safe in the dark. Home, while deeply cultural, is also something that escapes the bounds of culture because it is continually made and remade through our actions. As such it is something that moves with us and always opens onto other spaces. This understanding of home offers ways to grapple with contemporary questions of mobility and belonging, and suggests how technology may impact how and where we feel at home.

While this set of readings on home opens many ways to think about the places in which we live, it remains a partial look. Those interested in further reading might start with the work of Barbara Miller Lane (2006), which expands and adds to the perspectives offered here. Another edited volume is The Domestic Space Reader (Briganti and Mezei 2012), which looks more closely at how home is gendered and contested. In thinking about home, it is important to understand the dynamics of power and status that shape the space and experience. People who are poor, disabled, or otherwise marginalized may experience home in very different ways from how it is conventionally portrayed. Likewise, women and men tend to have different ideas and experiences of home. Dolores Hayden (1982, 2002) and Karen Franck (1991) have made excellent contributions that help us to think about alternative forms of housing and home based on nuanced understandings of class and gender. A number of interesting texts combine experiential description with social analysis of home, such as those by Winifred Gallagher (2006), Michael Ruhlman (2006), and Tracy Kidder (1985). Maureen Ogle (2000), and Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller (1996) have looked specifically at how kitchens and bathrooms have impacted the spaces and meanings of home. A superb resource on the historical development of dwelling is 6,000 Years of Housing by Norbert Schoenauer (2000), while Thomas Hubka (2004) and Pierre Bourdieu (1970) offer close analysis of the cultural and social implications of particular dwellings. There are many more projects and readings that further our understanding of home, but in all of them it is important to keep in mind that there is no single, fixed way of dwelling. Home is a place and an idea that is contingent upon and always intertwined with issues of power and subjectivity, gender and class, culture and individuality.

– reproduced from Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, & Space Reader. New York: Routledge.


Arnold, Jeanne E. 2013. Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors. Los Angeles, CA: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1970. “The Berber House or the World Reversed.” Social Science Information 9(2): 151–170.

Briganti, Chiara, and Kathy Mezei, eds. 2012. The Domestic Space Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.

Franck, Karen A. 1991. New Households, New Housing, edited by Sherry Ahrentzen. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Gallagher, Winifred. 2006. House Thinking: A Room-by-room Look at How We Live. New York: Harper Perennial.

Grier, Katherine C. 2010. Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-class Identity, 1850–1930. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Hayden, Dolores. 1982. The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hayden, Dolores. 2002. Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life. New York: W.W. Norton.

Heidegger, Martin. 1971. “Building Dwelling Thinking,” From Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Alfred Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row.

Hubka, Thomas C. 2004. Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New Hampshire.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London; New York: Routledge.

Jung, Carl G. 1989. “The Tower.” In Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage. Kidder, Tracy. 1985. House. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Lane, Barbara Miller. 2006. Housing and Dwelling: Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture. New York: Routledge.

Lupton, Ellen, and J. Abbott Miller. 1996. The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

McDowell, Linda. 2007. “Spaces of the Home: Absence, Presence, New Connections and New Anxieties.” Home Cultures 4(2): 129–146.

Ogle, Maureen. 2000. All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840– 1890. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ruhlman, Michael. 2006. House: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Books.

Saegert, Susan, Desiree Fields, and Kimberly Libman. 2009. “Deflating the Dream: Radical Risk and the Neoliberalization of Homeownership.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 31(3): 297–317.

Schoenauer, Norbert. 2000. 6,000 Years of Housing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Somerville, Peter. 1992. “Homelessness and the Meaning of Home: Rooflessness or Rootlessness?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 16(4): 529–539.

Verschaffel, Bart. 2002. “The Meanings of Domesticity.” The Journal of Architecture 7(3): 287–296.

Wood, Denis, and Robert J. Beck. 1994. Home Rules. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wright, Gwendolyn. 1983. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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