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The Meaning of "Home"

Four approaches to studying "home" show how home affects our experiences.

Key points

  • “Home” researchers might study environmental psychology, memory and attachment theory, a hierarchy of needs, and identity.
  • Resources guide us toward different ways of thinking about, understanding, and developing notions of “home.”
  • "Home" and "family" are not necessarily synonymous; nor are they always "happy".
Geralt/Pixabay
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

When you ask yourself, “What does home mean to me?," how does your inner voice respond? Has your answer to the question changed as your life and circumstances have changed? Mine certainly has, as I recently described in an essay on my personal blog, "Love Is Real."

I wonder how many people remember learning to read and to print and then endlessly writing out their name, street address, town or city, state, perhaps a zip code (those did not exist when I was a child), country, continent, and then maybe “World,” possibly followed by “Universe.” What is this urge to situate ourselves in space, in a geographic location, especially one centered around our earliest memories of where we lived?

Four ways of looking at these questions ask if “home” is defined by the following:

  1. Environmental cues and their impact on our perception, cognition, emotions, behaviors, and relationships.
  2. A hierarchy of needs and the context in which the most basic of them are met.
  3. Emotional memories and fantasies along with their impact, including memory-driven attachment scripts that a person wants to implement or avoid.
  4. Our sense of identity and belonging, extending to and beyond group memberships.

But, first, before we dive into the topic, a caveat. In the spring of 1986 or 1987, the Whitney Museum of American Art branch in the Champion building in Stamford, Connecticut, offered the public a gripping look into the dark side of “home.” Noting that much media and many people associate home with positive experiences — often idealized ones — the curators chose to acknowledge that the reality often fails to match a desire or wish. Artists depicted homes plagued by violence, addiction, exploitation, chaos, and ill will.

These are the dwellings that easily produce traumatized children and eventually adults, those studied in Adverse Childhood Experiences research, who are at risk for developmental disruptions as well as emotional, cognitive, physical, and relationship problems. The consequences are tragic and many — see the list of resources curated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Home” is not necessarily a synonym for “happy place.”

4 Perspectives on Home

1. Environmental psychology. Research on person–environment relationships can include the study of spaces where people dwell. Environmental psychologists have documented qualities to which homes expose people, like noise levels, toxins, emotional climates, crowding (or its absence), and their impact on all aspects of experience, from the personal (biological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral) to the social. Organizational psychologists often use or adapt these methods and the literature to maximize an organization’s goals. Another branch, architectural psychology, focuses on the impact of design to amplify positive or minimize negative impact. Applications range from single-person dwellings to community institutions, from a treehouse to a hospital.

Around the world, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, people became interested in homes in new ways. They sought housing opportunities that would provide more inside space and greater access to the outdoors. Alternately, isolated living “pods” popped up, housing university students banished from their dorm, families educating small children, people yearning to be in a situation that included a “safe” community.

2. A hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind as we examine what people who moved during the pandemic were searching for: greater attention to meeting survival needs for shelter, nutrition, hygiene, safety, work and play, and interpersonal needs for contact, communication, companionship, and belonging.

When social interaction changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, external sources of

JillWellington/Pixabay
Source: JillWellington/Pixabay

spiritual and cultural nourishment decreased, and countless people, rather than searching for an alternative living arrangement like a different residence or a pod, turned their attention to their current homes, what they might potentially provide, and what they required in maintenance. Countless practical modifications were put in place. They expanded exponentially as the number of people in a living space grew. “Family” definitions broadened to include those related by blood, marriage, or choice, with “home” embracing those who lived together and intended to continue living together following the crisis, at least according to the American Red Cross.

3. Attachment and memory. A broader definition of “family” makes room for another aspect of “home,” that which sees home as the center for forging and nourishing human attachment bonds. "Home" includes primary locations where early memories and their emotions result in attachment scripts and their consequences. A sense of belonging securely or less so persists into adulthood or until changes in unconscious expectations make room for revised understanding.1

Two more caveats: “Family” and “home” can be separate as well as associated, and they can be temporary. Long-distance relationships are currently flourishing; those in them dwell apart. And, as mentioned above, “family” can refer to people who live together by choice and are not related by legal or blood bonds, at least for many purposes. Therefore, attachment-oriented researchers often focus on the symbiotic relationships of those who cohabit by choice.

In contrast, scholars who study migration more broadly emphasize the “push” away from a current residence and “pull” toward a new one. Attachment to either "homeland" can be weak or fierce. Along these lines, researchers might investigate places in which basic cultural beliefs are imprinted along with the geography of the location.2 In both cases, culture and a sense of belonging (or not) are absorbed systemically and often unconsciously, as suggested by Bronfenbrenner's theory of ecological development.

4. Identity and possible selves. From a personality perspective, we craft an identity from internal

12189/Pixabay
Source: 12189/Pixabay

experiences like temperament, needs, and desires, as well as through our relationships with others and with the larger social and cultural systems in which we are embedded. Our own imagination creates what Hazel Markus has labeled “possible selves,” imagery of who we might become. From this perspective, “home” is one context in which such creation can take place. It can become an expression of personal choices and aspirations as well as history.

In a different approach, family process psychologists often talk about ways in which people use or construct boundaries, connections, and communications. Space is both material and metaphor. It represents how a small group of related individuals expresses values and their implementation.

What has “home” been for you? Has its meaning changed during your adult life?

2021 Copyright Roni Beth Tower

References

1. Simpson, J. A. & Rholes, W. S. (Eds.) (1998). Attachment Theory and Close Relationships. New York: Guilford Press.

2. Tuan, Yi-Fu (1977). Space and Place. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

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