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Hegemony and the construction of selves: A dialogical ethnography of homelessness and resistance

Vincent A Callo, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Homelessness has become widespread in the United States over the past 20 years. Despite vast amounts of money and resources focused on resolving this problem, homelessness continues to grow. Based on three years of ethnographic research on the sheltering industry, I argue that a hypothesis of deviancy provides a hegemonic conceptual framework within which responses to homelessness operate. As a result, routine practices treat disorders within homeless people while marginalizing strategies of collective resistance against systemic inequities as unreasonable. Chapter 2 examines the political-economic context within which homelessness prospers. I explore responses to homelessness on the level of social policy and concrete actions undertaken locally by homeless people and advocates. Despite data suggesting a correlation between systemic inequality and homelessness, responses focus on developing more services to treat disorders within homeless people. Chapter 3 analyzes "helping" practices within the homeless shelter. Discourses of self-help and the medicalization of social problems guide efforts to detect and treat disorders. I argue that an effect of these actions is the production of self-blaming and self-governing homeless subjects unlikely to engage in collective resistance. The subject effects of statistical record-keeping practices re-producing "the homeless" as a category of subjects to be governed are also analyzed. Chapter 4, focusing on the experiences of one homeless woman, further analyzes how homeless people, even those who are non-compliant, remain enmeshed in a discourse of deviancy. Through examining staff hiring, training, and responses to increasing homelessness, Chapters 5 and 6 demonstrate how the proper role for shelter staff is defined as a helping professional managing and governing homeless people within a therapeutic relationship. Finally, in Chapter 7, I discuss the potential of an explicitly oppositional ethnographic engagement. Through an activist ethnographic intervention which explicitly takes sides against "common sense" conceptions, I explore how dominant discursive practices may lose their dominance as "normal" through engaging with social actors in problematizing routine practices and perceptions. New understandings become conceptually possible, creating space for new resistance practices to emerge within the shelter and in the local community.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Political science

Recommended Citation

Callo, Vincent A, "Hegemony and the construction of selves: A dialogical ethnography of homelessness and resistance" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9823723.