HOMInG is over 2.5 years old by now. Its preliminary findings can be appreciated as “progress”, relative to the preexisting research on home and migration, in at least five respects. All of them invite to further research and conversations on questions of home, especially for people away, displaced, or deprived from it. All of them will be addressed further in HOMInG’s forthcoming publications. Here is a brief preview.
- Making sense of home requires a dialectic perspective (as opposed to non-home).
HOMInG’s research has already clearly illustrated that, whatever the population target, the social experience of home cannot be fruitfully approached as a stand-alone condition. Instead, it needs to be appreciated through the experiential interplay with its opposites – homelessness, displacement, estrangement and, more broadly, the “unhomely”. Unless one narrows down the focus on domesticity (which is not the case here), questions like What home means to people, What conditions enable or constrain it and How “successful” its achievement are better understood from the outside, from the margins or from afar, rather than from the inside experience of those who do have a home and feel at home. This is one of the reasons that make the migrant (or refugee) case a specially relevant one. As HOMInG’s fieldwork shows, the everyday experience of home is less a monolithic entity than an ongoing matter of thresholds and degrees. It can be fully appreciated only in a dialectic relation with individual and social circumstances of not-being-at-home.
- Home can be most fruitfully conceived as an ongoing relational tentative achievement.
Consistent with the seminal notion of homing, our project has shown the merit of a conceptual transition from home as a thing, however defined, to home as a tentative relational achievement of it. The focus is not only on the sense people make of home, but also on the ways in which they produce home, on the resources and constraints that affect this process, on the sustainability and consequences of its production. Central to the production of home, as HOMInG research reveals, is the possibility to attach to one’s environment a sense of familiarity. This is nothing obvious, under circumstances of migration or displacement. It has to do with the possibility for people to cultivate some intimacy and predictability through their everyday activities, against certain material backgrounds. In this sense, familiarity is contingent on the available infrastructures (most critically, an adequate accommodation), but also on individual and group relational resources and, as important, on temporality. Making oneself at home entails marking time (no less than space) in distinctive and meaningful ways. The production of home is in itself a time-dependent process.
- In qualitative research, home works better as an end point than as a starting one.
The enactment of HOMInG’s in-depth interviews and life histories has produced a counter-intuitive and innovative finding. Contrary to the prevalent view of interviews as a straightforward way into the subjective meanings of home, what home means, and how this is played out in an interview setting, calls for specific attention. Explorations of respondents’ views, feelings and practices of home (or of the equivalent notion across languages) work differently and produce different forms of knowledge at different stages of the interview process. If questions of home are explicitly addressed from the outset of an interview – sometimes by necessity, due to time constraints – the reference to home generally performs two functions: eliciting a mental association with the place people live in, or the countries they come from (whether “home-like” or not); and pushing participants to align themselves along strong and exclusivistic identity lines (home, dualistically, as a matter of here vs there, my place vs your place, or us vs them).
If, instead, questions of home are approached in a more indirect and constructive way, whether referred to an abstraction or to tangible aspects of people’s everyday lives (the places they lived in, the memories and sense-scapes associated with them, the weight of personal relationships etc.), the outcome tends to be different. Participants are more likely to produce reflexive and non-formulaic accounts of what home means for them. They may even be motivated to revisit their life trajectories through these emerging categories. In short, there is more of a promise in approaching home as a point of arrival (in the development of the interview and in respondents’ own trajectories) than as a naturalized and obvious starting point.
- The location(s) of home need to be differentiated and rescaled.
HOMInG’s ethnographic fieldwork has given more theoretical strength and empirical bases to the emerging debate on the multiscalarity of home. While the home as dwelling is obviously place- (and materially) bound, home as a distinctive form of place attachment and identification can be negotiated in the public domain no less than in the private one. It can work out across several scales of reference, not necessarily overlapping with the domestic one. This opens up to the study of home(making) in a variety of public spaces. The latter are revealed as complex political fields where potentially opposite claims on who belongs and who has a right to stay vie with each other. The core research question is then less who is at home there, than what accounts for the social distribution of the rights, skills and opportunities for people to make themselves at home. And again, in the public no less than in the private domain, making oneself at home is contingent on the routines being enacted there. It works out by habituation, no less than through more or less effective claims for space appropriation.
- We need to enlarge the scope of socio-demographic influences on views, feelings and practices of home.
HOMInG as a project has started with a primary emphasis on the immigrant/native divide. This is often taken for granted in the literature on home and migration, let alone in commonsense. Yet, the preliminary research findings of the project highlight the need to move beyond this, in two respects. First, unpacking the native/immigrant dichotomy goes hand in hand with unpacking the home/away one. The condition of being “native” (or long-resident) to a place does not always entail the possibility of being at home there, unless “home” is read in a merely ascriptive sense. Likewise, being foreign, or on the move, need not mean to be always devoid of an emplaced sense of home. In the second place, an immigrant (or even refugee) background has clearly emerged as one only among the main influences on people’s orientation, possibility and motivation to attach a positive sense of home to their living circumstances. While we acknowledge the influence of the “usual” demographics (age, gender, class etc.), we also highlight the major significance of temporality. The length of stay in a place matters, and so does the time-oriented construction of that place as a meaningful one for the future, hence one deserving a significant biographical investment.