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Bringing it all back home: What does sociology tell us about our homes?

Updated Wednesday, 21st March 2012

David Sutton explains why, for many sociologists, there is simply no place like home.

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Dream Home for sale sign Creative commons image Icon Futureatlas under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Can sociology help you find a dream home? The Royal Institute of British Architects' A Place to Call Home: Where We Live and Why exhibition, and their client-friendly 'HomeWise' web survey, surely shows how far contemporary architectural practice has moved on from the functional 'scientificity' of Le Corbusier's  house designs as 'machines for living'.

Architecture, in 20th century modernism, had become an offshoot of engineering function with ornamentation and decoration of little import compared to  the 'necessities of shelter', designing an 'appropriate receptacle for light and sun' and the specification of  'cells' (rooms) suitable for 'cooking, work and personal life'.

Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness (Penguin, 2006) sums up the modernist moment when Emilie Savoye who, along with her husband, commissioned Le Corbusier to design the Villa Savoye in Poissy in the late 1920s, found the architect rejecting her request for more furniture. 'This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.'  

Today's client would not suffer such dismissal especially since history of modern architecture has become much more whimsical and diverse.  In de Botton's paean, architecture is now at the centre of the happiness zeitgeist and psychological well-being ('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.)

For deBotton the 'house has grown into a knowledgeable witness'. As the architects compile their case, does social science have any questions for the court of public opinion about the fate of the 'home'? Debates about housing need most often appear in social policy discussions about housing types and shortages but here there may be some less obvious connections through the 'sociology of everyday life.'

Open University sociology courses have recently taken up the home theme, with students asked to reflect on their own street in the first weeks of the course, Introducing the social sciences and the more advanced Sociology and Society in a more theorised way through the process of what Zygmunt Bauman calls 'defamiliarisation'.

'Defamiliarisation,' he explains in Thinking Sociologically (Blackwell, 1997), 'refers to an important sociological strategy: Unpicking the 'taken-for-granted' aspects of the social world until we can discern their underlying structures and rationales.'  The commonplace street is visited again but the course starts with the 'sociology of the everyday' by broaching the most familiar of subjects – the home.

In our consumer society the rhetoric and discourses around the home appear as powerful signifiers of emotional safety and desire. The 'home' conjures up stock phrases ('Bringing it all back home') as well as semiological imagery to visualise domestic tranquillity ('cottage in the country'). How far do we take these everyday aspirations for granted or can these be de-familiarised too?

Sociologists are interested, for example, in how ideologies of romance are socially constructed and how the home has been the site of contested domesticities which have altered sex roles; and how architectural discourse has 'partitioned space' and transformed behaviour in the home.

For sure, designing homes is framed by reference to statutory building regulations and the restraints of cost but this RIBA  exhibition could be thought of as an 'architecture of the everyday' to rival the sociology of the everyday. Whether consultation could lead to de-familiarisation and a remaking of public opinion about what we want from our homes is an ambitious project but one which might give architects a moment for pause rather than simply asserting they know best Le Corbusier-style. 

In Birmingham, for instance, one architectural practice, BM3, while working with many social housing projects, make it their watchword to involve the residents:  'listen, learn, suggest, support'  is the mantra. Moreover Richard Powell, one of the directors, has been deepening the message by seeking continuous consultation and discussion with those who are going to have to live with the designs.

There are more than sufficient reminders of building schemes gone wrong. The process of de-familiarisation is just one sociological way of re-visiting the taken for granted and making us more conscious of how homes are made and re-made not just in a functional fashion but because they are the subjects of significant aesthetic and emotional scrutiny too. 

Coming soon from the BBC and The Open University will be a series exploring the astonishing secrets of our streets, Our Secret Streets. Keep an eye on OpenLearn for more details. 

 

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