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Housing As Symbol

Social organization. In many cultures housing is indivisible from family. For example, the common Greek word for family is oikoyenia, which means relatives of the house (Sutton 1999). Related to house and family is household, which is a group of people associated with a particular physical unit, or dwelling, through productive and reproductive activities over a particular period of time (Waller-stein and Smith 1992). A household differs from family in that it may be composed of both family and nonfamily members. However, it is important to note how some family-related social groupings such as household are defined by tenure in a certain physical unit or housing form. Thus, housing is central to family life.

Housing is frequently a symbol of home (Gurney and Means 1993), but family housing differs from the notion of home. Housing or dwelling implies a physical unit, whereas home is the cognitive representation of a familiar place of retreat.

Housing contributes to the social organization and dynamics of kin groups because it "defines and delimits space for the members of a household" (Lawrence 1987, p. 155). Dwellings contribute to patterns of social organization because households are defined by the set of people who co-reside or use the physical unit over a particular period.

Human interactions with the built form of the dwelling are founded upon spatial meanings such as cues for behavior (e.g., staircase indicates methods of ascent and descent). The built unit plays a dual role of communicating the appropriate behaviors to employ and accommodating the behaviors (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999). Amos Rapoport (1982) describes how built forms act as a memory device for cueing appropriate behavior. Behavioral regularities emerge from the rules affiliated with spaces within houses (e.g., "don't slam the screen door") and household objects (Wood and Beck 1994). Meanings for spaces include the rules for the individuals who are allowed access to specific areas.

Peter Wilson (1988) suggests that the boundaries of domestic spaces allow household members some control over access to themselves. Behaviors and information can be concealed from, or displayed to, individuals outside the built unit, thus creating a symbolic division between public and private spaces. Consequently, in addition to providing shelter from the elements, housing can be employed by household members as a shield from public attention.

Boundaries within domestic spaces are symbolic indicators of the organizational patterns among household members. Features of dwellings are used to convey a system of meanings about the spaces that establish the control over private spaces within the home. Houses can incorporate doorways, or other architectural details, that facilitate certain household members' control over the use of areas. Control over areas within the house is important for understanding the notion of privacy among family members. Historical overviews of housing forms demonstrate how the shape of housing and designation of control over spaces is associated with the promotion of the idea of privacy and individualism in family life in Europe and North America (Johnson 1993; Ward 2000). Separate spaces assigned to specific activities (such as A small house in Gorstan, Scotland. BJORN BACKE; PAPILIO/CORBIS bathrooms for bathing) have replaced large multi-functional spaces. Privacy is accomplished through the adoption of specialized enclosed spaces.

Although the built form contributes to the ordering of family and community interactions, it should not be considered the cause of interpersonal interactions because individuals would be assumed to lack the capacity to decide for themselves how to interact. Families and households contribute to shaping housing through adaptation of space utilization (Werner 1987) and changing of existing structures or construction of new structures in an effort to adjust to familial, social, and political changes (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999).

Households engage in a process of adjusting their housing to fit their needs over the life-cycle while being constrained by the availability of household resources and the economic, social, and cultural environments. Change processes normally begin with a household's assessment of current conditions against housing norms. Housing norms, a type of symbol, are defined as social pressures in the form of rules for behavior and life conditions that are accompanied with related sanctions (Dillman; Tremblay; and Dillman 1979; Morris and Winter 1975). These include societywide norms, but a household may have special group norms depending on the household's background. The family itself may also develop its own unique set of housing norms. A difference between a housing condition prescribed by a norm and the actual condition presents a deficit (Beyer 1949; Nickell et al. 1951; Morris et al. 1990; Morris and Winter 1975, 1978; Rossi 1955). For example, if a household has five bedrooms but the norms prescribe six, the household has a deficit of one bedroom. Dissatisfaction with current housing deficits may lead to intentions for change. For example, Irit Sinai (2001) found that the degree of satisfaction with housing in Kumasi, Ghana, predicted change, although shelter characteristics, tenure, and the use of housing for income were associated with the decision to either move or modify housing. If the layout of a dwelling is not well suited to the resident family, the family may either make changes in the dwelling, move, or compensate for the dwelling by making changes in other aspects of family life. However, adaptation of the dwelling is not entirely controlled by the members of the household because housing is a resource that is embedded in a context of external constraints such as government building regulations and economic markets.

Social status. Housing is produced and used, in part, to convey social status. Association with a certain dwelling affords individuals the status of membership in a household. Nonmembership in a household is a state of homelessness, which is usually considered a very low social status. Social status is also conveyed through housing design and adornments. Vernacular architecture, or ordinary local housing, often emulates sophisticated housing such as high-style architecture designed by architects (Ennals and Holdsworth 1998), suggesting that housing forms and amenities are efforts to communicate material wealth and status to those outside the household.

Houses are encoded with symbolic meanings (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999) that include assignment of status to internal spaces. Social status of activities associated with spaces help to define areas within housing as well as familial roles. For example, the recreation room in North American homes during the mid-1900s was assigned to the basement because children's play was a rough and physical activity preferably hidden from the outside world, while the living room, located on the main floor of the house with large windows, was reserved for important adult socializing (Rybczynski 1992). Other research has shown how laundry is a low status activity afforded very A row of Tongkona, traditional houses in the Toraja village of Palawa, Indonesia. ALBRECHT G. SCHAEFER/CORBIS little space or low status areas in European housing (Laermans and Meulders 1999).

Status assignment of household spaces has been studied in relation to gendered patterns of family roles. Gilman (1903) was one of the first authors to identify that the private activities of the home were of lower status than the public activities outside the home. She described a gendered pattern of familial roles in which private household activities, such as cooking and childcare, were viewed as the responsibility of women. Household activities were held in lower esteem than men's participation in the public world. More recent cross-cultural research suggests that the degree of accessibility to both men and women to socially valued information and space, such as the workplace, is associated with the degree of gendered spatial segregation (Spain 1992).

Legal status. The social status of belonging to a dwelling, or membership in a household, is also a form of legal status. The family residence can be recognized by a legal system to represent a fixed place that contributes to the recognition and identification of a household and/or person. Thus, association with a domicile provides individuals with citizenship.

Homeless families are viewed as not belonging to a legal residence or dwelling and therefore have a low status with respect to the rights associated with citizenship. They may live in a dwelling such as temporary shelter in a detention camp, but homeless families are not viewed as existing, by operation of the law, in a permanent dwelling. Historically, homelessness has come to be viewed as a social problem (Keyssar 1993) often associated with economic status.

Economic status. Economic status is attributed to housing when durable dwellings and the land they are situated on are considered commodities. Families buy, sell, or rent housing to gain the legal and social right to access and control dwellings. The ability to acquire housing is associated with the balance between household resources and the cost and availability of housing. For example, Houses in a Tata village in Togo. DANIEL LAINI/CORBIS when housing costs are high relative to income, household formation rates are lower, and the age of individuals purchasing housing (household head) is higher (Skaburski 1994).

The economic value of commodity housing is also interpreted as an indicator of social status. The great houses and courts of England and France were constructed as public displays of wealth and power (Stone 1991). Michael Doucet and John Weaver (1991) describe how the promotion of house ownership in North America has historically been used as an indicator of family success and stability. Ownership is an indicator of freedom from subordination and the attainment of financial and familial security.

The economic value of housing reflects social meaning (Lawrence 1987) such as power or poverty. Further, the ability to acquire commodity housing is associated with attaining the legal right to reside in a permanent domicile and citizenship. Thus, the economic status of housing is integrally related to aspects of the household members' social and legal status. Housing is a pervasive symbol of the status of households and families while operating as physical protection from the environment.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsHousing - Housing As Shelter, Housing As Symbol