A nomadic sense of home
Home is often understood as a fixed point in space that’s tied to territory, but nomadic communities remind us that home can be cultivated on the move
In Australia, as in much of the West, there’s an intimate and seemingly unshakeable connection between our conception and experience of home and the material world.
Home, as commonly understood in the modern Anglo-European imaginary, refers to a physical structure like a house or apartment, as well as the territory upon which it rests – the suburb, the city or the country as a whole.
Equally fundamental to this conventional conception of home is an expectation of return.
Home, it’s often imagined, is a familiar place you inevitably and eventually make your way back to, whether at the end of the day, a holiday or time spent working abroad.
Taken together, then, home, as typically understood, is something you necessarily leave behind when you travel and build a life on the move.
The use of arboreal metaphors like ‘roots’ when talking about our countries of origin has certainly naturalised this territorialising logic that’s often employed when making sense of our connection to the world.
But the fixing of people to specific places is more normative than natural – more imaginative than innate – and it’s perhaps time we ‘uprooted’ this static and territorial concept of home.
In a world increasingly characterised by mobility and complex transnational ties, the tethering of home to territory fails to capture alternative understandings and experiences of home – especially amongst nomadic communities.
In my ongoing work on digital nomads, I’m interested in how this highly mobile population employ a range of home-making practices and strategies to experience a feeling of home on the road.
Specifically, how do these itinerant individuals imagine, create and maintain a sense of home while continually on the move through changing sociocultural contexts?
Due to the novelty of this hypermobile lifestyle, little research exists in this area.
However, one recent study found that digital nomads harboured a more mobile conception of home that wasn’t tied to a physical place, and were able feel at home anywhere in the world through the cultivation of certain mobile practices.
This includes travelling with loved ones, or with objects of emotional value as well as using Skype and other forms of communication to stay in contact with friends and family.
Other nomadic communities, like location-independent families, also demonstrate that home can be mobile and multiple instead of singular and static which can be realised on the road through other mobile home-making practices, like the strategic use of routine.
For example, by sticking to the same daily schedule and engaging in the same portable practices together while travelling the world — like working out, watching shows and sharing meals — a thread of familiarity is continually woven through ever-changing spatial and cultural contexts.
This can provide the stability needed for an enduring sense of home through space and time.
In other words, routine, for these nomadic families, is used to foster a sense of familiarity and create a mobile sense of home no matter where in the world they happen to be.
Other mobile individuals, like transnational professionals, also utilise routine in the cultivation of a sense of home.
Paradoxically then, rather than being incompatible to the idea of home – movement, in the form of everyday mobility – is fundamental to its realisation. Through routine and repetition, unfamiliar places and people can slowly become familiarised.
The viability of a moving sense of home is, in part, a reflection of its conceptual ambiguity and multiple meanings.
Home is a deeply personal and multidimensional concept that can be understood and experienced in a variety of different ways, often simultaneously.
So, any attempt to capture its conceptual essence – analytically or descriptively – is problematic.
Besides a territorial understanding of home, for some people home is a feeling – as the popular adage, “home is where the heart is” testifies – or mode of being in the world.
Still, for others, home emerges from the convergence of meaningful relationships to both people and things in the one place – whatever and wherever that place may be.
Most commonly, a sense of home is experienced from the interplay of all these components, albeit to different degrees.
That is, home is both the place itself and the people within it – a spatio-social system – made familiar and meaningful through the passage of time.
Most importantly, none of these elements need be fixed in space or localised in territory, and may in fact be continually explored and cultivated through mobility and specific home-making practices.
Travelling with kith and kin, packing meaningful objects in your suitcase or backpack, and engaging in the same routine across transnational borders can all help to foster a sense of home on the move.
As the poet John Berger so insightfully put it, routine practices, although transient, often offer more permanence and shelter than any dwelling.
As the digital nomad community continues to grow thanks to the increasing popularity of remote work policies and the introduction of digital nomad visas, the conventional definition and contours of home are in need of serious reconsideration.
What digital nomads and other travelling communities show us, however, is that home isn’t necessarily tied to territory, but can be imagined, cultivated and experienced in mobile and multiple ways.
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