A Theoretical Analysis on
Hobos Hustlers and Backsliders
An Ethnography by Teresa Gowan
Tamara Anderson ANTH320
Hobos Hustlers and Backsliders was a project conducted on the study of Euro-American constructions of poverty and homelessness. Several notable homeless subcultures in San Francisco were analyzed, with particular focus given to the adult male homeless population. Gowan’s dissertation opens up arguments around the concepts of a self-reproducing culture of poverty, and the counter-argument that irregular practices among the poor represent common-sense adaptations to difficult circumstances (Gowan xx). Gowan uses three primary constructions of homelessness in her ethnography: homelessness as a moral offense or sin-talk, as pathology or sick-talk, and as the product of systemic injustice or system-talk (Gowan xxi). Perhaps the oldest moral construct in North American society is sin-talk. Sin-talk poverty management calls for strategies of exclusion and punishment (Gowan xxi). Thusfar, it has been a successful (although somewhat inhumane) form of social control (Gowan 202). The homeless population, including beggars, hobos, and other impoverished people, has been considered morally weak and/or criminals by American society since colonial times (Gowan 31). While exploiting vulnerable individuals and going against “the rules” is common among the San Francisco homeless, it is not all-inclusive of the population (Gowan 83). Self-renewal and reformation has only reinforced hostile behavior through systemic hostility and judgment (Gowan 222). System-talk calls for broader regulation, reform, or transformation of society (Gowan xxi). Stigmatizing those who do not prosper (Gowan 290), system-talk often denies the possibility of sick-talk. The shame induced by society onto the homeless is often deflected back onto the cruelties of the system (Gowan 95). System-talk seemingly legitimizes both the policing and class cleansing of the homeless in private and public spaces (Gowan 288). According to Gowan, homelessness has become the product of and justification for a great shedding of collective responsibility or inequality (Gowan 290). Society continues to shift local poverty agencies towards a more respectful emphasis on empowerment but without success (Gowan 218). System-talk only seems to infuriate people already alienated by homeless allowances (Gowan 204). When all other constructs fail, sick-talk is utilized by American society. Sick-talk assumes that individual pathology is the root of homelessness and “treatment” the only solution (Gowan 193). Prescription medication, 12-step programs, and mental illness counseling have been some of the most recent sick-talk techniques utilized (Gowan 56). Gowan describes the self-examination process of sick-talk as a highly feminized, middle-class cultural form which demonstrates honesty is only obtained through self-revelation (Gowan 194). In essence, the homeless population is forced to focus on overcoming self-destructive behavior such as drug addiction and mental illness (Gowan 272). Inclusive of both government and religion, society endorses sick-talk programs, considering such programs “compassionate” (Gowan 272). While the homeless have experienced and understood the seemingly therapeutic approach (Gowan 193), a distinct mutual distrust exists amongst the homeless and the public (Gowan 195). Perceived authoritarian behavior frustrates men desperately seeking to work, simultaneously reducing the legitimacy of the system (Gowan 195). Sick-talk sanctions have not succeeded in creating a dependable therapeutic culture to date (Gowan 222). Marxist rhetoric and theories are constantly found throughout Hobos Hustlers and Backsliders. According to Marx, culture is a product of social and material forces produced at some level by those in power, thus benefiting only those individuals. Emphasis on inequality and power discrepancies is grossly apparent, particularly in...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document