Home, not only where the heart is but where society begins
by Antonio Argandoña | May 01, 2018
Given the universal importance of the home, it may come as a surprise that the first major work to take the home as a center of analysis for global social problems has only now been published. The Home: Multidisciplinary Reflections, published last month in the UK by Edward Elgar, is a project of the London based Home Renaissance Foundation. In it, experts from a variety of fields reveal the multidimensional reality of the home and its role in societies worldwide. In the following email interview, the editor, economist Antonio Argandoña, answers MercatorNet’s questions about the nature of the book and its relevance to current social issues.
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Argandoña: The Home: Multidisciplinary Reflections is the outcome of a project by the Home Renaissance Foundation, a London-based think tank which works for the recognition of the work done by family members and others to create healthy and welcoming homes. The book argues that social problems have various dimensions and need to be studied from various viewpoints because of their complexity. And a needful viewpoint is often, in fact, the home.
You might object that the starting-point should always be the person, but a person never just exists in isolation; each person is also part of a small community, a family, living in a physical space, the home, within a broader community that begins from the neighbourhood or town and widens out to the whole world.
This is our viewpoint when it comes to studying complex problems such as work-family balance. Many solutions have been and are being mooted, but these are often partial or one-sided, because they focus on the woman’s or man’s hours of work, the needs of businesses, or the demands of children; but they forget other aspects like traffic, leisure, the economic costs of solutions, or alternative possibilities for weekends.
Argandoña: There isn’t and cannot be just one definition of a good home, because people are amazing, full of potential both for good and for bad – we can’t be pigeonholed. A home is a joint project working towards a common purpose. That purpose is not one simple objective, and it can’t be pre-determined from outside. It moves in space and changes over time. Each family has to find its own particular purpose, probably based on the givens of its surroundings and background story.
The nucleus of a good home is the commitment of all its members to this shared purpose. And whether it’s a good home or not depends on what their shared purpose is like. If it is a commitment based on love, i.e. aiming for the good of each member of the home, it will give rise to learning processes in knowledge, skills, attitudes and virtues, that will enable a good home to develop. But if the only purpose they share is for each household member to achieve their own objectives, as our individualistic society proclaims, then it will be a bad home.
And it’s not enough just for there to be a purpose, because there are other factors that help or hinder it: the material condition of the home, money, the moral, educational and social mindset of the community at large…
MercatorNet: Many social problems could be traced to “bad homes” or “broken homes” – although the home environment is seldom mentioned in social analysis or welfare policy. Is that a missed opportunity?
Argandoña: It certainly is, and it cuts two ways. First, a broken home destroys people’s normal lives or at least hampers them, and that ends up damaging their surroundings and society. For instance, if a family falls apart the children’s physical and mental development slows down, they start to fall behind at school, and that in turn reduces their chances of getting a job and creating a stable family of their own.
But, looking at it from the other end: antisocial surroundings with poverty and degradation make it much more difficult to build up a healthy home. There is a lot that society needs to do to prevent broken homes, but the first responsibility falls to family members themselves. They should take responsibility for their internal mission, in order to achieve their external mission – their role in society.
MercatorNet: There is acute anxiety today, even in developed countries, about homelessness, by which people usually mean a lack of affordable housing for purchase or rent. What is your perspective on this problem? How could we go about solving it?
Argandoña: Homelessness really is a serious problem. Your house isn’t just the physical place where you go to rest and relax, it’s a cultural and psychological space where you can have privacy and develop your identity. Above all, it’s the nexus of relationships between people and with things, and that creates deep emotional meaningfulness. There is where you are in a position to decide things for yourself, where you have a sense of security; the place that you start out from and that you always go back to.
That’s not just a set of nice-sounding phrases, there’s much more to it than that. Just think how you’d feel yourself, if you had to leave your house for an indeterminate length of time as a result of war or a natural disaster, or if you had to survive for years in a refugee camp, or sleeping under a cash-machine outside a big city bank. The problem goes much further than not having a roof over your head: it means the loss of a sense meaning, loss of identity, loss of human relationships, and that harms children and the elderly most – the most vulnerable ones.
So these problems shouldn’t be seen just as matters for urban policy or social services. They are deep human problems. And solving them takes the whole of society, not just the authorities. The problem for the many people who sleep in the streets in big cities is not just how to get through a cold night but how to rebuild a life that has come loose from everyone else’s life. But maybe that’s an over-generalization – each homeless person is a different case.
MercatorNet: For many people today the home has become a technology hub where they connect with the outside world rather than other members of the family or co-residents. What vital functions of the home are being displaced by technology?
Argandoña: I see technology as something enormously positive, because we’ve already witnessed how it has contributed to the work in the home, care of vulnerable people, and raising people’s quality of life. Any modest home in a developing country now has goods and services that weren’t available a couple of decades ago.
Obviously technology also has its downsides, and you highlighted one of them in your question – family members are probably in more frequent contact with outsiders than with one another. But I think that the cause of all this is not the introduction of mobiles but a series of cultural, social and ethical changes that technology has enabled but not actually caused. Because these days we’re all more individualistic, emotive, pragmatic, and hedonist, enslaved to being “liked” and needing to receive approval on social networks. That’s the source of many of the problems arising in today’s use of technology.
Mercatornet: Increasing numbers of people live alone today – because of age, or not marrying, for example. Does it take a family to make a house a home?
Argandoña: Someone living alone does have a home, even though they’re not a community of people. In such cases certain internal relationships are not there, but others are just the same – those of work, neighbourhood, leisure, rest, culture – as well as service or community relationships. And a one-person home also needs internal organisation, services, help, and the possibility of contributing to social well-being.
When a secondary artery is blocked, the blood circulation finds its way along other channels; well, in just the same way, someone living alone can lead an intense social life that gives meaning to their life and contributes to the betterment of society. What seems key here is the person’s attitude, because if they are alone because of their own selfishness, I think it would be hard for them to lead a flourishing, fulfilled life.
MercatorNet: “It takes a village to raise a child.” How true is this? And how can this happen in today’s big cities?
Argandoña: It’s still a true saying, if we take the idea of a village in the broad sense: a physical and social environment that offers plenty of things that a family, however big, cannot do. I mean a framework of the rules, rights and duties of citizenship, the education system, medical and social services, openness to the media, the hundreds or thousands of people we can connect with whenever we want, culture whether single or multiple, job opportunities…
When people lived their whole lives in a village, the village did indeed play a joint role in bringing up the children. Now that role is taken on by a different environment, but it’s equally necessary. Of course, in a village, you knew exactly what influences a child was going to come under; now it’s much harder. Which is why we need to learn more about the complex environment, that we can call the “village”, where our children grow up, such as large, anonymous, impersonal cities.
MercatorNet: “The home is probably the chief seat of the gift economy,” you say. Would you expand on that statement for us?
Argandoña: People often complain that the society we live in is a market where absolutely everything can be bought and sold. But it isn’t true. We are all giving and receiving gifts all the time. After all, the smile from the waiter who brings us our coffee isn’t written into any contract, and nor are our thanks.
But if there’s anywhere where giving freely has to be the normal thing, it’s the home. In the home no-one keeps an account of debts and credits, no-one calculates how many plates they have to clear off the table after a meal in order to fulfill their duty of helping in the house.
This means that the family is the place where people learn to give. Even a baby, who can’t do anything except cry and drink milk, is learning to give its smile, which is all its mother asks of it. And if the family doesn’t fulfill that role, then family members have a gap in their learning and development.
MercatorNet: Would you also explain how the home is the “microcosm of society”?
Argandoña: Economists like me generally explain how human beings take decisions as being moved by certain motivations, to obtain certain results. But as well as those results we obtain many other things, that we often don’t expect or want: we learn items of knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and virtues – or vices. We do this every day at work or at college, at a sports club, on public transport, in political debate or cultural exchange. And especially, it’s what we do every day at home, often without even realising.
The home is the first place where we learn how to live, how to be human, how to develop as a person. That is why the home is a microcosm of society. And that’s why what happens in the home is so important for society: if we don’t learn values and virtues at home, it will be very hard for us to learn them anywhere else.
MercatorNet: What sorts of people would you most like to read this book?
Argandoña: All of us who have contributed to this book think that society is ultimately governed by ideas, even though in the short term it may seem to be governed by interests. So we thought it would help academics from different disciplines -- philosophy, sociology, health sciences, economics, law, geography, architecture… -- to reflect on the role of the home in society and acquire a broad, open, multidisciplinary view of the subject.
But the language we use is very accessible, so I’d encourage many people who are concerned with family problems, work in the home, housing, family money matters, or the transmission of concepts on the family and marriage, to make use of the ideas contained in the book.
Antonio Argandoña is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Business Ethics, and CaixaBank Chair of Corporate Social Responsibility, IESE Business School, University of Navarra, Barcelona, Spain. He is the editor of The Home: Multidisciplinary Reflections (Elgar, 2018) and author of an introductory chapter of the same title.
For more information go to Home Renaissance Foundation.