Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Ontologies of Socioenvironmental Justice: Homelessness and the Production of Social Natures

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Ontologies of Socioenvironmental Justice: Homelessness and the Production of Social Natures

Article excerpt

"[The Hillside] ain't nature at all. Nature is for rich people to go hike around and get the hell out of the city, to get away from their jobs and lives and kids and TV and shit.

Nature ain't really for tramps like us..."

-Max, Hillside resident

"Seems like nature to me."

-Keith, Hillside resident


The "Hillside residents," as I have come to know them over the years, live in areas that are legally and discursively understood as public space. Despite the Hillside residents understanding these spaces as "home," these individuals are, to certain degrees, unwelcome on the Hillside; without access to private spaces to which they can retreat, the Hillside residents constantly face threats of displacement from police and authorities. Similarly, the Hillside residents live much of their lives in what is commonly understood as nature, in this case a public municipal park with manicured grass ballfields, swing sets, tennis courts, and evenly spaced shade trees. The park is adjacent to open space, where wild grasses, oak trees, and the topographic features of a steep slope provide visual protection from park visitors, commuter traffic, legal authorities, and much of the social interaction commensurate with urban settings. The park and the adjacent open space provide sweeping vistas, many of the necessities of living, and often a sense of solitude, despite the sights and sounds of vehicles and nearby factories constantly refining extracted fossil fuels.

Through existence and experience, the Hillside residents dismantle the socially constructed inaccuracies of common nature-society bifurcations. Their presence in and around this landscape calls into question common narratives of parks and open space, where human presence in parks should be transitory. Placed into the broader context of living through homelessness, this study primarily concerns a community of individuals who, lacking adequate housing elsewhere and for a wide variety of reasons, have chosen to live and exist in a municipal park and the open, unbuilt spaces in nearby landscapes, in areas commonly understood as "public nature." Common discursive stereotypes label the Hillside residents as "being homeless," complete with connotations of laziness, mental instability, impoverished living, drug abuse, and panhandling. However, from their own perspectives, the Hillside residents conversely see themselves through humane, agency-filled, and justice-oriented perspectives, where they are politically attuned and fully contributing members of society, devoid of the passive victimization that is often associated with individuals perceived to "be homeless" (e.g., Amster, 2008; Liebow, 1993; Mitchell, 2003; Ruddick, 1996).

This research leverages the lived experiences of individuals facing homelessness to explicitly and empirically question meanings of "nature" and the regularly unquestioned systems of knowledge that produce(d) these meanings. Here, I develop the concept of social natures as a way of critically understanding human relationships with nonhuman actors or elements that contribute to the world in which we live. Bringing forward specific experiences from a 16-month critical ethnography, 1 present the Hillside residents and their complex understandings of "nature," a prompt for recognizing the heavily ontological basis of this socioenvironmental relationship.'The Hillside residents, having free will, choice, and agency, are also victims of social injustices and environmental injustices, the separation of which can be mapped to common ontological un- derstandings of the nonhuman world. This research, a philosophical argument that is contextualized through data, argues that leisure research in general, and research engaging with social and environmental justice, specifically, should further attend to the ontological assumptions that foundationalize much of our historical and contemporary inquiries.

The critical argument at the heart of this research considers how the Hillside residents understand their complex experiences of living in nature. …

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