Transitions Through Homelessness: Lives on the Edge

McNaughton, Carol
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
2008
9780230201620 (pb)

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Cover of book Carol McNaughton's book Transitions through Homelessness: Lives on the Edge presents a rigorous theoretical framework, drawing on concepts of late modernity, edgework, resources and critical realism. McNaughton combines this with data from a longitudinal study of the experience of homeless people. The author's primary concern is in continuing the developments of the 'new orthodoxy' within studies of homelessness, the key points of which are homelessness is constructed through structural factors, those with personal problems are at a higher level of vulnerability of becoming homeless and that these two points can be understood together in order to mitigate individualistic explanations of homelessness. Essentially it aims to conceptualise the link between previous structural understandings of homelessness and minimalist understandings of individual action. However a clear explanation of the process of this, causation, is missing.

McNaughton thus sets out to fill this gap and in order to do this she explores in the opening chapters a triad of concepts, resources, edgework, and late modernity, which she weaves together to form her conceptual framework. Within resources McNaughton includes the wide range of economic, social, human and material capital someone has, or lacks, which affect a person's experience. 'Edgework' is a term developed by Stephen Lyng and in his usage refers to voluntary risk taking 'encapsulating actions that involve negotiating on the 'edge' of normative social actions' (p. 15). This is extended, however, to give it a broader definition to include any form of event or action posing risk and entails a negotiation of normative social boundaries. Vigilance of this re-conceptualisation is required to avoid confusion over the voluntary risk taking edgework traditionally implies, as mental illness, physical violence and addiction are included within the work. Additionally, actions such as drug taking which may be understoodas voluntary risk taking need to be understood in the context they operate within. Finally, late modernity, or as it is sometimes termed risk society, groups all the social, economic and cultural changes marked by increased globalisation, individualisation and liberalisation of markets over the last fifty years into a coherent theory. Of relevance to issues of homelessness is this has increased the risk of homelessness for more people and forces them to negotiate risks linking it back into edgework.

Each of these concepts is then threaded together with the critical realism of the new orthodoxy in the examination of twenty-eight people's experience of homelessness over a year. It was found that reasons given by participants for homelessness were related to edgework such as drug taking, these however were the result of escapism from material reality, pressure to fit into social networks or a form of risk management of previous trauma. Attempts to then manage this lead to a decrease of resources and homelessness, which further erodes the resources available to a person leading to further edgework or experience of 'going over the edge'. The link back to structures is created through the various resources available to people that afford them the ability to 'buffer' risks and traumas being produced and allocated by structures, which minimalist accounts of homelessness ignore. Anyone may become homeless then but the risk of doing so when things go wrong in their lives is dependent on the amount of resources they have as McNaughton sums up in the conclusion: 'These individual acts did occur, they were real, and did lead to homelessness, but only due to the broad structural reality they occurred within and the relative lack of resources of those who went on to become homeless due to them.' (p. 171)

While this theoretical explanation is thorough and provides the missing causation necessary for the robustness of the new orthodoxy a few issues are raised. Primarily, with late modernity being seen as important at increasing the number of people at risk of homelessness as well as the number of risks how does the conceptualisation of edgework apply to the experience of becoming homeless before this period? Additionally, the book's focus upon substance use does not transfer well into explorations of youth homelessness where family troubles are the largest cause, although a similar removal of resources can be seen in leaving the parental home and disruption to education and social life. Overall McNaughton puts forward an important theoretical development that offers a synthesis of the previous maximalist and minimalist theories of homelessness and contains a strong conceptualisation of agency and structure. For this reason it is likely to see continued engagement with in future studies by both those who agree and disagree with its conclusions.

Alasdair B R Stewart
University of Stirling