Reimagining Home in the 21st Century

Doors indicating the concept of homeJustine Lloyd and Ellie Vasta explore the idea that thinking differently about home advances our understanding of belonging as a social process in which we are all implicated.

The idea of home evokes many layers of meaning, symbolism and emotion. In many societies, home can refer to the family home, the meaning most commonly understood, and by extension it can symbolize a place of warmth and security as well as a place of fear and exploitation. At the same time, home can mean a locality in which people have close relationships with neighbours and have developed attachment to a neighbourhood square or to a local football team. Political leaders often evoke the idea of the nation as the home for all who fulfil certain criteria of birthplace and culture.

Increasingly, many people may have a sense of transnational or trans-local belonging, making themselves at home in more than one place, whether by choice or by forced displacement (Hage 2005). The situation of refugees and migrants complicates definitions of home further when homelands themselves change, and the displaced are able to return, yet face further displacement as well as reconciliation (Long and Oxfeld 2004; Markowitz and Stefansson 2004).

Home can no longer be seen as a purely self-sufficient concept and place

Images of the nation as home have been a central force in nationalism, designed to create a strong emotional bond. But, for many, the family, local or transnational home may have a stronger emotional pull than the idea of the nation as home. The persistence of home within this proliferation of lifeworlds is the focus of our new book Reimagining Home in the 21st Century. This collection investigates the social forces that surround home in the 21st century. These forces create the possibility both of being at home and of feeling estranged from taken-for-granted structures (Berman 1988). Recent trends in the affordability of housing in western economies have pushed and pulled at families and individuals with devastating effects (Mallett et al. 2011). Home can no longer be seen as a purely self-sufficient concept and place, as it is indeed these external pressures that make us feel we are at home or not at home. Increasingly, the presence of ‘others’, challenging a comfortable sense of belonging, is highlighted by conservative forces to deflect attention from these pressures. At the same time, many people are struggling collectively to imagine new ways of being at home against these hegemonic visions of home.

The gendering of the home as feminine has been disrupted

In our book, we question the very possibility in the 21st century of any concept of a singular and self-sufficient home. The changes to our understanding of home have been as profuse as they are diverse. These changes build on, or deepen, pre-existing contradictions. Recent changes to the labour market and work recast the domestic sphere as the site of both consumption and production, a return to the pre-industrial formation of home as a place of work (Holloway 2007; Pink et al. 2015). The gendering of the home as feminine has been disrupted by new technologies and new visibilities of domestic labour (Cowan 1983; Lloyd and Johnson 2004; and for a contemporary, ethnographic take on the reconfiguration of gender roles (see Meah and Jackson 2013). The intense marketing of goods and services to home-based consumers, the commodification of the family home in overheated real-estate markets built on debt (Tanton et al. 2008), and economic policies directed towards integrating the family and relational aspects of social life into the market (McDowell 2007) all illustrate the ways in which home is increasingly a site of power opened up to scrutiny and display.

Going beyond the notion of home as a stable, given entity has alerted us to the exclusions and gaps in the conventional meanings of home. Far from being a safe and secure anchor of identity, especially for marginalized groups, the home is simultaneously the focus of neo-liberal market forces and state interventions (see Musharbash, Chapter 5 in this book). At the same time, the realities of what constitutes ‘home’, and how people make their lives at ‘home’, are changing in an age of high rates of geographical mobility and changing local contexts. Sociologists and anthropologists have grappled with the implications of these changes, questioning whether home can be ‘placed’ at all, or whether it is more accurate to understand a sense of home as something ‘practised’, a process rather than a stable ‘thing’ (Lloyd 2001: 182–183). By understanding home as practised, we go beyond previous approaches. Looking at home through an anthropological lens, while useful, approaches ‘the home’ as the bounded site of a set of practices of domesticity, and thus constructs a teleology of settlement (Cieraad 1999). Increasingly, sociology and other disciplines see home as a complex interactional achievement between persons, spaces and things that requires us to constantly ‘make homes’ rather than ever finally ‘be at home’ (see for example Schillmeier and Heinlein’s 2009 account from this perspective of the precipitous move of an elderly man into a nursing home following a stroke). The notion of home as practised, a process and an event opens up home for new kinds of analysis, as well as offering us a new set of possibilities to make ourselves at home in relation to others. In this sense, our home does not ‘belong’ to us; rather we ‘belong’ to home.

By seeing home from this standpoint – as a set of practices which configure our identities both individual and collective – deep contradictions and complex changes arise, revealing the tensions that exist in the modern home. The constant friction of these changes and associated movements into the public sphere, however, do not override demands for home. As Putnam argued in relation to the emergence of a range of theories that emphasized social displacement and fragmentation during the 1980s, ‘Those who pondered dislocations in material culture have only recently come to recognize that they must deal with those who encounter, enact and envisage “the home”’ (1993: 152). It is this persistence of home and its ground-level permutations that this collection speaks to. Rather than home’s erasure within large-scale social processes, which appear, on the surface, to run roughshod over attachments to the time-spaces of home-making, the enduring pull of home is deeply felt.


Reimagining Home in the 21st Century, edited by Justine Lloyd and Ellie Vasta, Macquarie University, Australia is out now.

Read Chapter One free on Elgaronline



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