Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Invisibility and the Homeless

There are two homeless people I encounter with some regularity as I travel to and from work. The first is a older white woman. She spends her days asking people for help. Her questions never really vary: "Sweetheart, can you help me out? I'm hungry." or "Handsome, can you buy me a hot dog? I'm hungry." Sometimes she'll add a compliment: "Are you a model?" and "You're really pretty." and "I like your tie." have become recent favorites. It's possible that someone at the shelter where she stays counseled her to make this change because her modus operandi was to insult people who ignored her, which in all honesty, included about 98% of the suits streaming by. For example, she told one woman that she should lose some weight, and another that she needed to get her hair done. I personally have not witnessed any insults directed at men, but I have no doubt that she has a few jabs handy. Needless to say, her insults didn't increase the success of her petitions, and she has a reputation in the area; people sometimes intentionally cross the street to avoid her.

The second is an older Black man who rides the 2/3 train. He has a speech and there are parts that I can almost recite with him. He petitions for help for an organization that feeds, clothes, and houses the homeless in a voice that has a rich rhythm, rising and falling with the motion of the subway car. He carries a elongated can that could be an old Pringles canister and offers sandwiches and bottled water in exchange for whatever people can give. To date, I've never seen a single person accept a sandwich or a bottle of water in exchange for quarters, dimes, nickels, and even pennies they unearth from the depths of pockets and purses. In exchange for the small change he collects, he offers a blessing to the givers, and wishes them safety during their travels home.

Homelessness challenges the idea of personhood. The idea of the person is crafted around the place the individual occupies in the social order. Personhood entails all the rights and responsibilities tied to the various roles we as individuals occupy. Personhood is defined by the ways in which we interact with the social order at large. For example, I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a writer, an anthropologist, a reader, an aunt, a mentor, a former student ... and I'm sure there are some I'm omitting. All these positions work together to create my identity, and in fulfilling the responsibilities associated with these roles, I claim a place in society.

When you lose your home, your job, your ability to enter into commerce, you also lose your place in society. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, an ethnography by Joao Biehl, explores these issues at length. In Vita, Biehl chronicles the life of a mentally ill woman, Catarina, who is left in Vita—an actual place in Brazil described as where the terminally and mentally ill, and the physically disabled are left to die. The structures of society—families and social institutions—are unable to support and assist them. Catarina shows us how a person can cease to be visible to society at large.

To understand this process, we have to review theories from two formidable anthropological figures, Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim. (Stop groaning! I'll try to keep this relatively painless.) Mauss conceived of the person as being based in social structure. In The Social Subject Mauss argues that the person has a history, and once this history is exposed, it is revealed that the person is meaningless without society. That is, our history is defined by our roles, which only exist in the context of our social order. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim proposes that an invisible force regulates society and gives meaning to the world. He names this force as religion, or the moral sensibility of the collective. Individuals are extensions of the collective, and all actions are guided and directed by this sensibility. Society operates through the individual to ensure its survival. Therefore, all the roles of personhood—spouse, sibling, parent, worker, etc.—exist solely for the purpose of maintaining social structure.

Essentially, Durkheim and Mauss argue that:
  • A collective force organizes social structure.
  • The individual is an extension of that collective force.
  • As an extension of that collective force, the individual exists to support social structure.
So once the individual ceases to support social structure, the individual ceases to matter to society. Unable to fulfill the roles of personhood, the individual loses her place in society—and consequently loses her visibility.

With the woman I described, people rarely meet her eyes—although she often leans forward in an attempt to position herself in their line of sight. She demands to be seen, but passersby make a conscious decision to not see her. In contrast, people regularly and willingly look into the face of the man on the train. They nod at him as he passes, and indicate that they hear and accept his blessings when he offers them. The ideas of Mauss and Durkheim seem to be in action here. By asking for help and offering nothing, the woman has ceased to provide a useful contribution to society, and is rendered invisible. The man, however, has found a way to author himself as a contributor, and can claim a small sense of personhood. As a result, he remains visible and palatable to the collective. She definitely seeks to author herself as visible, but it is the social order, not her physical presence, that determines her visibility.

Of course, we can't discount the effect of the woman's abrasive approach. I wonder if she would have better luck getting help from the crowd if she changed location so that her vitriolic history didn't continue to hang over her. I have my doubts—because people do not want to be forced to see. If Durkheim is correct, and the collective works to preserve society (and in fact, society therefore works to preserve itself), then this woman's invisibility may arguably be viewed as society's way of preserving itself. Catarina did once exist within the collective social order. She had a place in the networks that constitute social relatedness: she was a mother, a wife, a factory worker—a person. She contributed to social organization via these roles. However, her mental illness rendered her unable to fulfill the obligations of these roles, and she thus fell out of sync with the collective—requiring resources from the social order without the ability to contribute and replace those resources. Surely, this woman that I pass every day has a similar story. And the man? In offering sandwiches and bottled water, in speaking for a social institution, it appears he has found a way to contribute to the social order and maintain his personhood. He has authored visibility for himself.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of the homeless and a commentary on their value to society, but a way to understand how people can be willingly blind in a particular situation.

It's also meant to explore the limits of personhood. Do you think that society operates on the individual? How do we construct our sense of personhood—our identity? And how do the roles we occupy influence our mobility and visibility within the collective? How can we apply this discussion to other groups who are authored as invisible? Let's chat.


  1. I found what you wrote to be very interesting--thank you!

    I am familiar with both of the people you are discussing, and I think another factor in how people respond to them is looks/vibe. She is scary looking, with a voice that could shatter glass. Her vibe is unpleasant and even insane. He, on the other hand, seems to be just down and out, and he has a nice voice. He's just more palatable.

  2. I agree—looks and/or vibe definitely influences how we see these people. But what triggers us to label one as "down and out" and the other as "insane"? I encourage you to think about/discuss the ways they themselves have contributed to this type of social identification.

    Come back and visit soon!