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How Immigrants Perceive Home and Identity

In searching for their home and identity, immigrants face more than deportation.

Sarah Trummer/Pexels
Source: Sarah Trummer/Pexels

When we meet someone for the first time, we often want to ask where they are from. It is an attempt to form an idea of who the person is and what set of rules, values, and morals shaped their psychological and behavioral development. This helps us determine what to expect from them upon contact.

However, that question can be difficult to answer, sometimes painfully so for someone whose life circumstances took them away from their birthplace.

During the early stages of adjustment, immigrants often feel that things fall apart as the word "Patria" becomes no longer synonymous with the concept of home. As people begin to redefine those concepts, they often report feeling adrift, uncertain of the direction to head in. Those in Erikson’s “identity vs. role confusion” stage of development (ages 12 to 18) are particularly vulnerable to strong shifts in identity as a result of immigration.

The relationship between native places, identity, and one’s sense of home is becoming one of increased complexity as people migrate to further lands with significantly different cultures than the one they are brought up in. Global travel has allowed humans to connect with new people and places on a grander scale than ever before.

Dr. Liisa Malkki, a professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, remarks on the concepts of motherland and fatherland by suggesting that “each nation is a grand genealogical tree” and that “by implication, it is impossible to be part of more than one tree.” Yet, Dr. Malkki observes that “more of the world lives in a generalized condition of homelessness”; as people migrate and settle in new places the concept of "home" becomes less tied to a particular nation.

In 2008, The Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 2,260 American adults. They asked participants to identify “the place in your heart you consider to be home.” Thirty-eight percent of the respondents did not identify the place that they were currently living to be “home”; 26 percent reported that “home” was where they were born or raised; 22 percent said that it was where they lived now; 18 percent identified home as the place that they had lived the longest; 15 percent felt that it was where their family had come from, and 4 percent said that home was where they had gone to high school.

Researcher, Ilan Natan Magat of Israel College, notes that home “can be a structure, a feeling, a metaphor, and a symbol.” In exploring the meaning of home, identity, and belonging among Japanese and Israeli immigrants to Canada, Magat coins the concept of “partial homes” which in contrast to the “ideal home” does not include conformity between one’s culture, nationality, and relationships. Instead, in the partial home, immigrants experience a sense of warmth and belonging to their family, but their sense of identity is more connected to their work and family rather than the place where they are located.

Iranian-Swedish social science researcher and educator Fereshteh Ahmadi-Lewin proposes that age, gender, and cultural background should be considered when trying to answer questions about the impact of immigration on identity. The younger the immigrant, the higher the chance of taking on the new community norms and rules. This approach is echoed by researchers who, in their assessment of seniors, found an association between their idea of home and their childhood, community, and places of worship.

The researchers concluded that home is “the place closest to their heart, the place where they can maintain their identity, integrity, and way of living.” It sheds some light on the connection between “home” and “identity.” Since elderly immigrants are more likely to depend on memories rather than thoughts of the future for comfort, their perceptions of home are quite important to their wellbeing. Although ideas about what constitutes a home tend to be formed in early childhood, culture and changes to life circumstances in adulthood affect its ultimate perceptions.

Gender, too, has been found to have a significant influence on one’s perceptions of home. Specifically, men have been shown to base their sense of home on status and achievement, whereas women perceive home more like an “emotional retreat or a protective shelter.”

Finally, the cultural background is probably one of the most significant factors affecting acculturation and subsequent perceptions of fitting in a new society. Professor and Director of the Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies Program at the University of Toronto, Dr. Jeffrey G. Reitz, found that the economic assimilation of European-origin immigrants is fairly rapid but selectively culture contingent; the economic assimilation of racial minority immigrants is less rapid and less culture contingent.

Other factors influencing assimilation can be religion, level of education, language fluency, receiving some sort of education in the new society, and forming memories shared with members of the new community, and of course, the flexibility of the new community in absorbing new members. The more an individual has in common with the population of their host country, the higher the chances of assimilation, therefore the higher the likelihood of considering the new community home.

Some immigrants do not get the chance to visit their place of origin for several decades, if they do at all. Their memory of what this early “home” feels like, tends to be tied in nostalgia, stuck in time, and connected only to the memories of the last time they had contact with it.

However, since communities are dynamic, they never stay the same. When the opportunity to visit arises, those individuals often discover, to their shock, that the picture of "home" they have in their memory is never the same when they return. Often this triggers a significant sense of loss. Suddenly, those individuals lose what they hold on to as a reference for their identity and become, what can feel like, emotionally homeless. This inner crisis can have a significant impact on one’s wellbeing and can manifest itself with mood changes that range from subtle, mild, but persistent low mood to clinical depression.

Despite the numerous challenges associated with immigration, people are often highly resilient. As they adjust to their new view of themselves, identity, and home, their cognitive flexibility and intercultural sensitivity are enhanced (Christmas & Barker). The cognitive flexibility gained through undergoing the transformative process of immigration has been linked to creativity and innovation (Ritter This allows individuals to have an expanded worldview and a more complex, flexible perception of other people, in turn, building interpersonal sensitivity and cross-cultural competence.


(1) Malkki, L. (1992). National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorializing of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees. Cultural Anthropology, 7, pp. 24-44.

(2) Cohn, D. & Morin, R. (2008, December 17). Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home? Retrieved from:…

(3) Magat, I.N. (1999). Israeli and Japanese Immigrants to Canada: Home, Belonging, and the Territorializing of Identity. Ethos, 27, pp. 119-144.

(4) Baffoe, M. (2009). The Social Reconstruction of “Home” among African Immigrants in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies Association, 41-42, pp. 157-173.

(5) Ahmadi Lewin, F. (2000) The Importance of Home for Older Immigrants: A Literature Review and Guidelines for Continuing Research and Theory (The Meaning of Home among Elderly Immigrants: Directions for Future Research and Theoretical Development) Working Paper No 29. The Institute for Housing Research (IBF).

(6) Gillsjo, C., Schwartz-Barcott, D, & Post, I.V. (2011, March 17). Home: The place the older adult cannot imagine living without. Retrieved from:

(7) Hajighasemi-Ossareh, M. (1996). Home and Identity in Late Life: International Perspectives. Springer Pub Co; 1 edition

(8) Rainwater (1966). Home and Identity in Late Life: International Perspectives. Springer Pub Co; 1 edition.

(9) Reitz, J. G. & Sklar, S.M. ( 1997). Culture, Race, and the Economic Assimilation of Immigrants. Sociological Forum, 12, 233–277

(10) Christmas, C. N., & Barker, G. G. (2014). The immigrant experience: Differences in acculturation, intercultural sensitivity, and cognitive flexibility between the first and second generation of Latino immigrants. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 10, 219–236.

(11) Ritter, S., Damian, R., Simonton, D. K., Baaren, R., Strick, M., Derks, J. & Dijksterhuis, A.P. (2012). Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48. 961–964.

(12) Differences in Acculturation, Intercultural Sensitivity, and Cognitive Flexibility Between the First and Second Generation of Latino Immigrants, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication,7:3, 238-257, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2014.929202

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