Ideas Shaping Practice: Philosophy of Home Economics/Human Sciences

Vol. 19, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editor:
Sue L. T. McGregor

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 19, No.1  
1546-2676. Editor: Lisa W. Booth. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2012. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

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Marjorie Brown's Philosophical Legacy: Contemporary Relevance

Sue L. T. McGregor
Mount Saint Vincent University



This paper will examine Marjorie M. Brown's (1914-1996) seminal work on practical perennial problems and her work with Beatrice Paolucci (1920-1983), which leads to the only existing mission statement for the home economics profession (Brown & Paolucci, 1979) and to the three systems of action approach. Since its inception nearly 40 years ago, these ideas have been studied, embraced, critiqued, and ignored as well as unknown by many professionals. Yet, seminal works contain seeds for future developments and the future is here. Given the seemingly insurmountable problems faced by families, it is time to dust off these ideas and re-examine their contemporary relevance for home economics practice1.   

Figure 1 - Marjorie M. Brown, 1983

For a bit of history, Marjorie M. Brown was an American home economics philosopher (see Figure 1). In 1980, she professed that "I am not a professional philosopher" but I am engaged in "the activity of philosophizing" about home economics (p. vii). She is the next best thing we have to a global home economics guru. She was a practicing home economist for almost 65 years. During the mid-seventies and into to the early nineties, she wrote or co-wrote five seminal documents, all dealing with reconceptualizing and philosophizing about home economics (at least in the Western world). The ideas she created, however, have merit all over the world. Interestingly, most of her monographs and books were written after she retired in the late 70s; she was still sharing her philosophical thoughts up until the year before she passed away in 1996, at the age of 82 (see Brown, 1995).

Brown's first monograph published in 1978 responded to a request to share her thoughts about how the home economics perspective on families was unique from other disciplines and to suggest a model for developing curricula that was consistent with that perspective. It is in this document that she first elaborated on the idea of practical perennial problems, explaining home economics' unique problem orientation and mode of inquiry (namely the critical science approach) (Brown, 1978).

In the same year, Brown and Beatrice Paolucci published Home Economics: A Definition. This 62-page monograph was a response to a request from the American Home Economics Association's (AHEA) Home Economics Defined Committee. Although completed in 1978, it was published a year later and contained almost 100 pages of comments from 15 reactors to the monograph (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). Prefaced by 20 pages of deep philosophical thoughts, including discussions of home economics as a practical science and its link to the human condition, this monograph tendered an inaugural mission statement for the profession, underlined in the original text: "The mission of home economics is to enable families, both as individual units and generally as a social institution, to build and maintain systems of action which lead (1) to maturing in individual self-formation and (2) to enlightened, cooperative participation in the critique and formulation of social goals and means for accomplishing them" (p. 23). This mission statement was followed with a rich discussion of these new concepts: practical problems and a way to deal with them called three systems of action, both predicated on Hannah Arendt's (1958) theory of the human condition and Jürgen Habermas's (1971, 1973) theory of communicative action.

Incredibly, while Brown was writing the 1978 conceptual schema document and conceiving the mission statement document with Bea Paolucci, she also started a third treatise entitled What is Home Economics Education? She finished this in 1980, shortly after she retired (Brown, 1980). In this monograph, she again addressed practical problems and three systems of action (pp. 56-66), prefaced with her characterization of home economics as a personal service profession. She argued that from this perspective, the full intent of home economics professionals is to bring about a change in the person(s) they serve. More to the point, the intent is to foster changes in the system of concepts that a person uses when interpreting and acting upon the self and the environment. "[W]e have to be concerned with their perceptions, their conceptualizations, and their modes of thinking . . . their thinking-acting capacity" (Brown, 1980, p. 59), not just with their technical, hands-on skills and proficiencies used to live day-to-day. She sensed people would balk at this idea, commenting that her ideas "would not be looked upon favourably by some who would prefer one line or, at most, one paragraph" about her conceptualization of the field (1980, p. iv). Undaunted, asserting that home economics is concerned with "the human problems of the home and family" (p. 56), she described in detail the importance of home economists consciously formulating these problems (to be discussed shortly).

Five short years after Brown completed What is Home Economics Education? (Brown, 1980), she published an 1101-page, two volume treatise entitled Philosophical Studies of Home Economics in the United States (Brown, 1985), followed with the 635-page third volume in 1993. Referred to as "the Brown trilogy," they are characterized as "not easy books to read" yet they warrant reading because they "alert readers to the need for a broadened perspective of the field" (Lund, 1985, p. xxxi). Convinced that we would not be ready to reconceptualize the profession unless we were more aware of where we came from, Brown set about recounting and critiquing that history. She wanted to "uncover the intentions and meanings of actions of home economists in the past" (1985, p. xiii).

Volume I dealt with the early beginnings of the profession in the United States, from 1819 to 1908. In particular, Brown shared a deep and critical analysis of the 10 years of meetings at Lake Placid (in New York state) (1899-1908), where the profession was founded in North America. Volume two took up the story, following the North American legacy from 1909 to 1982. Brown (1985) subtitled these two volumes Our Practical-Intellectual Heritage, and later characterized them as attempts to "arouse our historical consciousness" (Brown, 1993, p. xiii).

In Volume 2, the most pressing issues that Brown addressed included (a) home economics as a discipline (supported with a far-reaching discussion about theoretical, applied science, and practical disciplines); (b) paradigms; (c) home economics as a professional community (or lack thereof); (d) the struggle for a name and identity; and, (e) the import of various modes of thought on our practice (e.g., empiricism and positivism, dialectic, phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, and critical). She concluded that "home economics has been handicapped by an anti-intellectual attitude among many of its members . . . [reflected in] holding 'doing things' above reflective thought as part of action" (Brown, 1985, p. 954).

As an aside, AHEA honoured Brown for "her professional and intellectual contributions to the field" (Vincenti, 1997, p. 304) by inviting her to deliver the 1984 inaugural Commemorative Lecture. Noting that the ideas for her lecture were inspired by her then forthcoming two volumes (Brown, 1985), she proceeded to deliver a scathing critique of the profession, mainly for uncritically conforming to the dictates of modern society. She concluded by saying "I know I have shocked you. But I can only hope that it has been a shock of enlightenment and motivation . . . . The time has come when we can no longer be blind and deaf to self-criticism" (Brown, 1984, p. 27).

Carrying on with the theme of being philosophically and conceptually uncritical of our practice, Brown published the third volume a decade later, with the subtitle Basic Ideas by which Home Economists Understand Themselves (Brown, 1993). She was 79 years old when this volume was published. Referred to as "another classic treatise" (Miller, 1993, p. xii), this volume contained a series of essays. Whereas the first two volumes (Brown, 1985) focused on where we have come from, the third volume teased out six contemporary self-characterizations of how we see ourselves as home economists, presented in separate essays: (a) our central concern is well-being of individuals and families; (b) individuals and families are in relationships with society (holistic); (c) we are a professional community; (d) our field is a practical endeavour; (e) we are interdisciplinary; and, (e) we can assume a human ecology perspective.

Brown (1993) concluded that, despite its best intentions, the profession failed to critically examine each of these six aspects of its identity, meaning our practice has been compromised because we have not critically examined our philosophical belief system. Stemming from her critique, she tendered new ideas for our consideration: (a) embracing a normative approach to well-being, (b) reframing the family as the center of the development of human qualities in human beings, (c) building a democratic community in the profession by thinking at a level that includes concepts and philosophy, (d) reconceptualizing practical to mean a moral and ethical orientation to how to live a just and good life as human beings, and (e) augmenting interdisciplinarity with transdisciplinarity as well as (f) striving for a holistic, broad and transdisciplinary human ecology.

In an optimistic vein, she fully believed that members of the profession "can change ourselves through new conceptual insights and consideration of new possibilities" (Brown, 1993, p. xiii), emergent upon reading her treatises, as well as from critical reflection and profession-wide dialogue and discourse. To our profound loss, Marjorie passed away in 1996, unable to witness this dialogue. This paper honours her philosophical contributions to the profession by placing key aspects of her theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical ideas back on our radar (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Chronological overview of Marjorie Brown's conceptual and philosophical contributions


As an overview, Brown (1978) ardently believed that the purpose of home economics is to aid people in solving practical problems of a perennial nature and that the solutions to these perennial concerns lie in the conditions of the larger environment (i.e., the human condition). The condition of the home is inherently linked with the conditions of humanity (Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 18). If we are focused on "the human condition, then the questions we ask, even of our purpose . . ., should be perennial ones" (Fong, 2004, p. 8). Perennial questions require contextual responses (i.e., solutions change with the times), intimating the conditions of humanity will have changed as well. Brown (1978) believed that practical meant think and reason before you act, rather than the lay notion of ordinary, practical activities. A practical perennial problem (always a value or moral question requiring thoughts about what should be done) can only be answered by doing something (or not) based on thought about what to do, rather than on habitual, coerced, or expected responses (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). Brown and Paolucci conceptualized this thought process as three systems of action. The rest of the paper teases these ideas out in more detail (see Figure 2), with some redundancy to enable me to tell her conceptual story (for which I ask your indulgence).

Practical Perennial Problems

By way of introducing a more detailed account of practical perennial problems below, practical problems are different from the day-to-day issues faced by families. How to cook a steak, what kind of insurance to buy, or how to do laundry are short-lived, fleeting, temporary concerns. In contrast, practical questions concern what should be done to meet food needs, to nurture and raise children, to help people develop their potential, to care for the elderly, to ensure adequate shelter, and to ensure a sufficient and satisfying livelihood (Montgomery, 1999). These "what should be done problems, or continuing concerns, focus on the broader underlying questions, issues and concerns of individuals and families . . . . These concerns . . . are addressed in pursuit of achieving particular conditions within society, such as human dignity, freedom, or self-awareness . . . . Because the pursuit of specific societal conditions is ongoing, these questions are considered to be recurring questions, or perennial problems which need to be continually re-examined" (Montgomery, 1999, pp. 82-83, emphasis added).

These perennial problems are encountered by every generation, all around the world. Consequently, an understanding of the current state of affairs or human conditions related to the problem is needed in order to address the issues. This understanding entails taking into consideration each of historical, societal, political, economic, cultural, and technological contextual factors and perspectives (Montgomery, 1999). Indeed, "practical questions . . . arise in the context of concrete situations in everyday life when a guide to action is sought" (Brown, 1993, p. 220). "The practical problem approach pays attention to context" (Engberg, Morgaine, & Solcum, 1993, p. 81). The following text looks at practical and then perennial problems in more detail.

Practical Problems

Home economists are supposed to help solve the "problems of families" characterized as "practical problems" (Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 23). Brown and Paolucci used the Greek notion of practical, which means "reasoned action" (p. 24) rather than habitual or timesaving actions. Reader's Digest published a book entitled Practical Problem Solver, which sounds enticing until one reads the subtitle: Substitutes, Shortcuts, and Ingenious Solutions to Make Life Easier. Billed as the whole house problem solver, this technical, how-to book was intended to help people save time, money, and worry, even embarrassment (Dwyer, French, Weiss, & Dresser, 1991). It resonated with people because it used the lay notion of practical, meaning tips for how to fix glitches in daily life—fixes that are very short term and remedial in nature (no matter how ingenious).

The lay notion of practical pertains to how to make daily life easier but it does not help people understand and then critique the deeper issues in society or in their relationships—the perennial issues. To offset this lay inclination, MacCleave (1995) explained that Marjorie Brown's usage of the term practical "derives from the Aristotlian (sic) concept of praktisch which referred to conscious thought processes which reach fulfilment in action" (p. 137). The underlying philosophy of the practical problem approach is "to improve families' everyday lives by helping them see that there are ways to change the discrepancies that exist between the ideal [desirable] and the reality of life situations" (Engberg et al., 1993, p. 83).

Practical problems have several telling characteristics that distinguish them from (a) technical (procedural, how-to) problems and (b) theoretical (cause and effect/explaining phenomena) problems. Practical problems require actions that can be both intellectually and morally defended. They are concerned with values and are deeply grounded in context—historical, socio-political, and cultural. The outcomes of decisions related to practical problems are uncertain and difficult to predict. Solving them involves reflective thought and value judgements, often due to conflicting and competing values (Brown, 1980; MacCleave, 1995). Toward the end of their monograph, Brown and Paolucci (1979) actually started to use the phrase "practical (value) questions" (p. 49) to convey the notion that practical problems are deeply intertwined with values.

Not surprisingly then, practical problems have philosophical dimensions because they deal with values and with the ethics and morality of professional and familial choices. This insight means that although technical/procedural knowledge and theoretical knowledge may contribute to the solution of practical problems, they are not enough because they are not concerned with values, ethics, or morality (MacCleave, 1995). Knowing how to cook, get dressed, or drive a car (technical knowing) leaves out the ethics and morality of what is behind the making of the food, the dress, or the car (e.g., child labour, sweatshops, loss of rainforests to feed cattle) or the consequences of their use and disposal (e.g., garbage and waste, environmental damage, ozone depletion, climate change). Concern for the latter would have us ask, for example, "What should I think about when making decisions to feed my family" instead of "How do I cook a roast to feed my family?"

Formulating human problems . Brown (1980) firmly believed that home economists play a key role in actually formulating human problems instead of letting others do this for them. Formulating means to systematically express something in precise terms. Home economists would specifically conceive, frame, and articulate the nature of problems that families are facing so that everyone would know the right problems to address. Indeed, home economics deals with the "human problems of the home and family" (Brown, 1980, p. 57). The "formulation of human problems" involves postulating some desirable state of human affairs followed with identifying the "conditions [that] . . . prevent or threaten this desirable state of affairs" (Brown, 1980, p. 57).

In more detail, Brown (1980) reasoned that home economists couldn't adequately deal with practical problems unless they have some notion of the desired state of affairs to which families should aspire; otherwise, how would they know if they are addressing the right problems and not just the symptoms? To stimulate dialogue, she proposed that this desirable state of affairs includes a stable environment replete with a sense of permanence in human relations; reciprocal, genuine relations within the home; and a sense of belonging, of being understood, and of being loved, nurtured, and cared for.

Brown astutely observed, "the plight of the modern family is such that the desirable state of affairs [emphasis added] outlined above does not currently prevail" (Brown, 1980, p. 79). To mitigate this compromised situation, she proposed that home economists could help families put in place three systems to ensure that the aforementioned, stabilizing, and energizing state of affairs is assured. These three systems (i.e., familial communication, work/employment, and political and social engagement) "provide the processes by which the other conditions are effected" (Brown, 1980, p.  79).

In more detail, she first explained that, ideally, families would have a system of communications by which they can understand each other as well as the larger cultural context that forms norms and cultural meanings. Second, families would have a system of work (employment) and household management activities by which they earn and manage resources to meet the physical requirements of the family (food, shelter, health, transportation). Third, families would have learned to use reason to achieve enlightenment, avoid exploitation, and live life in such a way that they actively engage in the political and social struggle to avoid domination by dogmatic beliefs and false views of reality (be emancipated) (Brown, 1980).

Firmly believing in this desirable state of affairs approach, Brown explained that formulating human problems so that we can find the right problems to address, "involves conscious determination of what the family should be" (p. 58) instead of accepting dictates from the dominant ideologies of the time (e.g., family should be a nuclear family instead of single parents or blended families). "The dominant values of society have been uncritically appropriated [by home economists] and upheld to the family as standards" (Brown, 1985, p. 954). Faulting this professional faux pas, she cautioned us to avoid the "tendency to adopt views which were popularized through merely being publicized" (Brown, 1985, p. 954).

With our help, families can actively transform their own thought patterns, "their own mental orientations [that] are historically-socially-culturally influenced" (Brown, 1980, p. 59). She lauded the practical approach (i.e., think before you act) because it means home economists are less likely to "deal only with symptoms and to not even identify the underlying problem" (Brown, 1980, p.61), which is ladened with ideological overtones (Brown, 1980, 1993). Instead of just giving families information or fixing the problem for them (being the expert), home economists should appreciate that solutions to these problems can only come about (a) through changing families' perceptions and their conceptualizations of the problems they face and (b) by changing the family's "way of thinking about the problem" (Brown, 1980, p. 60). The intent is not to figure out what to do to meet an end but to question the proposed solutions to meet this end and all of their consequences and implications. People are required to interpret their contemporary human situation, then both determine what actions are possible and the consequences of those possible actions; only then can they decide what should be done (Brown & Paolucci, 1979).       

With this insight, Brown turned things on their head. Instead of classifying family problems as those of meeting needs (e.g., food, clothing, and shelter), she suggested we classify problems based on "the kind of rationality entailed" in thinking about them while we solve them (Brown, 1980, p. 62). Alluding to perennial problems, Brown used how to secure food as a family problem, explaining that the exact means used to secure food "varies historically and from one culture to another . . . . However, the end is the same, e.g., having adequate food for the family" (1980, p. 62). She maintained that with the practical approach, "families [can] develop confidence and competence in facing their own problems and [can] become self-directing in their own actions" (p. 82). If families can be taught to "transform their own ways of thinking and acting" (Brown, 1980, p. 82), home economists will have done their job.

Perennial Problems

Brown (1978) was the first home economist to characterize practical problems as perennial. In fact, she asserted it is necessary that practical problems be perennial in nature. With practical perennial problems, "the concern is for problems of the home and family [that] . . . are enduring or [that] . . . are faced by each generation over an indefinite if not infinite period of time" (Brown, 1978, p. 17). A practical perennial problem, existing from one generation to another, is often related to perpetual family conditions and includes poverty, employment, shelter, food, education, health, child care and parenting, nurturing human development, aging, relationships, and resource management. Although each generation deals with these problems differently, they are enduring problems with which home economists must be concerned; there is no end to them because they continue for a very long time (Stoner, 1978).

"Perennial problems are real problems that families face in every generation, no matter where they live. They keep coming back in a new context. These types of problems are messy and complex, with no ready-made answers" (McGregor et al., 2004, p. 3). Not a generation passes that people do not worry about or struggle with these sorts of problems (Melanaturu, 2013). And, although the particular means to address the problem might change over time, every generation must face the issue and deal with it differently (Brown, 1980 (see Figure 3). Fong (2004) explained that perennial problems are not necessarily irresolvable. It is just that the "resolutions are local and . . . must be reworked for our time, our circumstances, and our needs" (p. 13).

Figure 3

Shelter and housing portrayed as a practical perennial problem

Practical perennial problems "become more prominent and controversial is times of rapid change" (MacCleave, 1995, p. 136). To illustrate, the problem of housing is with us all the time, but morphs into different shapes depending on the times. Shortly after World War II, housing in Canada was a key issue, especially with soldiers returning home and rejoining and/or starting families. At that particular juncture in time, there were not enough houses to go around. What should be done? Canada experienced a period of explosive urban growth (formerly rural in nature). In the face of this rapid and radical change, the Canadian government created the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Cooperation (CMHC) in 1946 to address Canada's post-war housing problem. CHMC is Canada's national housing agency and it started out by insuring mortgages for homeowners, building low-income housing and social housing rental units, and instigating housing programs to address the rapid change.

Fast-forward 65 years and the perennial issue of housing is still with us, and in urban centers, but it is now presenting as an alarming increase in homelessness. Rather than too many people for too few houses, people are without shelter in 2013 as "a result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household's financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination" (Canadian Homeless Research Network, 2012, p. 1). What should be done? There has been an attendant, rapid explosion in food banks, overnight homeless shelters, warming centers, and cardboard box shelters. There are few statistics about this relatively new phenomenon. Only in 2013 did the Canadian Homeless Research Network (CHRN) (formed in 2007) publish a report card on the state of homeless in Canada. It is funded by the Government of Canada's new Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

Strategies for how to deal with the perennial issue of shelter and housing were different in both contexts. Post-war strategies included a new government agency designed to insure mortgages for first homes and build low-income rental housing, both in urban centres. New millennial strategies include pivotal emergency intervention in urban centers while the country gathers statistics about the practical problem, so they can figure out "What should we do?" What worked before will not work now, because people are shelter-less for different reasons. The context has changed; meaning the thinking about what to do has to change. Values, morals, and ethics are paramount for this practical perennial problem—people will die, be harmed, be compromised, or get sick if something is not done.

Practical perennial problems also "require thinking and moral justification. They require that we take into consideration the current context and not assume that what we did before will work again. They also require that those who are affected by the decision are part of the problem-solving process" (McGregor et al., 2004, p. 3). Practical perennial problems are concerned with situations for which critical, reflective decision-making is required (including practical reasoning and value reasoning), leading to thoughtful action (Nova Scotia Department of Education, 1992).

On a final note, practical perennial problems have several other characteristics aside from being common and recurring from one generation to the next. They present questions that must be answered; yet the grounds on which decisions are made regarding the problem are uncertain. These questions, often with moral overtones, require choices between competing goals, resources, and especially values, necessitating value judgements or statements of the worth of the solution. When solving perennial practical problems, the existing state of affairs must always be taken into account—that is, the historical and contemporary socio-cultural context. Each solution generated to solve the problem is in some way unique and belongs to a specific time and context. Despite all of this, the outcome of the chosen solution can never be predicted. But the grounds upon which people stand to answer the questions posed by the problem predict that, if a particular action is taken, a desirable state of affairs will result (Utah Education Network, n.d., Unit 5, p. 19), see also Brown (1980).

Three Systems of Action

As mentioned earlier, Brown (1980) proposed that, when solving practical perennial problems, home economists should focus on the kind of rationality entailed in thinking about these problems as we solve them. By rationality she meant exercising reason before taking any concrete action to address a practical perennial problem. This approach precludes home economists from doing something out of habit because someone told them to, because that is what they were taught and all they know, because they will get fired if they do not, or even just because it is the popular thing to do right now. "What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular" (attributed to Albert Einstein).

To accommodate this think before you act concept, Brown and Paolucci (1979) developed the three systems of action approach—three ways of thinking about a practical, perennial problem before acting: technical, interpretative, and critical. This ambiguous and somewhat obtuse term (no disrespect intended) simply means families should set up a system of thinking about their problems, and this system would include sub-systems comprising three perspectives: (a) how to cope and get by, (b) how to adapt with insights, and (c) how to change society with enlightenment. Their task is to decide how much weight to put on each perspective (way of thinking), given the context. Then, and only then, can they take concrete action. Using a Venn diagram to illustrate, one problem may have more need of technical know-how (that circle would be largest) while another problem might require more communication and less know-how (meaning the communication circle would be largest).

Indulging a rhetorical detour, Arendt's (1958) theory of the human condition (see final section) deeply contributed to Brown and Paolucci's (1979) conceptualization of the three systems of action approach. Most especially, Arendt differentiated between behaviour and deed, and Brown and Paolucci were inspired by the same. Arendt understood behaviour to be conduct that has a habituated, regulated, automated character. It is subconscious, compulsive, or necessary behaviour to meet needs. Deed, on the other hand, is considered genuine action because it is "the culmination of the thought of the actor who arrives consciously at the deed with his/her own intentions and motives. [Such a deed or act] arises out of self-determination . . . . The act eventually committed is not predictable (as is behaviour) because it arises out of innovative thought" (Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 21, emphasis added). Arendt's notion of deed was the lynch pin for Brown and Paolucci's three systems of action approach, especially their critical, emancipatory action.

Brown and Paolucci's (1979) three systems of action approach was also informed by Habermas' (1971, 1973) theory of communicative action, predicated on the assumption that people can engage in cooperative action based upon mutual deliberation and argumentation. He believed people have the latent human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests rather than solely strategic action strictly in pursuit of their own goals. From his musings, Brown and Paolucci (1979) deduced that, in order to adequately address practical perennial problems, people need to think about an issue from three different perspectives (called three mental actions), technical, interpretive, and emancipatory, and then determine which combination of these actions best fits the context. Indeed, they "recognized that all of these systems of action must function cooperatively in the solving of practical problems" (p. 49).

Technical Action

First, purposive, rationale, technical action means thinking about the issue from a means-to-an-end perspective—what has to be done to cope and get by to meet the basic necessities of life, to secure the goals of civilized life, and to pass on cultural and family traditions. Brown (1980) explained that this action entails families producing, procuring, and controlling/managing inanimate objects (as well as intangible time) in the satisfaction of needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Technical action is involved in providing the physical necessities of life (MacCleave & Murray, 1984). It deals primarily with the maintenance functions of the family (Paolucci & Ching, 1982).

Technical action is concerned with the means to achieve specific ends and family goals but it does not consider the circumstances or context of the particular family; instead, it is assumed that what worked before or for other people will also work in this situation. Technical questions include the following: What techniques can be used? What can we develop to achieve this end? How do you do something? The mantra is management, efficiency, and means-to-an-end (Brown & Paolucci, 1979). Those engaged in technical action when thinking about a problem take things for granted. They strive to provide families with the manual and intellectual skills they need to cope and get by (e.g., how to cook, budget, buy a house, do laundry, recycle). Indeed, just thinking about a problem using technical action restricts the discovery of meaning and intentions of family members; the latter require communicative action (Edwards, 1991).

Communicative/Interpretive Action

Second, when thinking about a problem using communicative action, families become aware of their problem. In this system of thinking, communication is much more than giving information; as well, communication entails shared meanings, leading to value clarification and commitments (Paolucci & Ching, 1982). Communicative/interpretive action helps people to think about a perennial problem through the lens of meanings, intentions, attitudes, needs, interests, values, goals, and principles of life. It involves talking, conversations, dialogue, reflections, and relationships (Brown, 1980). Brown explained that it is necessary for people to be able to understand each other, instead of taking things for granted by using initial impressions, as is the case with technical action. This understanding requires ongoing interpretation of life within the family and between the family and the rest of society; hence, this action is also labelled interpretive.

Those engaged in communicative action when thinking about a problem dig deeply into the meaning of what is going on and strive for clarity in intercommunication. Language, both verbal and nonverbal, is crucial to this system of thinking (MacCleave & Murray, 1984; Paolucci & Ching, 1982). Interpretive questions include: How does it feel? How does this differ from . . .? What does this mean to you? Let's talk about this. What is it like to be . . .? People will wonder, share, and ask about their shared life together, appreciating those meanings are not absolute and change with the context. With these new understandings of their lived experiences, family members will have to negotiate and renegotiate meanings and intentions as society and the family change (Brown, 1980). Brown believed that as individuals gain competence in communication and interpreting their world, they become enlightened and more likely to engage in emancipatory action.

Critical/Emancipatory Action

Third, critically examining the social and political forces of society, which perpetuate the perennial problem, can help people gain insights into power, hegemony, oppression, exclusion, and marginalization. With these insights, they can consciously choose to judge society and actually take action to effect changes in the human condition and transform society. The latter action (i.e., thought process) involves complex critique, dialogue, and reflection (Brown, 1980). Brown believed society could be changed through the collective action of its members but only if they think about a perennial problem using a critical lens. First, people have to examine and then critique the forces of society that are inhibiting or enhancing their self-formation and family well-being. This critique is then followed with concrete actions to change social structures and to challenge prevailing ideologies and paradigms so there is an ethos of care, justice, and morality (Paolucci & Ching, 1982). Critical questions include: Who would benefit (or not) from a particular course of action? Is the decision rational, just and moral? What are you assuming? What ideology is at play? What else could be done? Would I still do this if I were affected by the outcome?

Thinking about practical problems, while wearing a critical action hat, involves critical thinking, analytical thinking, creative thinking, values analysis and clarification, values reasoning, and practical reasoning (Brown & Paolucci, 1979; Hultgren & Goosens-Conlon, 1980). These intellectual strategies prevent people from taking actions based on just habits, traditions, emotions, dogmatic beliefs, or indoctrination into particular ideologies. Indeed, when thinking about a practical perennial problem from this stance, people learn how to "discover their oppressions, identify their myths and ideologies, study and analyze the situations in which they find themselves, and take political action to bring about change" (Paolucci & Ching, 1982, p. 19).

To harken back to Brown's (1980) idea of a desirable state of human affairs and family life, critical emancipatory action helps people to examine the discrepancies between what is and what should be to promote social change for the betterment of humanity. Emancipatory action involves people evaluating family and societal conditions, making value decisions based on moral and ethical judgements, and being proactive to bring about the needed change (Jo Kister and Janet Laster, personal communication, ca. 1987).

Interim Summary

In summary, the solution of practical problems requires the three systems of action approach, comprising deeply reasoned thought and judgement of what should be done to solve perennial, recurring, and generational problems (AHEA, 1989; Brown & Paolucci, 1979). Table 1 profiles an example of a practical problem and how it looks when addressed using the three systems of action approach (developed by Dr. Anne MacCleave, personal communication, 1987). Home economists are advised to approach each situation in concert with those experiencing it and to figure out together which combination of thinking (technical, communicative, and emancipative) is appropriate for that context. Brown and Paolucci (1979) understood action to mean think before you act, meaning home economists should think about each situation from these three different lenses before taking any well-thought out, reasoned, concrete, action. As Brown and Paolucci succinctly put it, "To understand an act, therefore, we do not look for the causes but for the actor's reasons" (pp. 21-22, emphasis added).

Table 1

Example of a practical problem from a three systems of action approach (developed by Dr. Anne MacCleave, personal communication, 1987).

Perennial Problem


Normative Issue

Should affordable housing be provided to low-income families?

Restated as Practical Problem

What should be done to ensure that low-income families can obtain affordable housing?

Technical Action

  • How can housing authorities deliver greater numbers of subsidized units?
  • How can low-income groups develop better strategies for securing affordable housing?

Interpretive Action

  • Explore and analyze trends in the rental market, which influence housing consumers (external social trends).
  • Who are the low-income families in need of housing assistance? How do they feel about their housing situation?

Emancipatory Action

  • What can be done to better integrate social housing within communities instead of marginalizing them?
  • What can be done to empower social housing recipients to have greater control over their living environments?

Interestingly, Brown (1980) explained that emancipatory action (the critique of the situation) is necessary, both for (a) bringing about the conditions required for communicative interaction and interpretation of the family and societal context and (b) for the moral use of day-to-day instrumental action (tasks to achieve a goal), for example moral consumption decisions or ethical decision making in other household arenas. Brown especially suggested that emancipatory action, the critique of the social conditions shaping daily life, has very broad social consequences; hence, by association, it impacts the human condition. Emancipatory action frees people to examine alternative and new notions of what constitutes the good life, a sustainable and enriching human condition.

The Human Condition

Not many people realize that Brown and Paolucci (1979) drew on Arendt's (1958) theory of the human condition to create their mission statement as well as their three systems of action approach. So, to wrap things up, Marjorie Brown's focus on the human condition and its relation to home economics practice will now be explored. For clarification, the word condition refers to existing circumstances, to the current state of being (in this case, of being human). Humanity's present condition reflects the totality of actions the human race has taken to date. Thus, the human condition refers to the current circumstances of a collective people; it is the positive and negative aspects of the current existence of being human (Simon, 1995).

Brown appreciated that, while the conditions of daily life have a lasting impact on the human condition, "the family is [also] dependent upon the general conditions of society" (Vincenti as cited in Brown, 1985, p. 265). And, as noted earlier, the "condition of the home" is inherently linked with the conditions of humanity (Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 18). These links are so powerful that, when developing the mission statement for the home economics profession, Brown and Paolucci (1979, pp. 14-23) were deeply influenced by Hannah Arendt's (1958) concept of the human condition, to be discussed shortly. The founders of the profession were also focused on the human condition. In her recounting of the decade-long conversation at the Lake Placid conferences (1899-1908), Brown referenced a 1908 sentiment that "home economics should . . . recognize the effects of society [i.e., the human condition] on conditions of the home" (1985, p. 264).

Brown and Paolucci strongly believed that home economists needed to engage in "critical reflection about society and the human condition" (1979, p. 14). If home economists were to "become optimists about improving the human condition" (p. 17), they would accept that people mould their future by their actions and that these actions are undertaken with others, intending to "change social conditions and thus increase freedom," the crux of the human condition (Hunt as cited in Brown and Paolucci, 1979, p. 20).

Arendt's Theory of the Human Condition

Arendt (1958) developed a theory of the human condition comprising three human activities: labour, work, and action. However, labour did not mean paid work, work did not mean to labour, and action did not mean behaviour. Instead, (a) labour is what people do to survive, (b) work is what people do beyond what is necessary to survive, in order to build and contribute to the world around them (worldliness), and (c) action is what people do in the public sphere, beyond labour and work, that gives meaning to their lives (see Table 2).

Table 2

Overview of Hannah Arendt's Theory of the Human Condition




With labour, people ensure (reproduce) the conditions of living



With work, people ensure the condition of worldliness (a world fit for human use); humans cannot work without institutions, equipment; so they build these artifacts while using them

With public action (deeds), people ensure the conditions of plurality of actors, with each person being equal but distinct

Household and nature


Buildings, infrastructures, laws, policies, institutions, and artifacts

Public space for human togetherness, public life with fellow citizens

Realm of impermanent material things, as well as the natural world

Realm of sustainable, more or less permanent, durable structures, policies, and institutions

Realm of dynamic human affairs; a web of relationships that is sustained through interactions (political and civil)

Behaviours to meet material needs and sustain physical life

Fabricate and build stable and enabling institutions, laws, and artifacts that serve as preconditions for creating public life in the common space

Common spacewhere people encounter a community, a space where people's actions (deeds) can be witnessed, assigned meaning, and be remembered

Arendt (1958) placed these three types of human activity in an ascending hierarchy, with action at the top because, as she understood it, action intimates human freedom. Action, as understood by Arendt, referred to great deeds and great words, specifically politically oriented deeds that strive to create something lasting within the world. Yar (2005) explained that Arendt wanted people to ponder what is involved in "establishing the conditions of [the] possibility for political experience" (p. 3, emphasis added). Arendt theorized that humanity needed to engage in repetitive activities that sustain life (labour) and in activities that leave behind enduring artifacts, policies, and institutions for the collective human world (work). However, she went further by saying humans must fulfill these two activities so that meaningful (inter)action can take place through the shared enterprise of human conversations, solidarity, and togetherness (on the political and civil fronts). The latter action creates the possibility for people to challenge and influence the dominant regime by placing concern for the common life and the common good at the apex of human goals.

A close examination of Brown and Paolucci's (1979) three systems of action approach reveals the inherent ties to Arendt's (1958) theory of the human condition: (a) Arendt's labour is akin to Brown and Paolucci's technical action; her work (enduring social institutions) is akin to Brown and Paolucci's interpretive action (especially the family's link with greater society), and Arendt's action is very much in line with Brown and Paolucci's critical/emancipatory action as well as the critical discourse aspect of interpretive action (see Table 3).

Table 3

Comparison of Arendt's Three Human Activities and Brown and Paolucci's Three Mental Actions

Three Human Activities
(Arendt, 1958)

Three Systems of Action
(Brown & Paolucci, 1979)

Labour - freedom to make choices within the private household, between alternatives, to ensure efficient use of scarce resources, while striving for an abundant lifestyle; these biological processes ensure Life itself, individual survival as well as that of the human species.


Technical Action (thinking)

Meet basic needs; care giving needs; household maintenance, resource management


Extract resources from the natural environments


Enabling environment (social institutions, machines, technologies, laws, policies, artifacts) governed by institutionalized power, which creates a bridge between private and public and creates a world fit to live in (now and in the future)

Interpretative Action (thinking)

By way of stronger dynamics and understandings within families, a bridge is created to external emancipatory action


Public sphere, the realm of human affairs, which is a common conversation space for the exchange of meaningful words and deeds; shaped by plurality, identity, and solidarity; realm of political possibilities

Critical, Emancipatory Action (thinking)

Social change and human agency due to enlightenment and empowerment; change the world for the betterment of humanity

Interpretative Action: communication, language, meaning, identity, value analysis and clarification, connections


Since the late 70s, the home economics profession has been prompted to change with the times, to respect that the field and knowledge base have to stay current in order to keep up with global conditions and changing families, and to "critically reflect about the human condition" (Brown & Paolucci, 1979, p. 23). East (1979) concurred, explaining that home economics is "focused on the home in order to improve humanity. Humanity? Yes . . . the ultimate goal is to make life successively better for each following generation" (p. 141). In 1993, the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) acknowledged that the profession needed to "take leadership in shaping societal change, thereby enhancing the human condition" (p. 1). AAFCS did not define the human condition in relation to home economics—a task subsequently taken up by McGregor (2010). She concluded that, from a human condition perspective, home economists could begin to see "the wholeness of the human family" as their purview. The family could be viewed as "a basic democratic unit in the world [tasked with meeting key functions] to ensure social progress and prosperity for the entire human family [and all of humanity]" (McGregor, p. 24).

Imagine how the human condition and the conditions of families could be reshaped if home economists were to reframe their approach to practice by focussing on Marjorie Brown's ideas of solving practical perennial problems using the three systems of action approach. Home economists would consciously, and with a conscience, purposefully and systematically formulate the problems of family in such a way that families are also involved, better ensuring a focus on the right problems. Home economists would place a deep priority on perennial problems that last for indefinite amounts of time, recurring again and again, in different contexts, each generation. With enduring constancy, these human issues are lived out on a daily basis by individuals and families, in their homes and households. For this reason, home economists should focus on the home and on changing the thought patterns of individuals and families. By changing people's thought patterns, home economists honour our mission. This mission involves helping people to mature into self-forming, self-directed, and enlightened participants who are capable of, and keen to, critique and formulate societal goals and the means for accomplishing them.

Marjorie Brown's enduring message still rings true, twenty years after her death. Through her critique of North America's home economics history and self-understandings, she generated a rich collection of deep conceptualizations and philosophical insights (see Figure 2) that remain relevant for home economists in contemporary times. Regardless of where they reside, Brown's enduring and empowering ideas can enrich the professional practice and philosophical life of all home economists.


1 Other titles of programs include family and consumer sciences, human ecology, human sciences, human environmental sciences, among others.



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Kappa Omicron Nu Forum Volume 19 No. 1

Home Economics Philosophy in Latvia: An Exploratory Study

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Vija Dišlere, Latvia University of Agriculture

Everyday Life: A Home Economics Concept

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

The Role of Philosophy in Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Marjorie Brown's Philosophical Legacy: Contemporary Relevance

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Abductive Reasoning in Everyday Life: Implications for Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Enriching Home Economics Philosophy with Phenomenological Insights:

Aesthetic Experiences, Bodily Being, and Enfolded Everyday Life

Henna Heinilä

Postmodernism and Home Economics: Revitalizing the Conversation

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

History and Potential of Home Economics in the People's Republic of China:
Implications for Philosophy of Practice

Peng Chen PhD, Higher Vocational Education College, China Women's University

History and Potential of Home Economics in the People's Republic of China:
Implications for Philosophy of Practice

Peng Chen PhD, Higher Vocational Education College, China Women's University

Existentialism and Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Can Home Economics Practice be Informed by Bakhtinian Themes?

Dr. Mary Gale Smith

Conceptualizing Home and Household

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University