Searching for a place in the world: concepts of home in 21st London.

By Larissa Alves


This essay seeks to reflect upon the concepts of home that exist in contemporary London. My interest in this subject emerges from my condition as an immigrant making a home in London and an awareness that people’s lives are increasingly taking place behind the closed doors of private houses. As anthropology, according to Daniel Miller (2008:6), is ‘the discipline which tries to engage with the minutiae of everyday life while retaining a commitment to understand humanity as a whole’, I felt that to engage in a debate about home would reveal the diverse facades of contemporary society while reflecting on the great and perhaps universal question of belonging.

The interpretations around the topic of home are innumerable. Shelley Mallett (2004:1) in her Understanding home: a critical review of the literature states the proliferation of writings on the meaning of home in various disciplines including anthropology, sociology, human geography, history, architecture and philosophy. She points out that more recent writings on home take into account a more multidisciplinary approach but insists that more critical reflection still needs to be done in the field. The seminar ‘Home: a place in the world’ which took place in New York in the 1990s confirms this multidisciplinary approach mentioned by Mallett. The seminars, compiled in a collection of essays, united a great range of critical views on the ‘deep resonance of home’ as a social, political, historical and ideological theme. As Arien Mack points out in the introduction of the catalogue, ‘we live in a time when the idea of home has become problematic’. She reflects on the daily confrontation of a growing number of homeless people and migrants coexisting with ‘the persisting images of home as a place of comfort, safety and refuge.’ (1993:1)

The idea of home as a private place of comfort seems to be a predominantly post- industrial conception. According to Tamara K. Haraven, ‘[t]he concept of home as the family’s haven and domestic retreat emerged only about one hundred and fifty years ago, and was, initially, limited to the urban middle classes’ (1993:228). Haraven’s historical perspective on the home and the family reveals many of the differences between preindustrial and post-industrial households. The main divergence being that the family from the preindustrial society was depicted by sociability rather than privacy. Tracing a specifically British history, David Chaney talks of the definition and control of space in the nineteenth century ‘being tidied up in particular the issue that came to be perceived by Victorian reformers as the pre-modern city’s lack of boundaries.’ David Morley points out that ‘Before the nineteenth-century the home had not necessarily been the exclusive terrain of a single family but often contained a mixture of biologically related persons, friends, associates and work partners. Work, recreation and the care of the sick all overlapped and co-existed within the same space’ (2000:22). In considering the lack of delimitation and the heterogeneous mix in the home as a potential threat - causing pollution and disorder - reformers strove to establish social and symbolic order by delimitating private and public spaces. Given the delimitation of such spaces, many activities once performed in the house, started to take place in more specialised settings (such as hospital and cemetery, for example).  In this sense, the house was isolated from some of its activity and functions - changing the ways in which people divided, used and interacted within their domestic spaces. Rather than a social centre incorporating areas including work, health, education and leisure, it becomes defined as a retreat from such activities. With this move the home was not only deprived of a range of functions that had once characterized its use but also defined by its opposition to them – a private space differentiated from wider social spaces.

The English word home, however, carries this persistent duality from long before the Victorians. If we look to the linguistic roots of the word we can perceive the complexities and intricacies of the concept from the outset. The word stems from the Germanic word heim - which as Eric Hobsbawm explained (1993:64) ‘belongs to me and mine and nobody else’ and is used often in relation to the word heimat which ‘by definition is collective. It cannot belong to us as individuals. We belong to it because we don’t want to be alone’. These contradictions point towards the origins of home at the intersection of both public and private spheres. More recently the use of the word home has been linked to the collective concept of a homeland and been defined as ‘a place of origin to return to’.(Cavell 1993:32)

It is precisely these collective aspects that are threatened by the recent blurring of the distinction between the words ‘house’ and ‘home’. Following Cavell’s thought this is due to ‘ironic reversals of the original meaning’. For the common ‘use of the word “home” as a euphemism for “house” is by and large the linguistic waste product of the American real-estate industry.’ (1993:37)

Despite such attempts at presenting the home as something that one can buy, we know that there is more to it. So, why is it that conventionally, in the West, a home is physically located in the structure of a house? When we think of house as a home, we are relating to the idea that inhabited spaces transcend forms. The house is home, not only through ownership, but because we make it ours - by inhabiting it through living our daily experiences, dreams and daydreams.

Writing in French Gaston Bachelard was not so much concerned by the division between the English words of ‘house’ and ‘home’, but his seminal study on the ‘Poetics of Space’ concerns itself with precisely these processes of inhabitation. For Bachelard the house is a shelter for our imagination and ‘one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.’ (1994:6) Elsewhere he refers to it as ‘our corner of the world’, as a ‘chosen spot’. (1994:4) Bachelard has focused on the idea of home as an extension of the body and refers to the first home as a place of social development – the place where ‘we learn to move, speak, communicate with others, to share (or conceal) joys and pains, to make plans with others, to simply be around people.’(1994:363)

More recent studies, whilst continuing to view the home as an embodiment of memory and identity, focus on understanding a variety of contemporary issues that affect the topic. For example, issues related to the homeless mind, discussions on migration and home, and reflections on the tyranny of the home. Because home, as Mary Douglas suggested, ‘is not only placed in space, it also has some structure in time and space, it has aesthetic and moral dimensions.’ (1993:263)

Whether we are aware of it or not these historical tensions influence the way we all perceive home in our daily lives. The idea of home as community, as an aspect of life that has crucial influence in forming, reflecting and interrelating everyday life experiences, opens up great possibilities when studying the contemporary city and its inhabitants. The contemporary city, in connecting an amalgam of dwelling spaces and dwellers offers considerable scope to contrast and integrate the complex multiplicities of “homes”. In the next section, I would like to turn to how anthropology as a discipline has brought interesting insights to the debate, while in turn considering how “home” as a concept has challenged anthropology to move beyond fixity.


Home and Anthropology: searching for identity in a global world.

If addressing the ‘home’ within Anthropology remains a more recent phenomenon there is a strong research tradition concentrating on the ‘house’ as a form of social organization. As Lévi-Strauss demonstrated in his studies of ‘house people’ the house holds a complex dynamic that cannot be defined by the ideas of family or lineages – it is a unit that has very peculiar characteristics in terms of its social arrangements. As he puts it, ‘the house accomplishes a sort of inside-out topological reversal, it replaces an internal duality with an external unity.’(1984:184)

Despite the tradition in Anthropology focusing on “the house” and the “reflexive turn”  - relatively few anthropological studies have approached the Western domestic space. According to Laura Cieraad, the vast majority of the studies focus on the ‘tribal house’ or ‘exotic domestic spaces’. She criticises symbolic-orientated anthropologists, saying that they are ‘trapped in the old evolutionistic link between symbolism and primitivism’ emitting a ‘silent opinion that Western people lost this precious and authentic symbolic drive somewhere in the course of the civilizing process. The nineteenth-century industrialization and urbanism are generally considered to have dealt deathblows to residual popular symbolism in the west.’(1999:2)

In an attempt to bring anthropologists together to discuss Western domestic spaces, Cieraad called for papers from anthropologists and people from different fields to write on issues related to domestic practice and domestic objects. In the book ‘At Home: an Anthropology of domestic space’, Cieraad proposes an anthropology of domestic space to examine how symbolisms are still enacted by people – emphasising that the ‘issue of forgotten symbolism brings to the fore the fact that meaning and meaning construction are not necessarily conscious affairs, but are essentially related and sustained in practice’ (Cohen quoted in Cieraad 1999:4). She continues by saying that ‘meaning dissolves when it is not enacted time and again’ (1999:4). Looking at Urban France, the anthropologist Célinne Rosselin has examined how these symbolisms are still enacted in everyday life by Parisian visitors – as they enter and leave apartments. She suggests that ‘domestic borders are not only materialized in brick and mortar, but are also confirmed and expressed in the resident’s behaviour towards the visitors.’(1999:30)

Such studies of symbolisms in the domestic space have been accompanied by theoretical developments looking at the interplay of home and identity and contrasting the fields of migration and home; home and movement; movement and belonging. Conventionally, the concept of home within Anthropology related to the idea of being environmentally fixed or centred. This thought followed the idea of culture as something placed. For example, we tend to imagine culture as related to a place where we belong, where we originally come from, which firstly marked our identity. As Stuart Hall puts it, ‘to be among those who share the same cultural identity makes us feel, culturally, at home.’ (1995:182)

However, with the influence of the communication revolution of the past fifty years and global culture increasingly “replacing” national culture, there has been a conceptual shift - with culture beginning to be conceptualized as a thing that embodies movement. In consequence, the concept of home in anthropology and other fields has undergone great changes.

Diverging from the mainstream idea of stability – the experience of home embodies ways of being in the world. But this idea of ‘being in the world’ is not passive. Instead, it evokes the ideas of Heidegger in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ - where his concern was to regain the original perspective of building circumscribed within dwelling instead of the reverse idea of dwelling circumscribed within building. ‘So that we can once again understand how the activity of building, of cultivation and construction belongs to our dwelling in the world, to the way we are.’ (Ingold, 2000:186)

Tim Ingold’s reflections on dwelling in his ‘Perception of the Environment’ seem to be extremely relevant in discussing home as movement - challenging conventional perspectives that approach culture as something fixed and centred. Through what he calls ‘the dwelling perspective’, Ingold points out: ‘Human children, like the young of many other species, grow up in an environment furnished by the work of previous generations, and as they do so they come literally to carry the forms of their dwelling in their bodies in specific skills, sensibilities and dispositions.’(2000:186)

And these forms that people build, ‘whether in their imagination or on the ground’, become apparent through their activity and practical engagement with their surroundings. Within these thoughts, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the construct of home in a world of fluidity and movement. The conceptualizations of home are not as tied as they once were to the idea of an unmoving centre and domestic comfort. Home is now, rather, a contested and complex concept to be defined. As Karen Fog Olwig suggests ‘an arena where differing interests struggle to define their own spaces within which to localize and cultivate their identity’ (1998:226).

This is particularly felt in a world of labour migrants, travellers, exiles and commuters, as the diversity of home sites and concepts of home vary considerably. As John Berger noted: ‘home comes to be found in routine set of practices, a repetition of habitual interactions, in styles of dress and address, in memories and myths, in stories carried around in one’s head. People are more at home nowadays, in short, in ‘words, jokes, opinions, gestures, actions, even the way one wears a hat’.(1984:64) But these socio-cultural displacements are not something new. Movement has often characterized human population (crusade, imperial conquest, urbanization, industrialization, etc).

What seems to be really new is what David Parkin called ‘the awareness among many communities that there are innumerable other such populations linked globally by rapid transport, electronic communication systems and common access to the same consumer goods and styles, and that these often supplement rather then replace older ties forged through, say, trade and intermarriage.’ (1998:IX)

But do these ‘local notions of global consciousness’ change as a new kind of knowledge comes in and does this challenge the strength of collective memories? If we consider belonging as something that is intertwined with collective memory and ways of remembering – we may conclude that belonging is also a contestable concept. And if urban migration, population movement, economy and communication make the world a unified place, then, we might agree with Marc Auge that ‘no place is completely itself and separate, and no place is completely other. And in this situation, people are always and yet never ‘at home’: always and never at ease with the rhetoric of those whom they share their life.’(1995:108)

In the contemporary scenario, as these notions of home and movement spread across the globe, Rapport and Dawson (1998:7) suggest that anthropologists should look at home ‘as part of local discourse’, study the “narratives” of home of diverse kinds and record the “moving” homes of various kinds, constructed and enacted by people. Because, as Gwendolyn Wright (1993:36) suggests ‘home can serve to encapsulate, but also to link and transcend, traditional classifications. Similarly, as a concept, ‘home’ can and must encompass cultural norms and individual fantasies, representations of and by individuals.’ Following Wright’s thought Rapport and Dawson point out that home ‘can and must be sensitive to numerous modalities, conventional and creative, and to allocations of identity that may be multiple, situational and paradoxical.’(1998:8)

These considerations on the ‘fluidity of local-ness’ bring great insight to the contemporary anthropological field. The acknowledgment that individuals are no longer members of fixed and separated societies, cultures, social classes or ethnic groups and the provocations of new ways of thinking about ‘home’ have forced anthropologists to ask different questions and examine the ways in which groups identify themselves in the contemporary world. To conclude, it seems appropriate that as identity has come to be viewed as something to be achieved or constructed dwelling too has been shown in a new light. For, if Heidegger suggested ‘it is for the very process of dwelling that we build’ (1975:188), this is perhaps as true for identity as much as anything.


The city in anthropology.

In the last section of this essay, I will discuss my case studies, which are part of my final MA project entitled Urban Dwellers. For this project, I have used the city of London as a ‘landscape’ to enquire about the different conceptualizations of home. At this point, therefore, it seems important to reflect somewhat briefly upon the urban within anthropology, and consider how anthropologists think of the city.

For the last four decades anthropologists have shown increasing concern in studying the urban.  This tendency has happened not only because people from the so-called ‘exotic’ societies, increasingly bound up in the process of industrialisation, were leaving the villages for urban centres, but also, because problems regarding ethnicity and poverty as well as international labour migration and political exiles were changing these centres.

The contribution of the urban to anthropology as whole according to Hannerz ‘consists of understanding of a range of social and cultural phenomena less often or never found elsewhere, to be seen against the background of human variation in general’. (Hannerz, 1980:5)

While thinking of the anthropological contribution to the study of the city Setha M. Low suggests ‘Theorizing the city is a necessary part of understanding the changing postindustrial, advanced capitalist, postmodern movement in which we live. The city as a site of everyday practice provides valuable insights into the linkages of macroprocesses with the texture and fabric of human experience.’ (1996:3) She concludes that, ‘the “city” is not a reification but the focus of cultural and socio-political manifestations of urban lives and everyday practices.’ (1996:3)

In this context London is a very particular example. Following Sandra Wallman’s thought ‘London has been described as a collection of villages, each with its own style and locus of belonging, and each firmly distinguished from the next. Indeed some Londoners are less daunted by going to other countries than to other parts of the city, and many never cross the river between north and south.’(1998:182) Although these ‘habits of movement’, were affected by the Local Government act of 1965 ‘altering the villages’ identity’, what is really important is that ‘different parts of the metropolis vary as much as they ever did in their capacity to adapt to change and absorb newcomers.’ (1998:182)

The line of argument in Wallman’s thought that seems most relevant to my essay is that she relates these variations to aspects of home not only in London, but in other cities too.  She debates on the fact that city dwellers require the sense of being local, of being identified ‘as much as they do in rural villages.’ (1998:84) And if identity is better understood as a search, as something that is achieved, we might question ‘the image of individuals as members of fixed and separated societies, cultures, social classes, ethnic groups – or, indeed, of single identified city.’ (Wallman, 1998:95) This trend of identity and boundaries may also stimulate new ways of reflecting about home.

London seems like a good place to observe these transformations. In particular, because London is a place where people tend to discompose one’s expectations. It is tremendously mixed, however is not yet completely a ‘free for all’. As Daniel Miller points out ‘London is unprecedented. Never before have so many people from such diverse background been free to mix, and not to mix, in close proximity to each other.’(2008:1) If one were, for instance, to take nearly any residential street in London, one would encounter a variety of stories and great complexity of social relations. The ways people live their lives, how they dwell, their life stories, their tastes, and their sense of humour would show some peculiar things in common. Yet in other ways, the lives would seem to be so far apart as to deny the reality that they dwell side by side.


Anthropology at home! But, home ‘on the move’?

Throughout this essay, the concept of home has been discussed. We’ve seen that within the mobility of the contemporary world the idea of home as something static has been challenged by the dualities of the sense of belonging here and there. We’ve discussed how anthropology contributes to the debate on the concepts of home, positing questions about identity, belonging and migration. We’ve seen, at least metaphorically, that home and culture can be bound up together to an exploration of a more fluid perspective of both concepts. We’ve also positioned ourselves within the metropolis and discussed, even though briefly, how the conceptualizations of home can be part of an encounter with different ways of dwelling. I have also mentioned that my interest in the topic of home came from my condition as an immigrant. In this section, I would like to discuss ‘self-reflexivity’, but more importantly I would like to take a closer look at the boundary between anthropological field and home which according to Amit ‘has so often been demarcated by the metaphor of travel and has incorporated a presumption that ‘home’ is stationary while the field is a journey away.’ (2000:8)

Anthropology had once been characterized by its power relationship between the West and the Third World. It was a discipline that emerged and flourished during the colonial era and was “carried out by Europeans, for a European audience – of non-European societies dominated by European power” (Asad quoted in Peirano). But, such an unbalanced position could only be overshadowed by anthropology’s inner contradictions. From the 1980s onwards, with the pressures from decolonisation and feminism allied with self-reflexivity theories, it was, as James Clifford has observed, ‘inescapable that anthropological knowledge would never again be a matter of an outside scholar interrogating insider natives and emerging with a neutral, authoritative knowledge.’(2000:58)

It is crucial to my argument that the contrast between “home” and away” has become unclear. The idea of an anthropology at home – which was once proposed by ‘western’ anthropologist and questioned by ‘non-western’ anthropologists – is now put aside to give space to the idea of ‘transnational fieldwork’. (See Caroline Knowles – who has described her fieldwork as an attempt to contribute to a collective understanding of ‘what is a perplexing and intriguing issue in the contemporary social theory – the nature of home’ (2000:56)


Conclusion: a brief look at practice.

These debates came to reassure my own concept of home as something fluid and threw light on the fact that nowadays one can make ‘home on the move’. Having lived in the same house since I was born until my twenties and then moved to my aunt’s house – which I had experienced as a place all my childhood – I had engraved the idea of home as something fixed, as a place that is there. This idea was only challenged when I moved to London four years ago. And here, having moved to five different houses – just now I have found a place that feels like my home in London. Therefore, I know that I will, from now on, have the feeling that my home is here in London and there in Recife.

Now, without wanting to push any further this “self-reflexive biography” I would like to talk about my experience of making the film ‘Urban Dwellers’. This film was in part an attempt to find answers to my own confusion on the topic of home, but also to look at how people dwell in this metropolis. The actual encounters with people in their dwellings brought up a great many issues associated with the topic of home - transcending my expectations and enabling me to gain a better understanding of others, this metropolis and myself.

Broadly speaking the idea of the film was to encounter spaces of home in the metropolis. These spaces were not necessarily houses, but could be caravans,  boats or sheds. I wanted to find spaces that showed ‘visually’ the idea of movement versus fixity. So, people that lived in caravans and in boats were seen, firstly, as ideal.

I managed to talk with a lot of people. But, the idea of letting someone into your home to make a film raises all sorts of problems for many people – traversing the boundaries of public and private on which this essay began. Interestingly, however, I found that those most resistant to the idea of being filmed were not those with the most ‘conventional’ or ‘fixed’ homes but in fact the more transient communities. The Gypsies I encountered in their caravans, for example, were very willing to talk but had considerable reservations around the issues of representation. Many claimed that they had been badly represented in the media and also talked about how it is increasingly difficult to find a place in the city where they can stay for a while. This of course is bound up in a continuing hostility to transience as a way of life, but reveals the difficulties of short-term field work and the limitations of study.

The Gypsy community had been staying in the area where I met them for couple of weeks, however they were already waiting for their eviction. Another group of people whom I got in touch with lived in house boats around Walthamstow Marshes. They too were very open to talk but were disconcerted by the camera as they didn’t want people to find out about their ‘oasis nearby the city centre’.

After some weeks, visiting places across South London, I finally came across two of the four dwelling spaces that became part of my film. Jingles’ flat, in Loughborough Junction and then Thelma and John’s house in West Dulwich. These two spaces and the people that dwell in them emerged in contrast to each other. Their opposition seemed to suggest the idea of fixity versus movement - not so much in the structures of the places (a 1960s council estate and a large early 20th century semi-detached house), but by the fact that Jingles’ as a Jamaican immigrant embodies a concept of home that challenges home as fixed place. John and Thelma seemed to represent the idea of a more static home, with John having lived in the house since his childhood.

Still holding to this idea of fixity and movement, I expanded the idea from two dwellings to three, this time bringing to the film Dasa and Kit, who live in an old industrial building in Highbury with thirty-two other people. They have been squatting there for five years and received an eviction notice just as I was finishing my editing. With them the idea of mobility becomes more evident and more pressing - as their recently enforced eviction suggests. In the process of filming them, however, and reflecting on Heidegger’s ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ - I perceived that what was striking about them were not only their transience – but also their ability to transform a (converted warehouse) space and make it their own.

In some ways there were parallels with the fourth and final home in my film: the commune where Kev lives. Kev’s house, located in Telegraph hill, looks like any of the many Victorian houses in London. However, the house he lives in and the house next door are linked from the inside and there is an open passage through their gardens. There is a feeling of home as an expanded social space, where people of different ages come and go, join in, share meals together, have bonfires in the backgarden, play games, but are also concerned with the community around them. The neighbourhood is an active extension of the home and local-ness is celebrated (they are, for example, active participants in the open-mic nights every Wednesday at the local pub and mini festivals across the year).

Whilst far from a comprehensive overview of the diversity of London’s homes the four houses threw up strong contrasts and interrelations around many of the ideas discussed in this essay. The idea of private and public embodied in these four models of home highlights the dualities of the word home - in the sense that, home is something ‘that is mine and belongs to me’, but, also something that is public or even collective.

The ways people live in these four houses seem to have demonstrated distinct level of social interaction. Each, in a very particular way: Jingles home, for example, had people constantly coming and going. One of his friends mentioned that Jingles’ home is ‘the unity’ where friends, family and neighbours meet to play dominos and music.

This sense of local-ness seemed distant to the squat, where neighbours were discussed more as a source of tension than of community spirit but also in Thelma’s house, where only immediate neighbours came up in our discussion of local community. Despite these disparities, they all seem to perceive home in relation to others - be that family, friends or community.

While most at one time or other linked home to some kind of structure following the idea of fixity, at others they thought of their environment as home. Dasa was rare in perceiving London as her home: not England, or her ‘homeland’ (the Ukraine), or even the place where she lays her head. Instead she described her home as the metropolis.

Throughout my study home emerged as more than a place, more than a feeling, but a strange and transient amalgam of both. Home is our identity; both fixed and in movement. Whilst I concede that my study – like any study - was subject to limitations, what emerged for me was the wealth of opportunity for further research embedded in this metropolis – its shifting diversities of thought and passing sensations of belonging.




Auge, Marc ((1995) Non-Places: an Introduction to Supermodernity. London and New York:Verso.

Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Chaney, David (2002) Cultural Change and Everyday life. New York: Pelgrave.

Hannerz, Ulf (1980) Exploring the city: Inquires Towards an Urban Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press

Heidegger, Martin (1975) Poetry, language, thought. New York and London : Harper and Row.

Ingold, Tim (2000) The perception of the environment: essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. London and New York: Routlege

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1984) Anthropology and Myth Lectures 1951-1982. UK:Basil Blackwell.

Miller, Daniel (2008) The comfort of things. UK,Cambridge: Polity Press.

Morley,David (2000) Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.


Edit book

Amit,Vered (ed) (2000) Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.

Cieraad, Irene (ed) (1999) At Home: an Anthropology of Domestic Space. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Nadia Lovell (ed) (1998)  Locality and Belonging. London and New York: Routledge.

Mark, Arien (ed) (1993) Home: A Place in the world. New York and London:New York University Press.

Massey, Doreen and Jess, Pat(eds) ( (1995) A Place in the World? NY, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rapport, Nigel and Dawson, Andrew(eds) (1998) Migrants of identity: Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement. UK:Berg.


Article in journal:

Clifford, James (2000)’ An Ethnographer in the Field’ Site-Specificity:The Ethnographic turn (4)53-71.

Mallett, Shelley(2004) ‘ Understanding Home: a Critical Review of the Literature’. The Sociological Review 63-89

Low, Setha M. (1996) ‘ The Anthropology of Cities: Imagining and Theorizing the City.’ Annual Review of Anthropology (25) 383-409