A new book offers a holistic way of addressing social problems. 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.
MercatorNet: How did this book come about, and what is its purpose?
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.
MercatorNet: What makes a good home?
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.