HOMInG, as a formally ERC-funded project, has been over for some months by now. While the project’s former researchers will keep on publishing relevant materials for the next couple of years, it is worth taking stock of HOMInG’s key findings. Across the project publications, and beyond, there are at least seven insights that speak to a much broader field of research on place attachment and appropriation on the move, across space and time. We can label the seven points as follows: Home, Narrative, Biographies, Sense-scapes, Scales, Volition and Homing.
Lures of the absolute vs lived experience of the relative and relational
Home is often perceived or claimed as a natural and self-evident state of things. This is part of its discursive circulation and allure. However, upon further scrutiny, home is hardly an absolute notion or a stand-alone condition (or for that matter, a fixed location). This is not only because any ideal of being or feeling at home may be hard to achieve fully. More fundamentally, the very notion of home cannot but be approached in relation to something else, whatever the form of “alterity”: the societal and environmental background in which home is embedded, and in relation to which it marks a threshold of distinctiveness and privacy; the assemblage of place(s), people and settings it is associated with (all that facilitates its lived experience in a normatively positive sense); as critically, the social, political and environmental circumstances that jeopardize its existence as a special place, and thus are at odds with home as a repository of positive emotions.
Experientially, it is easier to make sense of home by separating it mentally, and then practically, from all that should lie outside (or away from) its material, relational and moral boundaries. Whether the separation does operate effectively or the “unhomely” creeps in is, again, an empirical question. It is only in distinction from the larger environment that emplaced emotions like comfort, security and privacy are nourished and perceived as “real”. At the same time, these emotions are part of shared scripts and moral economies about the boundaries and contents of domesticity, which are shaped by interlocking axes of diversity and inequality. In short, while home stands out from the rest by definition, it can hardly be impermeable to it. In fact, it demands an ongoing engagement with whatever lies out, around or against it.
Promise of approaching home indirectly and as an ending point
If a methodological lesson can be drawn from a large-scale comparative study like HOMInG, this involves the potential of non-direct and ex-post ways of approaching home. For one thing, there is no reason to reduce the study of home to research on domesticity, although the lived experience of migrants’ domestic space is a promising topic in its own right (Boccagni & Bonfanti, 2023). Furthermore, the complexity and multivalence of home require specific attention in an interview setting. Exploring respondents’ views, feelings and practices of home works differently and produces different forms of knowledge at different stages of the interview process. If questions of home are explicitly prioritized from the outset, the reference to this notion tends to perform two functions: eliciting a mental association with the place people live in, or the countries they come from; and pushing participants to align themselves along well-marked or even binary identity lines (i.e. here vs there, my place vs your place, us vs them). If, instead, questions of home rely on meaningful materialities or are referred to tangible aspects of everyday life (the places they lived in over time, the memories and sense-scapes associated with them, the weight of personal relationships etc.), participants are more likely to produce reflexive and non-formulaic accounts. They may even be motivated to revisit their life trajectories accordingly.
In sum, there is more potential in approaching home as a point of arrival (in the development of the interview and in respondents’ own trajectories) than as a starting point; in seeing home as a verb – homing – and not only as a noun. In either scenario, knowledge production also depends on the engagement with participants’ dwelling circumstances over time. Their material cultures and housing infrastructures may be revealing of social class, ethno-cultural backgrounds, routines, tastes and (dis)alignments vis-à-vis multiple groups of reference and belonging.
Life course dependency of home
Whenever scholars approach home as a lived experience of place, or a way of relating to it, they typically encounter significant differences between and within their target populations in the ways of conceiving, nourishing and emplacing home. Such variations cannot be simply ascribed to the immigrant/native divide, or to the well-housed vs displaced one. They are not even reducible to other widely studied factors such as gender, culture, or ethno-racial background. As significant, and far less debated, is the influence of age and life course position. Generally speaking, at an early life course stage being at home has primarily to do with being in a household, and hence is severely jeopardized by the lack of a functional and protective one. For younger people home is primarily associated with one’s degree of autonomy and with the presence of significant others, and the possibility to live together with them, with less emphasis on specific locations. As people grow older, instead, it is the familiarity and continuity of habitual living environments, such as dwellings and neighbourhoods, that tend to matter the most. This reveals major variations in place attachment – most visibly among people on the move – that emerge as particularly critical among the elderly. Their prevalent expectations of continuity in everyday environments are also a way to cope with the shrinking geographies of what lies under their control. In short, migrant homemaking is shaped by multiple temporalities at the intersection between age and length of stay.
On the sense dependency of home and of its (re)production
Home is certainly more than a place, while irremediably relying on some material and spatialised foundation, as the absence or the loss of a dwelling place makes all too clear. However, home as a social experience does not involve only relationships, emotions and moralities. It is also mediated, more subtly and fundamentally, by the senses. Much of migrants’ portability of home, and of their ways of feeling at home, has precisely to do with the senses. What people can see and hear, and more implicitly what they experience through smell, taste and touch, has much to do with the (re)production of home, or with the impossibility to reproduce it. Related to the dwelling or to different scales, home as an embodied way of doing things in a place has deeply sensorial underpinnings. This becomes fully visible only once a particular sense-scape is left behind, lost, or disrupted. Mundane practices ranging from food preparation and consumption to having leisure in certain ways, or engaging in religious or other routines, convey sensorial aspects of the past experience and thereby evoke a sense of home as familiarity, normality, insidedness, and possibly wellbeing. Such a potential for homemaking has to do less with the inherent qualities of these practices than with their intimate connectedness with the biographical circumstances and lifestyles of certain people or groups (Pérez-Murcia & Boccagni, 2022). To some extent, sense-based homemaking mitigates the ruptures created by displacement and migration (although, by the same token, it may reproduce memories of traumatizing or negative experiences). As important, the ways of feeling at home through certain sense-scapes reveal that the experience of home is deeply embodied. It relies on bodily ways of relating to place and producing particular atmospheres in interaction with it. Home cannot be reduced to an abstract or intellectual process. Quite the opposite, it is a deeply sensuous one.
Multi-scalarity of home across territories, times, and conceptual domains
It is rather conventional to start from the premise that home is a multi-scalar concept. Home can be equally relevant to the experience of place across different scales along continuums such as micro-macro and local-global. However, there is more to the scalarity of home. It is not only that people and groups, including migrants or refugees, can feel at home or call a place home on different, albeit sometimes overlapping scales over their life course. In that respect, importantly, home may scale not only “up”, related to larger and nested geographies, but also “down”, involving one’s body as the primary location in which people do (not) feel at home. However, the multiscalarity of home has not to do only with place attachment, but also with space thresholding. Home operates as a social mechanism to lay a claim over place and separate inside from outside, with the underlying moral and emotional repertoires, across very different scales, as research on domopolitics has shown. Likewise, the metaphorical rationale As if it were home can result in a translation of the expected ways of “doing” or “feeling” in the home across all extra-domestic scales, including a planetary one, as long as cosmopolitan claims about planet earth as (common) home hold sway.
As remarkable, albeit far less discussed, is the scalarity of home in time. Research on the (re)construction of home in diasporic groups provides many examples of ritualized ways of shifting home as a place, or a symbolic site of collective attachment and identification (if not of residence), back to the past, or forward to the future. In fact, the temporal rescaling of home is by no means univocal or uncontentious. Moreover, it may pragmatically go along with the actual acknowledgement of the diasporic condition as a novel site of home. However, the temporal scalarity of home gains in salience and ambivalence under conditions of protracted transiency, liminality and forced immobility. From a marginalized predicament of being “stuck in transit” (Brekke & Brochmann, 2015), forced migrants may be equally oriented to temporalize home as something that belongs to a nostalgic and idealized past, or to an unfathomable future ahead, but is unattainable and indeed makes little sense in the here-and-now (Kabachnik et al., 2010).
Yet another form of scalarity – one that the study of migration makes only more mobile and open-ended – has to do with the potential of home to be circulated and translated, as an idea, an imaginary, a process or a material object, across disciplinary domains and across the research-practice divide. Comparative analysis of these different ways of scaling home is viable, and indeed promising, by focusing – once again – less on what home is than on what home does: how claims and practices of place attachment and appropriation from different actors vie with each other, what the (more or less unequal) outcome is, and what accounts for that.
On the (Un)Desirability of home
Contrary to common wisdom, feeling at home is not always an inherently positive or desirable emotional state, given one’s biographical and housing circumstances. HOMInG’s fieldwork across immigrant and refugee dwelling arrangements invites a remarkable shift in conceptualizing the absence of a positive experience of home. Not feeling at home may not reflect only social marginalization, housing deprivation, or the aftermath of being forcibly displaced. While all these forms of unhoming are all too pervasive and protracted, they are not exhaustive of the “negative” side of home. Some of our fieldwork interlocutors with an immigrant background actually refuse to cultivate a sense of home in relation to the timespace in which they are situated. This is out of purposeful agency, whenever their dwelling conditions are far below a normative standard of home, or the latter is dismissed in the light of more urgent or subjectively more important concerns. Particularly under temporary housing arrangements and in certain phases of the life course, such as for young adults with no proximate family obligations, attaching a sense of home to place in the here-and-now need not be a priority or a normatively positive aim (although, interestingly, some “reluctant homemaking” may occur nonetheless). The attendant conceptualization of non-home (Boccagni & Miranda-Nieto, 2022) makes a promising contribution to the critical scholarship on home and human mobilities.
Home as an ongoing dialectic between past-bound and future-oriented ways of relating to place
As the notion of homing suggests, there is a promise in transitioning from a view of home as a pre-existing entity to a view of home as (also) an ongoing attempt at making it real, moving toward the special emotional and relational experience it should enable (Boccagni, 2022). The focus should be not only on the sense people make of home, but also on the ways in which they struggle to produce it, on the resources and constraints that affect this process, on the sustainability and consequences of its production. Central to the production of home is the possibility to attach to one’s environment a sense of familiarity; that is, some predictability, intimacy and knowledgeability through everyday activities, against certain material backgrounds. Familiarity is contingent on the available infrastructures, 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 a normatively positive sense, home is not simply “there”. Rather, it “occurs” to variable degrees, shifting across the circumstances of its making. Looking at, and aiming to, the “the homely enough” is then probably more productive than seeing home as an absolute state of things.
As important, there is an ontological, practical, and even ethical difference between home as ascription – all that has to do with the origin and the starting conditions of each of us – and home as a potential accomplishment, or a cherished condition of full inclusion, protection and “normality” that people, and most visibly those on the move, struggle to head toward. There is a difference between “appointed” and “self-appointed” home, as Heller (1995) would put it. The former home belongs to the past; the latter is potentially inscribed into the future. For sure, both ways of homing may have an obscure, exclusionary or oppressive side. However, they are by no means equivalent or fungible. In fact, while the notion of homing is conventionally understood as a form of return, it can be more productively seen as forward-oriented mobility, toward the potential creation of new forms of home – if only because the past ones cannot be recovered anyway. The dialectic between past-bound and future-oriented subtexts of home and homing holds a political significance that is not yet fully appreciated, and calls for further elaboration and debate.