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Practices of freedom? Working on the self in the context of homelessness

Jennifer Harding
London Metropolitan University


In this paper, I examine everyday experiences related by forty-nine individuals living in East London, who identify themselves as 'homeless' and, as a consequence, are positioned within and negotiate the contemporary space of 'socially exclusion'. I examine the ways in which an individual's sense of self and relationship to society may be 'realised within bodily conduct' (Radley 1989:233) and how (often) degraded forms of embodiment and subjectivity might be renegotiated by homeless people through 'helpful discourses' and 'biographical narratives'. Michel Foucault's conceptualisation of 'technologies of self', with its focus on lifestyle choice and self-reflexivity, provides the broad framework for this discussion and is potentially useful in describing the creation of an active embodied subjectivity in the context of homelessness.

Contemporary western societies are preoccupied with issues of 'lifestyle' - that is, the choices we make as individuals about 'how to live' and what these mean about the sort of person each of us is. Decisions about how to live, made repeatedly on a daily basis, appear to be central to the on-going self-reflexive process of reproducing the self and constructing new modalities of active subjectivity (Foucault 1986b; Giddens 1991).

Homelessness has been described as a 'lifestyle', which some people choose, but which is also considered morally, socially and politically unacceptable in (and constituting) a late modern 'caring society'. Clearly, the question of whether or not people actively choose homelessness is contentious. [Read more]