Homeless identities: Enacted and ascribed

Parsell, C.

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Parsell, C. (2011). Homeless identities: Enacted and ascribed. The British Journal of Sociology, 62(3), 442–461.

ethnography , homeless identity , homeless people

Homelessness has been a perennial concern for sociologists. It is a confronting phenomenon that can challenge western notions of home, a discrete family unit and the ascetics and order of public space. To be without a home and to reside in public places illustrates both an intriguing way of living and some fundamental inadequacies in the functioning of society. Much homelessness research has had the consequence of isolating the ‘homeless person’ as distinct category or indeed type of individual.They are ascribed with homeless identities.The homeless identity is not simply presented as one dimensional and defining, but this imposed and ill-fitting identity is rarely informed by a close and long-term engagement with the individuals it is supposed to say something about. Drawing on a recent Australian ethnographic study with people literally without shelter, this article aims to contribute to understandings of people who are homeless by outlining some nuanced and diverse aspects of their identities. It argues that people can and do express agency in the way they enact elements of the self, and the experience of homelessness is simultaneously important and unimportant to understand this. Further, the article suggests that what is presumably known about the homeless identity is influenced by day-to-day lives that are on public display.

Main finding
The study finds that social context influences the behavior of homeless individuals, or what the author calls enacted identities. Homeless individuals tended to behave respectfully and appreciative when receiving charity, sometimes intentionally, either to conform to expected behavior or to elicit more charity. In the capacity of customers, however, homeless individuals behaved assertively and authentically in ways that revealed their character distinct from their homelessness. While homeless individuals experience substance abuse, mental illness, and violence far more than housed individuals, the author argues that the publicity of these issues informs the stereotypical image, and public identity, of the deviant homeless person. While the study shows that individual identity is deeper than homelessness, the author could not determine whether individuals internalized deviant behaviors as conceptions of their self.

Description of method used in the article
Six months of ethnographic research was conducted with homeless individuals in Brisbane, Australia. The study used participant observation, encountering about about 100 people, and formal, qualitative interviews with 20 people. The data is analyzed to understand people’s perceptions of themselves and their lifestyles.

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