“What Happens in the Home Doesn’t Stay in the Home”

23 Nov 2015

The latest STI Experts meeting focused on the home as a complex field worthy of interdisciplinary academic study.

STI Experts Meetings

Homes both affect and are affected by the individuals who comprise them, who in turn affect and are affected by society as a whole. As primary sources of social capital, homes are vitally important to the health of society. There are any number of angles to consider, from the inside-out, and vice versa. 

If a home that meets the fundamental needs of its members contributes not only to their well-being, but also to a thriving society, then questions regarding what those fundamental needs are, and how they are best met bear looking into. Conversely, if society as a whole faces certain challenges, it is valid to investigate which home environments contribute to better outcomes. Thus, the meeting sought to explore the epistemological and ontological status of the home in structuring human behavior and social capacities in order to overcome reductionist interpretations of the home and of the work that is performed in that environment. What happens in the home does not stay in the home, as it were. 

The home was considered in relation to mental and physical health, to cognitive and social development, to relationships, identity and social dynamics, to the environment, to the economy and to policy frameworks. All of this from legal, medical, philosophical, political and economic perspectives. Medicine, sociology, economics, anthropology and philosophy all contribute lights that are not just relevant but badly needed to identify current trends – both positive and negative - and suggest ways forward. 

Seven papers were presented by authors from a broad range of backgrounds and countries. In order to enhance reception and understanding of the points being made, each paper was then reviewed in an in-depth response by another expert in the field. The topics seem eclectic at first glance, but they are united by the guiding principle of furthering society’s understanding of the importance of the work of the home. 

Here’s a brief re-cap of the papers. A forthcoming publication will collect them in greater detail.

Better Dead Than Divorced?

The University of Texas at Austin’s Mark Regnerus habitually puts the following question to his new undergraduates. 

“Do you think you would be better off if you lost a parent to death or if you witnessed your parents’ divorce?” He’s the first to admit it is not a cheery way to start the semester, but it does the job, which is to make his sociology students engage in depth with the reality of data about family and home life. 

The rather chilling answer, in terms of a range of statistical outcomes, is that a child’s well-being suffers more from parental separation than from the death of a parent.

In his paper, Professor Regnerus, whose work – including a brace of much-discussed books – has been featured in the New Yorker, asked how the experience of divorce, or of never having been married, reproduces itself once children grow up and make relationship choices for themselves. In his native America, Regnerus noted, the share of children who spend their entire childhood with their biological mother and father has shrunk to 43 percent.

Yet to assume that divorce in parents begets subsequent divorce in their children is to misunderstand the intergenerational transmission of marriage. The institution is proving more resilient than many might have anticipated, noted Regnerus.

Somewhere for Granny

When the state pension was introduced in the UK in 1926, only a small minority of Britons were expected to live long enough to enjoy their bounty. Increased life expectancy now means that many British taxpayers must start saving early to pay for decades of retirement. 

But, as London University’s Professor Rosa Lastra pointed out, the real challenges of pension provision lie in the developing world, where only a fraction of workers (one in nine, according to an analysis of low-income countries) have contributed to a pension program. In many of these developing economies, moreover, traditional family-based care for the elderly has broken down.

Professor Lastra, who has previously advised institutions including the World Bank and the IMF, wondered whether ‘family-based eldercare’ might be part of the solution. She pointed to Nordic countries that have pioneered ‘cash for childcare’ schemes, where parents are paid by the state for forgoing a career in order to raise their offspring. Could such an idea work for the demographic bulge of ‘baby boomers’ who will soon need record levels of state-provided care? 

Home Is a Lighthouse

Professor Alfredo Marcos, a Spanish philosopher, began his ontological inquiry into what a home is with a definition taken from the Oxford English dictionary. There followed a whistle-stop tour through the minds of some of the greatest names in Western thought; Aristotle, Pindar and Heidegger, to name but three. 

The dictionary definition of home (“The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family”) does not begin to encompass the complexity and beauty of a well-run home, according to Professor Marcos. Home, he explained, is a “lighted house”, apt for the “peaceful actualization of the human being”. 

When a home becomes dysfunctional it lets down “children, the sick, the disabled and the aged”. When it works, it does so because everyone understands the mutual dependency on which a happy home is founded. Lawmakers should never forget that good homes must be fostered by the state.

Home Is Where the Start Is

“All happy families look alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So, famously, wrote Leo Tolstoy at the start of Anna Karenina. 

This is a sentiment Professor Sir Harry Burns might struggle to agree with. 

Because, when Sir Harry started practicing as a young surgeon in Glasgow, he noticed that poor patients took longer to heal. 

Thus began a lifelong quest to understand the link between household poverty and “surprising biological consequences”. Rather than there being different causes of poor cognitive and social development, the problems were often the same.

His observations included a belief that “shouting” at people is unlike to improve their wellbeing, whereas imparting parenting skills and encouraging a strong attachment between a mother and her child just might. Still more importantly, what really harms a young child’s development is not poverty as such, but a chaotic and unpredictable environment.

Geography Is More Important Than History

Geography has many sub-sets and, in Professor Alban d’Entremont’s discussion paper, the home now forms one. His upbeat assessment stressed that the home is the “natural habitat” for people and ideally suited for both economic development and social welfare.

But there was criticism too. Feminist geographers “have a hard time coming to grips with the idea of a ‘warm home environment’, and invariably frame the home and its functions within the boundaries of servitude and oppression”.

He cited the “derogatory” language of a Spanish census, where a wife and mother must select her occupation as being devoted to “sus labores” (loosely translated: “her things”), as an example of how the modern state has taken a dim view of home-making. 

Professor d’Entremont further pondered on whether the Neo-Malthusians who “thrive in the literature of Population Geography” also bear a natural prejudice against the traditional home, particularly if a home stands accused of exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth by containing too many children.

Homely the Lonely

What did the philosophers Kant and Sartre tell us about the home? Professor Maria do Ceu Patrao Neves sought to tell us. But her wide-ranging discussion of ethics and the home took a less-well known thinker as the prism through which we can look at the purpose of the home; the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. 

Levinas drew a distinction between the ‘street front’ - its physical facade - and the homely interior, with its secrets, transcendence, sanctuary and hospitality. In short, the birthplace of our most important relationships and an antidote to alienation. 

As Neves, a former MEP and the author of 170 papers and seven books, put it: “Home is that site... within which individuals constitute themselves... that most recondite, private and cosy place for the self... where it belongs at its innermost.”

No Accounting for Households

As a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences and a professor at Johns Hopkins, Professor Stefano Zamagni is well placed to offer a view about American attitudes to the home and the people populating them. The post-modern family: single-mothers, extended families, couples living together and so on. He cited one US study which reports the presence of 54 different types of family.

But Professor Zamagni is first and foremost an economist. So his analysis of the undermining of family structures was informed principally by his expertise in that ‘dismal science’.

Drawing on the thinking of figures as diverse at J.S. Mill, Pope Benedict XVI, John Rawls, Anthony Giddens and Cicero, Prof Zamagni reminded us that modern western states over-emphasize the household at the expense of the home by measuring only the consumption and not the production of those individuals grouped at a common address.

“...the calculation of national income offers no place for all those things produced within the family. For example, the meal prepared in the family is not recorded as a productive activity, but as a form of consumption measured by the purchase in the market of those ingredients required to prepare the meal itself. However, the same meal consumed in a restaurant is recorded as a productive activity.”


"Home: A Complex Field" was sponsored by STI and organized by The Home Renaissance Foundation. It considered the home from various perspectives: public health; philosophy of science; law; sociology; human geography; philosophy, ethics and anthropology; and economics. This Experts Meeting was held in London on November 2-3, 2015.