Housing is dominated by economic and political logics, raising fundamental questions about what, and whom, housing is for. But the need for a home is universal. In this post, Tom Brookes considers what a sociology of home could look like.
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One year ago, I returned to the UK for the first time in eighteen months. In my mind rang Kenneth Grahame’s poignant evocation of the sensory powers of homecoming from The Wind in the Willows:
Home! That was what they mean, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the River!
The brilliance of Grahame’s description is that it is narrated through anthropomorphised characters who retain their animal senses. This allows him to represent that feeling of being ‘at home’, the sensory and intangible nature of which is instantly recognisable but often seems more animal than human. Sociology, particularly in its anthropological and ethnographic traditions, is often concerned with leaving home, entering a field which is home to others, and observing how others live. But does it have an apparatus which effectively explains the feeling of being at home? Do we have a sociology of home?
Perhaps Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus comes closest. This idea, that our earliest social surroundings impart ways of being, acting, moving and seeing which are irrevocably inscribed on our bodies, has implications for how it feels to return to those surroundings. This is a process that Bourdieu too describes using animalistic metaphor: “when habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it is like a ‘fish in water’: it does not feel the weight of the water and it takes the world about itself for granted” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 127). The sensation of returning home, therefore, should be one of unthinking, physical and animalistic ease in one’s surroundings. While habitus accounts for that feeling of being at home, however, Bourdieu does not elaborate on how the dispositions of which it is constituted are transferred from society to the individual. Without an account of the process of transfer, we are left to accept Bourdieu’s deterministic interpretation that only our earliest domestic surroundings form the habitus. As far as feeling at home goes, however, we know that this is not the case. Not all homes are houses. We make new homes for ourselves throughout our lives and this can occur in diverse places and spaces.
Of course, the portrayal of home in The Wind in the Willows is limited in this sense. It is quaint, irrevocably rooted in the south of England and thoroughly middle-class. When the heroes restore Toad to his ancestral pile by driving out the revolting (in both senses of the word) stoats and weasels, they conserve the Edwardian social hierarchy from the emergent forces of working-class socialism. Before the restoration, upward social mobility has disrupted this conservative conception of home, just as it can disrupt the habitus. It produces what Bourdieu elegantly described as a ‘cleft’ habitus in which an individual, caught between two social worlds but belonging to neither, may feel continually displaced. In Returning to Reims (2018), French sociologist Didier Eribon describes his relationship with his working-class hometown. Yet his titular ‘return’ is a fantasy. Having left, he is unable to go back as before. The intervening years stand as a barrier between his past and present selves.
In 2018, in a country in which homeownership is a decreasingly accessible privilege and many are homeless, in a world in which enforced transnational migration uproots many from their homelands, a sociology of home predicated on the assumption of universal domestic stability would be limited. Throughout his life and work, Stuart Hall demonstrated a healthy suspicion of the fantasy of returning home to cultures founded on homogeneity or racial essentialism. While Bourdieu’s definition of habitus is inseparable from social class, Hall showed that although not all mobility is social mobility, all mobility has consequences for our social identity. Writing of transnational migrants in 1993, he stated
They are not and will never be unified culturally in the old sense, because they are inevitably the products of several interlocking histories and cultures, belonging at the same time to several ‘homes’ – and thus to no one particular home (p. 362).
In Familiar Stranger (2017), his posthumously published memoir, Hall repeatedly shows how he himself was the product of these interlocking cultures, how his own journey from Jamaica to the UK in 1951, three years after the HMS Windrush took a similar route, had shaped his life and ideas. With characteristic playfulness, he describes himself as ‘out of place’. Not only in the sense that he was different from those around him, but also that he was the product of a particular place, country and time. In diasporic cultural identity, he continues, it is not simply origins and destinations which are important, but the journey itself. It is a matter of ‘routes’ as much as of ‘roots’. As such, any notion of returning home to find it and oneself unchanged would be naïve. As he wrote elsewhere, cultural identity is not a “fixed essence… It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return” (1996, pp. 212-213).
In this more fluid conception of home, we have meandered far from our point of origin, from Mole’s underground home and, like Grahame’s protagonist, have found ourselves upon open water. The Wind in the Willows testifies to the enduring stability of having a home to which one can return. It was intended as such. Grahame first wrote the stories from which the novel later emerged when traveling away from home himself, as letters to his troubled son Alastair. Moral allegories disguised as bedtime stories, in them the mischievous Toad represented Alastair’s tempestuous and impulsive nature. Yet they reassured more than chastised. No matter how deep the trouble Toad was in, by the end his friends and his home were there to rely on. However, Alastair’s life was not to share such an ending. On 7 May 1920, aged just nineteen, he lay down on the railway tracks in Port Meadow, Oxford, and was killed. Grahame never wrote again.
It is false to draw an opposition between communities rooted to their homes by shared homogeneous cultural history and communities entirely uprooted from particular places due to cultural hybridity. Indeed, this opposition aids a narrative spun by dangerous political factions. In this narrative, the rooted have a claim over the country in which they live which is denied to the uprooted, justified by the supposed purity of the former and the supposed lack of a stake held by the latter, who it is assumed could take flight at any time. In focusing on that animalistic instinct to feeling at home, there is admittedly a risk of sustaining the myth that some have pure, natural, even biological attachments to their homes while others do not. But I do so to show that these oppositions are false. Just as the tranquil waters of The Wind in the Willows conceal the turbulence of the Grahame family which lay beneath, so too do histories of cultural homogeneity eschew the true complexity of all modern cultural identities. Purity is a myth. The fantasy of returning home unchanged is exactly that. Conversely, to be the product of interlocking cultural histories is not to be uprooted entirely. Identifying the processes by which we forge those animalistic connections to a home should be the first task of a sociology of home. After all, in many different ways, we make ourselves at home.
Interested in hearing more on this subject? Listen to the episode of Curate podcast which prompted this post. Follow the link here http://curate.buzzsprout.com/154847/677419-home or search for Curate on any podcast platform to hear the author, co-host Tom Roles and guest Nayana Prakash discuss what it means to feel at home in literature and on screen.
Bourdieu, P. (2007). Sketch for a self-analysis. Cambridge: Polity.
Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, Loïc J. D. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press.
Eribon, D. (2018). Returning to Reims. London: Penguin
Grahame, K. (1908). The wind in the willows.
Hall, S. (1996). Cultural identity and cinematic representation. In H. Baker, M. Diawara & R.H. Lindeborg (Eds.), Black British cultural studies : A reader (pp. 210-221). Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press.
Hall, S., & Schwarz, B. (2017). Familiar stranger : A life between two islands. London: Penguin.
Hunt, P. (2018). The making of The Wind in the Willows. Oxford: Bodleian Library Publishing.
Lahire, B. (2003). From the habitus to an individual heritage of dispositions. Towards a sociology at the level of the individual. Poetics, 31(5), 329-355.
Tom Brookes is an MSc Culture and Society student in the Department. A recent convert to sociology after graduating from the University of Oxford with a BA in English Language and Literature and teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, Tom is now researching the interaction of cosmopolitanism and social class in education using qualitative methods.