Unpacking the Concept of Home By Jennifer Hoolachan (University of Stirling)

Home’ and ‘place’ have been the subjects of a wealth of research within the disciplines of sociology, psychology, geography and youth studies in the past twenty years (e.g. Mallett, 2004; Manzo, 2005; Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Hopkins, 2010). Despite this, in 2004, Easthope argued that researchers working within the area of housing studies have paid little attention to these subjects. Since then, place and home have slowly appeared in housing research (Neumark, 2013; Jacobs and Malpas, 2013; Buffel at al., 2014) and the current emphasis on wellbeing and its connection to home and housing, by both the UK and Scottish Governments, demonstrates that home is currently of political significance (Randall, 2012; Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, 2013).

Attempting to define ‘home’, however, is the subject of much debate. Many agree that home differs from a house in that the latter is a physical structure, or commodity, whereas the former is a subjectively experienced construct (Manzo, 2003). Yet some have argued that more work is needed to explore how physical features contribute to how a home or place is experienced (Smaldone, Harris and Sanyal, 2005) thoriginal_HomeSweetHomeDETAILus demonstrating that it is not straightforward to separate the physical from the social.

Despite the contested meanings of ‘home’, there is a feeling (certainly in Scotland) that policy has neglected to account for the more qualitative aspects of home, preferring instead to prioritise the quantity, availability and economic value of housing. I do not only mean quality in relation to the physical conditions of a house (although of course these are of paramount importance) but the quality of people’s lived experiences that takes place within the shell of a house and its surrounding geographical areas. As such experiences are subjective, the challenge for policymakers and researchers is to grapple with how policy can account for these subjectivities in order to use them to improve individual and collective wellbeing.

This issue was the focus of a series of seminars I recently attended titled ‘Home not Housing’ funded by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. Based on the ideas of knowledge co-production, this seminar series brought together individuals from a variety of housing backgrounds to discuss what home and wellbeing meant to them. The aim was to identify common themes amongst the hugely diverse views and experiences offered by the group and to use these emergent themes to feed into the development of wellbeing indicators and wider policy. Whilst some felt uneasy about what they saw as an attempt to quantify subjective experiences, many found it difficult to envision an alternative means of informing policy and indeed felt that this was the most effective way to proceed.

Interestingly, only one week later I found myself engaged in a similar discussion at a WithScotland event about qualitative methods in child protection research. Although everyone at this event was a strong supporter of qualitative research, there appeared to be an uncertainty about how this type of data can be effectively and meaningfully incorporated into policy. This reflects a wider belief that Governments have historically regarded quantitative research as more robust and important for feeding into policy and implementing change. Therefore, debates concerning the inclusion of ‘home’ in policy constitute part of this wider discussion given qualitative methods are usually the most appropriate means of examining topics on a subjective level.

In addition to an agenda for wellbeing, there has been a shift in Scotland towards the prioritising of policy outcomes. This suggests a political willingness to examine the impact of policies in relation to people’s lived experiences, rather than simply on tangible, largely numeric outputs. In other words, there is scope to explore not only how a policy influences the supply, availability or economic value of housing, but also how it impacts on people’s subjective experiences of home. It remains to be seen how committed the Scottish Government will be to incorporate the concept of ‘home’ into policy without slipping into the more familiar territory of housing. The challenge is not only to maintain this more holistic focus but to figure out how to draw upon qualitative research in a way that does not transform the rich detail of people’s lived experiences into quantifiable categories that lose their overall meaning. Events such as the ‘Home not Housing’ seminars are leading the way in these types of discussions.

As long as the Scottish Government’s willingness, to include subjective experiences in policy, is aimed at improving wellbeing for everyone, and is not simply a tokenistic, political exercise, then these types of debate are welcome. Discussions around ‘home’ were also taken forward by a group of early-career researchers at a recent symposium organised by myself at the University of Stirling. The details of these discussions are available on the Housing Studies Association website.

Jennifer Hoolachan, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling (@Jen_2603)


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