Homelessness is the state of having no home or permanent residency. According to The Data Face, there were roughly 554,000 homeless people living somewhere in the United States on a given night [in 2017]. A total of 193,000 of those people were unsheltered,’ meaning that they were living on the streets and had no access to emergency shelters, transitional housing, or Safe Havens (Benedict 2018:1). In this paper, homelessness will be discussed through the viewpoints of the three different sociological perspectives; conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and functionalism.
Conflict theory was born due to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and was created Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Conflict theory emphasizes social inequality and suggests that far-reaching social change is needed to achieve a just society (Barkan 2010). A conflict theorist sees social life as a competition for a limited amount of resources that creates conflict. Homelessness is viewed by a conflict theorist as the result of limited resources that have been used up. In their academic journal, Main causes of homelessness and adaptation of homeless to environmental factors, Marta Sarnowska and Sonia Gach interviewed ten people living in homelessness and found that the three most common causes of their homelessness are loss of permanent work, subsequent threats of evictions, and the inability to deal with the new economic situation that came in the 1980’s when the economy marketized and collapsed (2018). The authors suggest that when the economy collapsed in the 80’s, it left many people homeless due to the new lack of resources available for the working class. This matches up perfectly with conflict theory because there was a subsequent amount of resources available, but once the resources became scarce and more expensive, people were no longer able to afford them: therefore, they became homeless.
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Symbolic interactionism came about in the early 20th century due to the theory of Herbert Blumer. Symbolic interactionism is how people construct their roles as they interact. As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction (Barkan 2018). A symbolic interactionist can determine their role using symbols and their interaction with others. People who are experiencing homelessness tend to fall under the symbolic interactionist theory. This is demonstrated in Reuben Addo’s academic journal, Homeless individuals’ social construction of a park: a symbolic interactionist perspective, he conducted interviews in a public park with ten people experiencing homelessness. He asked them to describe the park, and words that they used include, a homeless safety hub, homeless resource hub, and a homeless network hub (2018). Addo infers that his study suggested that homeless individuals’ constructed meanings of public parks may be motivated by their interactions with their peers and housed residents (2018). Through this study, Addo found that people living in homelessness view the public park as a place of safety where they can interact with others in their same situation. Addo’s study is an example of symbolic interactionism because it highlights that people living in homelessness view themselves and other items, places, or people depending on their interactions with that item, place, or person.
The idea of functionalism arose out of the French Revolution in the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century (Barkan 2018). Both revolutions resulted in major societal change, so the intellectuals of the society began writing about a strong society with strong social bonds and socialization; thus, functionalism was born (Barkan 2018). Functionalism emphasizes the importance of social institutions (family, religion, and education) for social stability and implies that far-reaching social change will be socially harmful (Barkan 2018). Functionalism aims for family, religion, education, and social stability to prevail in society. When someone is experiencing homelessness, it is often hard to keep their family together. In Alex Trillo, Giovani Burgos, and Michael Schwartz’s academic journal, Institutional ties and homeless family trajectories: how homeless mothers engage with policy to create opportunities for mobility focuses on how homeless mothers try to better the lives of their family members through actively navigating property and seeking a better place to raise their family (2016). Through actively seeking a better place to raise their family, the homeless mothers are contributing to social stability. They are keeping their family in the center of their lives; therefore, they are maintaining social institutions as well. By maintaining social institutions and social stability, homeless mothers are mirroring functionalism.
Society is based on the three main sociological perspectives; conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and functionalism. These sociological perspectives can be used to analyze small and large groups. Through conflict theory, one can see a cause of homelessness being the lack of resources for a large group. Through symbolic interactionalism, one can gain insight to the homeless community based on how they view a public park. Through functionalism, one can see the workings of social institutions and social stability through a hardworking homeless mother trying to make the best for her family. With these sociological perspectives, people can gain an explanation for their day to day behaviors and interactions.
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