What is the Housing Pathways Methodology?

If you are planning to carry out qualitative housing research, you may wish to consider a housing pathways methodology. This is an approach I have used to frame my research into homelessness and gentrification.

Although the idea of a 'pathway' in housing has been used in a number of studies, the main protagonist of the housing pathways methodology and the person who grounded it within particular philosophical and theoretical assumptions is Clapham (2005). Basing it on a weak form of social constructionism and establishing the importance of temporality and spatiality, he defined it as “the patterns of interaction (practices) concerning house and home, over time and space”. He described a household’s housing pathway as: [T]he continually changing set of relationships and interactions, which it experiences over time in its consumption of housing. These may take place in a number of locales such as the house, the neighbourhood or the office of an estate agent or landlord (Clapham, 2005 p. 27).

In addition, for Clapham, housing is not consumed in isolation, but is intrinsically tied in with other aspects of life such as employment, family issues and other life circumstances. A key aspect of the housing pathways methodology is the rejection of the ontological and epistemological positions of objectivism or subjectivism to satisfactorily explain social phenomena, objectivism being the notion that there exists a reality outside of the individual, and subjectivism (or constructionism and interpretivism) the belief that the social world is external to the individual's mind, and actually just consists of labels, concepts and names, which are used to structure reality.

The housing pathways methodology, however, assumes that knowledge is gained by considering the objective and subjective dimensions of housing as a duality. It is thus necessary to consider the relationship between the (structural positioning) discourses, social structures, and institutions that support and/or constrain households and shape pathways and the subjective understandings of household’s experiences. It is this social constructivist view of the nature of reality that mean that the housing pathways approach takes account of the way that society constructs norms and expectations about changes in location or tenure. This Clapham refers to as ‘motorways’ (Clapham, 2005, p. 68) to emphasise the way in which in certain context particular taken-for-granted trajectories through the housing field will dominate. 

A number of common themes which incorporate these ideas can be identified from studies that have followed the housing pathways methodology. Firstly, there is a rejection of the assumption that households will follow an upward trajectory in their housing moves, progressing from renting to owner-occupation and larger houses, with moves triggered by changing needs linked to the lifecycle such as marriage, the birth of children, dependents leaving the home, and a change of job (Clark, Deurloo, & Dieleman, 2003; Kendig, 1984; McLeod and Ellis, 1982; Rossi and Shlay, 1982). Instead, reflecting the subjective and unique experiences of housing pathways, households have the potential to experience multiple routes, with a range of interrelated factors and pressures impacting on decision-making. This is particularly relevant given such current trends as the growth of single person and lone-parent households and a decline in the incidences of marriage, but also due to factors such as lifestyle choice (Clapham, 2005).  

In order to understand this more complex nature of housing trajectories, housing pathways researchers have tended to seek to understand the ways in which people relate to the places in which they live, and thus undertaken biographical research (see for example Ford, Rugg and Burrows, 2002;  Mackie, 2012; Moore, 2014; Netto, 2011; Skobba, 2016). This was the method advocated by Clapham (2005, p.240) in order to “understand the meaning of individuals and households and conspicuous aspects of behaviour”. This has involved the collection of personal housing histories through qualitative approaches. The purpose of this is that it can elucidate the ways in which a household’s circumstances, needs and experiences may alter over time, thus ensuring temporality is central the analysis of housing trajectories. Also, the recognition that the consumption of housing is not isolated from other aspects of life means that this qualitative research has focused on ensuring that account is given to not only individual household motivations but also broader social structures that constrain housing mobility, such as financial institutions, variations in market conditions, family pressure, money, and the decisions of landlords. Following on from this, a common theme from the results of such research is then to present broader typologies of different household pathways, based on Weber’s ideal types (Clapham, 2005). The aim of identifying more generalised patterns of pathway allows the drawing out of the constituent meanings of certain routes through housing and to make comparisons between the subjects under study. 

Housing pathways methodologies in practice

A number of relevant studies illustrate the ways in which these characteristics of housing pathways have been used to better understand housing moves. Central to the debate between structure and agency, Ford, Rugg and Burrows (2002) sought to understand the pathways of young people as they transition to adult life. They found their pathways were distinguished by three main factors. First there was the ability to control and plan for independent living, which was in turn influenced by whether the move was ‘intentional’, such as for study, ‘unexpected’ due to pregnancy, or ‘forced’ as a result of parental conflict. The second factor was the form and extent of constraints in relation to accessing housing, with locality important in this respect, as the characteristics of the local housing market impacted on this, as did income and access to benefits. The third factor was the degree of family support.

By examining the combination and intensity of these factors they identified five ideal typical pathways, which were chaotic, unplanned, constrained, planned (non-student) and student pathways. The in-depth interviews and typology of pathways demonstrated the interplay between structure and agency over time. For instance, in the chaotic pathways, there was very little planning, significant constraints and an absence of family support, meaning that the pathways were associated with exclusion, instability, poor conditions and limited choice. In contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, those on planned pathways still had constraints but they were fewer and more manageable and thus conferred choice and facilitated progression. Local mediating factors were also drawn out such as private sector rent levels and the availability of hostel provision, as were initiating factors not related to housing, such as parental disputes, and family formation. The importance of tenure was also seen in that different tenures had different meanings to households depending on the pathway, as did the type of tenure likely to be accessed. Stressing the importance of the biographical approach, they conclude that “A more dynamic analysis of housing pathways allows clearer patterns to emerge in which the meaning of any particular housing episode can only be understood by reference to what preceded it and what followed” (p. 2466). 

Skobba (2016) sought to examine the housing experiences of low-income women in the US. Like Ford, Rugg and Burrows (2002), she was able, through biographical methods, to understand the range of variables influencing the women’s pathways, finding that rather than pathways developing in isolation from life circumstances, factors such as the birth of children, changes in employment and relationships, and experiences in the family of origin intertwined with housing trajectories. Overall, low-income women’s pathways were characterised by insecurity, precariousness, informal housing, frequent moves, and poor housing conditions.

Similarly, Mackie (2012) criticised previous housing research on disabled people for focusing on structural barriers for disabled people, rather than the role of the subjects in shaping their housing experience. In her study of the trajectories of young disabled people, she advocates the housing pathways approach for demonstrating “that societal and individual influences interact to shape the housing experiences of disabled young people, which provides a different and more comprehensive insight from those offered by existing studies….”. Netto’s (2011) study of refugees in Glasgow emphasised the importance of taking into account the temporality and spatial dimensions of individual experience and its relationship to identity negotiation and construction. This was because she found that the identity of refugees changed over time and place. They went from identifying as asylum seekers when they arrived in the UK, to in some cases then being forced to take on a stigmatised homeless identity to acquire accommodation. Finally, though, a sense of belonging, increased self-esteem and connectedness to place developed for many as they settled in more permanent accommodation and built up material and social capital. 


Clapham, D. (2005). The meaning of housing: A pathways approach. Policy Press.

Clark, W. A., Deurloo, M. C., & Dieleman, F. M. (2003). Housing careers in the United States, 1968-93: Modelling the sequencing of housing states. Urban Studies, 40(1), 143–160.

Ford, J., Rugg, J., & Burrows, R. (2002). Conceptualising the contemporary role of housing in the transition to adult life in England. Urban Studies, 39(13), 2455–2467.

Kendig, H. L. (1984). Housing careers, life cycle and residential mobility: implications for the housing market. Urban Studies, 21(3), 271–283.

Mackie, P. K. (2012). Housing pathways of disabled young people: Evidence for policy and practice. Housing Studies, 27(6), 805–821.

McLeod, P., & Ellis, J. (1982). Housing consumption over the family life cycle: an empirical analysis. Urban Studies, 19(2), 177–185.

Moore, R. D. (2014). Coping with homelessness: an expectant mother’s homeless pathway. Housing, Care and Support, 17(3), 142–150.

Netto, G. (2011). Identity negotiation, pathways to housing and “place”: the experience of refugees in Glasgow. Housing, Theory and Society, 28(2), 123–143.

Rossi, P. H., & Shlay, A. B. (1982). Residential mobility and public policy issues: “Why families move” revisited. Journal of Social Issues, 38(3), 21–34.

Skobba, K. (2016). Exploring the Housing Pathways of Low-Income Women: A Biographical Approach. Housing, Theory and Society, 33(1), 41–58.

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