The study of ‘home’: a brief literary review

drawingI used to send my mom drawings when she was living in the Middle East for her work. One of the first drawings that I remember making was of a home. The word ‘home’ seemed simple back then. However, the more I think about it, the more complicated it got. When I talk about home, I think of a geographical site, the country I was born in, the city I grew up in and my current place of living. I also talk of ‘home’ as a sense of familiarity, of habits that create a sense of belonging. Home is also made up of material things and familiar faces.

Home has a personal meaning to each of us.  Shelley Mallett’s article, which traces the relevant theories and empirical literature on the subject,  asks whether a home is a place, space, feeling, practices or an active state of being in the world while highlighting how much the ‘home’ is a multidimensional and, sometimes, contradictory concept.  Mallet’s article shows that many academics and researchers have acknowledged the  presence and need for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of meaning of home. I have summarized below the various major approaches used and hope, like Mallet did, to provoke a ‘conversation about home’.

1. House and Home

Mallet’s first category of academic literature looks at the uses of the word ‘home’ and how it has changed in historical and social contexts. Home derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘ham’ meaning village, estate or town. However, throughout history of the white Western world, the term has been adopted and used within varying contexts.

2. Ideal House/Home

Mallet identified a second major body of research, which focuses on the analysis of the relationship between house and home using the examination of the notion of ideal home or house. Research in this field concentrates on physical structures. Typically, these works were seen to both reflect and perpetuate common ideas about the ideal home in Anglo-American and Australian contexts.  Certain studies problematise the  issue of ideal home but most privileged the relationship between house and home, de-emphasising other idealised meanings of home.

3. The real and the ideal, the actual and remembered home

Another approach to the study of home reference the symbolic power of the ideal or idealised home. These researches tend to focus on the nostalgic or romantic notions of home. Some research polarise the notion of ‘ideal home,’ which is often described in exclusively positive terms, and the ‘real home’, which reflects people’s diverse experience and understanding of home.

4. Home as a haven or refuge

The fourth category Mallet identified are writings on ‘home’ that contrasts it to the outside space. In this context, the home is seen as a place and/or space that is private where one could retreat and relax. In this dichotomy, the home represents a comfortable, secure and safe space. These studies often link ‘home’ with the familial realm.

5. Home and family

A lot of the literature on home has also delved into the association between home and family.  However, the nature of the relationship has remained much contested.

6. Home and gender

Some literature focus their discussion on the relationship between gender and home, with particular focus on women.

7. Home/journeying

Numerous cultural and anthropological studies have detailed the experience of migrants and refugees and their experience of home-leaving. These articles consider home as a dwelling, a homeland, or even a constellation of relationships that is considered to be the place of origin (Case 1996), a point of destination (Ginsburg 1999).

8. Being at home (in the world)

Several phenomenological research on home look into the experience of ‘being at home’ in the world. In these writings, ‘being at home’ is understood as a state of being which is not bounded by a physical relation. These studies focus on the practice or the diverse ways people ‘do’ and feel home.

9. Home, self, identity and being

Lastly, many authors have also studied the relationship between home and identity and/or the concept of the self, said Mallet. The authors writing on the subject claim that the home is the expression or the symbol of the self. Consequently, the house itself, its interior and decorations reflect the occupant’s sense of self.


Source: Mallet, S. (2004) ‘Understanding Home: a critical review of the literature’ in Sociological Review, 52 (1)