How Homes Make Us as Much as We Make Them: Visual Thinking and the Habitus

30.07.2015

Written By: Riana Patel

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“The mind is a metaphor of the world of objects.”

Pierre Bourdieu 1980

The house is usually seen as the background to human social life, but BAMM’s Visual Thinking approach shows why it belongs squarely in the foreground.

A house is not a home. Or, more precisely, a house becomes a home. At first thought, we might think of the home as a the place that nests our things, our families, our lives. It is the constant, a base we return to no matter where we find ourselves. And yet, when we have to move homes, we often feel nostalgic, saddened, or, perhaps, excited. The home provokes response, not simply because we have attached meaning to it, but because we are in a complex relationship with it – the home constructs meaning for us in our own lives.

Homes make us as much as we make them
Homes make us as much as we make them

As has been discussed extensively in anthropology, the home is central to social relations. It is more than the place where things happen: it is an agent, shaping the ways we make sense of the world and what worlds we might be able to see. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s introduced the concept of the ‘habitus’ (1977), defined as the way in which elements of culture become a part of an individual’s practice. Bourdieu often uses the metaphor of jazz to explain this process: we learn how to play the instruments and music (we gain cultural knowledge), but can then improvise upon this system freely in our day to day lives (we behave individually). When using the lens of habitus, we see that the house is not a blank page but a part of the written story.

So what does this mean? Applied to BAMM’s style of Visual Thinking, the home is thus no longer the canvas where human social life gets painted. Instead, the house itself a part of the rich composition, creating, reinforcing, and generating cultural meaning and insight.

Here are three ways Visual Thinkers can see more in the home:

  1. The field becomes the subject: Ethnography involves many different techniques to help understand cultural patterns and individual motivations. Where the house might be considered the ‘field’ or merely the place where ethnography occurs, visual analysis of the home and how it is constructed can lead to richer understandings. The home is not just the field, but a subject of our ethnographic focus.

  1. The importance of material culture: The house is a physical structure, built by and for humans. What can the physical tell us about the emotional? Quite a lot. From the way the sofa is oriented in that precise angle, to the improvised draft stopper for the bedroom window, examining the use of objects can yield fascinating insights into the conscious and unconscious behavior.

  1. Movement mapping: We often aren’t aware of how we are moving in a space, so visually mapping movements and understanding certain patterns in the home can tell us a lot about how we make sense of our environment and how it influences us. What routes do we take to navigate our house and why? How do we know where to find the spare key? When we map our movements, we can better understand that we are in a social relationship with our home, continually influencing one another.

When doing ethnographic research, these approaches may often be drowned out in the noise of conversations, observation, and in-depth interviews. It is equally as important to comprehend social relations through the tangible home, especially considering what people do can be more telling than what they say. Since we navigate the world primarily through our eyes, the aesthetic and spatial arrangements of a home provide deep insight as to the compelling forces that are driving choice.

It is important to remember the role of the house not only as physical, but also emotional space. Bourdieu suggests that the home is the primary site of habitus, where the ongoing relationship between the individual and a culture first emerges most strongly. We have an emotional connection to these sites of cultural uptake because they gain significance as we move around in them, work in them and live in them. But, as we can see through the lens of habitus, the home dictates just how our movements, our work, and our lives look.

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