Perla Serfaty, born in 1944 in Marakesh, Morocco is a French and Canadian academic, sociologist, psycho-sociologist and essayist, best known for her work on the home, the appropriation space, and, in particular, of the private sphere as well as the feeling and qualities of at-homeness covered by the French concept of “chez-soi” . She writes under the names Perla Serfaty-Garzon and Perla Korosec-Serfaty.
As a theoretician of private life inside the home and the appropriation of lived-in spaces 1, she has extended her work to the phenomenology of dwelling in the migratory experience, to the analysis of the complexities and tensions of the relation of the contemporary woman to the domestic realm, as well as the intimate and ethical psychological issues of home in relation to childhood and old age.
Among Perla Serfaty’s interests are also sociability and the modes of appropriation of public urban spaces, the transformation of the meaning of protection of architectural, urban heritage as well as of intangible cultural heritage.
She has published Vieillesse et engendrements: La longévité dans la tradition juive. Focusing on the traditional Jewish vision of longevity, as transmitted in the Hebrew Bible, this book was awarded the J. I. Segal Prize in 2014.
The influence of Perla Serfaty’s work in Environmental Psychology has been singled out by her 2018 induction into the International Association People Environment Studies (IAPS) Hall of Fame 2.
Perla Serfaty moved to France in 1964 and pursued her studies of philosophy, psychology and sociology at the University of Strasbourg where she studied under Georges Gusdorf, André Canivez, Georges Lanteri-Laura, Didier Anzieu and Henri Lefebvre. She joined Professor Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s research group at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, at the University of Paris V– Sorbonne; Professor Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe was her thesis director for her doctorat d’État ès Lettres et Sciences humaines (1985, Sociologie) 3.
Appointed to the Instiut de psychologie at the University of Strasbourg in 1969, she introduced into the program Environmental Psychology4, then a new discipline that was not taught in France where it was barely known5,6.
Perla Serfaty played an active role in the development of Environmental Psychology research, as well as its institutional recognition and in the conceptualization within the framework of this discipline of the notions of dwelling and ‘chez-soi,’ as well as of appropriation of space.
She organized the first international academic conference in France devoted to Environmental Psychology: the 3rd International Architectural Psychology Conference (IAPC), held in Strasbourg, the theme of which was ‘The Appropriation of Space.’ The creation of the IAPS (International Association of People-Environmental Studies) in 1981 consolidated, institutionalized and gave formal recognition to the international character of the IAPC.
Conceptualizations and Theoretical Developments
Home and At-Homeness, The Concept of “chez-soi” Self, and Dwelling
At a time when the approaches to domestic space in social psychology were few and basically descriptive, Perla Serfaty delineated a hermeneutic approach to dwelling with the publication in 1985 of the chapter “Experience and Use of the Dwelling” 17 which identified three phenomenological dimensions of lived-in space: 1) creating the opposition of inside / outside establishes the centrality of the experience of interiority; 2) the question of interiority leads to the question of visibility and to the resident’s exposure to the other’s gaze as well as to his own gaze. At once visible and hidden, the subject-dweller allows himself to be seen through his uses of space and his manner of investing it; 3) these modes of investing space and making it one’s own introduce the dimension of appropriation, which refers at once to the actions upon the lived-in space and the repercussions of these actions on the meaning of home as well on the inhabitant’s experience of dwelling 18.
The 2003 publication of Chez soi. Les territoires de l’intimité was significant in that it further examines and structures these early explorations by proposing a three-fold conceptualization of the concept of ‘chez-soi’: 1) as referring to the home as a sphere of secrecy ; 2) as a space of appropriation understood both as the dynamic side of dwelling and as inner transformation of the being; and 3) as a locus of opening toward the other, thus turning the home into a social space, of hospitality and shared family territory.
In line with the interdisciplinary nature of Environmental Psychology, this conceptualization is nourished on the one hand by filiations from philosophers (Emmanuel Levinas, Pierre Sansot, Gaston Bachelard,), psychologists (Didier Anzieu, Harold Proshansky), sociologists (Henri Lefebvre) et historians (Georges Duby , Michelle Perrot, Philippe Ariès, Norbert Elias).
It is also nourished, in an equally fundamental manner, by methods of investigation and analysis chosen by Perla Serfaty. Her choice of a phenomenological approach has allowed her to assume these filiations, while the choice of the in-depth, person-centered, non-directive interview, as well as interpretation of the spoken word allow her to enter into the subjects’ experience, to discovering the facets of the phenomenon being studied, and what conveys meaning in this phenomenon.
These methods come within the scope of a dialectical position and a reversal of outlook at the home as object of study, i.e. an approach which chooses to examine the ‘chez-soi’ and meaning of home from the perspectives created by its dramatic moments and challenging experiences e.g. the experience of burglary 19, moving homes 20, loss of home due to exile or migration 21, homelessness 22, as well as from the study of hidden or secondary spaces in the home e.g. basement, attic, drawers, strongboxes, closets23. Such vantage points and the personal experience of fragmentation24, effraction 25 and confrontation with the hidden regions of the home26 they entail allow Perla Serfaty to get to, a contrario, the uncovering of what constitutes the fundamental core of the experience of home (chez-soi).
Perla Serfaty has created the concept of the trials of the experience of home to refer to these challenging moments and has demonstrated that they reveal the intimate stakes of individual and family shelter, as well as the deep meanings of the metaphorical correspondences between home as an interior space and the person’s experience of interiority. She has identified the areas of the house usually removed from daily uses and from the inhabitant’s gaze as the territories where one’s sense for and need of secrecy is privately processed. She has underlined the connections of this secrecy process with the dweller’s identity and her multiple private temporalities. The situation of the homeless represents in her view the ultimate degree of these challenges.
Home and dwelling in the experience of migration
Perla Serfaty has proposed a psychology of loss of home and rebuilding, which situates migration in a process of self-mastery28,29. This psychology is structured around key concepts which highlight that 1) the migrant, above and beyond physical separation, is possessed by a sense of inner continuity between the sense of home of his or her country of origin and that of his or her host country. This inner continuity is to be understood in terms of identity that are perceptible in the migrant’s actions in the process of elaboration of a new home 30; (2) whether they are forced or voluntary, fully accounted for migrations generate a very high level of vitality and mobilisation on the part of the migrant toward his host society 31,32; (3) the home constitutes the main area for the expression of this vitality which provides the basis for an appropriation marked with successes and pitfalls, simultaneously concrete, sensory, esthetic and relating to identity 33; (4) togetherness (with one’s family and with members of the host-society) and hospitality contribute to the emergence and consolidation of the feeling of being-at-home, “for if hospitality is a value, if it reveals generosity toward others, foreign or not, it is above all the sign of a capacity to open one’s door to the other, it mainly manifests a personal capacity to open one’s door to the other, and, for that very reason, a self-confident mastery of one’s home” 34.
The notion of an assumed decision to migrate occupies a central position in this psychology which places it in an intimate dynamic of conquest of what is vital which is ‘that part of one’s self which belongs only to oneself and is not a part of others” 35. It is at the foundation of the vitality and mobilization which run through the experience of migration, and it leads Perla Serfaty to identify the migrant’s home (chez-soi) as a ‘dwelling based on a sense of achievement’36.
Perla Serfaty has also contributed to the sociology of exile by identifying three of the dimensions that constitute the twofold displacement of the migrant, both geographical and personal. The migrant’s relation to his / her family name – signifying his grounding to place and, in the host country, to the symbolic loss of his /her place in society, constitutes the first of these dimensions.
The second dimension highlights the migrant’s modalities of emotional investment of his /her possessions38. Above and beyond their material form, these objects testify of attachments to places and people, of a cultural origin, of religious or political beliefs or carry memories. The fully assumed decision to migrate or to go into exile in spite of the hardships ahead39 rather than undergoing a very difficult political or societal situation in one’s home country, constitutes the third dimension of the migrant’s twofold displacement.
Women and the domestic sphere
The sociological reflection that Perla Serfaty has developed regarding the relationship of women to home and the domestic sphere highlights women’s present-day contradictions between the desire to not limit their universe to home and their attachment to the latter40. While the home – understood in the sense of the territory of the family – continues to occupy and preoccupy them on a daily basis, they experience a tension between love and hatred of the universe of domesticity 41. At the same time, their prospective disengagement from home arouses other tensions, contradictions and unresolved questions in society as a whole 42.
Dwelling and Aging
Perla Serfaty examines the greater involvement in the domestic sphere by women who have reached retirement age, and the subjective and intimate temporalities that modulate this renewed involvement43. Since time is both the substance of aging and also of the lived experience of dwelling, growing old at home is an existential issue, private and personal, just as much as it is a societal issue44. She is also interested in the issue of time as it relates to inheritance and bequeathal of the home and its contents45. She is also interested in the issue of time as it relates to inheritance and bequeathal of the home and its contents. She shows that the heirs of seniors – nowadays, generally their children who often are over fifty themselves – have become the prescriptors of their inheritance, while the parents manifest the desire to be in control of the traces of themselves that will end up in the hands of their relatives, e.g., by sorting out, dividing up their objects and giving them out while still alive. Finally, she has created the concept of ontological uncertainty in order to take account of the special quality that dwelling takes on in old age, since the home is now usually associated with a short timeframe, by contrast with the same experience during youth, when it is associated with the long timeframe ahead 46,47.
Vision of Longevity in the Hebrew Bible
Biblical sources characterize old age as it is and describe it in all its existential complexity, with its miseries, its questioning of meaning and its achievements 48. Perla Serfaty demonstrates that Jewish tradition does not put anyone into retirement, since there is no retirement from life, from life with others, and even less from ethical commandments. The Hebrew Bible depicts old people, often as great and fruitful just as much as flawed, this in order to prove that during old age, just as during every period of life, but in a more urgent manner when death is pending, each one is obliged to take upon him or herself the duty of transcending the vicissitudes of age and to build upon them a self-transformation49. Moreover, the old person is charged with a mission in the chain of generations50. He or she is obliged to transmit a system of ethics and through this fruitfulness, contribute personally to the pursuit of actions that promote righteousness and justice for a more moral world51.