Individuality, Conformity, and Your Home
I recently discovered the HGTV network, and for some reason have really gotten into watching people go house hunting. It’s a fascinating peek into a process that millions of people have experienced, albeit usually in private.
A home is typically the largest purchase consumers will ever make, so it can be instructive to learn the ins and outs of buying real estate by watching others. HGTV’s house-hunting shows are also an interesting study of the contrast between individuality and conformity.
I noticed that although the prospective buyers featured have different price limits and square footage needs, many of the buyers wanted similar finishes regardless of price range or region: hardwood floors, granite kitchen countertops, and stainless steel appliances. One house with what appeared to be new appliances—although not stainless steel—was deemed “dated” by the home seekers.
In another episode, where sellers get advice on how to “stage” their house to sell, a realtor encouraged a woman to put nearly all the contents of the house—including her children’s toys—in storage so prospective buyers can visualize themselves, rather than her family, living in the house. The homeowner seemed surprised; she thought that her own family’s uniqueness would add an air of authenticity and thus be a selling point. After she de-personalized the rooms her home quickly sold.
This got me thinking about the relationship between individuality and conformity. People tend to see themselves as unique individuals, and our homes become extensions of our individuality. Homes contain our stuff and our memories; this is one of the reasons that home owners are virtually never present when prospective buyers see a property and negotiations are typically done by third parties. Sellers can be personally offended by a low-ball purchase offer, perhaps more so than by a low offer to buy their car or even a low salary offer for a new job.
And yet many homes are strikingly similar, especially in newer developments, which can cost homeowners a premium to live in. As you can see in the photos taken in a new housing development below, each home is virtually identical to the others. All landscaping is uniform, and homeowners must follow specific rules in maintaining their properties.
The development does not allow homeowners to build fences around their yards, so families with dogs must install invisible fences to prevent them from getting out of the yard. On some streets, homeowners cannot put for sale signs on their lawns, but instead can only put them in their window. Other rules include limiting the flags homeowners can fly: the Stars and Stripes is fine, but put a flag with your favorite team or school’s logo out on game day and you could be fined by the homeowner’s association.
This tension between individuality and conformity reminds me of sociologist Emile Durkheim’s thoughts on deviance. He argued that deviance creates unity and a sense of social cohesion by defining what is unacceptable in any community. Developments with identical homes and strict maintenance rules likely strive for conformity to maintain property values and perhaps a sense of community identity that distinguishes itself from another development.
Durkheim suggested that no society could be free of deviance, that instead deviance would simply be redefined. So even in a community with identical homes, the bar for defining deviance is lowered. For instance, in one neighborhood hanging a flag with a heart on it to celebrate Valentine’s Day might be nothing unusual, but it may be redefined as a violation of the community standards in another. Brightly painted homes and those with dramatically distinct architectural styles might be acceptable in some communities, while in others deciding to paint your exterior walls pink might generate hostility from your neighbors or even fines from the city.
According to Durkheim, deviance can also lead to social change if people collectively decide that the rules for conformity are no longer reasonable. Let’s say a new form of technology unwittingly disables an invisible fence, and a dog escapes its front yard and bites a child. In response, the homeowners decide to build a white picket fence to keep their dog on their property. Neighbors might change their minds about the invisible fence rule in order to protect the safety of the community.
Durkheim would suggest that both conformity and individuality serve a purpose. What other sociological theories would help us understand the importance of our homes?