The notion of home as a gateway for conversation across disciplines

In this blog post, PhD Fellow Katja de Neergaard reflects on a series of readings and discussions on the notion of home between the core researchers of the STAY HOME project.

Challenges when working across disciplines

Much work has been done to delineate the meaning of home, and many terms exist to characterise it: house, household, domestic space, dwelling etc. How a home is described differs across academic fields, and many definitions exist. The multiplicity of the notion of home was apparent in our first meetings on the STAY HOME research project; in the core working-group comprised of a postdoc and three PhDs, we quickly realised that we all brought different notions of the home with us. Maybe not surprisingly, the home is one thing to the architect, another to the theologian and a third to a historian. This poses a challenge in interdisciplinary research. Different notions of home place emphasis on different aspects of the home, influence what we focus on empirically and what we determine as significant for our analysis. Therefore, having different ideas of the home on an interdisciplinary research team can make it difficult to establish a shared vocabulary and direction.

In this blog post I first present some of the many approaches to studying the home, particularly related to my own field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). These are used to briefly illustrate how different notions of home hold different potentials for research because they foster different empirical and analytical paths. Finally, I show how the home served as a gateway into different disciplines of an interdisciplinary research team. By discussing different notions of home, we experienced a greater understanding of the perspectives we each represent. In his way, the notion of home became a (conceptual) place for us to meet as researchers, from which we were able to venture into each other’s fields.

The notion of home in STS

STS is concerned with the mutual relationship between science, technologies and society. Studies within STS focus on understanding how these realms interact and have effects. But even within this discipline, there can be many approaches to studying the home, some of which I will present below.

In some areas of STS, the home is considered in relation to the larger political structures and economies that it is part of. For example, Handel notes that houses are part of larger regimes “in which the home/house is a feature in a wide system of planning, political economies, and state policies” (Handel 2019, 1046). At the same time, others like Madigan et al (1990) note, that house and home are conflated in the term ‘home ownership’ and brings attention to how the physical house is also tied to individual economic resources, personal identity and security.

Other STS scholars examine the home as influenced by “cultural norms and individual fantasies” (Rapport 1998, 8). This includes exploring the relationship between the home and ideas of family, gendered aspects of the home, as well as idealised notions of home. For example, some examine how the distinctions of public and private sphere have produced a notion of home as a place of refuge from the surveillance and expectations of the ‘outside’, while others argue that a sense of security is not a given in all homes.

While cultural norms influence the home, the materiality of the home, including the lay-out, technologies, size etc., also “constrain or facilitate cultural and historical modes of relating between the people who share these spaces” (Mallett 2004, 66). To account for the dialectic relationship between social practices and the physical space, some conceptualise the home as a socio-spatial system. To Saunders and Williams (1988) the home is the fusion of the physical and social unit, and it is in this setting that social relations and institutions come into action and are re-produced. Similarly, Massey argues that 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’” (Massey in Mallett 2004, 70). From this perspective then, the physical attributes of the home are deeply intertwined with the relational aspects of the home, as well as the societies they interact with. Furthermore, casting the home as something also always in flux brings attention to processual and practice-oriented perspectives on the home. In this regard, Dourish and Bell argue that we should refrain from assuming that the category of home and domestic are “pregiven and stable, [and that] we need to look at the ways in which it is actively produced” (Dourish and Bell 2011, 6).

A final example of a perspective on the home found within STS, is to approach the home as an experience or a localisable idea (Douglas 1991, 289). Considering the home this way brings attention to notions such as homeland, community, a city, a set of relations or a sense of belonging. In this stream of thought, often propelled by feminist thinkers, the boundaries of home are impermeable. For example, some focus on the relationship between home and journeying, conceptualising the home as a “relational realm from which people venture into the world and to which they generally hope to return” (Case in Mallett 2004, 77). Such ventures out of the home are part of the constitution of home itself, because the movement occurs in relation to the home (Ahmed 1999). In much of this work, the home is examined as phenomenological experiences and states of being, rather than a fixed and stable unit.

The perspectives on home I have described above illustrate the multiplicity of the notion and show that there are many possible approaches, even within my own field. Furthermore, the examples make apparent how various notions of home place emphasis on different aspects of the home, and as such, influence what type of examination of the home is relevant. For example, examining the home as a unit in a larger political system requires a different mode of inquiry than examining the home as phenomenological states of being. Thus, making particular notions of home explicit is important because they influence the research-process by shaping our empirical focus and hold different analytical potentials.

The notion of home as a gateway

With all of these approaches available within one field, bringing together perspectives on an interdisciplinary research team can seem daunting. In fact, coming up with a shared definition on the project would likely prove impossible. However, in the process of grabbling with this and seeking to clarify our respective ideas of home, we realised that we achieved a greater understanding of each other’s disciplines. This became apparent when discussing a perspective that considers the relationship between technologies and societal development, and the effects onto the home. Through Dourish and Bell’s account of how bringing a technology like the vacuum cleaner into homes changed gendered ideas about carpet cleaning and introduced new standards of cleanliness, my fellow researchers were able to better engage with the role of technology from an STS perspective. Likewise, my own understanding was informed by accounts of how the home has been influenced by historic events such as the industrial revolution, which resulted in major changes to patterns of employment and re-configured the distribution of wealth, thereby changing the way domestic life was organised and imagined. Furthermore, I gained a deeper knowledge of how developments in relation to work-life, ideas of comfort and intimacy, become organising principles for the design of domestic spaces.

It became clear to us that the complexity of the notion of home presents us with an opportunity – it is a point of entry into our respective disciplines. Therefore, our aim is not to strive for one common definition of the home. Instead, we seek to inhabit the tension between these different perspectives and allow the notion of home to be a gateway from which we can venture into multiple disciplines. We see this a way of confronting ourselves with any preconceived notions of the home, while achieving a deeper understanding of other perspectives. In doing so, we hope to follow Mallet, who urges conversations about the home between disciplines “that both reflect[] and accommodate[] people’s complex and diverse lived experience of home” (Mallett 2004, 64).

References

Ahmed, Sara. 1999. ‘Home and Away: Narratives of Migration and Estrangement’. International Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (3): 329–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/136787799900200303.

Douglas, Mary. 1991. ‘The Idea of a Home: A Kind of Space’. Social Research 58 (1): 287–307.

Dourish, Paul, and Genevieve Bell. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Handel, Ariel. 2019. ‘What’s in a Home? Toward a Critical Theory of Housing/Dwelling’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 37 (6): 1045–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654418819104.

Madigan, Ruth, Moira Munro, and Susan J. Smith. 1990. ‘Gender and the Meaning of the Home’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 14 (4): 625–47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.1990.tb00160.x.

Mallett, Shelley. 2004. ‘Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature’. The Sociological Review 52 (1): 62–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2004.00442.x.

Rapport, Nigel Julian. 1998. ‘“Home and Movement: A Polemic”.’ In Migrants of Identity. Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement., edited by N J Rapport and A. Dawson, 3–38. United Kingdom: Berg.

Saunders, Peter, and Peter Williams. 1988. ‘The Constitution of the Home: Towards a Research Agenda’. Housing Studies 3 (2): 81–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673038808720618.