Tuesday, 10 February 2009


Transitions through Homelessness: Lives on the Edge
Carol McNaughton (2008)
Palgrave Macmillan, Hardback £50.00 ISBN 9780230201620

‘Transitions through Homelessness’ brings together longitudinal qualitative data that emphasises the voices and experiences of homeless people, with a convincing theoretical framework which considers ‘edgework’ in a risk society. The book is both comprehensive in its coverage, whilst remaining accessible to the non-specialist. An easy and engaging read, it represents a useful addition to the homelessness and housing policy literature, and forges important connections with the related disciplines of social policy and sociology.

Drawing on rich empirical data, the book centres on the personal narratives of individual service users and their transitions into homelessness. Key to this argument is the micro-level interactions service users have with welfare professionals and case managers, as well as the way in which they negotiate their own identity as ‘homeless people’. The detailed and ethically sensitive accounts presented highlight both the complexity of homelessness, and the unintended consequences and failures of the welfare state. Importantly, by adopting a critical realist perspective and uniting structural and agency explanations McNaughton avoids a ‘blame the victim’ approach and encourages empathy with the individuals featured in the study, whilst at the same time illuminating the irrational and risk-taking behaviour that often contributes to their homelessness. In addition, by emphasising the contested nature of homelessness as a concept, McNaughton also makes points of connection with the social constructionist literature which has been popular in housing studies in recent years.

By drawing on the work of Mitchell Dean (1999), the author makes important theoretical links with the literature on reflexive governance and neo-liberal governmentality, which has been gaining ascendency in policy studies over the last decade. In doing so, she illuminates the key role of front-line workers in managing risky behaviour through promoting active, responsible citizenship amongst service-users. However, the lack of reference to the original work of Foucault is a disappointing omission, as is the failure to engage with other post-Foucauldian scholars prominent within the housing studies and social policy tradition who have posited similar theoretical arguments (see for example, Flint 2003; Flint and Rowlands 2003; Clarke 2005; Marston and McDonald 2006; McDonald and Marston 2005). Some reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘reflexive governance’ literature would also have been a welcome addition, and by doing so would have enabled the author to situate their work in wider debates. This theoretical issue aside, there is however little to find fault with in this publication.

In conclusion, this is a theoretically informed and empirically rich research monograph which is likely to be a key purchase for students and researchers engaged in the study of homelessness. I would highly recommend it to HSA members.

Kim McKee,
Urban Studies Postdoctoral Fellow,
Geographical & Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow

Clarke, J. (2005) “New Labour's Citizens: activated, empowered, responsiblized, abandoned?” Critical Social Policy 25 (4): 447-463.

Dean, M. (1999) “Governmentality: power and rule in modern society”. London: Sage.

Flint, J. (2003) “Housing and Ethopolitics: constructing identities of active consumption and responsible community”, Economy and Society 32 (3): 611-629.

Flint, J. and Rowlands, R. (2003) “Commodification, Normalisation and Intervention: cultural, social and symbolic capital in housing consumption and governance”, Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 18 (3): 213-232.

Marston, G. a. McDonald, C. (2006) “Analysing Social Policy: a governmental approach”. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

McDonald, C. and. Marston, C. (2005) “Workfare as Welfare: governing unemployment in the advanced liberal state”, Critical Social Policy 25 (3): 374-401.

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