Under Construction

A Brief Introduction to Housing Studies

In: The Many Meanings of Home
Ewa Kowal
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No Place Like Home

Let us acknowledge from the outset that the subject of our enquiry is complicated, and the complexity goes far beyond the basic semantic distinction between “house” and “home” (which is prominent in English, but does not occur in all languages). First of all, few ideas are as universally key, basic, and primal as “home.” To state the obvious and quote the editors of Our House: The Representation of Domestic Space in Modern Culture, Gerry Smyth and Jo Croft, “the house is an absolutely fundamental part of our lives” (2006, 12) – whether understood as a family abode, a community, a nation, a state (“homeland”), or Planet Earth – the habitat of not only human animals. This is reflected in the fact that a number of crucial fields of study and significant concepts etymologically stem from “house/home”: economy and ecology (both from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation”), domesticity, domestication and domination (from Latin domus “house, home”), nostalgia (from Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” + nostos “homecoming”), the uncanny (from German das Unheimliche, from Heim “home”), to name a few. Already this short list of terms forms a wide network of relations, including power relations, with other problems and notions: migration, colonisation and postcolonial issues, (not-)at-home-ness, homesickness, and more.

Secondly, despite this universality, or perhaps exactly because of the ubiquity of “houses and homes,” few ideas are as emotionally charged, and therefore debated. The emotional responses stretch along a wide continuum. On one end is the unproblematic and clichéd “home-sweet-home” part of the spectrum, encapsulated by proverbs embroidered on many a cushion, such as “Home is where the heart is,” etc. There are very many, often beautifully illustrated, publications both capturing and eliciting such positive emotions. For instance, in her 2000 book, Sex and Real Estate, Marjorie Garber explains, as the second part of the book’s title announces, Why We Love Houses. The professor of English points out many similarities between contemporary Western perceptions of romantic affairs and the romance of house hunting, and then its fulfilment in homeownership, and the family romance, the romance of the ultimate “being at home.” Similarly, in The Architecture of Happiness, the philosopher Alain De Botton writes, again romantically and even more pleasantly, how “our” – reassuringly shared – love of houses stems from a need fulfilled by a blessing, a protective carapace:1

Our love of home is […] an acknowledgement of the degree to which our identity is not self-determined. We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent side of us. (2014, 107)

However, at the highly problematic other end of the spectrum the home is not a refuge but its opposite. A shelter from it can be required for a multitude of reasons, and can lead to a multitude of consequences, including homelessness. The home may be “the place where most of what matters in people’s lives takes place” (Miller 2001, 3), but not always in a happy sense: “[i]t is now well known that most accidents happen in the home, but most homicides and cases of violence and abuse also occur there, not least perhaps because of the invisibility and ease of avoiding detection” (Atkinson and Blandy 2017, 58). Considering the varied conceptualisations of house and home suggested earlier, domestic violence can also be understood as taking place at various scales, from a single dwelling unit to a political/ethnic region/state. One kind of such violence is manifest and experienced on both personal and state level whenever a politician or the politician’s supporters shout to a specific group of people to “go home” (e.g. Pengelly 2019, Swaine 2019). Disturbingly, and perhaps tellingly, the first chapter of Mein Kampf is titled “My Home,” and propagandistically combines both ends of the above continuum (Stanley 2020, 141).

Thus briefly signalled complication and controversy within our subject matter is reflected in the many ways of examining the many issues related to the broad topic of “house and home.” Accordingly, these ways are also complex and some aspects remain or have more recently become debatable. The fundamental concept of “domesticity” is a perfect case in point.


“Domesticity” as we know it today has to do with “coziness,” “intimacy,” “snugness,” “privacy,” “comfort” (Di Mare 2006, 14) – all the elements making up the pleasant condition of being completely at ease and “at-home” in one’s own (or somebody else’s, a host’s) house.2 However, as the historian Raffaella Sarti demonstrates in her 2002 book Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500–1800, even the richest people’s (not to mention the poorest) houses used to severely lack the basic comfort-generating amenities taken for granted today, and consequently thus defined quality of “domesticity” has not always existed. When and how did it originate?

An often-quoted fragment from Witold Rybczyński’s Home: A Short History of an Idea, first published in 1986, defines domesticity as follows:

To speak of domesticity is to describe a set of felt emotions, not a single attribute. Domesticity has to do with family, intimacy, and a devotion to the home, as well as with a sense of the house as embodying – not only harbouring – these sentiments. (1987, 75)

Most importantly, the fragment pinpoints exactly when “domesticity” began: in the Netherlands, in the 17th century (72). Rybczyński explains why: “one of the most important events in the evolution of the domestic interior” was “the feminization of the home in seventeenth-century Holland” (72). This process, according to the author, led to changes in behaviour which

all pointed to a change in domestic arrangements. Not only was the house becoming more intimate, it was also, in the process, acquiring a special atmosphere. It was becoming a feminine place, or at least a place under feminine control. This control was tangible and real. It resulted in cleanliness, and in enforced rules, but it also introduced something to the house which had not existed before: domesticity. (74–75)

Rybczyński’s final observation on the issue is that “[i]f domesticity was, as John Lucacs suggested, one of the principal achievements of the Bourgeois Age, it was, above all, a feminine achievement” (75).

In The Most Beautiful House in the World, published three years after Home, Rybczyński repeats the same claim, writing about when children’s play “moved indoors,” and thus “became more private,” as well as “so to speak domesticated” (1989, 30). This happened, again, “in seventeenth-century Holland, where domesticity developed first” (30).

This purported development was possible, inter alia, thanks to a significant change in the architectural design of houses, which Edward T. Hall describes in his 1966 The Hidden Dimension, again by making a reference to the history of childhood, but locating the shift more broadly in Europe, a century later:

As Philippe Ariès points out in Centuries of Childhood, rooms had no fixed functions in European houses until the eighteenth century. Members of the family had no privacy as we know it today. […] In the eighteenth century, the house altered its form. […] No longer did the occupants pass through one room into another. […] the family pattern began to stabilize and was expressed further in the form of the house. (1990, 104)

In addition, Hall continues the by now unquestionable connection between domesticity, or just home, with women, who are mentioned only a few times in his book on “proxemics,” the science of human (or in Hall’s words, “man’s”) use of space, mainly in connection with kitchen space (105). Clearly, in Hall’s remark about the “stabilization” of “the family pattern” there is a suggestion of a teleology to the development of the family and the home, rather than just a recognition of a stage in their history.

However, arguably the most famous observations on domesticity, even when the exact word is not used per se, come not from the above-cited, respectively, professor of architecture and anthropologist, but from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. In his 1958 The Poetics of Space, Bachelard memorably writes about “our” first home, the “unforgettable house” of “our” childhood (1994, 15): this “oneiric house, a house of dream-memory,” is “the crypt of the house we were born in” (15–16). “[T]he house we were born in” (7) “is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word” (4):

When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of revery, we participate in this original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise. This is the environment in which the protective beings live. (7)

In the next sentence Bachelard himself immediately confirms that he is writing about “the maternal features of the house” (7). In a tone even more reverential than the one in Rybczyński’s Home, Bachelard later writes about women at home:

From one object in a room to another, housewifery care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep. […] A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization. (68)

Similarly, in his 2017 House and Home: Cultural Contexts, Ontological Roles Thomas Barrie writes: “During their lives, most people inhabit and pass through a number of houses, beginning with the first ‘house’ of the womb” (16). The author also “suggest[s] three fundamental aspects of house and home” (146):

First, there is the house of the body3 – the home of the inner realms of psyche and soul and their mysterious territories of memories, dreams, and self-definitions. Second, there is the house for living – the place of comfort, rest, and ease, of family meals, and intimacy, the setting for the dramas, passages, pains, and joys of life – which is called home. At last, there is the house of the world, the condition of interconnection with others and the built and natural environment – of being at home in the universe. (146)

Elsewhere in his book, when writing about “the American Dream” and the key role played within it by the suburban single-family household, Barrie engages in critical reflection on this ideal with its prescriptive family model: white, middle-class, with the breadwinner father and the nurturing stay-at-home mother – a model that, far from being a “natural” inevitability, is culturally, politically, religiously and economically promoted and consequently privileged, to the disadvantage of, and in order to suppress, any departures from this dominant “norm” (142–143). However, in the above cited passages Barrie clearly continues the phenomenological tradition of understanding of home ranging “from inner psychic” – and physical/physiological – “realms to vast cosmic perspectives” (147), which is also socially conditioned, politically infused and gendered, but unreflectively so, purportedly neutrally suspended above ground on universalising and essentialistic unspoken axioms.

This is exactly what in the construct of “domesticity” has been subjected to critical scrutiny in the last decades. Its temporal origin has also been debated. In her article, “Domesticity in Dispute: A Reconsideration of Sources,” first published in 1999, a Dutch architectural historian, Heidi di Mare, challenges Rybczyński’s claims about the origins of “domesticity.” Relying entirely on “reading” selected seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, Rybczyński apparently ascribed documentary properties to their new painterly techniques creating a three-dimensional effect, while, as di Mare shows, rather than representing “objective reality” they used and experimented with “the pictorial code” of the time, combining realism and symbolism (2006, 26, 28, 30). What is more, di Mare questions Rybczyński’s claim about “the final feminization of the domestic sphere” in seventeenth-century Holland, as well as Simon Schama’s idea of “the metaphorical relationship between cleansing the house and the general craving for moral purity” in the same period (14). As di Mare concludes,

The all-embracing concept of domesticity appears to be a creation not of the seventeenth century but of the nineteenth century.4 It was during this latter period that domestic, bourgeois family life became a nucleus around which the nation was formed. […] These sentiments were then projected into the past and applied to seventeenth-century paintings, books, and houses. […] Thus was born the wide-ranging, homogenous concept of domesticity. (14)

Moreover, “[d]uring the nineteenth century the myth of seventeenth-century Dutch domesticity was also exported to other countries,” which “explains how the myth came to be spread worldwide and why it is being echoed in the works of Frantis, Praz, Rybczyński, and Schama” (14). A no less crucial reason is that “[s]uch a concept of domesticity has had a powerful influence,” as “it still manifests itself in prevailing ideas on how to create a ‘cozy’ interior” (14).

In his 2000 Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, professor of media and communications, David Morley echoes this fact even more emphatically: “[t]he idealised image of domesticity and familial life remains an enormously powerful discourse. Outside the realms of feminist theory, the dominant imagery of the home is still almost invariably set in benign terms” (2000, 56). To provide an important corrective of this established tradition, tantamount to the almost complete discursive neglect of “[t]he home as a locus of power relations” (56), Morley quotes several scholars. The first is David Sibley, the author of Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (1995), who, “in his critical commentary on Bachelard’s ‘happy phenomenology of the home’ […] notes that there is little recognition, within prevalent discourses of domesticity, of the conflictual aspects of domestic life” (56). As Morley stresses,

[i]n pointing to this crucial silence Sibley follows a long line of feminist work on this topic, from landmark works such as Ann Oakley’s Housewife, through to the works of Lynn Segal and Elizabeth Wilson, addressing the question of oppression, exploitation and violence within the hallowed realms of the family home. (56)

Another scholar quoted by Morley is Karen Fog-Olwig, who recognises the home as “a contested domain: an arena where differing interests struggle to define their own spaces within which to localize and cultivate their identity” (57). Next, Morley relies on Sharon Haar and Christopher Reed, who seriously problematise “domestic typologies such as Bachelard’s, ‘founded on myths of a universal childhood experience set in an ideal past’” (280). The authors argue that

the Heideggerian tradition of phenomenological discourse on home, exemplified in the work of Gaston Bachelard and Emmanuel Levinas, is […] ultimately vitiated by its unreflexively masculine premises. These authors’ perspective on the relations of domesticity, dwelling childhood and memory is “the prerogative of men, positioned as the beneficiaries of domestic nurturance.” (59)

Finally, Morley points to Alison Ainley’s reading of Luce Irigaray: “while the feminine provides a ‘dwelling’ for men, the woman herself is, in effect, left homeless, in the process – or else she is imprisoned” (60).

When Rybczyński praised “domesticity,” purportedly “one of the principal achievements of the Bourgeois Age,” as “above all, a feminine achievement” (1987: 75), he glossed over the historical fact that the existing system of laws and social norms left women practically nothing else to “achieve.” As we read in Sarti, “the middle of the seventeenth century,” exactly the century Rybczyński refers to, was “a period in which women’s property rights were under attack” (2002, 216). Even earlier, for centuries, European “[w]omen were mainly destined to leave their original families when they got married taking only a few objects with them. It was much more difficult for them to own property. They were excluded from the possessions” (215). To all intents and purposes, they were the possessions.

Such historical facts are also omitted in Bachelard’s adult recollections of his own early observations about the intensity of “housewifery care” “awakening” furniture. Again, rather than unthinkingly admiring it, Sarti helps us actually understand it:

[women] were generally charged with looking after domestic objects and linen, and they could be responsible for purchasing items of daily use. Women therefore appear to have developed a different relationship with objects, which was more individual and more absorbing than that of men. They seem to have invested great importance in objects because they had few alternative resources to construct their identity, establish social relations and leave a memory of themselves. […] Possessions were something they could rely on and use creatively in their daily lives and in their network of relationships. (2002, 215–16)

In contrast to this analytical confrontation with complex history, certainly relevant also for the historical context of Bachelard’s own childhood in the late 19th century, in his writing about domesticity and its taken-for-granted connection with women we find a quality of remembered wide-eyed boyish wonder. It is best expressed in his selection of a quote, from Henri Bosco, about “the old faithful servant, Sidoine”: “however commonplace the work she was doing, and without in the least seeming to dream, she washed, dusted and swept in the company of angels” (68).

Of course, The Poetics of Space is not the work of a historian, it is a work of poetry; but it itself is of historical value, still capturing sentiments typical for the Victorian construction of domesticity, such as the above echo of the “angel in the house” ideal of femininity. Others have since academically studied and critically analysed both the “angel in the house” (e.g. Gilbert and Gubar 1984) and the question of class, in particular the lives of the domestics, i.e. household servants, also present in the above quote, and in their own right constituting an important area in the study of house and home (see e.g. Sarti 2006 and Lethbridge 2013). Others have also directed critical attention at furniture and generally household objects. In The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard names what is, again, present, but not named in Bachelard’s formulation “housewifery care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch” (1994, 68). The very ancient past to which the new epoch is tied through women’s domestication and labour is the origin of patriarchy over five thousand years ago (Lerner 1986, 7). As Baudrillard recognised in 1968:

The arrangement of furniture offers a faithful image of the familial and social structures of a period. The typical bourgeois interior is patriarchal; its foundation is the dining room/bedroom combination. […] All this constitutes an organism whose structure is the patriarchal relationship founded on tradition and authority, and whose heart is the complex affective relationship that binds all the family members together. (2003, 13–14)

Coming Home: In Search of Meaning

The above brief discussion of “domesticity,” just one notion within the academic examination of house and home, has illustrated three significant things about this field of study itself: the already mentioned complexity and controversy of its subject matter, the important role in it of the feminist scholarship, and the fact that the field is not one discipline but rather a multi-, inter-, and cross-disciplinary area of research. So far I have relied on the writings on housing from scholars in architecture, anthropology, cultural theory, English studies, feminist theory, geography, history, cultural history, history of architecture, humanities and social sciences, media and communications, as well as philosophy and sociology. A few more disciplines will still be added in the remaining part of this text (demography, law, literary studies, political economy, urban studies and planning, public policy), but, of course, the list could continue and include e.g. art history, design history, film studies, gender studies, literature in all languages, psychology, socioeconomics, and other large academic areas and specific sub-areas within them.

It is thus no wonder that until relatively recently no single name was used to collectively refer to the study of housing, as each discipline focused on it in isolation, and considered it only from its own perspective, mostly unaware of the work of others, in different fields. For this reason, views on exactly when the study of housing started, as well as how much research it has produced in its many permutations, have varied.

For instance, even as recently as in 2016 Rowland Atkinson, professor of urban studies and planning, and sociologist Keith Jacobs observed in their House, Home and Society that “the study of housing has not been a central focus in the social sciences. Few courses, almost no textbooks, and arguably a specialized preoccupation by researchers form the basis of interest in the home” (2016, 1–2). Moreover, according to the authors, “[n]o single theorist or body of theory has provided a substantive engagement with housing” (18); however, with one significant exception: feminist scholarship since at least the 1960s. Atkinson and Jacobs recognise that “[t]he home as a topic of serious investigation can be traced to the work of feminist scholars such as [Betty] Friedan,5 [Ann Rosamund] Oakley,6 [Dolores] Hayden,7 and [Germaine] Greer8” (49). The authors stress that “[t]he contribution of feminist scholarship has been immense”:

over the last thirty years, there have been wide ranging investigations on varied issues such as domestic violence,9 gender, sexual identity, and homemaking. The notion of home in the making of sexual and gendered identity has been a critical focus, how hegemonic constructions of breadwinners and homemakers reinforce traditional binaries and how the home creates possibilities for alternative identities forged in opposition to heteronormativity. (49–50)

In this sense, “[f]eminist scholarship paved the way for future investigations into sexuality, the meaning of home and identity, and the way that home is represented discursively” (49), as examination of “issues such as domestic labor, patriarchy, and the lack of recognition of women’s work inspired a later generation of feminist scholars” (49). Also Madden and Marcuse remind us that “for more than a century, feminists have argued that the house and home are prototypically political institutions, and have fought to transform them” (2016, 213). They have also transformed the study of house, home, and domesticity, which collective domain very likely used to be neglected within patriarchy – and was developed first of all by feminist researchers – precisely because traditionally it has been equated with women and femininity.

The views later expressed by Atkinson and Jacobs about the deficiencies within the study of housing itself were shared by Bożena Shallcross, the editor of the 2002 book Framing the Polish Home: Postwar Cultural Constructions of Hearth, Nation, and Self. According to the professor of Polish literature, “[s]urprisingly very little critical attention has been dedicated to this area” (2002: 1), which she says is “[o]ccasionally labeled ‘home studies’” (2). Shallcross adds that

The relatively new discourse on the home as a legitimate area of study has been substantially stimulated, if not pioneered, by a number of philosophical contributions: Martin Heidegger’s existential notion of the home, Mircea Eliade’s symbolic content of the home, and its oneiric image as envisioned by Gaston Bachelard. (2)

However, beyond the three philosophers’ “pioneering” contributions, no other body or bodies of work are mentioned.

In turn, Daniel Miller, the editor of 2001 Home Possessions: Material Culture behind Closed Doors, a volume of essays in anthropology and contemporary material culture studies, refers in the introduction to a “multitude of books that have already been published on the topic of houses and homes” (1).10 In fact, he states, “The study of home life is hardly new to the study of anthropology. Indeed, it is probably its core” (2001, 2). Yet, this statement is only partly shared by the authors of a similar volume, At Home: An Anthropology of Domestic Space, originally published in 1999. In his “Foreword,” professor of geography and public policy, John Rennie Short points to “[a] strange paradox”:

Given the huge significance of the home, there is comparatively little work on its meaning. There is a lopsided understanding of the world; the domestic places of our lives are not given as much attention as the public spaces. We have much more work on the workplace than on the homeplace. (2006, ix; emphasis added)

Short concludes that “The home is a place of paradoxes” and stresses that the unique value of At Home is that in this volume “the gaze is turned on the western home” (x). The same is emphasised by the book’s editor, cultural anthropologist Irene Cieraad, who asks:

But why is an anthropological approach in the study of Western domestic space still missing? This is even more curious considering the fact that there is an established research tradition in the anthropological discipline focusing on “the house,” that is to say, on the tribal house or on exotic domestic spaces. (2006a, 2)

Cieraad adds that “an anthropology of domestic space is by definition rooted in the West,” as “[t]he concept of domestic space and its conceptual counterpart, ‘public space,’ evolved in a Western historical setting of rising urbanism, tracing back to seventeenth-century Europe” (3). Cieraad’s observations help us better understand that, indeed, the study of home life is at the core of anthropology. Yet until very late in the 20th-century anthropology this Western – and for a time, as in the case of many sciences, imperialistic – venture (Moore 2016b, 109,112) did not occupy itself with the Western home. However, with “the postmodernist turn in anthropology” (Desmond 2017, 405), it was high time to come home and look in the mirror: to examine “the home in the here and now. Rather than looking for the familiar in the exotic, [to] search for the exotic in the familiar. Objects that are taken for granted, […] and familiar activities” would now be “looked at anew” (Short 2006, ix).11

Like Short, Cieraad highlights what is key in the new approach to studying housing: the search for not just information, but meaning. As the author puts it (from the vantage point of 1999):

Analyses and research concentrating on contemporary domestic architecture are for the most part written by housing sociologists and human geographers. In general, however, these disciplines focus on quantitative analyses of housing conditions and interior decorations as indexes of social class, ethnicity and status. […] Qualitative research on contemporary Western domestic space is scarce, and interpretations of domestic practices are even more exceptional. (Cieraad 2006a, 1; emphasis added)

Finally, Cieraad stresses where qualitative value, the sought-after meaning, is to be found: “The few publications that touch upon these subjects derive from diverse domains of research, such as ethnology, material culture studies, consumer studies, and environmental psychology” (1) – in other words, in diversity.

This is exactly the point, somewhere at the turn of the 21st century, at which the previous isolation of disciplines examining house and home began to evolve into highly productive methodological pluralism and even fruitful cross-pollination. The result, increasingly visible since the early second decade of the 21st century, has a name that by now has become established: at last we arrive at “housing studies.”

Home at Last: Housing Studies

To reach for the most recent and authoritative source on the subject, William A.V. Clark in his 2021 Advanced Introduction to Housing Studies confirms what we know by now: “Housing studies is a broad and quite heterogeneous area of study, and there is no succinct definition of the field beyond the notion that housing is at the core of the investigation” (2). To this we could add Atkinson and Jacobs’s own definition of “a sociology of housing” as “the study of the relationship between society and the individual as this is mediated by the home, with reference to a range of social, economic, and political forces” (2016, 17). According to the authors, this discipline “has very broad concerns that connect individuals to the physical structures of their homes while seeing those domestic ‘units’ as lived experiences and daily life that is shaped by larger social structures, forces, and divisions” (Atkinson and Jacobs 2016, 14). However, Atkinson and Jacobs stress that the study “is by no means the preserve of sociology departments and degree programs but is active wherever it is being practiced” (159–160). In fact, since everyone has had some experience of home, studies of house and home uniquely stand out from other cultural disciplines where the object of study may be less accessible (Smyth and Croft 2006, 12).

Clark also highlights “the complementarity of the different approaches” (2021, 2). A house or an apartment may be “the single largest investment in most people’s lives” (Atkinson and Blandy 2017, 35), and is a commodity influencing global markets, whose making involves many industries, but “housing is not simply an economic issue, other disciplines have made, and continue to make, important contributions” (Clark 2021, 2). The professor of geography adds: “Because housing is such a complex commodity, and because it is in turn set within the dynamics of our cities, no one discipline has all the answers, and there is no one way to understand housing” (Clark 2021, 2).12 For this reason, “increasingly the approaches to understanding housing and housing markets invoke elements of more than one discipline, and it is teams of researchers who are especially active in housing studies” (Clark 2021, 1–2).

To put it differently, housing is being recognised as more than just a matter in and of itself, but as having ramifications for a wide variety of issues. Clark points out, for example, the shift in demographic approaches to housing: “It is not that demographers did not pay attention to housing, but for the most part they were broad-brush approaches. […]. Additionally, the major funding agencies focused on the demography of health, aging, and fertility with little attention to housing per se” (2021, 16). Now housing is seen as key for all the three problems (Clark 2021, 149–150, 175–180).13

This recognition of the fundamental importance of housing reflects what David Madden, a sociologist specialising in urban studies, and Peter Marcuse, professor of urban planning, observe in their 2016 book In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis: “[h]ousing is always more than just housing. It provides shelter, but fulfils other functions as well. Among the most important of these nonresidential roles is that housing is an instrument for politics” (85), since it “is becoming an ever more important site for the reproduction of the system” (9), as “it uniquely helps to structure social life. […] Housing pre-eminently creates and reinforces connections between people, communities, and institutions, and thus it ultimately creates relationships of power” (89). Above all, the authors draw our attention to the global housing crisis, which has become pronounced since the bursting of the housing bubble in the US in 2007, and the ensuing global financial crisis.14 “In fact,” according to Clark, the global financial crisis may have had the greatest impact on studies of housing” (2021, 5), which have since grown exponentially.

It is certainly no coincidence that literary scholar Chiara Briganti, and professor of English Kathy Mezei published The Domestic Space Reader in 2012, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The editors describe the volume as a “pioneering anthology” and “the first comprehensive survey of the concept [of home] across time, cultures, and disciplines” (n.p.). The authors point to a “growing and interested multidisciplinary inquiry” into houses, which began “[i]n the past decade” (2012, 4), i.e. approximately with the new millennium.15 According to the editors, “[t]he immense reach and influence of global and transnational economies have provoked a contrary desire for the local and the domestic, which has increased the scrutiny of the home” (4):

From the popular to the academic and across national boundaries, the subject of domestic space has of late garnered enormous attention. Besides drawing the notice of the media (television home improvement shows, real estate programs, popular magazines, dedicated sections on the home in newspapers, Facebook, YouTube, etc.), and inviting obsessive, even erotic attention, it has become an important academic subject. (9)

In the academic context, Briganti and Mezei point to “the rise of new journals (Home Cultures, Journal of Design History, Interiors, Design and Culture),” as well as “[a] number of special issues of journals […] devoted to the ‘home’” (9).16

The authors further explain the recent explosion of interest in houses by stating that “the seemingly everyday practical space of the home offers a surprisingly rich resource to mine for the understanding of cultures, peoples, and histories” (12): “we see the desire to peel away the layered meanings of home” (13), including “[n]ot only belonging but also exile, longing for home, homelessness,17 and homesickness” (6) – issues reflecting the recent intensification of the actual problems of lack of affordable housing, homelessness, migration, and displacement.

Importantly, as the anthropologist Hedda Askland points out, displacement is not only a spatial, but also a temporal phenomenon as “an experiential condition […] not restricted to refugees and other migrants, but in fact [one that] can occur in our own backyard” (“Hedda Askland …” 2022). To better analyse this, Askland puts forward the concept of “eritalgia” to refer to “the embodied sense of displacement that may occur when there is a rupture between lived realities and imagined emplaced self” in the future. Thus “eritalgia” complements “‘nostalgia’, which describes people’s connection to place in the past, and ‘solastalgia’, a term developed by Professor Glenn Albrecht to describe place-based melancholia, trauma or distress in the present” (“Hedda Askland …” 2022).

All the above perspectives lead to the conclusion that housing studies has acquired a sense of urgency that can only intensify in the future. According to Clark, “[h]ousing is at the heart of a growing economic divide in Europe and the US” (2021, 151). Professor of economics Thomas Piketty warns that the widening economic gap threatens democracy: it increases social tensions, and provides fertile ground for radical political changes that entrench even greater inequality of wealth and power (2014, 544–564). As we read in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by the sociologist Matthew Desmond:

Over the last several decades, millions of people around the world have migrated from rural villages and towns. […] the growth of cities also has been accompanied by an astonishing surge in land values and housing costs. Urban housing costs have risen around the globe, especially in “superstar cities.” […] The world is becoming urbanized, and the city is becoming unaffordable to millions everywhere. (2017, 397)

In All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do about It Danny Dorling speaks about a growing global “housing precariat” (2015, 16), and Clark points out that the most affected among them are the youngest generations (2021, 137, 139–140). Clark also alerts us to the additional housing challenges in the future: they will have to do with migration between countries, aging populations and concerns about sustainability in the context of exacerbating environmental problems (173).18 In his book, Dorling insists that “we are able to live better, less materially driven lives in the future,” as “[an] unwillingness to address these deeper issues is a large part of what sustains the current housing crisis” (2015, 222). The social geographer appeals for a recognition of equal “housing rights” (283), as “housing is a special kind of good – a social good – which brings with it wider benefits. It is better for all of us if others are also well housed, well educated and healthy” (306). In reality, however, the opposite trends are – as, in varied forms they have long been – in evidence.

In their 2017 book Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, above-quoted Rowland Atkinson and professor of law Sarah Blandy write about “an increasingly emphatic retreat by homeowners into fortified dwellings, extravagant houses, concealed bunkers and countless gated developments globally” (2).19 This demonstrates that “today’s home is unevenly positioned – between offering a site that protects us, more or less, and yet which is also a foregrounded space upon which we project many of our worst fears of potential invasion, violation or even destruction” (3). The fear of home invasion, from the local precariat or alien migrants, and the phenomenon of “domophobia (fear of the home)” as a site of danger (49) has manifested itself not only in architecture and the growing branch of the security industry, e.g. in so-called “panic rooms” of the rich (135), but also in the media (ratings-generating live sensational “breaking news”)20 and in popular culture, as a theme of mass-consumed horror films (105).21

In addition, the 2020–?22 COVID-19 pandemic may generate its own genre of horror films, and a whole range of both cultural and academic responses homing in on the home.23 Indeed, it is likely that, similarly to the global financial crisis, this latest health and economic crisis with serious political implications, adding to the already looming threat to democracy, will provide another impulse behind an even greater momentum in the rise of housing studies. Working from home, challenging one of the key modern Western inventions, the division into private home and public space, chiefly due to the home’s constant interconnectedness through communication technologies,24 will be only one of the many urgent problems in search for solutions (Clark 2021, 89). It is crucial that the answers to such questions about housing are not only quantitative, but also qualitative, and that they come from diverse sources.

(Re-)Reading Representations of House and Home

As we can see, housing studies is an admittedly labyrinthine structure that is still very much under construction. Similarly, in the varied issues related to housing, which can be of interest to absolutely everyone, there are still many questions that have not been raised, or have not been answered in a nuanced way, as well as a lot of “lopsidedness” that needs redressing. The disciplines primarily represented by this volume, English, literary and cultural studies, have their own role to play in the ongoing investigation. Their contribution consists in critically reflecting on house and home in their countless literary and cultural representations. Their scrutiny is necessary, as such depictions not only mirror but arguably also shape the way actual brick-and-mortar (and other) houses are built and homes are made within them. Engaging with the history of ideas, insights from our disciplines reveal links between seemingly separate areas and distant scales which otherwise might remain hidden.

The complex developments in the real world briefly signalled above become translated into new texts of culture which process reality and shape public emotions and responses. They require serious but accessible analysis. Old texts of culture are reread from today’s perspectives in the light of up-to-date knowledge, in recognition of ongoing social change; their understanding and thus role may be reconfigured in the wider cultural discourse. This needs careful competent explanation. Scholars in literary and cultural studies are uniquely positioned and equipped to look at various narratives using multiple, including multidisciplinary, sources and out of them to synthesise much needed meaningful conclusions.


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Which brings to mind Bruno Latour’s concept of the human-non-human “hybrid” (Latour 1993, 10) that Shove et al. refer to when writing about home renovation (2007, 56).


Perhaps still the most popularised current aesthetic reflecting this concept in the Western culture can be found in coffee table books on “hygge” such as Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well (2016) or his The Little Book of Lykke: The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People (2017).


In his conceptualisations of the house/home, Rybczyński proposes the reverse: that of the body of the house: “‘Inhabiting’ does not only mean living within. It means occupying – infusing a particular site with our presence, and not only with our activities and physical possessions but also with our aspirations and dreams. We live in a house, and in the process we make it alive” (1989, 171).


In the same volume, in her article “Dutch Windows: Female Virtue and Female Vice,” Cieraad discusses how “the accelerating process of domestication of women in the nineteenth century” was heralded by the “gradual withdrawal of upper-class and middle-class women from the window,” which served as “the borderline between private and public space” (2006b, 46–47).


The author of (inter alia) the seminal Feminine Mystique (1963), which helped inspire the second wave of the feminist movement.


The author of e.g. Housewife (1974) retitled as The Sociology of Housework. Woman’s Work: the Housewife, Past and Present.


The author of The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (1981).


The author of (inter alia) The Female Eunuch (1970), and Sex and Destiny (1984).


“The extent of private violence taking place inside the home is dramatic – […] feminist work in the 1970s on domestic violence and abuse had already ‘rendered problematic the notion of the home as a safe haven’ (Rykwert qtd. in Atkinson and Blandy 2017, 57).


Miller also acknowledges “a considerable rise in feminist approaches,” which have “showed how oppressive structures of patriarchy were naturalized as ideology in the taken-for-granted order of the home […] while later stressing the possibility for alternative sites of resistance” (2001, 6).


Admittedly, for instance in Purity and Danger, originally published in 1966, Mary Douglas puts “us” (the “familiar”) and “the Bushmen” (the “exotic”) side by side: “Both we and the Bushmen justify our pollution avoidances by fear of danger” (2007, 85); “When we honestly reflect on our busy scrubbings and cleanings […] we know that we are not mainly trying to avoid disease. We are separating, placing boundaries, making visible statements about the home that we are intending to create out of the material house. […] Thus the home is divided between male and female quarters” (85). For more on the topic of cleanliness at home see Shove 2003.


Indeed, for instance, Advanced Introduction to Housing Studies devotes some space to race, but class and gender are barely mentioned. While race, rightly, is considered a sufficiently important factor to appear in the book’s Index, class and gender do not make it to the list. Needless to say, the present text has its own omissions.


It is just as key for education, employability, and more. Clark acknowledges that such an approach to housing was first demonstrated by the 1890 book How the Other Half Lives by the photojournalist Jacob Riis (2021: 157), which rose awareness about the slums in New York City, and generally the poor living conditions in rapidly growing cities globally. The book continues to illustrate that the shift to improve overall housing quality is very slow (157).


See Kowal 2019.


This means it coincided with the beginning of the inflation of the latest (as far as we know) housing bubble itself. It appears that another one is swelling up despite the painful memory of the recent crisis (Clark 2021, 31).


The authors provide examples of such special issues dating back only to 1991 (Briganti and Mezei 2012, 9). It is worth mentioning that Housing Studies Journal has been published since 1986 (Housing Studies Journal).


“[H]omelessness is rising in all European countries except Finland”; 2% of the population are homeless in the US; in the UK the percentage is close to 4 (Clark 2021, 170).


For more on the impact of the Capitalocene see Moore 2016a.


Compare this to the parallel contemporary tendency in architecture visible in many cities today in large projects such as museums, art, music, sports, etc. centres and the spaces around them. Characterised by fluid, organic- and “natural”-looking shapes and openness, they have seemingly no boundaries, and communicate free access and connectedness. Professor of architecture Douglas Spencer (2020) sees this as “presentation or an apparatus for participatory neoliberal capitalism,” which works superficially to stand for a type of society with no differences, no conflict, no opposition – as actual inequalities are hidden in such places. They are visible elsewhere.


I write about this in Kowal 2015.


See the “Film” section in Boyle and Mrozowski 2013.


At the moment of writing, in early 2022, only a question mark can appear as the pandemic’s end date.


Academic analyses can certainly be expected. However, when it comes to e.g. “COVID-19 novels,” Laura Spinney, the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (a book about the 1918–1920 Spanish flu pandemic, published in 2017) predicts that, due to fatigue and a collective eagerness to move on, in the foreseeable future there will be little demand for such forms of “reliving” what the world has just painfully gone through for such an extended period of time (Today in Focus 2022). So far, disregarding fast-produced and immediate internet content, the pandemic has inspired only a few comedies about quarantined or otherwise home-bound and thus severely challenged heteronormative couples (see e.g. Locked Down, dir. Doug Liman, 2021, and Together, dir. Stephen Daldry, 2021), providing comic relief, but no reflection, which will require more hindsight.


A huge amount of literature on this topic already exists. Due to obvious space restrictions my note will be brief. Already in 1966 Hall wrote about the house and the city as people’s “extensions,” and of the computer as “a specialized extension” of the human brain (1990, 188) – echoing Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (2008). Working from a smart home suggests itself as another future development of Latour’s human-non-human “hybrid,” although not smart on our part. For Douglas Spencer, author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance, we already are such “hybrid figures” (2018, 162): “The separation between work and non-work is progressively dissolved so that a general condition of constant productivity prevails at all times, in all spaces. […] the reach of work, as productivity, now extends far beyond the nine-to-five of the workplace. At the same time, the image of labour, as such, tends to be obscured behind an appearance of convivial and casual informality. […] The imperative [is] towards ever greater levels of productivity” (77). What is more, which may explain the general conformity to perpetually “perform” and “self-optimise,” “[t]he process appears progressive. It lifts restrictions and transgresses boundaries. […] The optimization of the subject’s performance within neoliberal systems is affirmed as emancipating” (2018, 162; added emphasis). For more on this trap we have fallen into, and its (not so much ironic as dangerous) inevitable unproductivity, see Cal Newport in Amanpour and Company 2021. For the related topic of the likely end of the office see Liming 2020.

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The Many Meanings of Home

Cultural Representations of Housing across Media


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