Grant McCracken (1989) ,"", in SV - Interpretive Consumer Research, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 168-183.

Interpretive Consumer Research, 1989     Pages 168-183



Grant McCracken, University of Guelph

[The author wishes to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding the research reported in this paper. Thanks are also due to the following individuals for their comments on earlier versions of the paper: Russel Belk, K.O.L. Burridge, Susan McKinnon, Mary Ellen Roach Higgins, Floyd Rudman, Melanie Wallendorf, and Linda Wood. Katherine Burke is especially thanked for her willingness to serve as an expert informant.]


This paper offers a cultural account of the constellation of consumer goods and meanings in North America called "homeyness." It reports ethnographic data collected in and on the modem North American home. The paper considers the physical, symbolic and pragmatic properties of homeyness, and attempts to show its cultural character and consequences.


This paper offers a cultural account of the constellation of consumer goods and meanings called "homeyness" in modem North America. It draws on anthropological theory, ethnographic research, and a wide range of social scientific scholarship to consider the cultural characteristics and consequences of this neglected cultural phenomenon. The account is divided into four parts. The first reviews the scholarly precedents and objectives of the paper. The second treats the physical properties of homeyness, as these were described by respondents in a recent ethnographic research project. The third treats the symbolic properties of homeyness: its cultural meanings and logic. The fourth and final part of the paper treats the pragmatic properties of homeyness: the uses to which it is put by contemporary North Americans and its larger structural consequences.

The research reported in this paper was conducted in an urban area of southern Ontario in the summers of 1985 and 1986. Forty individuals were interviewed. The inter-view for each respondent took 6 hours in total. Interviewers were conducted in the respondent's home, almost always in the living room. All respondents lived in free-standing houses. The 40 respondents were divided into two equal categories by distinctions of status (blue collar vs. managerial). The following characteristics were common for all: race (Caucasian), religion (Protestant), ethnicity (British), time in Canada (at least third generation) and marital status (married). Men and women were almost equally represented.

Research was conducted using ethnographic methods and a four-step method of qualitative inquiry described in McCracken (1988d). The study was designed to investigate the cultural logic, the underlying beliefs and assumptions, of one aspect of consumption behavior in modem North American life. It was also to show how the cultural meanings contained in homeyness are put to work in the "projects" of individual North Americans as they construct notions of self and world (McCracken 1986b). In sum, this paper is designed to show what homeyness means, how it means, and with what cultural consequences it means.


The present study has its foundations in several of the social sciences. It is designed to address a range of research topics. I review these fields and topics here.

Anthropologists have been as prepared as anyone to speculate on their own society, but they have been fastidiously unwilling to examine the ethnographic details of mainstream North American life (Gulick 1973; Varenne 1986). The study of homeyness takes anthropology into the domestic heart of North American society. It seeks to demonstrate that the theoretical issues that concern the field can be investigated just as readily in the petrie dish of modem life as they can in more conventional field sites. More particularly, it seeks to show that the issue of cultural "construction" may be investigated in modem North America (Bruner 1984: 2-3). As this paper will try to show, homeyness is one of the chief instruments by which some North Americans construct several of their most important concepts of self and family.

The study also is designed to draw from and contribute to the renaissance that is now taking place in the study of material culture both in anthropology and American studies (Appadurai 1986; Brunner 1983; Cordwell and Schwarz 1979; Glassie 1973; Kavanaugh 1978, Lechtman and Merrill 1977; Neich 1982; Prown 1980, 1982; Quimby 1978; Rathjc 1978; Reynolds and Stott 1987; Richardson 1974; Schlereth 1982; Wolf 1970). This growing body of work has sought to deepen our understanding of the ways in which material culture makes culture material. The present paper is designed to show the "homeyness" of some North American homes puts certain symbolic and pragmatic properties at the disposal of the family, and so resident in the material culture of the home, homeyness helps to realize certain definitions of sociality and rootedness that are otherwise inaccessible. I hope to encourage the contention, implied by Prown, that there are some things about social life that can only be captured through the study of material culture (1982: 3).

The paper is also designed to draw on and contribute to the field of history, especially as this field devotes itself to the origins and development of the consumer society (Braudel 1973; Campbell 1983, 1987; Fox and Lears 1983; Harris 1978, 1981; Horowitz 1985; Lears 1981; McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982; Miller 1981; Mukerji 1983; Pope 1983; Shi 1985; Williams 1982) in general, and the relationship between material culture and the development of the North American home and family (Clark 1976, 1986; Doucet and Weaver 1985; Gordon and McArthur 1985; Handlin 1979; Holdsworth 1977; Leach 1984; Marchand 1985). The present study examines the cultural logic that has allowed domestic environments to serve as sites of individuality, sanctuaries against work, centers of spirituality, and staging grounds for that intensely important bundle of activities, values, and undertakings in Western societies called "domesticity." As Clark has noted, the North American home is a place charged with "symbolic and moral meaning" (1986: 238). The present study is designed to demonstrate that much of this meaning is caught up in and depends upon the homeyness constellation of consumer goods.

This paper is also designed to contribute to and draw from the fields of environmental studies, architecture and geography (Agrest and Gandelsonas 1977; Altman, Rapoport, and Wohlwill 1980; Carswell and Saile 1987; Carlisle 1982; Duncan 1981; Krampen 1979; Rapoport 1982; Saile 1984; Tuan 1982), and their study of household design and furnishing (Forty 1986; Kine 1986; Korosec-Serfaty 1976; Kron 1983, Jackson 1976; Lawrence 1981, 1982, 1984; Pratt 1981), and "home" (Altman and Werner 1985; Giuliani, Bonnes and Werner 1987; Hayden 1981; Seamon 1979; Tognoli 1987; Wright 1980, 1981). The present paper provides an ethnographic account of the "centering" and "place attachment" characteristics of the home environment, topics that have drawn some interest in the field but relatively little research (Tognoli 1987: 658).

This study is also concerned to contribute to and draw from the sociological study of material possessions. Sociologists have examined the emotional and structural significance of special possessions (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), the status significance of material goods (Blumberg 1974; Davis 1956, 1958; Felson 1976; Laumann and House 1970; Rainwater 1966), the larger consumer system and its creation of cultural meanings (Gottdiener 1985; Hirsch 1972), patterns of preference (Gans 1974), the use of objects as role models (Rochberg-Halton 1984), the commodification of the body (O'Neill 1978), and the sociology of collecting (Danct 1986), to name a few of the relevant studies that touch on home life and consumption.

Interestingly, however, the sociologists who have considered homeyness have come away perplexed. In his study of the homes of post-war Detroit, Felson could find no ready explanation for what he called the "Bric-A-Brac factor" (1976: 414). Candidly, he admits to aspects of the home "beyond the reach of this writer's sociological imagination" (1976: 414). Laumann and House in their study of living room furnishings suffered a similar difficulty, and acknowledge "distinctions beyond the untutored grasp Of OUT interviewers" (1970: 338). 1 would contend that much of the sociological significance of consumption behavior must evade our grasp if we insist on investigating this behavior outside of its ethnographic context. The object of the present study is to use the holistic perspective provided by such a context. It seeks to comprehend homeyness clearly by capturing it whole.

The field of consumer research is now host to a range of scholarship that bears on the present study. The field has been called upon to consider the materialism of North America (Belk 1985), the use of ethnographic methods (Belk 1987; Deshpande 1983; Hirschman 1985; Hirschman and Holbrook 1986; Holbrook 1987; Wallendorf 1987), the political implications of consumption patterns (Caplovitz 1967; Firat 1986), the development of consumer pathologies (Faber, O'Guirm and Krych 1987; Gromno 1984, 1986), patterns of product symbolism (Hirschman 1981; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Holman 1980; Levy 1978, 1981; McCracken 1988a; Mick 1986, 1988), the institutional implications of consumption (Mayer 1978; Nicosia and Mayer 1976), the effect of consumption patterns on family interaction (Olson 1985), the nature of 'favorite object' attachment (Wallendorf and Amould 1988), consumption rituals (Bloch 1982; Rook 1985), and consumption folklore (Sherry 1984). The present study is designed to pursue these several objectives in the finely detailed context of the ethnographic context of the North American home. It is hoped that, in this way, it will contribute to the study of "macro consumer behavior" (Belk 1987: 2).


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "homey" is an adjective that refers to things "resembling or suggestive of home; home-like, having the feeling of home, homish." According to the OED, it first appeared in written English almost exactly a century ago, in 1885. But the term "homey" is regarded as a vulgar term, unfit for polite discourse. Commentators on the family, the home, and domestic affairs in this century have eschewed it, preferring the daintier "home-like" (Anonymous 1968; Boschetti 1968; Brenan 1939; Morton 1936; Robinson 1941).

If the term has been avoided by social commentators, it has been embraced with enthusiasm by North Americans. Respondents in the research conducted for this study applied the adjective "homey" to a range of domestic phenomena in modem North America. They considered it a property of many aspects of the home, including its colors, materials, furniture, decorative objects, arrangement, interior design, and exterior characteristics. As these respondents tell it, the creation of homeyness is one of the most pressing objectives of their domestic circumstances and farnily lives. By their account, homeyness is an "effect" keenly to be sought for virtually every aspect of the home, from its exterior surfaces to the smallest details of the mantle piece. Let us the physical properties identified as homey.

"Homey" colors are the "warm" colors: orange, gold, green, brown. The preferred materials for interior walls are wood, stone, and brick. The only acceptable material for furniture construction is wood. Fabrics for furniture are relatively unfinished natural fibres. Fabric patterns are florals (especially chintz) or conversationals. Furniture styles are traditional, homemade, hand crafted, colonial or antique. One respondent, for instance, looked forward to replacing an arborite kitchen table with a round pine table and six cane-back chairs.

Objects are homey when they have a personal significance for the owner (e.g., gifts, crafts, trophies, mementoes, family heirlooms). A home-made ashtray assembled from shells collected on a summer holiday by the children served one family as a reminder of an important time and place in the history of the family, and was therefore considered especially homey. Objects can also be homey when they are informal or playful in character (e.g., the novelty ashtray, a pillow in shape of football, a pillow with verse in needle point). Plants and flowers are objects that contribute to the homeyness of a room. Some objects are homey because they support or contain decorative objects (e.g., wooden hutches and "what-nots"). Decorative objects such as glass or china objects of a very particular character can be homey, but interestingly this class of objects is, on the whole, dangerous to the homey effect (as we shall see below). Objects that mark the season (e.g., corn in autumn, holly for Christmas) are homey. Pictures of relatives, pets, and possessions are also homey. Paintings of certain kinds can have a homey character, especially sentimental treatments of landscapes or seascapes. Books in quantity can "furnish" a room and give it a homey character.

Arrangements are homey when they combine diverse styles of furnishing in a single room. They are also homey when they establish patterns of asymmetrical balance, and when they pair and center heterogeneous objects. Homeyness can also be achieved by the judicious combination of particular colors, fabrics, and pieces of furniture. For many people, the important principle of arrangement is redundancy, and they bring many homey things together into a single arrangement. For others, homey objects are best used sparingly and in isolation.

Homey interior details include bay windows, breakfast nooks, wainscotting, wood beam ceilings, kitchens, dens, "snug" rooms, low ceilings, and fireplaces. Exterior characteristics include a low slung "bungalow" roof, well enclosed and well treed backyards, paned and mullioned windows, shutters, porches, lawn ornaments, ivy covered walls, plants and shrubs close to and encompassing the house, mock Tudor timbering, brass lanterns and other lamps, an asymmetrical front, and a small front door.

Respondents used a very particular set of adjectives to describe "homeyness." A favorite characterization of the homey place was to say that it looked "as though someone lived there." The terms "informal," "comfortable," "cozy," "relaxed," "secure," "unique," "old," "rich," "warm," "humble," "welcoming," "accommodating," "lived in," "country kitchenish" were all used as glosses. The terms "private," "nice and bright," were also used, though less frequently. Respondents said homeyness is a feature of the home that is immediately and intuitively obvious. As one respondent put it, "I can go into a hundred homes and I can tell in a second whether it's homey or it isn't, just by the feel of it ......

This indeterminacy is apparently characteristic of homeyness. As the historian Handlin notes, "Authors like Catherine Sedgwick [b. 1789] and John Howard Payne [b. 179"never specified the particular characteristics of an ideal home but claimed only that the quality they admired was a feeling, a spirit, or an atmosphere that was indefinable and indescribable." (1979:15). As we shall note below, homeyness is no simple sum of material parts, but an intangible, illusive quality that can be difficult to define or to achieve.

But if respondents sometimes found themselves unable to capture what homeyness is, they rarely suffered any difficulty in saying what it is not. The enemies of homeyness, that is to say, were easily characterized. One respondent described an ornately formal living room as "cluttered up with a whole lot of fancy stuff' and therefore unhomey. The terms used to characterize unhomey homes were "pretentious," "formal," "stark," elegant," "cold," "daunting," "sterile," "show piece," reserved," "controlled," "decorated," "modem," and even "Scandinavian."


The term "symbolic property," refers to the meaning and the logic that gives a physical property its cultural significance. In the case of homeyness, More particularly, "symbolic property" refers to the kinds of meanings that inhere in homey phenomena, the assumptions on which these meanings rest, and the strategies by which these meanings are actuated.

Homeyness as a cultural property is intensely prescriptive and intensely elusive meaning. It represents a domestic condition that is highly valued by North American culture bearers but not easily achieved by them. The difficulty is that there are many forces that work against the realization of homeyness. Sometimes the notion, like any ideal moral condition, is simply more than North Americans can sustain. It is better than their best efforts. Sometimes it is contradicted by other cultural principles that work to shape the family and the home. Sometimes it is, due to an evanescent character, difficult to capture, to make actual, to realize. While North Americans know homeyness when they see it, they do not always have a clear idea of how it is accomplished. Furthermore, there is no simple formula for the creation of homeyness. Like all really important cultural achievements, homeyness is most compelling when it somehow transcends itself, when it is greater than the sum of its mechanically prescribed parts.

These several factors and the difficulty they present in realizing homeyness in the world have a profound effect on its character. They cause it to assume a deeply processual nature. "Homeyness" as a cultural phenomena is of necessity constantly under construction by those who would make it present in their lives. It is constantly in need of refreshment and recreation if it is to survive and succeed in the world. In order to capture the cultural character of a phenomenon with these characteristics, it is necessary to go beyond its meaning and its grammar, and to capture the logic and the strategies, the symbolic properties, by which it operates.

For the purposes of exposition, I have distinguished eight symbolic properties of homeyness. I review these properties below, characterizing how each is intended to act upon the individual, and the culture logic by which it does so. I examine, in turn, the diminutive, the variable, the embracing, the engaging, the memorial, the authentic, the informal, and, finally, the situating properties of homeyness. These properties are rehearsed here in order of their primacy. Each property helps to support every subsequent one. Each property helps to extend every previous one. The following eight properties have a "telescoped" relationship to one another.

The Diminutive Property

Homeyness has a diminutive aspect. As we have seen, ceilings are low, doors and windows are small, space is divided and filled, lines are broken and repeated, and shapes little and sometimes organic. Homeyness cannot survive the bleak expanse of an off-white wall. It cannot tolerate sparse furnishings, clean, uncluttered lines, or "elegance" of any kind.

This property of homeyness helps to give the domestic environment manageable proportions. As Levi-Strauss suggests in The Savage Mind, that which is "quantitatively diminished ... seems to us qualitatively simplified" (1966: 23). The diminutive aspect of homeyness has a simplifying power; it makes an envirom-nent more graspable, conceivable, thinkable. It gives an environment the "human scale" that has preoccupied post-modem architecture. It stands in opposition to the monumental and brutalist aspects of modem built form, and represents habitable space that is "manageable" both as a place to use and as a place to grasp. In the language of anthropology (cf. Levi-Strauss 1963; Tambiah 1969), the diminutive property helps to make these places "good" to think because it makes them "easy" to think.

The Variable Property

Homeyness has a variable aspect. It appears deliberately to eschew uniformity and consistency. This property is most clearly illustrated by the preference respondents showed for local houses made of "rubblestone" rather than cut stone. Rubble stone is highly variable in shape and size, and must be piled "higgledy-piggledy," whereas cut stone, being consistent in size and shape, is laid in uniform rows. Confronted with this concise choice between the variable and the uniform, respondents declared their preference for the variable. In their view, variable "rubble -stone" made a home more homey.

This variable property of homeyness is also evidenced by the preferred patterns of fabric, furniture arrangement, exterior design, and what-not collections, in all of which variability is highly prized. It is this property of homeyness that explains its hostility to classical patterns and definitions of order. Homeyness is seen to be inconsistent with symmetry, balance, and visibly premeditated order.

This property of homeyness is calculated to make homey environments appear more particular and therefore more "real" than nonhomey environments. Ile logic of this association is this: variability makes things appear more contingent, contingency makes things appear more individual and authentic. Homey phenomenon is supposed to be relatively haphazard, highly contingent, phenomenon, the particular outcome of particular intentions, desires and events. It is not supposed to be the work of premeditation, routinized process (e.g., mass manufacture), or anonymous calculation. This makes the homeyness ideology vulnerable to several ironies and contradictions. For instance, the very woodwork and "ginger bread" that gives certain surfaces the appearance of contingency (and homeyness) exists only because of the invention of new sawing technologies, and the mass manufacture this made possible. Just why this property of homeyness should succeed in making homey environments appear more "real" is not entirely clear. But it is worth noting that Miller (1972:364) has observed a very similar pattern for the theater. Miller notes that stage performances have greater veracity when they contain "contentless" or contingent signals.

The Embracing Property

Homeyness has an embracing aspect. This is partly a function of the smallness and variableness of homey space. But is also the result of the way in which the homey environment is filled, organized, and contained. For the surfaces of the homey environment exhibit a pattern of descending enclosure. Each surface is enclosed by a greater surface and in turn encloses a lesser one. This hierarchical chain of enclosure creates the embrace of the homey environment.

The first act of encompassment begins with the neighborhood and yard. Some neighborhood, especially for instance the cul-de-sac, have a strongly encompassing character (Brown and Werner 1985). The presence of trees on public streets and fences, shrubbery, and ornaments in private yards also contribute to a sense of enclosed space.

For some homes the first enclosing surface is the ivy (Hedera Helix var. 'Hibemica,' 'Angularis,= or 'Dentata Variegata,') that climbs and encompasses the exterior wall of the house. This has the effect of embedding the exterior of the house in a still greater exterior, adding a layer to the encompassing folds of the house, and obscuring the hard and man-made surfaces of the house in a surface that is not only organic but also evocative of benign pastoral images and cloistered institutional ones.

The next potentially embracing surface of the home is the roof line. When a home has an overhanging "hipped" roof, it is seen to be embraced by it and made more homey. This roof line appears in several architectural styles common to 19th and 20th century North America (e.g., mock Tudor cottage, pitched Gothic house, California bungelow, and some of the domestic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright). A variation of this encompassing effect is repeated in the canvas awnings that are sometimes placed over windows. These awnings serve in a sense to "roof" the window and give the house a homey appearance by adding to its embracing surfaces.

The next potentially homey surface of the house is the external wall. Respondents argued that this surface was especially homey when it consists in small and variable units (the diminutive and variable properties at work in a larger one). The wall of a mock Tudor home therefore qualifies, as does brick, stone, and any wooden surface with Gothic or "ginger bread" ornament. Massive walls with unbroken spaces and lines were seen to be incapable of the homey embrace and one respondent was moved to compare these external walls to those of a prison compound, the least homey of environments.

Another interior surface is the books that sometimes line the walls of a den, study or library. Here we see the creation of another layer, interior instead of exterior, man-made instead of natural. This layer, like the one before it, helps, in a visual sense, to buttress the outside and fortify the inside. But additional symbolic resources are deployed. This layer of books is the real and potential source of the layers of knowledge and understanding with which the individual mediates his or her relationship to the world and constructs the self, a point to which we shall return below. It is therefore the source of additional encompassing materials. But just as important, a wall of books represents ports to an extraordinary intellectual and imaginative geography in which the individual is free to "lose" or "find" (and so construct) the self. Books supply encompassed material as well.

The other furnishings of the wall of the homey environment help to extend its embrace. The sheer abundance of pictures and hangings for the wall create another layer, this one of objects of the family's own manufacture. These pictures record the family's past and present (e.g., wedding and graduation pictures), its internal and external relationships (e.g., mothers' day cards, team photographs, club plaques), and its accomplishments (e.g., diplomas, bowling trophies, stuffed fish). They represent a layer the family has made of itself for itself.

The "memory wall," as we may call it here, appears to have a special relationship to the family. The family, in modem North America, is a highly performative cultural entity. It must make itself a family out of its activities and connections, out of its enacted roles and performed relationships. The "memory wall" appears to capture both aspects of this constructed family's "encompassed/encompassing" logic. As an encompassing surface, the wall of family memorabilia stands for the family as corporation, the larger, containing, institution the family has made for itself through its shared activities, accomplishments and interconnections. As an encompassed surface, the memory wall stands for the smaller, contained, individualized diversity that exists within the family. Using yet another "part-whole" logic, the wall repeats this rendering of the family. The entire body of wall ornaments stands for the corporation, subsuming individual pieces within a larger whole. But every particular piece in the collection stands as an individualized part, representing the personal experiences and achievements of an individual.

The furnishings of the room help to complete the process of encompassment. They make up the last ring of material intimacy in the home. One group of these furnishings encircle the wall and a second set create small pools at the center of the room. Chairs and sofas drawn into a circle, focused on an imaginary center point, are the final surround in this material world. When this circle is occupied, a final human surround is accomplished. The final piece of the encompassing process can be the odor of cooking food that surrounds the individual as he or she enters the home (Howe 1987).

In sum, the embracing aspect of homeyness demonstrates a descending pattern of enclosure. The structure of the neighborhood, the foliage of the street and yard, the ivy of the exterior wall, the overhanging roof, the exterior wall, the books of the interior wall, the memory wall, the furnishings of the room, the constructed family, and the constructed self, all work by graduated stages to create the sense of enclosure. Each ring of intimacy encloses the next, so that the center of a room has a deeply embedded quality. 'Me occupant of such a space is removed and protected from the outside world by an intricate series of baffles and mediators.

The process of enclosure has, from a logical point of view, an active quality that aids in its representation. Each layer of intimacy (except the first and last) is both encompassed and encompassing. Outer layers enclose inner layers which in turn enclose still more inner layers. This logical relationship of encompassing and encompassment, arrayed as it is in a hierarchical series, gives the notion of enclosure a repetitive and a shifting quality. The acts of encompassing and encompassment are repeated again and again in the household. Furthermore, what is enclosed at one moment is enclosing in another. These two qualities makes the embracing property of homeyness conceptually lively; more active than passive in character, more visible and plain.

But the process of enclosure also has a dynamic quality from an historical point of view. All of the elements of the encompassing hierarchy require time to be established. The ivy takes time to grow, the books take time to collect, the memory wall takes time to create, the furniture time to buy and arrange, the family time to construct, the self time to assemble. There is a strong developmental aspect to the embracing property. It takes time to accomplish; the layers go on bit by bit. This too helps to emphasize the embracing process.

The process of enclosure even has a dynamic quality from a social point of view. It is created by diverse agents, including the forces of a domesticated nature (e.g., the ivy), an anonymous market place (e.g., the house), a personalized literary community (e.g., books chosen by the family), by a family (e.g., the memory wall), and by an individual (e.g., hobby products). The embracing quality of the homey space is a collective accomplishment to which diverse parties contribute. This diversity of contribution gives it a quality of contingency that it could not have were it the work of a single individual or group engaged in a single project.

All of these layers for these several reasons help to give homey space an encompassing character, and to iterate and reiterate the room's containing quality. The occupant of such a space is held, almost cossetted, by its contents. This aspect of the homey principle gives it the ability to make the individual feel secure and protected from external threat. In this capacity, the homey space has the same symbolic and psychological value as a parental embrace. It offers security from real but especially from imagined dangers. The psychological satisfactions to be drawn from this protection is, respondents claim, quite considerable. That it is, in the colloquial sense of the term, merely "symbolic" protection, does not appear to make it any less Comforting, important, or desirable.

The encompassing powers of the homey environment are sometimes felt most acutely and consciously by those who wish least to feel their effect. Children who have recently moved away from home, sometimes complain, on their return, of the "stifling" and "infantilizing" quality of the home and its ability to reduce them to old patterns of dependency. This is homeyness at work.

But if respondents understand the encompassing quality of homey phenomena in these psychological terms, as an embrace, the ethnographic observer may give another, somewhat more structural, account. The embracing property of homeyness appears to take some of its emotional power from its special relationship to the constructed character of the family and individual. For the family and the individual cannot fashion the embracing aspect of homeyness without fashioning the self and family. Cultivating a homey environment, and especially constructing the memory wall, contribute willy nilly to the construction of the self and the family. Some of the intense satisfaction attached to homeyness, some of its resemblance to the parental embrace, stems perhaps from this special relationship to the processes by which the self and family take shape.

The Engaging Property

Homeyness has an engaging aspect. It appears deliberately designed to engage the observer. This process begins with the "welcoming" objective of homey phenomena. There is no ethnographic study that enables us to understand how, in this culture, it is possible to speak sensibly of a holly wreath, for example, as "welcoming." But respondents found this an unexceptional, indeed necessary adjective for a range of decorative materials. They were able to suggest (but more frequently merely to imply) that the wreath has something in its character that extends an invitation for interaction, promises a warm reception, represents a certain emotional tone for the interior within. Homey objects, respondents say, are supposed to "draw" the observer in.

Like the embracing property, this engaging property of homeyness has a graduated character. Engagement in homeyness works by stages, becoming more intense as the individual is more deeply insinuated into the homey environment. The holiday wreath on the front door attempts a relatively public and general species of engagement. As the individual moves into the home, he or she encounters increasingly specific and personal gestures. The arrangement of the house, of a room, of the furniture of a room, of the large decorative details in the room, of the small decorative "touches" (as they are called), all of these can be charged with homeyness, and each draws the individual still further into engagement.

The engaging strategy extends to and governs even the demeanor of individuals within the homey space. By convention, the occupants of a homey space are supposed to be "open" to new arrivals, and prepared to "greet" them with generosity and warmth. This notion of "openness" is an important one for respondents, and their insistence on it points to the existence of the engaging strategy as well as the encompassing strategy. Openness is meant to be played out not just in the material culture of the homey environment but even in the behavior of its occupants. The occupant of the homey space, when part of a group, is supposed to greet a visitor by breaking the circle and rising to meet the visitor. The body is itself "opened," as the occupant turns to face the visitor and extends an open hand in greeting. It is most important that the face be, in a sense, "open," tilted back slightly with mouth and eyes opened with surprise, pleasure and "recognition." The orientation of the entire room, both its animate and inanimate objects, opens in greeting (and then, when the visitor has been made part of the group, closes again so that they too are encompassed).

The process continues with the arrangement of chairs in a manner that invites interaction, the presence of playful, amusing objects that demand a reaction, and the existence of objects such as magazines, knitting, and even games or puzzles. The homey room may also contain home-made furniture, wall hangings, and art objects, all of which seem designed to occasion conversation and the opportunity for engagement. All of these things invite the occupant to become a participant, if only as the close observer of a lively environment (cf. the Victorian precedent discussed by Clark 1986: 117-120). They also invite several occupants to become conversational partners whose interaction with the room prompts interaction with one another and vice versa.

Previous properties have already succeeded in containing and embracing the occupant. This one now demands a more active, autonomous, and self directed kind of relationship. Homeyness has moved from a passive involvement to active involvement, the great sine qua non of all projects that seek engagement. With engagement, the homey environment has found a powerful way to strengthen its relationship with the occupant.

The Mnemonic Property

Homeyness has an mnemonic aspect. The most striking objects here are the house itself, replete with family association and history, trophies, gifts from children or friends, photographs of the family, tourist mementoes, hand crafted pieces of furniture and decorative objects. All of these carry an unmistakable historical character. Indeed they have been called the family archives (McCracken 1987). The mnemonic significance of objects is so strong that it can override aesthetic and other "decorator" considerations. One respondent found herself caught between aesthetic and mnemonic considerations and referred to a picture,

"[that] I really don't like but someone who I really care a lot about gave it to us as a wedding present. I put it up because I like this woman [but] I have it on this backside of the wall so you can't really see it as you come in."

These objects are intended to recall the presence of family and friendship relationships, personal achievements, family events, ritual passages, and community associations. Some respondents spoke of these objects not just as a record of their past but even as a kind of proof and enactment of it. In the language of semiotics, these Memorial objects "index" the presence of certain aspects of personal and family life even as they play these aspects out in the manner of a performative (Pierce 1932).

This aspect of homeyness has the effect of deeply personalizing the present circumstances. The place that is containing, embracing, and engaging, is now very strongly particularized and localized in time. It is made a place in time. This temporal "emplacement," as we might call it, of the homey environment is accomplished by the expressing, indexing and performance of the family's historical meanings and recollections. The individual is now much more vividly "somewhere" than before because the environment is much more vividly "sometime" than before. The engaging aspect of homeyness helps to substantialize the environment in which the individual. finds him or her self.

The Authentic Property

Homeyness has an authentic aspect. Respondents spoke of homey spaces and things as being somehow more "real" and somehow more "natural" than certain alternatives styles of furnishing. They spoke of homey things and space as being strongly opposite in character to things that were "contrived," "artificial," and "forced." In their view, inauthentic styles were the product of modem aesthetic, interior designers, show pieces homes, and high status individuals.

All of the aforementioned cultural properties help homey spaces and things assume this authentic character. The small, variable, intimate, engaging, and mnemonic aspects of homey phenomenon all contribute here. But the key to this aspect of homeyness is its intensely personal nature. Homey things and spaces, as we have seen, reflect the particular details of personal lives. Homey things and spaces help distinguish the home from the homes around it, and its occupants from other people. It emphasizes the individuality of the individual and the family in a society that insists with special intensity on this discrimination even as it inevitably engages in patterns of materialism that threaten to obscure it. As Forty suggests, " contemporary Western society, home life is the only effective signifier of personal authenticity" (1986: 152).

Homeyness succeeds in this because it is seen to be untouched by the calculations of the market place, the doctrines of politics or religion, the falsehoods of the status system, the impersonations of the fashion world, the contentions of the advertising enterprise, or any of the other meanings that are served up by the meaning manufacturers of a mass society. Homeyness is the record of a life, a particular life, lived without ulterior motive, creating its own meaning for its own purposes.

The authentic aspect of homeyness helps then to complete the process of emplacement by giving it a spatial dimension. Through the creation of a slew of entirely personal details, it creates a highly centered sense of place. Indeed it is this aspect of homeyness that helps to create the impression that, in the valued phrase with which respondents characterized the highest accomplishment of the homeyness enterprise, "someone lives here."

The Informal Property

Homeyness has an informal aspect. Each of the physical properties identified above can be located on a formality continuum and in every case the homey choice falls at the informal end. Homey colors are the most "warm" and "friendly." The materials are relatively unfinished, almost deliberately unfine. The furniture positively embraces a rustic, relatively crude appearance. Decorative objects are often inexpensive. They are valuable not for their formal beauty or skillful execution but for their humor or sentimentality. Arrangements avoid classical symmetries or modem spareness, and a relative clutter is enjoined. Interior and exterior details of the house design are deliberately rustic, rural, cottagelike, and unprepossessing. Indeed the homey look appears deliberately to eschew any stylistic characteristic that is associated with the formal, the ceremonial, the distant, the disengaged, or the decorous. It appears constantly to work to suggest a certain humility and accessibility. As one respondent put it, "my house says, 'look at me, I'm really beautiful but I'm not pretentious, I'm humble."'

Homey homes and rooms appear deliberately to seek to "lower the tone" of human interaction. As the same respondent explained, "here [in the homeyest part of the house] you could throw things around and I wouldn't worry about breaking anything. Like you could put glasses on this furniture and I wouldn't care and you can just, you know, really be comfortable and not worry about things." She opposed homey places to places "that make you want to be more careful." In short, homey places are supposed to reassure the occupant that no special formality of dress, posture, demeanor, or conversation is required of them. From the respondent's point of view, one of the great objectives of homeyness is that it "puts people at their ease."

Another respondent reacted to a picture of a grand living room with almost violent dislike for its formal tone. He explained that in a visit to one of the residences of Queen Elizabeth H he had found evidence of homeyness. He was especially impressed with "the rooms that they [the Royal family] lived in where the TV set was and you could tell they sat around and had a few drinks before dinner and watched the news or whatever and it looked like it was lived in and yet by God it is the home of the queen and far more homey than that thing [i.e., the room pictured in the stimulus photograph]. That looks like one of the state rooms that they put up to hold a state banquet." According to this impassioned account, even the most formal of social creatures, a royal family, avoids the tyranny of formal surroundings.

The homeyness strategy appears to diminish the formality of the room in order to diminish the formality of the interaction that takes place within it. It is not clear how this transformation is accomplished but it is perhaps the case that the homey environment presents a face that is deliberately without defenses or pretenses in order to reassure the occupant that he or she may forgo defenses and pretenses of their own. Homeyness serves as a vital cue to the rules that govern a particular domestic universe. It says, in effect, "you may 'be yourself without risk of embarrassment or ridicule." It appears designed to ease participation, to reassure the individual that the involvement is, from an impression management point of view, almost entirely riskless.

The Situating Property

Homeyness has a situating aspect. The occupant of homey space is not just contained, embraced, engaged, reminded, emplaced, and reassured, he or she is also deliberately situated within it. In this final stage of the homeyness enterprise, the occupant of homey space becomes, in effect, part of the arrangement. This aspect of homeyness is accomplished by all of the aspects that have gone before, especially the smallness, intimacy, embracing, engaging, mnemonic, emplacing, authenticating character of the phenomenon. Once all of these properties have worked their dramatic effect upon the occupant, the occupant is situated within the homey field as an integral part of it. In this final stage the individual ceases to be an observer, ceases to be a participant, and becomes finally simply a part of the surrounding homey environment.

As we have noted, the largest objective of the symbolic properties of homey objects and their arrangement is involvement. This process is advanced and completed when the occupant is drawn into the configuration of objects and their meanings in such a way that he or she is, in a sense, claimed by it. Homey objects and their arrangement seek to make the individual a homologue of the environment, an intergral part of the whole. Successfully situated in homey space, the occupant of homey space becomes a homey creature. He or she appears to take on the properties of the surrounding space and objects. A kind of meaning transfer has been achieved.

This is homeyness in its most powerfully transformative, performative mode. It is homeyness as an active agent of culture working to metamorphose the individual. In a sense, the material culture circle is completed. For homeyness represents an ideology with which individual invests material culture with very particular culture meanings. Once in place, however, these meanings then turn back upon the individual in such a way that he or she is claimed by them. Individuals create homey material culture, and, eventually, homey material culture returns the favor.

Symbolic Properties In Sum

These are the chief (but not the only) elements in the cultural enterprise homeyness represents. Individually and in combination, these eight symbolic properties of homeyness work to create the involvement of the occupant of a domestic environment and finally to claim them in a thoroughgoing sense. Homeyness seeks to make the occupant fully occupying of homey space and so to claim his or her full attention and affect. The diminutive property makes the homey environment thinkable, the variable property makes it real, the embracing property makes it cossetting, the engaging property makes it involving, the mnemonic property makes it emplacing in time, the authentic property makes it emplacing in space, the informal property makes it reassuring and riskless, and the situating property makes it fully capturing. The cumulative affect of these persuasive properties can be very powerful. It can situate individuals in the world as few other cultural devices can. Homeyness is for many people the adhesive that attaches them to self, family, time and place.


The term "pragmatic properties" refers to the objectives of a cultural phenomenon, the work it is capable of accomplishing in the social world. 'Me distinction intended here between symbolic and pragmatic properties treats symbolic properties as the internal objectives of a cultural phenomenon such as homeyness and the pragmatic properties as its external objectives. In the case of homeyness, more particularly, "pragmatic properties" refers to the ends to which homeyness is put as individuals work to construct certain kinds of meaning in their lives (Bahktin 1981: 270; Bruner and Plattner 1984; Mertz and Parmentier 1985; Shweder and LeVine 1984; Silverstein 1976: 18; Singer 1984; and Tambiah 1977). There are indeed many pragmatic properties of homeyness, many ways in which it is pressed into service in the creation of the social self and world. Only four of these are discussed here. These include the use of homeyness as an enabling context, as a status corrector, as a market place corrector, and as a modernity corrector.

Homeyness as An Enabling Context

The first pragmatic property of meaning is its use as an "enabling" context. Here homeyness has as its objective the creation of a meaningful context within which other meanings become possible. It deploys its various symbolic properties to enable the creation of these meanings. It is a necessary condition of these meanings.

Cultural phenomena are now widely understood to have a performative or processual character (Austin 1965; Sapir 193 1; Tambiah 1977). The assumption here is that these phenomena must be continually performed, enacted or (re)produced in social life in order to have a clear, credible and fully "actual" existence for the individual and the collectivity. As Bruner puts this, "self and society [can] not be taken as given, as fully formed, fixed, and timeless, as either integrated selves or functionally consistent structure. Rather, self and society are always in production, in process..." (1984: 2-3). There are many species of symbolic activity that serve to produce the self and society. They include language, the drama of everyday life, ritual and ceremony, art, narrative traditions in the form of stories, proverbs, and myths, and all of the categories of material culture (built form and its furnishings not least among them). All of these activities rehearse the self and society in a manner that makes them more transparent to reality, actual, and obvious.

My contention here is that homeyness has a very particular role to play in the domestic version of the production process. Its larger purpose here is to create the stage on which all of the various domestic enactments of self and family can be undertaken. These enactments cannot be successful (or, in Austin's phrase, "felicitous") unless homeyness has endowed the house with its particular symbolic properties and powers of engagement.

Homeyness serves as an enabling context in three ways. First, it "drenches" the home environment with properties (smallness, realness, particularlity, risklessness, etc.) that help the individual successfully to enact their conception of the family and the roles they play within it. Families who live in environments without homey meaning can no more enact their notions of what a family is than a theater company can perform Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance without the aid of costumes and scenery. They do not have access to the vital companion meanings that are necessary to give their performances credibility and power. For instance, the family deprived of its homey breakfast nook is deprived of a vital prop for a ritual activity important to creation of family solidarity (Saile 1985). The family deprived of the "memory wall" loses a key dramatization of its collective past and individual achievement (cf. Boschetti 1984). Fathers and mothers deprived of their dramatic props lose badges of office, symbols of power, assurances of solicitude, to name just a few. A family deprived of all homey meanings must encounter insuperable difficulties in the process by which the family is created and sustained.

But if homeyness is profitably compared to the stage and sets of a performance, it may also be compared to the "prompter" who gives a performance direction and continuity. In this second capacity, homeyness creates an environment dense with symbolism from which the actors of the family take their cue. To take one example, the cossetting character of a homey environment helps to remind a family of one of the values by which its relationships are supposed to be oriented. To take another, heirlooms can evoke one of several notions of family continuity and the individual's responsibility thereto (e.g., McCracken 1988b) while craft and handiwork can stand for the preferred modes of family participation and contribution (e.g., McCracken 1987). The homey environment helps continually to prompt the actors in the home, reminding them of the roles and larger objectives of family life. Without these cues and prompts the family is bereft not just of the stage and scenery of their performance, but of the instruction and reminder that gives it consistency and continuity. It is, incidentally, precisely this cuing ability of homeyness that can help the home imprison the individual in sexrole stereotypes.

Third, the homeyness enterprise of engagement works upon each individual to bind them to the family and to ensure his or her participation there in good times and bad. In this capacity, homeyness exercises its gravitational powers to sustain the commitment and conviction of family members. It helps ensure participation that the dramatic company will continue to attend and continue to perform with enthusiasm.

It is noted above that homeyness has its own strongly processual character, and it is appropriate here to observe how this compares to the processual character of the family itself. Both homeyness and the family are constantly under construction through the scripted and innovative efforts of the members of the family. But one takes precedence over the Other. Homeyness must be created before the self and the family can be created. And it must be continually created in order for the self and the family to be created. In other words, it is only if and as homeyness is fully realized that the performative efforts particular to the family can be undertaken felicitously. As more than one respondent put it, "you just can't have a family without a home."

From a general theoretical point of view, this is a phenomenon of some interest. Increasingly, attention is being given to the context-dependent nature of meaning (e.g., Mertz 1985:4; Silverstein 1976). In this case, the context is not the surrounding linguistic material nor the other elements of a ritual but the carefully manipulated material environment, an inanimate world. Homeyness gives us an opportunity to see how the context Provided by material culture can be used to Create, and manipulate meaning. It shows us an enabling context that consists not in words, or actions, but in things.

For the theoretical perspective more particular to material culture studies in anthropology and American studies, this pragmatic aspect of homeyness is also of interest. For here is an instance of material culture on which other kinds of culture, especially in its performative and processual mode, especially depend. We have witnessed material culture simply reflecting cultural categories and principles (Adams 1973, McCracken 1982), we have seen it serving as performatives (Kavanaugh 1978) and as operators (McCracken 1985), but we have yet to see it, as we do here, serving in something like a meta-performative role. This is a neglected species of material culture to which we may wish to be more sensitive.

From the point of view of the study of the ethnography of North America, the "culture and built form" perspective within environmental studies and consumption behavior, this aspect of homeyness is also of some interest. This understanding encourages attention to the pragmatic as well the more traditional cultural properties of the home. The study of homeyness encourages us to reflect with new energy on how people are the users of the meaning with which their homes are endowed. It encourages us to see how the meaning in the built environment is put to work. The study of homeyness allows us to glimpse people making contexts that then make them.

Homeyness as a Status Corrector

The second pragmatic property of homeyness may be called the "status corrector" use. As the social sciences have noted since the work of Veblen (1912) and Simmel (1904), much of the person-object relations of modem North Americans are devoted to the creation and communication of status messages. It is less well noted that this symbolic strategy has, of necessity, given rise to countervailing strategies. Homeyness is one of these. Homeyness allows the individual to defend against status strategies. It allows for the containment, management and repudiation of these strategies. Homeyness performs this work in two quite different ways for two quite different social groups.

High standing groups have a decidedly ambivalent attitude about homeyness (Seeley, Sims and Loosley 1956: 52). As a prevailing tone for home furnishings, it is careful avoided. My expert respondent on this and other issues, an interior decorator, remarked that the adjective "homey" is never used by her clients to describe their wants and needs. This was echoed by the ethnographic data collected for the project. Respondent testimony reveals that homeyness is regarded as having the power to "ruin" the beauty, formality, and calculated charm of an interior, and to embarrass, perhaps even disqualify, the high standing individual. This potent and dangerous power is rewarded with the contempt of high standing individuals who mock homeyness as overstated, sentimental, and "noisy."

It is entirely possible that homeyness is something that upwardly mobile families must dispense with as they begin their upward climb. Observing the value of homeyness in the construction of the family and the self, it is worth wondering here just what the consequences of the repudiation of homeyness might be. My expert respondent offered the astute suggestion that the current popularity of the color "peach" stems from the fact that it resembles (without reproducing) the warm homey colors that families must relinquish as they move up. This is one way of "smuggling" homeyness into new material Circumstances.

The high standing do nevertheless depend on homeyness to relieve certain of the burdens created by their status strategies. The chief of these burdens is the difficulty that some individuals experience living in environments that are fully dedicated to status symbolism. Interiors that are "perfect" from a status point of view are sometimes also perfectly uninhabitable. The Crestwood Height dwellers of 1940's Toronto claimed that they found their club more homey and inhabitable than their homes. They preferred to stay at the club for fear of "marring the theatrical arrangements prescribed [for their home] by the decorator" (Seeley, Sims and Loosley 1956: 53).

For these individuals carefully controlled access to homeyness is exceedingly valuable. The Crestwood Height dwellers chose the safe keeping of a distant club, but one respondent in the research project choose instead to "permit" a number of homey objects in his home. These included a piece of tourist art, two reminders of his summer cottage, and a den. Unlike the rest of the home, where "everyone has to be on their best behavior," the den and the homey pieces were seen to be engaging, informal, playful and relaxed, and a valued refuge from the exacting demands of the family's status strategy.

Highstanding individuals use homey objects both as a status strategy and a status corrector. In the first capacity, homey, attention-getting objects are placed in the living room to provoke the curiosity of the guest and to give the host the occasion to tell a self aggrandizing story about his or her recent trip to a "fascinating little country in Asia." In the second, homey objects are used deliberately to "lower the tone" of an otherwise daunting room, and put the guest at his or her ease. Hosts often use these objects as conversational opportunities to tell stories against themselves.

Homeyness has a very different pragmatic significance of homeyness for middle standing groups. Research results suggests that these groups embrace homeyness without ambivalence. For these groups homeyness is an unalloyed good, difficult to achieve, challenging to sustain, but always and unambiguously desirable. For this group the accomplishment of homeyness is one of the great objectives of family life.

Certainly, it is embraced in this manner in part because of its first pragmatic property. Middle standing families like homeyness because it is the necessary condition of their successful enactment of their concept of the family. But it is also true that homeyness serves this group as a status corrector. Respondents suggested that homeyness was their bulwark against status competition. They described their homey environments as safe domains impervious to the demands (and the taunts) of the status system. Without homeyness, it appears, they would be the helpless captives of this system, constantly prone to "buying up" in a ceaseless battle for prestige (McCracken 1988c). A homey environment turns the occupant's attention away from this battle, and provides satisfactions and solidarities against which the battle dwindles into unimportance. For many of the middle class respondents, homeyness is home-made meaning, whereas all of the meanings of the status game are market-made meanings. By using homeyness as their bulwark against the status system, individuals protect themselves from the intrusions and demands of the designer, the marketer, and the showy neighbor, some of whom, respondents said, create homes of beauty but precious little joy.

The social sciences have for too long imagined that status meaning is the chief meaning carried by the material culture of a consumer society. They have also just as glibly supposed that when consumer goods carry status significance, they do so in a simple positive manner. It is time to see that goods carry many meanings additional to those of status, and that some of these meanings are very deliberately at odds with the status system and the objectives of conspicuous consumption.

It is worth emphasizing here that homeyness has a kind of multivocality, assuming one meaning for those of high standing and another for those of middle standing. The variability of the meaning of cultural phenomena in complex societies is a topic of some special interest for the semiotic and symbolic anthropologist (Berstein 1974; McCracken and Roth 1986; SchaLzman and Strauss 1955). The study of homeyness suggests that this diversity of meaning is present in the very construction of the domestic world and that it may be driven in part by diverse status strategies.

Homeyness as a Market Place Corrector

Respondents suggested that the homeyness aesthetic was especially useful as a means of stripping their possessions of their commercially assigned meanings. Consumer goods enter -the home complete with class, gender, role, and age meanings, as these have been transferred out of the global cultural structure of North American society into the material culture of the market place (McCracken 1986). Some of these meanings are welcome ones for the consumer and the family, but others bear little relationship to the present constellation that organizes these lives, and still others come bearing profoundly disruptive potential. 'Me efforts a family must make to create a homey environment help to strip and transform these meanings. The coffee table that leaves the store teeming with the market meanings (i.e., status symbolism, fashion currency, and pretensions to elegance) fast becomes a somewhat plainer, more companionable piece in the company of homey objects and homey creatures. Homeyness is so powerful in this respect it can even transform goods that are charged with a bogus "homeyness" (e.g., those with a false wood-grain finish) into genuinely companionable objects.

The best illustration of this function of homeyness is brought out by the dislike of interior designers that was voiced by several respondents. These designers stand accused of introducing into the home, whole assemblages of consumer goods that remain impervious to the meaning manipulation efforts of the home owner. Designers are seen to prevent the creation of a homey environment and to leave the individual defenseless against the alienating power of the unreconstituted commercial goods.

This aspect of homeyness is of special theoretical interest because the social sciences have on the whole been inclined to accept the popular view that North Americans are necessarily the passive recipients of commercial manipulated meanings. There is reason to think, on the contrary, that North Americans are for some purposes entirely capable of judiciously selecting and manipulating the meanings of the market place. Far from being the vulnerable playthings of the forces of marketing, they are possessed of their own culturally constituted powers of discrimination. The study of homeyness helps us to see one of the mainstays of this culturally endowed (and endowing) ability. More research is needed here to tell us which social groups have these powers of discrimination, and whether their distribution varies with class, age, and sex.

Homeyness as a Modernity Corrector

The fourth pragmatic property of homeyness is its ability to contend with modernity. Respondents indicated that they regard modem styles of house design and furniture as unattractive, inhospitable, and severe. The unkindest thing one respondent could say about interior furnishings was to call them "Scandinavian." Respondents complained that modem design made the home cold and unforgiving. This position is nowhere better illustrated than in the comments that appear in Creighton and Ford's Contemporary Houses Evaluated by Their Owners (1961). This wonderful ethnographic document shows some 36 houses designed after the modem style, and provides the comments of their occupants. In the words of one family, "The major lack that we have begun to feel ... is some place to retreat to from the very openness that we like so much. We need a small cozy, den-like room to sit in sometimes as a change of pace" (1961: 219). In the words of another, "We like the open planning, but there are times when human beings have a need to feel closed in and comfortable. At such times we use the library" (1961: 195).

Modem homes with the undifferentiated, multifunctional, open-plan spaces, long lines and smooth unbroken surfaces, and lack of ornament, violate many of the tenets of homeyness. They especially contradict the intentions of the diminutive, the variable, and the embracing aspects of homeyness. But the modem aesthetic also contradicts the mnemonic, authentic, informal and situating properties of homeyness. Indeed so thoroughgoing is the opposition between homeyness and the modem aesthetic the latter appears almost to have been created in contradistinction to the former.

The discomfort of North Americans notwithstanding, the modem style has prevailed as the motif of exterior and interior design and it will be some time before post-modem developments loosen its grip on the domestic home. In the interim, homeyness has served as a kind of corrector here. It has allowed families to give more habitable meanings to environments that are otherwise potentially forbidding and even "Scandinavian."

In sum, homeyness is put to many purposes in the social world of contemporary North Americans. It is used to establish an enabling context for the family's construction of itself. It is also used as a status corrector, serving high standing groups in one way and middle standing ones in quite another. It serves as a market place corrector and an instrument with which individuals can strip incoming consumer goods of their commercially assigned meanings and give them a set of entirely different ones. Finally, homeyness serves as a modernity corrector, giving respite from the difficulties and aesthetic alienation that is induced by the modem style of home design and decoration. This is a limited inventory of the functions of homeyness, but it is enough perhaps to reveal the depth and extent of its usefulness in this modem developed society.


From a general perspective, homeyness appears to play a curious and vital part in the larger cultural system of modem North America. I have tried to argue that there is a continuity between the properties of the family and the properties of its material circumstances. Both the family and the home are supposed to be diminutive, contingent, embracing, engaging, backward looking, authentic, informal and situating. This continuity is not the simple shadow of cultural ideas on the surfaces of the "real" world. As I have tried to argue above, when individuals and families undertake the creation of homeyness, they are engaged, willy nilly, in the creation of the family and the self. The symbolic properties of the family, in other words, follow from the Creation of the symbolic properties of the homey home. Homeyness, as a set of interior design ideas, is also a set of cultural specifications for the creation of a social group and a cultural domain. Homeyness supplies the template for the construction of an environment and a family together.

But we may go further. 'Me construction of homeyness also aids in the construction of a system of relations in which the home is situated. For homeyness supplies some of the meaningful co-ordinates according to which the family and the home are to be discriminated from other domains, especially those of work and public life. When the home and family are given homey symbolic properties, when they are made diminutive, contingent, embracing, engaging, backward looking, authentic, informal and situating, they are made to exist in contradistinction to other meanings and domains contained within the North American cultural system. They come to exist in opposition to meanings and domains that are deliberately comprehensive, systematic, rational, instrumental, individualistic, disengaged, forward looking, contrived, and formal. To this extent, the ideology of homeyness enters into the processes by which we fashion the distinction between "private" and "public" domains, and "personal" and "anonymous" ones. It helps us to construct and mark the distinctions between the affective and the instrumental, the natural and the artificial, and the authentic and the contrived. In short, homeyness is intimately caught up in and an organizer of some of the symbolic properties by which certain of the most crucial cultural categories and distinctions are known in modem North America. Homeyness helps fashion the architecture of the home, the family, and the culture all at once.

But if we shift from a collective to an individual point of view, it is possible to observe homeyness in a still more dynamic performative mode. The pragmatic properties of homeyness give the individual a means by which to fashion their relationship with the larger institutions of modern society. It lets them reckon with the intrusion of alien meanings from the market place, the distracting competitive impulses of a mobile society, and the unwelcome aesthetics of changing fashions. Homeyness helps the individual to mediate his or her relationship with the larger world, refusing some of its influences, and transforming still others. It plays its role here by empowering the individual to select and refuse the cultural meanings, to be a discriminating consumer in the culture of the consumer society. The process also happens in tandem. It is in creating the homey home that the individual fashions his or her relationship with the outside world. Here, too, homeyness creates the template for the architecture of both material and social circumstances, this time from the individual's point of view.

This paper offers an account of the physical, symbolic and pragmatic properties of homeyness. It has attempted to show why this neglected and perplexing cultural phenomenon should prove so preoccupying for the North American householder. The anatomy of homeyness offered here identifies eight symbolic properties by which homeyness pursues its conspiracy to capture the thought and affect of the individual, and four pragmatic properties according to which homeyness is pressed into service in the accomplishment of vital social and cultural work. Several of the social sciences have been evoked in this analysis and it is hoped that the paper will reciprocate these contributions and stimulate further interdisciplinary exchange.


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Grant McCracken, University of Guelph


SV - Interpretive Consumer Research | 1989

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