Ideas Shaping Practice: Philosophy of Home Economics/Human Sciences

Vol. 19, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editor:
Sue L. T. McGregor

return to KON home page

subscribe to KON FORUM

browse other KON publications

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 19, No.1
1546-2676. Editor: Lisa W. Booth. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2012. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information click here.


return to top of page


Kappa Omicron Nu


Conceptualizing Home and Household

Sue L. T. McGregor
Mount Saint Vincent University



Home economics uses the terms home and household all the time but there seems to be a dearth of literature that formalizes how we define and conceptualize these terms. On the assumption that they aretwo different concepts, this paper explores how home and household differ (with peripheral reference to family). The conversation begins with an overview of the few examples found in the home economics literature (six initiatives). Then, household and home are each described in detail, including four conceptualizations of home from non-home economics literature. Ultimately, the paper concludes that the Western notion of household is a quantifiable concept, while home is much more symbolic (a visible sign of something that is invisible). Households pertain to the type of dwelling; the complement of people; and their tasks, chores, functions, or activities. Conversely, through their interactions with an undifferentiated space (house or dwelling), people turn it into a home, which means different things to different people (along nine dimensions). The case is made for home economics to take inspiration from other disciplines' initiatives to conceptualize these two concepts, and work towards a home economics-centric theory of home and household.


There is a growing academic interest in the meaning of home (Fox O’Mahony, 2007) and household (Hanson, 2004; Niehof, 2011). Indeed, our profession is called home economics, stemming from the Greek word oikos, which means house, household, habitation (Vaines, 1990; von Schweitzer, 1977, 2006). With these etymological roots, our name actually contains reference to both home and household. In our formative years (late 1800s), our founders considered both home economics and household arts as possible names for the emergent discipline (Brown, 1985). They settled on home economics, with Ellen Swallow Richards declaring that “So long as the nurture of the human mind is best accomplished in the home, so long will the word Home stand first in our title” (as cited in Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 17).

Home economics uses the terms home and household all the time. They are a ubiquitous aspect of our disciplinary and professional rhetoric, but there seems to be a dearth of literature that formalizes how we define and conceptualize them. This paper is based on the premise that home economics (also human ecology, family and consumer sciences) has not fundamentally questioned home and household as core concepts for the discipline. This lacuna, if real, is a concern because “establishing an academic field involves fully describing the subject, and its true nature, clearly and exhaustively, in order to define it” (Sekiguchi, 2004, p. 5).

The discipline and profession can benefit from a dialogue about these two concepts. Such a conceptual and theoretical conversation would sharpen our awareness of disciplinary assumptions, and provoke focused debate and dialogue on the application of home and household to our philosophy, theory, research, policy, curricula, and practice. On the assumption that they are two different concepts, this paper explores how home and household differ (with peripheral reference to family). The conversation begins with an overview of the few examples found in the home economics literature. Seen below, in chronological order, they reflect varying degrees of conceptual slippage (and little conceptual convergence), intimating that more work needs to be done by our discipline vis-à-vis these two core concepts.

Home and Household in Home Economics

Family ecosystem. The discipline and profession embraced ecosystems theory about 35 years ago (McGregor, 2010). In their seminal work, Deacon and Firebaugh (1988) referred to “the family or household” (p. 29). Or... is a conjunction meaning alternative, available as another choice, like “coffee or tea.” Whether intended or not, the phrase family or household connotes “take your pick because they both serve the same purpose.” Deacon and Firebaugh did not use the term home in their ecosystem theory. Their approach contained a component called physical habitat, by which they meant “spatial territory, which may be marked by a house, apartment or room plus the edge of the lawn, hedges or fences that circumscribe the area” (pp. 30-31). Their social aspect of the family system referred to the “social surroundings of the family or household [emphases added]” (p. 39). In her model of the family ecosystem, Melson (1980) defined “the concept of the family” (p. 3) but not home. She suggested that home is “family personal space,” and she linked both the terms housing and home with family functions and activities (p. 89).

Human ecology. Touliatos and Compton (1988) elaborated on the human ecosystem theory for home economics. They suggested that this theory accommodates the specializations within home economics, including housing, which they characterized as the spatial environment. The latter encompasses territoriality, privacy, and social interactions. Respectively, an individual or family’s territory refers to their “home and its grounds,” (p. 36), which must be protected. If people have a territory that is their own, “the familiarity of it, the feeling of being ‘at home’ or belonging there” (p. 37) meets the human need for roots, safety, and identity. In addition to providing a space for privacy, the dwelling unit socializes people via social interaction. “Not only are patterns of socialization typically enacted within the home; they appear in part to be oriented toward the house and its contents” (Merton as cited in Touliatos & Compton, 1988). Their discussion of home and dwelling is not always conceptually tight. Bubolz’s (1990) model of the human ecosystem, which includes the human built environment, uses the concept of housing (outbuildings, furnishings, equipment) and not home.

Home as habitat. The Japanese philosophy of home economics assumes that “home economics encompasses the nature of home, its structure, and function, as well as phenomena in home life” (Sekiguchi, 2004, p. 3). This statement refers to home as both a structure and an entity that has functions. She did not use the word household per se, choosing instead habitat (where and how people live). Drawing on German philosopher Bollnow (1963) , she clarified that “habitation takes place within the home and within the world at large through the medium of the home” (Sekiguchi, 2004, p. 52). She described habitat as comprising two spheres, the inner space where people can feel secure and protected (i.e., the home), and the outer space, which is hostile and filled with tension. Again inspired by Bollnow, she affirmed that “for the residential space [the house] to take on a protective function [people have] to make it a home” (p. 55). Home economics is thus framed as being focused on the house and home as a place for humanity to feel safe and protected from the vagaries of the encroaching world.

Theory of household activities. In 2006, von Schweitzer published a book containing apersonal and social systems theory of household activities, which she also called “the theory of the family-household system” (p. 164). Using both family and household in the name of her theory, instead of one or the other, creates conceptual confusion. She claimed the household unit (which may or may not be family, p. 98) must be the center of our analysis as a discipline and profession. She then confused matters by defining the household as “a personal and family [emphasis added] system of members” (p. 155). Rather than home, she used the terms private household (which may or may not be family) and family household, thereby creating more ambiguity. While a laudable and valuable theoretical exercise, there is evidence of conceptual slippage in her approach, evidenced by this statement, “The prototype of the family or private household is the family household” (p. 167).

Phenomenological household. Tuomi-Gröhn (2008) edited a book about Finnish home economists’ notions of everyday life. She stated that “Home and household… is not an isolated unit in society” (p. 47). Her use of the singular verb is instead of are conveys the assumption that home and household are the same concept. With much more clarity, she shared her understanding of household from empirical and phenomenological perspectives. She clarified that the positivistic, empirical approach views household work as fragmented parcels of household activities, each concentrating on some particular household task. Phenomenology, on the other hand, views household activities holistically, assuming they are tasks that unfold in their everyday context. This approach respects the simultaneous, multifaceted nature of everyday activities. With an understanding of this holistic context, people can draw meaning from, and make sense of, household activities. The phenomenological approach generates keener insights into “the everyday problems of the home [emphasis added]” (p. 28). “Household activities… are considered to be the art [emphasis added] of everyday life within the domestic sphere” (Tuomi-Gröhn, 2008, p. 68). This is a compelling notion given that, in the late 1800s, the founders of the discipline were actually considering household arts as a name (Brown, 1985).

Household as home economics core. This conceptual paper was also inspired by Niehof’s (2011) research about conceptualizing household in home economics. She said that household had come to be the “material object of study for the discipline of Home Economics… household was its core” (p. 488). She reasoned that family and home overlap with the concept of household, and are subsumed under it; that is, home is absorbed and included in household, which is the more comprehensive concept. In contrast, Bender (1967) reported that household and domestic functions are an inherent attribute of families, which is the more comprehensive concept. Similarly, von Schweitzer (2006) claimed that the private household is derived from the family relational system, meaning family is the overarching concept. Despite this statement, her theory is called the theory of household activities, not family activities within the household. This paper concurs with Bender (1967) and Yanagisako (1979), who proposed that home and household are distinct concepts that are hard to define without reference to family.

Conceptual and Theoretical Negligence

Niehof (2011) proposed that “even the most distinguished scholars fail to distinguish among three closely associated, but conceptually distinct, domestic institutions: the household, the family and the marriage relationship” (p. 489); this paper adds home to the list. Some household scholars propose that it is undesirable to universalize the concept of household (Hanson, 2004). Conversely, others recommend establishing best practices for standardizing the definition of the household (Beaman & Dillon, 2011). The concept of home is just as contentious (Blunt & Dowling, 2006; Bozkurt, 2009; Fox O’Mahony, 2007; Rybczynski, 1986). Indeed, “deceptively obvious concepts, such as ‘family’ often are left undefined, [or] defined only vaguely” (Bender, 1967, p. 497). Netting, Wilk, and Arnould (1984) suggested that this conceptual and theoretical negligence may occur because the mundane, cross-culturally obvious notions of households, homes, and families let observers think of them as unproblematic and lacking in interest.

They are, however,of interest to home economics, and their theoretical and philosophical clarity matters. A confounding factor is the idea that “the science of running a household… which was called by the ancient Greeks ‘Oikonomiké’ and what we now understand by ‘home economics,’ has had a chequered history” (von Schweitzer, 1977, p. 41). Fortunately, because concepts have a history, they are not defined once and for all; rather, they are continuously examined and re-examined (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). In that spirit, this paper examines home and household as distinct concepts and then in relation to each other.


Research for this conceptual paper entailed drawing on my extensive personal home economics library as well as collecting documents by searching Google, Google Books, and Google Scholar using a code-in-use approach. The process started with a preliminary start list, with the search terms emerging progressively during document collection (Miles & Huberman, 1984). The search started with home, household, defining home, home defined, defining household, household defined, conceptualizing home, conceptualizing household (often in combination with home economics to search within the results).

A pseudo snow-ball sampling procedure was used as well, meaning pertinent references cited in any given document were sourced themselves, often leading to additional documents. The Google domains were also searched using full article titles, as well as authors’ names when it was deemed expeditious. The search for documents continued until a point of saturation was reached, that is, the same ones kept appearing (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Conceptualizations of home were found in the nursing, legal, geography and landscape, environmental psychology, sociology, and anthropology literature. Conceptualizations of household were found in the development, anthropology, African, and census/demographic literature, and to a lesser extent the home economics literature.


When home economics was founded in the late 1800s, the family household had a specific meaning. von Schweitzer (2006) reported that a late nineteenth century contemporary, Albert Schaeffle, conceived the family household as vital to the total economy while at the same time key to reproducing society. In addition to generative and regenerative production functions, households were central to the socialization function of the family. Schaeffle justified the household’s role as small-scale producers, with households holding a pivotal role in the overall economic system relative to what he called businesses and sustaining economies. Netting et al., (1984) concurred, asserting that “the household is a significant unit in the description, comparison, and analysis of human societies” (p. xiii).

As a caveat, family, home, and household are often used to define one another. Regarding the relationship between household and family, von Schweitzer (2006) defined household as “comprised of a person or group of persons, usually called family, but not necessarily family.… [Family] is always a relational system from which the sustaining activity system can be derived—the private household” (p. 98). She further elucidated that the household does not have to be limited to familial relationships. “In the sense of our cultural heritage of ‘oikonomia’, household activities… are not inclusively covered by the family concept” (p. 99). Most families live in a household but not all households are families. This distinction will become clearer as the discussion unfolds.

Etymologically, household comprises house, Old English hus for a dwelling or shelter designed to be used as a residence, and hold, Old English gesheald for keeping, custody, protector, watch, guardian (Harper, 2015). Holding a house thus means someone is protecting and guarding a residential dwelling or shelter, keeping care of it, and watching out for it so they have a place to dwell. However, defining household beyond its etymological roots is not so easy. Niehof (2011) noted that “household as a concept is often used uncritically in a taken-for-granted manner, sometimes without defining it” (p. 488). Bender (1967) and Yanagisako (1979) concurred. Furthermore, household is an ambiguous concept, often borrowed inappropriately for cross-cultural studies (Beaman & Dillon, 2011; Hanson, 2004).

Hanson (2004) proposed that “the concept of household cannot be perceived… as a universality of structures and functions across cultures” (p. 29). That being said, standard definitions of households usually include some combination of shared residency, household structure, common food production and consumption, intermingling of people and income (assets), and intermingling of household, as well as agricultural, production activities (Beaman & Dillon, 2011; Netting et al., 1984; Yanagisako, 1979).

Housing Unit or Dwelling

A household comprises one or more people who occupy a housing unit or dwelling. A housing unit or dwelling can be a single detached house, town or row house, duplex, apartment or flat, mobile home, a group of rooms, a single room occupied as separate living quarters, a yurt, or a houseboat (with each country’s census bureau tendering different definitions). Households do not normally include communal establishments such as care homes, hospitals, university residences, prisons, convents, orphanages, boarding schools, hotels, or army barracks. Households also do not refer to the homeless population, who may take temporary refuge in shelters and/or live on the streets (United Nations, 2004; United States Census Bureau, 2000; Yanagisako, 1979). Bender (1967) confirmed that household can be defined by the places where people reside and/or the type of dwelling in which they reside. He encouraged scholars to also focus on who forms the unit that is living in the dwelling; that is, the social group. This idea is reflected in the distinction between family and nonfamily households.

Family and Nonfamily Households

As stated, most families live in a household but not all households contain families; the latter are very widespread (Bender, 1967). He clarified that, in most situations, “the referent for the family is kinship, while the referent for the household is propinquity or residence” (Bender, 1967, p. 493); that is, respectively, geographical nearness or common residence (Yanagisako, 1979). Families are kinship groups, and households are local or spatial (place) groups. The exception is whether people sharing a residence also share domestic functions, defined as activities concerned with the day-to-day necessities of living, involving the procurement and use of resources to maintain and bring up members. The domestic domain is a system of social relations through which the family is integrated with the environment and society (Yanagisako, 1979). To make this point, Bender (1967) provided the examples of people who reside together but do not carry out domestic functions, and those who carry out domestic functions but do not live together in a shared unit (see also Hanson, 2004).

Household boundaries. Netting et al. (1984) referred to household boundaries, explaining that they can have degrees of fluidity in structure, and impermanence. Household boundaries can (a) be a process as well as an institution, (b) be a task group as well as product of cultural rules, and (c) have a history of adaptive consolidation as well as separation. Boundary-wise, they suggested that while households and families are culturally defined, households are task-oriented residence units and families are kinship groupings that need not be localized (i.e., in the same dwelling). Yanagisako (1979) identified instances when (a) people move through seasonal cycles of dispersal and reconvening, (b) people’s separate dwellings share a common yard, or (c) servants or transient boarders and lodgers are household members.

Appreciating the “difficulties in defining the boundaries of households” (Yanagisako, 1979, p. 164), the next section strives to define the concept of household, drawing on census strategies.

Census Households

Per the United States Census Bureau, a family household consists of people who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption, and may contain people who are not related. A nonfamily household consists of people who live alone or share a residence but are not related (McFalls, 2007). Household scholars agree that non-relatives who live together are household members (Bender, 1967; Netting et al., 1984). The United States Census Bureau (2012) clarified that unrelated people in a household can refer to lodgers, foster children, wards, or employees who share the housing unit.

Statistics Canada (2015), the census office, used a similar distinction. A non-family household consists of people living alone or of more than two people who share a housing unit or dwelling, but do not constitute a census family. Family households can be either a one census family or multiple census families. For clarification, in Canada, census families entail people who are a married couple (with or without children), a common law couple (with or without children), or a lone parent. Couples can be the same or opposite sex, and children can include grandchildren living with grandparents with no parents present.

Housekeeping versus Household-dwelling

The United Nations Statistics Division (2014) clarified that households contain people making provisions for the essentials for living. These people may pool their resources (e.g., incomes with a common budget) to a greater or lesser extent. Members of a multi-person household need not be related to each other, while members of a family must be related. Also, the UN posited that a family cannot comprise more than one household, but a household can contain more than one family, and a household can also consist entirely of unrelated persons. The UN further distinguished between the housekeeping concept (degrees of sharing costs, resources and chores) and the household-dwelling concept, with the latter referring to people living together in a housing unit with no direct reference to shared enterprises.

Conceptualizing Household

Despite heavy reliance on census definitions of household, Russel (1993) proposed that “‘household’ is not the neutral, universal category that census-takers have lulled us into believing, but a culturally-loaded, historically specific, Western term, like ‘family’” (p. 755). This section reports on one initiative to theorize about the concept of household. Netting et al. (1984) proposed a five-dimensional model to account for “the family-household context” (p. 24). In their Introduction, they said the term household used to be called family, but they intended to change this so the terms are differentiated. They claimed that while both terms are culturally defined, household is “a task-oriented residence unit” and family is “a kinship grouping that need not be localized” (p. xx), meaning not all in the same place. They claimed that their intent to “separate the concept of household from family can be seen as an attempt to replace the culturally defined [family] unit with one that is more based on observation and can be more readily compared across cultures” (p. 1). As anthropologists, they were keen to find a way to study and quantify households.

Regardless of their intent, a critique of their model reveals that household is family, despite their attempt to distinguish between these two concepts. Their model of the activities performed by households very closely aligns with the United Nations (1992) functional definition of family. Rather than focusing on the type of family structure, the functional approach focuses on the six key roles families play as a social institution in society, regardless of their structure: (a) emotional care and physical maintenance of group members and relatives; (b) addition of new members (procreation, adoption, or fostering); (c) socialization and education of children into adult roles; (d) social control of members; (e) production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services; and (f) maintenance of family morals and motivation (see also Sokalski, 1992).

Granted, the United Nations’ 1992 functional definition did not exist in 1984 when Netting et al. developed their approach. That being said, Netting et al. justified their household approach by eschewing the notion of function, replacing it with activity. They criticized function for being too causal and too teleological, meaning something is structured the way it is so it can perform certain functions. Activity, on the other hand, connotes people acting (doing something). They maintained that “we do not in fact see people or groups function: we see them act” (Netting et al., 1984, p. 5). This distinction seems redundant, even pedantic, in that function is defined as an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing (Stevenson, 2010).

Nonetheless, based on the premise that households are engaged in group activities, not functions, they proposed five categories of household activities: production, reproduction, distribution, transmission, and coresidence (see Figure 1). It is noteworthy that all six United Nation’s (1992) functions are captured in this array of household activities, with transmission (inheritances) the only activity not explicitly identified in the UN approach. Because wills and estate planning are considered transfers between generations, a component of the UN function of ‘exchange and distribution of goods and services’ (Sokalski, 1992), it is safe to say that the two models are virtually the same.



Figure 1: Netting et al.’s (1984) conceptualization of household (five activities)

First, production pertains to housekeeping and domestic labour, similar to unpaid, nonproductive labour. Within this model, production entails the scheduling and sequencing of household labour, chores, and tasks, respecting the cultural rules, codes, and division of labour in the society. Some tasks can be done concurrently while others can happen one after another. Netting et al. (1984) expressed concern for the efficiency of household labour, economies of scale, and elasticity when using resources (which affect household adaptability to resource accessibility). Second, reproduction activities relate to the socialization and enculturation of infants and children. Pertinent household tasks involve the care, feeding, education, and emotional support of offsprings. Netting et al. (1984) drew on fertility rates, sterility, child mortality, and adult life expectancy to develop the reproduction dimension of their model.

Third, distribution focuses on exchange and transactions within and between households. It includes moving material from producers and consumers, and it includes consumption. To explain distribution, Netting et al. (1984) drew on income pooling (while maintaining personal pools) as it relates to budgeting, consuming, and investing. The activity of economic transactions within households (i.e., distribution) necessitates powerful leadership to make decisions for the whole household group.

Fourth, transmission activities pertain to inheritances and property transfers. Netting et al. (1984) felt that households sometimes have to consciously pay attention to people’s rights to property (land and buildings), and valuable goods, livestock, and tools. Considerations of heirs and succession planning are important activities. Inter and transgenerational transmissions come into play, and may have to be legally formalized.

Finally, the coresidence dimension pertains to the notion of who is co-residing in the house or dwelling unit. For those people who are sharing a unit, Netting et al. (1984) recognized there is some combination of food sharing and preparation, varying degrees of separation of sleeping quarters, and degrees of cooperation in production and reproduction activities. For those households experiencing intermittent coresidents (i.e., immigrants and emigrants), the dynamics change, and the task of pooling income becomes paramount. Netting et al. were concerned with how well households could cope with the transience of residents. Both being absent and being present can affect the dynamics of the household. The availability and permanence of the dwelling are also an aspect of the coresidence dimension, with some housing units more available and stable than others. People will experience varying degrees of dwelling mobility (e.g., a stable house versus a portable, makeshift structure).

Western and Non-Western Understandings of Household

What makes this even more interesting is the convention of developing nations using the notion of household while developed nations use the concepts of family and home (Niehof, 2011). Chant (1997) suggested that the former convention evolved because members of residential units in developing societies tend to be embedded in strong networks of wider family and kin while Northern societies are more removed from their extended family, with just the immediate (natal) family in the household; hence, the later gains priority. Beaman and Dillon (2011) concurred that many African households live in close proximity to extended family members in shared family compounds. As an aside, McGregor and Dišlere (2012) noticed that Latvian home economists use the concept of humanity rather than the Western notions of family and home or the Southern notion of household.

Regarding household, Hanson (2004) explained that household is a Western standard, with other societies not sharply differentiating between household and family. The Eurocentric image of household connotes coresidence in fixed locations, spatial enclosure, and common property. Western notions of household assume it to be a place where welfare and labour allocation decisions for people are determined and “where critical tasks of social living are organized, directed, and executed” (p. 30).

There are two prevailing Western approaches to conceptualizing household (Hanson, 2004). The neoclassical New Household Economics model assumes that the household is headed by a benevolent manager concerned with the welfare of all residents. In contrast, alternative conceptualizations of the household reject this altruistic model, arguing that gender, generation, kinship, social status, and economic differences mean household members have different goals and preferences. To address this diversity, decision-making within the household should rest on negotiation and bargaining, not altruism. The former allows for decision-making among individuals within the household, rather than one person making the decisions. Reflections upon these two main approaches (altruistic and negotiation) have led household scholars to conclude that “what is often termed ‘the household’ should not be viewed as a homogenous unit and that its diverse reality should be acknowledged and interpreted as pluralistic” (Hanson, 2004, p. 32).

Non-Western African households. Conversely, many African dialects do not even have a word for household (Hanson, 2004). Hanson said a better term is domestic arena, the boundaries of which are flexible, difficult to discern, permeable, and shifting. Within the domestic arena, activities, rights, responsibilities, property, income, costs, and benefits are separable because the arena is fragmented and particularistic rather than universal. Intrahousehold and extrahousehold activities are shaped by gender, generational, and societal dynamics. Nonetheless, there is much mutual dependence, cooperation, and complementarity within the domestic arena. In many African contexts, the husband and wife tend not to live in the same residence, although “residential boundaries are regularly transcended for purposes of economic, social and sexual interchange” (Brydon and Chant as cited in Hanson, 2004).

Furthermore, because marriage in African contexts can be viewed as a contract between two families and not two individuals, it is common for domestic arenas to house both children and adults who are related by marriage as well as by blood ties. Unlike the Western model, in the African context, “the processes central to the maintenance of human life are not necessarily conducted by a single-boundary maintaining [household] unit” (Hanson, 2004, p. 33). “Critical livelihood functions (i.e., production, consumption and reproduction)… do not necessarily coincide coresidentially” (p. 33). Indeed, married couples customarily do not have communal property; instead, men can live collectively with other men, women with other women, children with women, et cetera, despite being married and parents. Also of significance is the custom that children are not seen to arise from parental lineage but from the mothers’ lineage, which means the latter have responsibility for them (Hanson, 2004).

For these and other reasons, the Western notion of household simply does not hold up in many African contexts. Guyer and Peters (1987) agreed. In their work with African households, they concluded that “the concept of ‘household’ cannot be assigned invariate characteristics over time and across cultural and social geography; it has to encompass… wider cultural and social processes” (p. 198). They advocated shifting the central focus of African households from “the ‘household’ as a generic concept applicable across societies [to] the principles and processes [of household] which generate variation and change” (p. 202). Like Hanson (2004), they felt that this new “theoretical and analytical center” for household (p. 201) would better reflect the dynamics of African households.

By not grounding their research about African households in contextually relevant realities, researchers fail to capture the actual dynamics of households. Assuming that a particular model of African household is generic across the board disrespects people’s lived realities (Russell, 1993). Guyer and Peters (1987) agreed, proposing that the African household

is a variable structure; is both [an] outcome and [a] channel of broader social processes; and is the site of separable, often competing, interests, rights and responsibilities. ... Moreover, the ideological construction of the household, the range of cultural meanings attributed to domestic units, conjugal and age relations and residential patterns are also critical to a fuller understanding of the dynamics of production and consumption that generate the diverse social units we call households. (pp. 210-211)


Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010, p. 6) avowed that “a home is much more than a house.” In fact, the founders of home economics viewed the home as a primary source of the formation of society (Brown & Paolucci, 1979), but home has many meanings (Bozkurt, 2009; Rybczynski, 1986). Not surprisingly then, despite the growing academic interest in the meaning of home (Fox O’Mahony, 2007), Blunt and Dowling acknowledged “the complexity of home as a theoretical concept” (2006, p. 1). This section first positions home as it was understood when home economics was founded, moving onto lay notions of home (with a side trip to gender and home), culminating in the discussion of four approaches to conceptualizing home.

Aristotle’s Oikonomia and Chrematistics

At the time home economics was founded, with its concern for the fallout of the Industrial Revolution on families and home life, it made sense to focus on the oikos part of economics, which meant placing the adjective home in front of the noun economics. Parris (2015) explained the original meaning of economics. Eco is Greek oikos for home and nomos for management or law (rules of the household). Economics, what used to be called oikonomia, was intended to focus on the management of the home. In light of this, Rybczynski (1986) actually suggested that the name home economics is redundant, but as Ellen Swallow Richards exclaimed, the word home was added to economics to signify that humans are nurtured in the home, not in the market (Brown, 1985).

When the name home economics was chosen in the late 1800s, home had a unique philosophical link with economics, stemming from Aristotle’s work. A much more balanced concept of economics prevailed then, with both oikonomia and chrematistics being respected. Oikos refers to the management of the home while chrēma (Greek, for possession) pertains to marketplace activities focused on making money (von Schweitzer, 1977). Granted, any discussion of ideas from the time of Aristotle (300 BC, more than 2,000 years ago) may seem moot in the twenty-first century. But, as Muster (2013) observed, “the fact that ancient scholars were already considered about [sic] household management reveals that management and balancing needs and resources in the domestic sphere is a long-existing challenge for humanity” (p. 23; see also von Schweitzer 1977, 2006). East (1979) actually asserted that home economics is “focused on the home in order to improve humanity” (p. 141).

In more detail, oikonomia is the branch of economics related to the management of the household with resources to increase value to household members over the long term. It considers the market in light of the needs of individuals and society. Chrematistics is the branch relating to the political economy that manipulates property and wealth to maximize profit in the short term. It removes the market from the household and community, and seeks unlimited growth (von Schweitzer, 1977, 2006). “In Aristotle's schema, oikonomike broadly corresponds to political economy, the practical science, and chrematistics to economics, the technical science. Oikonomike is a moral science, while chrematistics is a value-neutral science. Oikonomike ought to take the limitations into account that chrematistics uncovers, but chrematistics should remain subordinated to oikonomike [emphases in original]” (Crespo, 1998, p. 221).

Chrematistics is the art of getting rich in the marketplace while oikonomia is the art of living (the household art), involving conservation and managing a household. Indeed, both chrematistics and oikonomia are concerned with “the art of acquisition” (Stanley, 1981, p. 48). Chrematistics includes acquiring wealth via usury (money for money), and trade for profit (exchange of money for goods and services) while oikonomia (i.e., home economics, or manage the home) involves the natural acquisition of things for their immediate use in the home and private sphere. Oikonomia is sustainment-oriented (sustain household members) in contrast to chrematistics’ market-orientation, reflected in its trade and moneymaking activities. Oikonomia is the art of acquiring what is needful, while chrematistics is the art of acquiring without limits. It views wealth as the accumulation of money and property (quantity), while oikonomia views wealth as a ratio of goods to needs relative to family life (Binkley & Binkley, 1929; von Schweitzer, 2006).

Jarvie (2005) astutely recognized the confusion caused by the warring concepts intertwined in the one word— economics—management of the home to sustain family members (as was intended by the name home economics) versus moneymaking activities in the capitalistic market for profit. Home economics privileged the former, acknowledging that home life is impacted by the market. Home has always been a core concept of our profession. Before elaborating on several attempts to conceptualize home, the idea of lay notions of home is explored. Close your eyes and think of the word home. Does an aphorism come to mind? Like “Home is where the heart is”?

Lay Notions of Home

Aphorisms (pithy sayings) abound around the concept of home (relative to household). We say “Home sweet home,” not “house sweet house;” “There is no place like home,” not “there is no place like house;” “Home is where the heart is,” not “house is where the heart is;” “I am home,” not “I am house.” These lay notions of home convey general truths and principles accepted by society. Aphorisms are concise statements containing a subjective truth or observation, cleverly and pithily written. However, these metaphors for hearth, joy, protection, comfort, refuge, and belonging belie the complexity of home as a concept (Manzo, 2003). That being said, lay notions (aphorisms) have social and cultural staying power. So, before sharing four theoretical conceptualizations of home, this section shares some lay notions of what home can mean to people. Lay insights may or may not make their way into formal theories of home.

Klinkenborg (2012) tendered several insightful comments about home. “Home is as usual. Home is a place so profoundly familiar that people do not even have to notice it. It’s everywhere else that takes noticing.” Places become home and not-home. A home has magnetic properties in that it aligns everything around us. People can never see their house with a stranger’s eyes for more than a moment and then the house coalesces into their home again. Also, when a person dies, the objects in their house can become just objects again because the “person whose heart and mind could bind them into a single thing—a home—has gone.”

From another perspective, Beck (2011) elaborated on the phenomenon of people accumulating several different homes over the course of their lifetime. She described how each house she lived in became a home for her as soon as she displayed souvenirs and mementos of places she had visited and lived around the world. She also felt that when people are asked “Where is home for you?” their answer conveys something important about them. Answers to “Where are you from?” are different from “Where is home for you?” She further asserted that “if home is where my heart is, then by definition, my home is wherever I am.” Interestingly, she proposed that memories of a place (i.e., home) are so powerful that people revert back to who they were when they lived at that place. For this reason, people often say “I cannot go back home.” She said she was a different person, depending on where she was calling home: adventurous in New York, carefree in Paris, ambitious in Michigan. She surmised that “a home is a home because it… challenges the line we try to draw between who we are and where we are.”

Schillinger (2013) described home as a powerful feeling. It is comforting and warm. It is a place where people feel at ease and at peace. It is where memories are, and it is a place people have been to that draws them back. People long for home (have a strong and earnest desire). They also long for the people who are there (family, friends), as well as any animals or even objects (favourite chair, blanket). That being said, home is not one definable entity. She said that each place she considered to be home contains breadcrumbs she left there, and these crumbs lead her back to the home where she needs to be at a particular juncture in her life. Sometimes she physically travels there, and at other times she relives her memories. Regardless, home is with her wherever she goes. Bender (1967) recognized that a member of the family can be absent from home for extended periods of time (e.g., war, career, schooling) yet still consider the dwelling that houses the rest of the family as home. “Families do not cease to exist when their members reside separately” (p. 494).

Henry (2012) observed that home is so much more than house; yet, “when used too often, the word home loses its significance, becoming a vague concept that does not mean anything anymore.” She observed that “sometimes home is a place where we never want to return; sometimes home is where we long to be and at other times home is exactly where we are at the moment.” She claimed that “home is a mythological word that means more than the word itself.” A mythology is a widely held but exaggerated or false story or belief. Mythologies are used to explain history, beliefs, and customs; they are sacred narratives that explain how the world and humanity evolved to their present form. Mythologies are ideologies in narrative form (Bruce, 2006). To consider home as a mythology, an ideology shared through stories, is an intriguing notion of home.

Gender and Meanings of Home

Guyer and Peters (1987) recognized that gender should be accommodated in any theoretical work on household. Likewise for home, with Fox O’Mahony (2007) tendering a very interesting discussion of gender and the meaning of home. This section summarizes her report of a large body of literature1. Women mention the atmosphere of the home more often than do men, who focus on the physical location of the house, and its value as a financial asset. For men, the house becomes a concrete embodiment of the physical and psychic energy they put into its maintenance and renovations. Women see the home as a place of physical and emotional security. They describe the home in terms of its x-factor (i.e., its social, cultural, psychological, and emotional value). An x factor is an indescribable quality, or something people cannot put their finger on. The factor in question is very real but when asked to describe it, people come up blank (Urban Dictionary, 2013). Men refer to home in more concrete terms of money and the physical structure that requires continual upkeep.

Women refer to the home in emotional and relational terms. They tend to see it as a place where people interact (ideally, harmoniously), and they see home as inseparable from significant life events. Women also see it as an anchor, a place that evokes feelings of belonging and security (or not, in some cases). Men see home more as their territory, which needs to be protected and kept in good shape. They see home in instrumental terms (i.e., the work they put into the house in order to make it a home). Not surprisingly, women’s attachment to the home lasts much longer than men’s, whose relationship with home cools over time (Fox O’Mahony, 2007).

Conceptualizing Home

As a noun, home has several familiar meanings: the place where one lives, an institution for people needing professional care, and a place where something flourishes or from which it originated (Stevenson, 2010). Aside from dictionary definitions, home is also considered a theoretical concept (Blunt & Dowling, 2006). This section reports on four non-home economic initiatives to theorize about the concept of home (appreciating that there may be others).

Three-dimensional model of home. Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010) suggested that the concept of home tends to have three dimensions: (a) home as place, (b) home as a relationship (feeling at home), and (c) home as an experience (being at home). First, home as a place refers to a setting where people live. It entails an enclosed place, with intimacy and privacy, that is separate from the outside world of work. Home as place is aligned with family life, and takes on warm and deep emotional meanings (to varying degrees). Further, it is seen as a stronghold for family life, fortifying family members against the rigours of life. Home as place takes on connotations of calmness and safety, of refuge from the vagaries of life, where one can open one’s heart to other family or household members (see also Sekiguchi, 2004).

Second, home is seen as the relationship between a place and the person who calls it home; that is, feeling at home. Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010) reported that home is a very emotional, subjective phenomenon. It takes time for people to form an emotion-based relationship with a dwelling place, but when this happens the house becomes a home. A home is created through the ongoing interaction between people and their environmental context and specific situations. They come to feel at home. The theory around this idea acknowledges that both negative and positive emotions can be associated with home (see also Manzo, 2003). Feeling at home takes time to develop, but when it does, people can actually experience homesickness when the bond between them and home is broken (Gillsjö & Schwartz-Barcott).

Third, home can be seen as an experience, as being at home. Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010) explained that this dimension of home draws on Heidegger’s concept of being, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of perception, and Bachelard’s idea of space. Because people draw their identity from the place(s) they call home, home becomes an insider experience and is always unique. People also form a connectedness between home and the world; hence, an added layer to this perspective on home is the role of people travelling from and returning to their home. These journeys to and from home change people, and change their experiences of home (see also Beck, 2011). Interestingly, home thus becomes dynamic and process-oriented rather than static. Being at home (home as an experience) contributes to people’s identity (Gillsjö & Schwartz-Barcott).

Their study of older women and home generated several other compelling insights. Home is considered a place where people live their daily life and have their things. Home is a place that people (a) are attached to (in varying degrees), (b) feel comfortable in and secure (in varying degrees), and (c) experience as a dwelling (a place to reside). People can have more than one home, and more than one type of home, feeling more or less attached to each one (see also Beck, 2011). When people say they feel at home, they mean they have a special feeling for that place, as well as the feelings of comfort and security they experience within the walls of their residence. Interestingly, people can feel at home differently in different places. Participants in the study said they felt peace and quiet at church, and safety and pleasure when talking about heaven as home (Gillsjö & Schwartz-Barcott, 2010). Fadlalla (2011) tendered similar ideas.

Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010) further clarified that home tends to be taken for granted until it is threatened. The essence of home can change when people are forced to leave it. They have to reconcile this loss and find some way to relocate and establish a sense of home in a new context (to varying degrees of success). They also discovered that people use their home as an orienting feature in their life. Home can become a central reference point for people, where they feel attached and secure, and experience a sense of belonging and connectedness (or not). Home can become “a central point of human existence and identity” (Relph as cited in Gillsjö & Schwartz-Barcott, 2010).

Four-dimensional model of home. Fadlalla (2011) conducted research with refugees and strived to discern their conceptualizations of home. Her research yielded a four-dimensional model of home intended to help displaced refugees reflect on “what a Home can be”(p. 141) so they can reconstruct it in a new situation. Her model looked at home from four different aspects: the material, the spatial, the emotional, and the imaginative.

The material dimension is the actual physical structure, be it a house, apartment, yurt, mobile home or a rented room (akin to the aforementioned census dwelling household concept). It comprises walls, windows, doors, roofs, et cetera, as well as furniture and other fitments. The material aspect also includes outbuildings, yards, courtyards, swimming pools, and such. The material aspect of a home serves six functions: enclosure, protection, and security; space for everyday activities; storage; comfort; expression of aesthetic values; and accentuation of the hearth as the anchor (Fadlalla, 2011).

The spatial aspect of home deals with the nature of space and how it is used and perceived. Manzo (2003) observed that what begins as undifferentiated space evolves into a place that people come to know and endow with value; that is, it becomes their home. Fadlalla (2011) suggested that space can be both enclosed and tied to the surrounding environment (both natural and cultivated by humans). Domestic spaces are concerned with their size; the types of activities undertaken in those spaces (day and night); their private or collective nature; specific zones for particular activities (cooking, sleeping, living, studying); and who governs over these territorial spaces. Other features of domestic space include people’s perception of themselves in the space (too big or too small); their personal perceptions of the space; and the array of actors inhabiting the space (grownups, children, elders, guests, employees).

The emotional aspects of home relate to the feelings that home evokes in people. Different from people’s relationships with other people, this aspect of home is concerned with how people relate to the home, their sense of attachment, belonging, groundedness, and ownership. Also pertinent to this dimension of home is how people feel when they lose their home (trauma) or are involved in reconstructing the quality of their home. A sense of attachment to a home yields familiarity, predictability, and control. A sense of belonging is closely linked with a person’s sense of identity. People often identity themselves by saying where they come from—their home—be it country, city, village, or lineage (Beck, 2011). A sense of identity can also be shaped by a physical structure (dwelling), and the day-to-day life lived out in that structure. Ownership of a home conveys certainty and control, and it can help form traditions and familiar patterns. Homes also ground people, giving them a point of reference they can relate to for their whole life (Fadlalla, 2011).

Finally, the imaginative aspects of home are the memories, stories, and images people hold of their home over time. This dimension also focuses on people’s “imaginary construct of an ideal Home” (Fadlalla, 2011, p. 146). Memories of a childhood home (or the loss of it) are powerful emotional experiences that constitute vital reference points for life. Fadlalla actually suggested that homes of adulthood are unconscious searches for the lost home of childhood. This emotive aspect of home is laden with nostalgia (Greek nostos for return home). People connect with places. Ultimately, “the image of a home is its essence” (p. 146). This essence can be positive or negative (fear, oppression, entrapment). Regardless, homes are intrinsically emotive, and people form and nurture images of their past, present, and future homes.

Another four-dimensional model of home. Roush and Cox (2000) were interested in how people receiving institutionalized care perceived home (before and after entering the care facility) and how people’s perceptions of home change if home care is put in place. They defined home as “a holistic experience that represents the coming together of household members (including pets); the physical space; the possessions that are arranged and used in that space; the biographical, personal, social, and cultural perspectives represented there; and the cyclical daily routines that keep them working together in a predictable manner” (p. 389). With this notion of home in mind, they tendered a three-dimensional approach to home: home as familiar, home as center, and home as protector. Although not discussed in this paper, Öhlén, Ekman, Singmark, Bolmsjö, and Benzein (2014) recently applied this model to develop their the new concept called at-homeness. Williams (2004) refined and extended Roush and Cox’s (2000) model, adding home as locator.

Home as familiar refers to a place where people find comfort, and are comfortable and at ease. This comfort and ease arise from the habitual nature of daily routines, and the semi-permanent physical arrangements of furniture within the physical space. The familiar experience of home leads to predictability and taken-for grantedness because of the formation of “a typical day in the household” (Roush & Cox, 2000, p. 391). Changes to these routines and arrangements can lead to stress, so any changes have to be managed properly so people can “develop new patterns of activity into familiar patterns” (p. 392). This dimension of home respects that people’s “life fits together in time and space” (p. 392), and that this fit makes home familiar.

Home as center concerns having a base for everyday life. It is a center for experiencing space, social life, and time. Respectively, for most people, home is the most frequent point of arrival and departure in their daily routines. In this sense, home provides a geographic center, allowing people to feel grounded and rooted in their neighbourhood and community. Home is also a central place for people’s social life, replete with family rituals, and cherished pictures, mementos and possessions. It can become the cultural center for the family. Third, home centers people in time by providing both memories and chances to plan for the future (Roush & Cox, 2000).

Home as protector means people have a place where their safety, identity, and privacy are preserved and protected. First, a suitable physical structure affords safety. Regarding safety and protection, home is also a place of refuge from the ravages and hazards of the outside world (Sekiguchi, 2004). Second, the use and arrangement of space and possessions within this structure reflects identity and sense of self. Third, “transitional spaces such as porches and windows serve as buffers between public and private" (Roush & Cox, 2000, p. 393). These buffers help ensure control of people’s private life experiences. Taken together, safety, identity, and privacy help people form “established patterns of protection within the home” (Roush & Cox, 2000, p. 393).

Home as locator means being situated in a particular place. Home contextualizes people by locating their home within a larger socio-economic and geographical context (aside from their micro home environment). It situates the home by encompassing (a) individual and family socioeconomic status (i.e., employment, income, financial security, household tenure and type); (b) community integration (how long people have lived in the home, in this community or neighbourhood); (c) service access (determined by urban/rural locales); and (d) local and regional geography and characteristics (e.g., high, medium, low income areas or neighbourhoods). The home locates people within this larger context. It situates them in their near environment, thereby contributing to the totality of a person’s living experience (Williams, 2004).

Five-dimensional model of home. Fox O’Mahony (2007, 2013), drawing on Hayward (1975), shared a five dimensional framework of home: home as financial investment, home as housing (physical structure or dwelling), home as territory, home as social identity and self-identity, and home as social and cultural signifier.

First, home carries meaning as a financial asset that can be used in the present or passed on to the next generation as an inheritance. Home as a financial investment focuses on intra and inter-generational justice and family welfare. Decisions have to be made about whether to keep the asset to live in when one ages, sell it to obtain money for illness or aging, pass it on to others when one dies, or some combination thereof. The conversation obviously changes depending on the tenure of the home; that is, if one does not own a home but is, for example, a tenant, a landlord, or homeless (Fox O’Mahony, 2013).

Second, home as housing views it as a physical, material structure, a tangible entity that provides a place of safety, privacy, belongingness, rootedness, continuity, permanence, and stability (or not, as the case may be). From this perspective, “the house provides the location—the ‘place’—for the experience of home [emphases added], as the locus of family life” (Fox O’Mahony, 2013, p. 161). The physicality of the house supports the phenomenon of home, and does so in combination with the social and personal meanings that accumulate over time.

The third meaning is home as territory, reflecting the cognitive aspects of home. A territory is an area where one has certain rights or responsibilities (Stevenson, 2010). Anyone who enjoys their home as territory “has a satisfactory degree of control over their home territory” (Fox O’Mahony, 2013, p. 162). As a primary territory, home is where people spend most of their time, with people who are important to them. Within this territory, a range of social and psychological needs are satisfied, to varying degrees. “Home is a demarcated territory with both physical and symbolic boundaries that ensure dwellers can control access and behaviour within” (Dovey, 1985, p. 36). Householders can use varying degrees of force to protect their home territory (Fox O’Mahony, 2013).

Fourth, home has meaning as social identity and self-identity. Through the mergence of the person with the physical place, the home becomes a symbol of self. Through the investment of time, energy, and self-identity, the house (a physical entity) becomes a home (Fox O’Mahony, 2013). She clarified that this aspect of home captures affective and emotional responses, suggesting, in fact, that it is less the home as possession that matters than the social relations that are contained within. Home as social relations is paramount to self and self-flourishing, and to one’s social identity (a sense of who one is based on group membership). This dimension of home is focused on context, and how the latter shapes identity. Also, “the nurturing of self-identity and social-identity supports not only personal development but, through encouraging a sense of pride in the home and locale, enables individuals to contribute to their communities, building social capital and community engagement” (p. 165).

Finally, home can be a cultural and social signifier (i.e., a sign or indication of something); in this case, an indicator of cultural and social importance. Something that signifies represents a wide set of associations and meanings (Manzo, 2003). For clarification, culture refers to ideologies, knowledge, customs, and institutions of a people, while social refers to a system of social relations amongst smaller groupings of people. Home carries a range of cultural significance, and serves a multitude of social functions. Because of this, homes must be suited to the way of life of the people who occupy them, and they must function effectively as a social space (where people gather and interact). If they do, homes are said to have social-cultural significance, meaning they have value for people. In other words, they signify, or they matter, are important, or mean something (Fox O’Mahony, 2013). She clarified that the meanings of home as a social and cultural unit vary across different contexts; that is, “the experience of home is socially and culturally determined” (p.165).

Comparison of Four Conceptualizations of Home

Table 1 portrays a comparison of these four approaches. Overall, nine different dimensions of home were proposed. Looking at the rows, it is evident that nominal but nascent overlap exists. Only one dimension was noted by all four home scholars, that being home as experience. This means home is a reference point, a place that shapes people’s personal and social identity (respectively, self identity and identity shaped by group membership). One dimension, home as place, was noted by three scholars, with home constituting an intimate setting that sustains life, a territory that acts as a center and anchor, and provides familiarity and security.


Table 1 - Comparison of four conceptualizations of home

Home Dimension

Gillsjö and Schwartz-Barcott (2010)

Fadlalla (2011)


Roush and Cox (2000); Williams (2004)

Fox O’Mahony (2013)

  3 Dimensions 4 Dimensions 4 Dimensions 5 Dimensions

Home as place
(intimate and private setting, separate from work, which sustains life)


Home as Centre

 Home as Familiar

Home as Territory

Home as relationship
(how people relate to physical dwelling, making it their home)

part of emotional dimension



Home as experience (identity and reference point)

part of emotional dimension

Home as Protector

includes social identity

(the physical structure, which serves six functions)




(usage, perception of and people occupying space within the structure)



Home as Familiar


(mental image of home; memories, stories)                 





Home as locator
(situates home in the larger socio-economic and geographical context)




Home as financial asset and investment
(intra-intergenerational justice and family welfare)





Home as socio-cultural signifier
(social and cultural unit, serving a multitude of social functions, all culturally determined)




Comparison of four conceptualizations of home


Three dimensions were noted twice: (a) home as relationship (people connecting to the physical structure); (b) home as the material, physical structure; and (c) the spatial dimension of home (people within and how they use the configured space). Four dimensions were noted once: (a) the imaginative dimensions of home (memories and stories), (b) home as a financial asset that prompts concerns for inheritances and generational justice and welfare, (c) home as a social and cultural unit, and (d) home as locator (situating the home in the larger context).

Home is truly multidimensional (Bozkurt, 2009; Rybczynski, 1986; Williams, 2004), as evidenced by this collection of dimensions of what constitutes home. It is a very complex theoretical construct (Bender, 1967; Blunt & Dowling, 2006; Manzo, 2003). In summary, home is physical, spatial, emotional, imaginative, personal (identity), socio-cultural, financial, experiential, relational, and locational (per Table 1). Although these four models did not say as much, home may also be political, ecological, and spiritual (see Figure 2).



Figure 2: Multidimensional concept of home

Theorizing About Home

Although none of these four models stemmed from the home economics literature, there is much to be learned from them. Taken together, this eclectic collection provides a promising starting point for future theorizing about home. Important preliminary work has been done in other fields. Nine key dimensions of home have been identified and conceptualized. They have been presented as models (taxonomies, if you will) of how people conceptualize home and what it means to them.

To date, it seems that scholars within different disciplines are working on conceptualizing home without converging theoretically. Home economists have a chance to theorize about how these concepts are related. This process requires the development of assumptions about reality and propositions of how these nine dimensions are related. Are there variables that mediate the relationships among them? Are there tipping points when one dimension triggers another? Does one dimension have to be in place before another can manifest? What is the relationship between home and the external world? Between home and the people within? Taxonomies are a good start (as profiled in this paper), but theories of home come next.

Furthermore, any theories of home should be anchored in our mission and professional philosophy. The models in this paper served others’ needs, especially those of nursing, institutionalized care, environmental psychology, and research with refugees. Our mandate is the well-being and quality of life of individuals, families, and communities; with the intent of helping them to pose and solve their own problems, and to become active, critical agents for social and political change (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). Our theory of home should respect this mission, and should be focused on helping people become resilient, stronger, and empowered members of a sustainable society. How we conceptualize home, and theorize about the reality of home, hinges on deep dialogue within our discipline around home, and how that concept is intertwined with household.


This paper profiled household and home because they are core concepts of home economics, yet are not well defined in our field. Their essence, as revealed in this paper, is suggested in Figures 3 and 4. Regarding the latter, beginning with a house or dwelling, we can conceptualize either household or home. Households pertain to the type of dwelling, the complement of people, and their tasks, chores, functions, or activities. Conversely, through their interactions with an undifferentiated space (house or dwelling), people turn it into a home, which means different things to different people.



Figure 3: Essence of difference between home and household



Figure 4: From House/Dwelling to Home or Household

It became evident early on that the Western notion of household is a quantifiable concept, while home is much more symbolic—a visible sign of something that is invisible (Netting et al., 1984), see Figure 3. Home is subjective and emotive while house is more objective, more removed from personal and psychological nuances (at least in Western traditions). The notion of household is often automatically associated with house or dwelling but not so for home. Home is more personal, and is open to many interpretations. Conversely, once household is defined (i.e., kind of dwelling and who is within it), objectivity kicks in, and there is less chance of diverse interpretations. Home is psychological while house is more physical in its meaning. A house is a building for human habitation. A home (see Table 1) is a place where people can flourish, find their identity, and gain a sense of belonging (or not, as the case may be).

Home and household are both places where people live. However, household tends to connote the physical structure, who lives within it, and their roles relative to each other and the maintenance of the structure, while home is multidimensional (see Figure 2). A house is just a building or structure until people develop a relationship with it, and then it becomes their home. In more detail, the concept of home prompts people to think of security and stability, a place that inspires, triggers and reflects life memories, stories, and events. People often have a special mental image of home. Close your eyes—what comes to mind? Home can also evoke links with others and with community. It represents an anchor in life that enables people to venture out knowing they have a place to return to, and will likely be welcomed. It is a reference point for people, profoundly shaping their identity; indeed, beautifying the space within one’s house to make it a home is an expression of one’s personal and social identity (see Table 1).

Home also calls forth notions of people occupying a common space, with emotional (often familial) connections among them. It can even be a reference point for people living alone, a place of refuge, solitude, and grace (or not). Regardless, home is familiar. It is intimate, frequently encountered (and if not, greatly missed), and home is special (see Table 1). Gender informs the meanings people associate with home, with women expressing emotive and psychological connections while men are more instrumental and pragmatic. Lay notions of home are powerful societal metaphors and archetypes that reflect and impact what home means to people. On a final note, in cases where home does not elicit positive feelings, when one’s residence (household) does not feel like home, is not a haven, does not even mean home, the analysis of what constitutes home becomes decidedly more complex (Bender, 1967; Manzo, 2003).


Both household and home are ambiguous concepts (Beaman & Dillon, 2011; Fox O’Mahony, 2007; Hanson, 2004). In particular, home is “an extraordinarily malleable concept” (Riley as cited in Manzo, 2003). This ambiguity and malleability are further confounded with the fact that “disciplines describe Home from their respective points of view, emphasizing the track and focus of their theoretical, scientific, or application paradigms and worldviews” (Fadlalla, 2011, p. 140). Despite that home economics is about home and household, little was found in the home economics literature that elaborated on how our discipline understands these terms. To begin to fill the home economics gap, this paper drew on the wider literature to tease out definitions and conceptualizations of both household and home. There was a general consensus in the literature that both home and household are not well defined concepts. Yet, they are ubiquitous in home economics rhetoric, which raises another dilemma. “Concepts that seem quite obvious frequently become very allusive upon close analysis” (Bender, 1967, p. 497). If something becomes allusive, it means people are making indirect rather than explicit references to it. Ubiquitous and allusive use of ambiguously defined concepts is not tenable. The conceptual core of a discipline needs to be clear, precise, and intellectually sound.

The need for philosophical clarity behooves us to take up the task of conceptually clarifying home and household, appreciating that this theoretical enterprise runs the risk of restricting how we understand these terms. Bender (1967) warned that “once social scientists identify a social phenomenon with a label, there is a great danger that they may overlook important variations that the label is unable to handle” (p. 496). We do not want to leave out anything of significance but we also do not want to include everything. We are faced with the question, should (can) our conceptualizations of household and home accommodate lay notions and theoretical offerings from other disciplines, or should home economics have a unique understanding of home and household?

Sekiguchi (2004) holds that our approach should be clarified so that we can demonstrate the uniqueness of home economics as an academic discipline. Respecting that uniqueness, there may be some untapped conceptual resources in other disciplines’ theoretical perspectives of home and household (see Table 1 and Figure 2). Household is instrumental and pragmatic (even measured by national census bureaux), but home is more abstract; an archetype , a metaphor, or even an existential state (Manzo, 2003). Home economics needs to move beyond this metaphysical abstract to create a solid theoretical approach to home and to household. Identifying and engaging with “critical conceptual questions” around home and household (Guyer & Peters, 1987, p.203) will benefit our philosophy, theory, research, curricula, and practice.


Beaman, L., & Dillon, A. (2011). Do household definitions matter in survey design? Results from a randomized survey experiment in Mali. Journal of Development Economics, 98(1), 124-135.

Beck, J. (2011, December 30). The psychology of home: Why where you live means so much. The Atlantic Magazine [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Bender, D. R. (1967). A refinement of the concept of household: Families, co-residence, and domestic functions. American Anthropologist, 69(5), 493-504.

Binkley, R., & Binkley, F. (1929). What is right with marriage: An outline of domestic theory. New York, NY: Appleton Publishing.

Blunt, A., & Dowling, R. (2006). Home. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bollnow, O. F. (1963). Mensch und Raum (Translated Man and Space). Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer.

Bozkurt, E. (2009). Conceptualising ‘home.’ Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, M. M. (1985). Philosophical studies of home economics in the United States (Vol. 1). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

Brown, M., & Paolucci, B. (1979). Home economics: A definition. Alexandria, VA: American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Bruce, L. (2006). An early moment in the discourse of "terrorism": Reflections on a tale from Marco Polo. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 48(2), 242–259.

Bubolz, M. M. (1990, April). The family ecosystem: Macro and micro interdependence. Paper presented at the Conference of the Society for Human Ecology. East Lansing, Michigan.

Chant, S. (1997). Women-headed households. Houndmills, England: Macmillian.

Crespo, R. F. (1998). Controversy: Is economics a moral science? A response to Peter J. Botekke. Journal of Markets & Morality, 1(2), 220-225.

Deacon, R., & Firebaugh, F. (1988). Family resource management (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Dovey, K. (1985). Home and homelessness. In I. Altman, & C. M. Werner (Eds.), Home environments (pp. 33-64). New York: NY: Plenum Press.

East, M. (1979). Comments on the paper, ‘Home Economics: A Definition’. In M. Brown & B. Paolucci, Home economics: A definition (pp.136-142). Alexandria, VA: American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Fadlalla, N. (2011). Conceptualizing the meaning of home for refugees. Spaces and Flows, 1(3), 139-150.

Fox O’Mahony, L. (2007). Conceptualising home. Oxford, England: Hart.

Fox O’Mahony, L. (2013). The meaning of home: From theory to practice. International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 5(2), 156-171.

Gillsjö, C., & Schwartz-Barcott, D. (2010). A concept analysis of home and its meaning in the lives of three older adults. International Journal of Older People Nursing, 6(1), 4-12.

Guyer, J. I., & Peters, P. E. (1987). Introduction. Development and Change, 18(2), 197-214.

Hanson, K. T. (2004). Rethinking the Akan household: Acknowledging the importance of culturally and linguistically meaningful images. Africa Today, 51(1), 27-45.

Harper, D. (2015). Online etymology dictionary. Lancaster, PA: Self published. Retrieved from

Hayward, G. (1975). Home as an environmental and psychological concept. Landscape, 20(1), 2-9.

Henry, P. C. (2012, March). Defining home. Birmingham Magazine. Retrieved from

Jarvie, P. A. (2005). Ready to trample on all human law. New York, NY: Routledge.

Klinkenborg, V. (2012). The definition of home. Smithsonian Magazine, 45(May). Retrieved from

Manzo, L. C. 2003). Beyond house and haven: Toward a revisioning of emotional relationships with places. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(1), 47-61.

McFalls Jr., J. A. (2007). Population: A lively introduction. Population Bulletin, 62(1), 1-36.

McGregor, S. L. T. (2010). Integral leadership and practice: Beyond holistic integration in FCS. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 102(1), 49-57.

McGregor, S. L. T., & Dišlere, V. (2012). Home economics philosophy in Latvia: An exploratory study. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, 19(1),

Melson, G. F. (1980). Family and environment: An ecosystem perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis. London, England: Sage.

Muster, V. (2013). The underrated discipline: A plea for strengthening home economics. In U. Schrader, V. Fricke, D. Doyle, & V. Thoresen (Eds.), Enabling responsible living (pp. 19-29). Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Netting, R., Wilk, R. R., & Arnould, E. J. (Eds.). (1984). Households: Comparative and historical studies of the domestic group. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Niehof, A. (2011). Conceptualizing the household as an object of study. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 35(5), 488-497.

Öhlén J., Ekman, I., Singmark, K., Bolmsjö, I., & Benzein, E. (2014). Conceptual development of “at-homeness” despite illness and disease: A review. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 9, DOI:

Parris, G. A. (2015). Original thinking: Radical revisioning of time, humanity, and nature. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Roush, C. V., & Cox, J. (2000). The meaning of home: How it shapes the practice of home health and hospice care. Home Healthcare Nurse, 18(6), 388-394.

Russell, M. (1993). Are households universal? On misunderstanding domestic groups in Swaziland. Development and Change, 24(4), 755-785.

Rybczynski, W. (1986). Home: A short history of the idea. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Schillinger, D. L. (2013, March 12). Conceptualizing home [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Sekiguchi, F. (Ed.). (2004). A philosophy of home economics: Establishing home economics as a discipline for human protection. Fukushima, Japan: Koriyama Women’s University Press.

Sokalski, H. J. (1992). Family matters [IYF Occasional Paper Series No. 1]. Vienna, Austria: United Nations.

Stanley, J. (1981). The sociology of virtue: The Political & Social Theories of George Sorel. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Statistics Canada. (2015). Definitions, data sources and methods. Ottawa, ON: Author. Retrieved from

Stevenson, A. (Ed.). (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Touliatos, J., & Compton, N. (1988). Research methods in human ecology/home economics. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.

Tuomi-Gröhn, T. (Ed.). (2008). Reinventing art of everyday making. Berlin, Germany: Peter Lang.

United Nations. (1992). Family: Forms and functions [IYF Occasional papers series No. 2]. Paris, France: Author, International Year of the Family Secretariat.

United Nations. (2004). United Nations demographic yearbook review: National reporting of household characteristics, living arrangements, and homeless households. Paris, France: Author.

United Nations Statistics Division. (2014). Households and families. Paris, France: Author.

United States Census Bureau. (2000). Summary social, economic, and housing characteristics. Washington, DC: Author.

United States Census Bureau. (2012). Current population survey (CPS) - Definitions. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Urban Dictionary. (2013). X-factor. Retrieved from

Williams, A. M. (2004). Shaping the practice of home care: Critical case studies of the significance of the meaning of home. International Journal of Palliative Nursing, 10(7), 333-342.

Vaines, E. (1990). Philosophical orientations and home economics: An introduction. Canadian Home Economics Journal, 40(1), 6-11.

von Schweitzer, R. (1977). From the economic writings of Aristotle to home economics in the German federal republic today. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 1(1), 41-50.

von Schweitzer, R. (2006). Home economics science and arts. Berlin, Germany: Peter Lang.

Yanagisako, S. J. (1979). Family and household: The analysis of domestic groups. Annual Review of Anthropology, 8, 161-205.


1 See Fox O’Mahony (2007) for citations.


Kappa Omicron Nu Forum Volume 19 No. 1

Home Economics Philosophy in Latvia: An Exploratory Study

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Vija Dišlere, Latvia University of Agriculture

Everyday Life: A Home Economics Concept

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

The Role of Philosophy in Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Marjorie Brown's Philosophical Legacy: Contemporary Relevance

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Abductive Reasoning in Everyday Life: Implications for Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Enriching Home Economics Philosophy with Phenomenological Insights:

Aesthetic Experiences, Bodily Being, and Enfolded Everyday Life

Henna Heinilä

Postmodernism and Home Economics: Revitalizing the Conversation

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

History and Potential of Home Economics in the People's Republic of China:
Implications for Philosophy of Practice

Peng Chen PhD, Higher Vocational Education College, China Women's University

Existentialism and Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Can Home Economics Practice be Informed by Bakhtinian Themes?

Dr. Mary Gale Smith

Conceptualizing Home and Household

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University