Doyle K. O. The symbolic meaning of house and home

THE SYMBOLIC MEANING OF HOUSE AND HOME

K. O. Doyle

American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 35, Issue 6, 790-802 (Jul/Aug92)

Abstract: Explores the individual `psychic’ meaning of housing from the perspective of the individual person and that person’s family and also from the perspective of society. Type of individuals; Stages of development; Types of families.

Keywords: WEALTH

An Exploration in the Psychology of Goods

The concepts of house and home can be examined on many levels and from many vantages. Much has been written, for example, about the economics of housing, the construction and design of housing, the jurisprudence of housing, and the marketing of housing. But little has been written about the meaning of housing.

Adams (1984), in his presidential address to the Association of American Geographers, described «The Meaning of Housing inAmerica» as fundamentally social: «Housing decisions reflect social drives for congregation and segregation withinU.S.cities, thus making social and cultural categories of urban society visible, intelligible, and stable.» Similar orientations are found in Broadbent, Bunt, and Jencks (1980) and Rapoport (1969, 1982). Indeed, Rapoport (1962) argued that «man’s achievements have been due more to his need to utilize his internal resources than to his needs for control of the physical environment or for food» (p. 50).

A number of authors have offered frameworks for interpreting the symbolic meaning of housing. Nasar (1989) offered one that suggests that different kinds of people draw experience-based inferences from architectural styles, andBrunswick(1956) proposed a more cognitive-perceptual model about such inferences. Sadalla, Verschure, and Burroughs (1987) provided data that indicate that people’s inferences about residents, based on home exteriors, are accurate.

Cooper (1974) introduced a Jungian framework into the interpretation of housing symbolism. After applying Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious, archetype, and symbol to the meaning of housing, she concluded,

The house facade and the interior design seem often to be selected so that they reflect how a person views himself both as an individual psyche, and in relation to the outside world, and how he wishes to present his self to family and friends. (p. 136)

She also noted that one’s house may mean quite different things to different people: a «fortress to be defended» to some or an «expression of self» to others.

The present article explores the individual «psychic» meaning of housing from the perspective of the individual person and that person’s family and also from the perspective of society. At the same time, it examines that meaning developmentally—how meaning changes at certain critical stages in the evolution of the individual, the family, and society—the purpose being to lay out the beginnings of a structure from which one could further examine the meaning of housing to the family.

PROLOGUE

One of the first things that we encounter when attempting to study the meaning of housing is the likelihood that housing means different things to different people. So, if we talk about what housing means to some average person or family or society, we camouflage the richness of variability; but if we fully honor variability, we lose all ability to locate patterns, systems, and themes. A simple solution is to walk a middle road between too much generality and too much specificity, to use some categorization that is based on systematic differences. Many researchers (e.g., Myers,Holland, Murdock, Coser) have provided useful categorizing schemata, each system with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. For convenience, we use Merrill and Reid’s (1981) schema for categorizing individuals, Eshleman’s (1985) for families, and Ember and Ember’s (1985) for societies.

A second thing that we encounter is the fact that individuals, families, and even whole societies may evolve through certain serial stages of development and that each stage has associated with it some particular psychosocial experiences. Again, many scholars have provided useful if imperfect schemata (e.g., Erikson, Loevinger, Kohlberg, Rest, Perry, to name a few). For convenience, we use Erikson’s (1959) three-stage schema for adult individuals, and Sorokin, Zimmerman, and Galpin’s (1931) original four-stage schema for families. Unable to locate any alternative, we provide our own tentative developmental schema for societies.

A third and final thing that we encounter when we set about to study the meaning of housing is the process of inferring meaning, how people actually go about drawing meaning out of their housing experiences. Again, a variety of scholars (e.g., Kant, Dewey, Levi-Strauss) have proposed useful epistemologies. For convenience, we use Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s (1981) three-stage process by which people arrive at «the meaning of things»: First, our perception of the esthetic qualities of a thing stirs up an «inner commotion» that sets the stage for learning about meaning. Second, focusing our attention on the thing establishes a psychic closeness to the thing that is pleasant in itself (hence recurring) and motivates us toward deeper learning about the purpose of the thing, and third, reaming about the purpose of the thing, what it tells us (a) on the person level about «who I am,» (b) on the social/familial level about «who we are,» and (c) on what the authors call the «cosmic» level about the central question «why?»

HOUSING AND THE INDIVIDUAL

TYPES OF INDIVIDUALS

According to Merrill and Reid (1981), people can be grouped into four categories. Expressives are the performers, the extroverts, often the centers of attention; they are impulsive, not very dependable, and they wear their feelings on their sleeves. Drivers are all business, inflexibly oriented to their goal, often insensitive to people around them, and relatively unexpressive when it comes to their own feelings. Amiables are the «nice guys» who value people more than data or things; they express their feelings freely but can be quite clingy and dependent. Finally, Analyticals are precise and thorough, the people you can trust to stick with a task; however, they are also often hypercritical and indecisive.

Doyle (1992 [this issue]) translated Merrill and Reid’s schema from a fourfold typology into a profile and extended the meaning of each profile point to include a characteristic psychological value, a characteristic anxiety, and a characteristic «money motive.» He also introduced the idea of money as talisman, a magical charm to ward off evil, to protect us from our particular fears. Expressives value respectability, fear losing face, and buy things for appearance’s sake, things that will enhance their esteem and reputation. Drivers place high value on competence, fear being found inept, and buy things that will demonstrate their success or achievement. Amiables value affection, fear losing relationships, and use money when it can nourish a relationship but avoid it when it might drive people away. Analyticals value security, fear losing control, and hold on to their money and property as protection against the outside world.

Thus money and the things that money can buy become, for the Expressive, a manifestation of the importance of expression and a talisman against loss of reputation; for the Driver, a manifestation of the importance of success and a talisman against loss of potency; for the Amiable, a manifestation of the importance of relationships and a talisman against the loss of affection; and for the Analytical, a manifestation of the importance of order and safety and a talisman against the loss of control. Because housing is one of the things that money can buy, housing becomes a manifestation of each kind of person’s characteristic value and a talisman against each kind of person’s characteristic fear.

MEANING TO INDIVIDUALS

So what does housing mean to each of these types of people? If we distinguish house—a shelter—from home—an experience—then to a Driver, house means achievement and success, a symbol of self and to society of the Driver’s effectiveness in dealing with the world. To the Driver, home also means a place where he (or she) can exercise competence with little or no concern for politics, negotiation, or other distractions from their goal.

But if we press the Driver for additional meaning, we may find sometimes quite the opposite—that home also means a place where he can occasionally let his guard down, where he does not have to be so competent so much of the time. These opposite meanings appear to arise particularly in times of stress (Merrill & Reid, 1981).

To the Analytical, a house (like everything else) is a subject for study. The Analytical, male or female, is more inclined to care about and understand (depending on his or her particular interests) the details of the structure, the details of the financing, the details of the neighborhood, or the details of the social geography. Not unlike the Driver, the Analytical is inclined to see the home as a place to exercise his or her particular skills of detail but even more so as a place that can be controlled, from which the threats of the outside world can be barred. Indeed, it is to protect the home—and family—from these outside threats that is the Analytical’s principal focus at home.

But if we coax more meaning from the Analytical, we may find that home also means a place where he (or she) can sometimes let go of control and safely express the emotion of the moment—again, meanings opposite to this norm.

To the Expressive, by contrast, a house is a whole. Unlike Analyticals, Expressives do not enjoy or care about or even comprehend the details of the house or anything in it; unlike Drivers, they care a lot about the overall gestalt, the feel of the place. But the feel of the place, for the Expressive, comes largely from the architecture and the furnishings, from the tangible and visible features that give the house a character with which the Expressive can identify. Home is valued in much the same way: for its overall experience, especially the visible, occasionally even superficial, characteristics that the Expressive can use to construct his or her own image to present to the world. Under stress, the Expressive may find his or her anxiety focusing on the detail of the building and guarding it as jealously as any Analytic.

Finally, to the Amiable, the house is almost irrelevant—what counts is the experience of home. The Amiable’s view of home is holistic, like the Expressive’s, but it is concentrated on the more subtle, less overt, less visible features: the spirit of the family within the home, for example, the «feel» of the place as distinguished from its appearance. Under stress, however, the Amiable too takes on opposite characteristics—the self-effacing wife may become a tigress to protect her home and children.

Thus from Merrill and Reid’s simple classification we can derive individual meanings of house and home that vary from atomistic to holistic, from emotional feel to aesthetic appearance and that under duress, take on meanings that are in opposition to their usual experience.

A simple fourfold classification obviously cannot account for all the richness and complexity of humankind, but it can provide a good starting point for interpretation of meaning according to human individual differences. Other systems would provide perhaps more comprehensive starting points but would also be more cumbersome and perhaps less useful for our present exploratory purposes.

STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT

Researchers of psychosocial development, like Erikson (1959), have provided concepts that supply an additional dimension of meaning—the notion that people change over time, hence that what thing means to them may also change over time. In early adulthood, the focus of development is reaming how to build intimate relationships with other people (intimacy vs. isolation), and the developmental tasks principally have to do with making choices: the selection of a mate, the decision to have children, and the choice of a career. At the same time, the psychosocial crisis of early adulthood is the struggle to involve oneself with another person while not losing a sense of self versus resisting intimacy out of fear of losing oneself in the process.

The developmental tasks of middle adulthood principally have to do with management: managing a household, managing children, and managing a career. The psychosocial crisis has to do with generativity versus stagnation, devoting time, energy and resources to the betterment of life for future generations versus efforts solely for one’s own self. Like the intimacy/ isolation crisis, this crisis represents another step from the narcissism of the child to the altruism of the adult.

Finally, the developmental tasks of the later years have to do with an appraisal of the entire course of one’s life, and the psychosocial crisis is integrity versus despair. Those who can look back at their lives and see a generally positive course of psychological events, generally successful treatment of the series of psychosocial crises, end their lives with a satisfying feeling of «integration,» that it all hangs together; those who cannot come to this conclusion of integration find themselves closer to the opposite of integrity, that is, despair (see Newman & Newman, 1979).

MEANING AT SUCCESSIVE STAGES

We can infer patterns in the meaning of housing from these sequential developmental tasks and psychosocial crises. For the individual in roughly his or her 20s, the young adult who is concentrating on making life-style choices, the housing choice—house, apartment, or commune; socioeconomic level; aesthetics—is not only shelter but a statement of values to the world. More than that, it is at once a statement to the world and an affirmation to oneself. To this young person who is struggling with the development of intimacy, the housing choice becomes a part of self that is presented to the other person. To the extent that they each accept each other, as partly symbolized by the house, they move closer to intimacy; to the extent that they do not, further away.

The experience of home flows from the experience of intimacy. As people open themselves to each other and receive each other, they produce a spirit that is part of the ideal of the home experience. As they build a home together, each contributing a part of him- or herself to the structure, appearance, and feel of the place, they in themselves and as captured symbolically in the house and home around them begin to interact to create what at its peak can be almost a holy experience, not unlike what Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) described as the «flow» between people and things (see also Buber, 1958). Both house and home for these young people are intimately tied up in the selves they present to each other, to themselves, and to the world.

Thus the young Driver, for example, who sees house as a symbol of achievement and home a haven in which to exercise unfettered competence upon the world, and the young Amiable, who disregards the structure and focuses on home-as-family-experience, can struggle to observe their values in their housing and through that housing experience present themselves to each other and try to grow in intimacy.

Housing also conveys meaning by reflecting the essence of the middle adult, whose tasks are largely managerial and whose crisis involves shifting the focus from self to succeeding generations. By this time, the housing choice is generally stable, neither so upward-bound nor so mobile as the housing of the young adult. By now, the house has come to be a good representation of the values of the household, whether reached by consensus, by negotiation and compromise, or by superior force. The day-to-day task has become the maintenance of the house, and the issue is becoming the maintenance of the house on behalf of the children. The house is for most people their primary financial asset, and at this stage, the concentration shifts from acquiring that asset to preserving it for the use of the family. The shift also entails allowing greater control over the use of the house by the children, even when that use conflicts with the ways in which the parents want to present themselves to the world. This is pan of altruism, the evaluated giving over of something one values on behalf of the children who follow us.

Thus the middle-aged Expressive and the middle-aged Analytical have probably reached accommodation about the parts of themselves that they present to the world through their housing and now begin to depart from their own needs to the needs of the family as a whole. It is through this incorporation that they create the middle-years experience of home.

Housing also carries meaning for older people whose tasks and crisis have to do with a review and evaluation of the whole of their lives as well as a passing on of themselves and their possession to the next generation. By this stage, housing has taken on several roles in the life of the older person: It summarizes the face they want to present to themselves and to the rest of the world, it has become a part of themselves that they plan to pass on to the succeeding generation, and it has become a kind of nest in which they pursue their final life evaluation. Safety is important to old people, so the house must be not only physically safe but financially safe—they cannot tolerate the risk of heavy mortgages—and psychologically safe—it cannot distract for their primary developmental task of self-review.

For many old people, however, the experience of home has taken on new meaning: The children are gone, and perhaps the spouse is gone. Indeed, they may have moved to smaller quarters in a different part of town or even a different city. Their quarters may even be in some kind of a professional care center. The experience of home, then, is largely tied to memories and to things—the vestigial spirit of the household of children growing up, of the best of times for the family, and those cherished possessions that bring forth those memories (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981).

For these different kinds of people, then, and at these different stages of life, their transactions with housing contribute to learning about identity. As Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) pointed out, the «inner commotion» that occurs when people perceive the aesthetic qualities of their housing propels them toward learning more about themselves. Among much else, they learn the importance to themselves of the principal values of each of the four types: How important are signs of success and achievement? How important are signs of esteem? How important are signs of affection? How important are signs of order and control? Adding to this the commotion that rises from their particular psychosocial crises, they also learn some grander skills: From the struggle between intimacy and isolation, they learn to love; from the struggle between generativity and stagnation they learn to give; and from the struggle between integrity and despair they learn to rejoice. Throughout these processes, their experiences with housing help them to learn altruism. Thus they learn to answer the personal question that Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton proposed: Who am I?

HOUSING AND THE FAMILY

The second level on which to explore the meaning of housing is that of the family. Interpretations on the family level will necessarily be more complex than on the individual level because families involve the interaction of two or more individuals, each individual involving all the type and stage complexities — and more — discussed in the preceding section.

TYPES OF FAMILIES

Families, not unlike individuals, can be viewed in terms of type and stage. Many authors (e.g., Eshleman, 1985) speak of the «nuclear» family and the «extended» family, where the nuclear family household generally comprises two adults and perhaps children, and the extended family household generally includes at least a third adult and often additional adults and children. Nuclear family households predominate in theUnited States, but extended family households predominate worldwide. The nuclear family is largely self-contained socially, emotionally, geographically, and financially; there is relatively little influence by, and relatively little contact with, other relatives. The extended family is as interdependent as the nuclear family is self-contained. The members rely on one another for social, emotional, and financial support; they live together and are in close daily contact. Between these extremes are many levels of modified nuclear and modified extended families (Eshleman, 1985, pp. 87-9]).

FAMILY STAGES

Many other authors (e.g., Duvall, 1971) speak to the developmental stages of families. Although a number of more detailed (and more recent) schemata exist, for illustrative purposes, Sorokin et al. (1931) provided an especially convenient four-stage schema for the development of a nuclear family: the couple just starting its independent existence, or the prechildren couple; the couple with grade-school-age children; the couple with high-school-age children; and the postchildren couple, or the all-adult family.

Each of these stages (see Duvall, 1971) involves a characteristic developmental family task (just as each stage of individual development involves a characteristic individual task). The important developmental tasks of the prechildren couple include establishing a mutually satisfying marriage and fitting into the kin network. The tasks of the family with grade-school children include fostering the physical, psychological, and social growth of the children and coping with the drains on energy and loss of privacy that child rearing entails. The tasks of the family with high-school-age children include helping the children balance freedom and responsibility as they grow toward adulthood and helping the parents establish postparental interests and occupations. The tasks of the postchildren family include reestablishing the marriage relationship, maintaining kinship ties, and preparing for retirement, bereavement, and death. These family stages and tasks reflect the individual stages and tasks described earlier the young adult’s task of developing intimacy with another person (intimacy vs. isolation), the parent-age adult’s task of giving to the next generation (generativity vs. stagnation), and the older adult’s task of reviewing life and preparing for death (integrity vs. despair).

FAMILY-LEVEL MEANINGS

All of these type and stage considerations have implications for the meaning of house and home. With regard to «house»—the structure—the implications are straightforward: Larger families, nuclear and/or extended, need relatively more space, all else being equal, especially if the family members are to balance privacy and interaction, independence and dependence, in their personal growth and in the growth of the family. Moreover, living space needs increase and then decrease as the family progresses through its prechildren, with children, and postchildren expansion stages. This dynamic need for space is not necessarily consistent with the symbolic meaning of housing to the individual. Analytics, for example, may find that the clutter that comes with children is offensive to the need for order, and Drivers may not want to cut back on the size and impressiveness of their quarters after the children have grown and gone.

With regard to «home»—the experience—the implications are more subtle. The principal signal that the nuclear family sends to itself and to the world is that it values privacy and independence. The principal signal that the extended family sends is that it values interdependence and unity, or closeness. Ironically, the nuclear family, as it progresses through its developmental stages, first has, then loses, then regains its privacy and independence. With children in the picture, the privacy that the couple once had—to fight, to make love, simply to be alone with one another—is limited, and the independence they once enjoyed is replaced by a dependence at least on baby-sitters, pediatricians, and teachers. Once the children are grown and gone, the couple is again free to try to reestablish that privacy and independence.

Similarly, the extended family also loses some of the interdependence and closeness it values. The incorporation of new members, especially children, creates stress and often leads to fragmentation and distancing among the members of the family. As with the nuclear family, after a period of adaptation and redefinition of roles and responsibilities, the extended family can recapture the unity and interdependence it values.

The nuclear family, in its quest for privacy and independence, seeks a home that will both support and communicate its success at that quest. The stereotypic American dream home was probably created out of that desire: the free-standing rose-covered cottage with the white picket fence. The extended family, in its search for interdependence and unity, seeks a home that will foster and signal its success in its search: proportionally larger quarters, common areas, and additional rooms. The «mother-in-law apartment» is a modern American approximation of the two ideals.

The reality, however, is often far short of the ideal. In both the nuclear and extended family, in the United States and elsewhere, the family’s quarters often consist of a cramped and worn apartment, perhaps in an impersonal, unpleasant, and even threatening complex or neighborhood. A home that approximates the ideal probably supports the development of the ideal; a home that falls far short of the ideal probably inhibits it. A family that lives in quarters that more closely approximate the ideal probably has an easier time trying to implement its values; a family that lives in quarters that fall far short probably has a more difficult time. As Winston Churchill once noted, we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.

The transactions which the various family members together experience with their house and home stir up, in Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s (1981) sense, the «inner commotion» that combined with the observations about type and stage and many other factors result in the family’s learning more about its identity: how it sees itself, and how the world sees it, in terms of its valuing of independence and interdependence, in terms of its degree of development, and in terms reminiscent of the individual caregiving skills described earlier: learning, this time as a family, to love, to give, to rejoice, and to grow in altruism. In short, these transactions help the family answer Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s (1981) societal question: Who are we?

HOUSING AND SOCIETY

The third level on which to explore the meaning of housing is that of society. Societal analysis and interpretation can be the most complex of all because it involves the interactions of all of the types, stages, and characteristics of all of the individuals and all of the families that constitute the society as well as the interactions of types, stages, and so forth in various societies.

TYPES AND STAGES OF SOCIETIES

Like individuals and families, societies can be examined in regard to both type and developmental stage. The most convenient classification of society type is by social class, and the most salient distinguishing variables are household income, occupation, and education. Thus we can distinguish lower-class, middle-class, and upper-class societies. Knowing no schema for the developmental stages of societies, it seems reasonable to propose that societies pass through developmental stages very much like those that individuals and families pass through: a stage that focuses on societal intimacy, or community; a stage that focuses on societal generativity, or philanthropy; and a stage that focuses on societal integrity, or optimism.

SOCIETAL MEANINGS OF HOUSING

A society’s housing reflects its type and developmental stage. Lower-class neighborhoods, by definition, are generally more physically distressed and less aesthetically developed than middle-class or upper-class neighborhoods. Middle-class neighborhoods, for the most part, show an advance in these respects, and upper-class neighborhoods show still more advance. Neighborhoods still searching for a sense of community will generally have more elements that inhibit community (e.g., solid fences) than foster it (e.g., shared values about community, a pride of ownership). Neighborhoods — communities — that have passed into the philanthropy stage display more «giving» or «sharing» behaviors and values (e.g., welcoming visits to new neighbors, open houses), and neighborhoods that have passed into the integrity or optimism stage manifest not only a sense of community and a sense of openness and sharing but a distinct sense of self-respect, self-confidence, and positive outlook for the future.

Just as the characteristics of a family define its housing and a family’s housing helps define its characteristics, so too do characteristics define neighborhoods and societies. That is, individual and family distress often contributes to distressed neighborhoods, and a distressed neighborhood often contributes to distressed individual and family life.

As society’s people wrestle with their individual and familial psychosocial crises and as those experiences interact with the great social issues people encounter from time to time, a kind of societal version of Dewey’s «inner commotion» (cited in Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981) is stirred up—a community conscience, as it were—and that stress impels people to grapple with such issues as racial and class differences, injustice, and tumult. Our individual and familial approach to dealing with these grand problems, along with our individual enabling behaviors—loving, giving, rejoicing, and altruism—help us to formulate the ultimate «cosmic» question in Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s (1981) triad: Why?

Thus reaming about the symbolic meaning of house and home to the different members of the family at the different stages of life helps each member develop a deeper understanding of self and a deeper understanding of the selves of the other members.

REFERENCES

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Sorokin, P., Zimmerman, C. C., & Galpin, C. J. (1931). A systematic source book in rural sociology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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