Not in My Social World: A Cultural Analysis of Media Representations, Contested Spaces, and Sympathy for the Homeless

Article excerpt

The social constructionist approach offers conceptual tools that may augment social workers' persuasive powers and problem solving capacities. In this case study, I examine a newspaper campaign to cast the homeless in negative terms and justify the closing of a shelter. Findings are presented as seven themes used by competing claims-makers. Each constructs a different depiction of the homeless, of homelessness, and of preferred solutions. Linkages between community memberships and favored problem definitions are identified. I conclude with suggestions for how "intelligent social reconstruction" might help social workers function as sympathy brokers for the vulnerable. (Key words: homelessness, NIMBY, mass media, constructionist approaches to social problems).

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Some pairings work well: the Chicago School and the Hull House Settlement, theory and practice, basic and applied interactionism, word and deed, sociologist and social worker, men and women, subjectivity and objectivity, and George Herbert Mead and Jane Addams. The early pragmatist philosophers and interactionist sociologists recognized this and preferred a both / and logic to the more common one-or-the-other logic. These scholarly practitioners valued their partnerships with social workers and other civic reformers and they made pragmatic use of ideas to improve community conditions (Deegan, 1988; Denzin, 1998; Maines, 1997). Unfortunately, their example was rejected by influential interactionists like Robert Park (Bulmer, 1984) and Erving Goffman (Marx, 1984) who each embraced a different notion of scientific sociology. Since then, symbolic interactionists have been divided. Some are quite content doing basic and academic research while others try to contribute to amelioration and social reconstruction.

This tension is evident in social constructionist approaches to social problems theory. In their classic text, Spector and Kitsuse (1987 / 1977) commented that "social workers who try to relieve social problems contribute to them; humanitarian reformers profit from, and therefore, propagate the very conditions they crusade to remove" (p. 51). Commenting on counselors, probation officers, government officials, and other sociological interventionists, Gusfield (1984, p. 47) advised each adherent to the constructionist perspective to become "the critic of the social problems professionals and their constituencies" and to undercut the "normative thrust" of these professions. While updating constructionist social problems theory, Ibarra and Kitsuse (1993) made a firm distinction between a "sociologists' theoretical project" and the "members' practical project" (p. 29). Woe to the sociologist who privileges any version of the troublesome condition in question. Even Blumer (1971), a scholar who engaged in extensive service, attacked the practice-oriented approach to the sociology of social problems. He was against theory builders who encouraged sociologists to gather and add knowledge to "the store of scholarly knowledge" and to place their findings "at the disposal of policy makers and the general citizenry" (p. 299). Spector, Kitsuse, Gusfield, Ibarra, and Blumer argued for a role that leaves sociologists "on the side" (Gusfield, 1984, p. 31): silent about the value of competing definitions of social problems; uninterested in the objective products of contests between rival claims-makers; and withholding their expertise from social work professionals determined to advance the public good.

A few interactionists and their theoretical allies have differed. They want to expand the constructionist approach so practitioners can avail themselves of its concepts, propositions, and case studies. Summarizing this position, Loseke (1999) argued that social problems theorists have an ethical obligation to develop a social change agenda, attend to the faintly voiced claims of powerless people, and argue that sociologists can't be value-neutral. …