Homelessness in discourse, narrative and interaction

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Education and Professional Studies


In England there are currently 78,000 families living in temporary housing and 9,000 rough sleepers. The growing homelessness problem has been recognised by charities and organisations, with a recent appeal by The Guardian and The Observer raising over £1.25 million to help those who are homeless. For my PhD study, I will research how homeless people construct personal identities through their interactions and the narratives they tell.
I intend to combine the frameworks of interactional sociolinguistics and the small stories approach to narrative to explore how identities are forged by homeless people who use a day centre in Cambridge where I volunteer.
Interactional sociolinguistics maintains that a finite set of identities is afforded to speakers in given contexts, limited by their sociolinguistic resources and social power relative to those around them. Thus, the discursive practices of those who interact with homeless people and are in positions of greater power, such as day centre employees, will influence the identities that the homeless people construct. Therefore, analysing interactions not only between homeless people, but also between homeless people and day centre staff, is vital for examining how identities are situated within wider institutional discourses. I will combine this approach with narrative analysis. As the stories we tell help us to make sense of our social world, narratives are a way of constructing our identities. Despite extensive research into narrative and identity in fields such as illness, there has been limited work on identity, interaction and narrative in homelessness. While identities can be portrayed through other semiotic means, such as material possessions, the range of identities constructible via these means is restricted for those who are homeless. When poverty limits identity-building resources, narratives about the self may take on a more significant role in the construction of identities. I will use the small stories approach to narrative, which argues that identities are built up through co-constructed narratives told in our interactions with others. Combining this approach with interactional sociolinguistics will evidence constructions of identities and demonstrate their relationship with institutional and public discourses.

My research questions are as follows:
(a) How do homeless people negotiate different identities through their interactions and the narratives they tell?
(b) How are the identities of homeless people situated within the wider public discourses of homelessness, as evidenced by discourses within and outside the day centre?
My data collection will take place at a day centre in Cambridge. I will ethnographically observe those using the centre as well as the staff, collecting data via a triangulated method including recorded group interactions and field notes. The data will be analysed to examine the interactional construction of identity. As well as the interactions of staff at the day centre, evidence for centre discourses will come from collecting literature (e.g. leaflets and websites) and analysing it using linguistic ethnography approaches that argue for the inclusion of wider institutional discourse in the analysis of identity construction.
To examine how the discourse from the day centre is situated within the wider public discourses of homelessness, I will collect data from multiple sources, namely media articles from national newspapers, research articles from academic journals and policy documents published in recent years. The data will be analysed using corpus methods, such as collocation and key words to pinpoint linguistic patterns that evidence the construction of homelessness.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2103489 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2018 29/05/2022 Ceri McKay-Smith