Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology

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Volume 9 Issue 3 (May/June 1999), Pages 175-245

Homelessness and strategies of identity maintenance: a participant observation study (pages 175-194)


In order to investigate identity maintenance strategies used by a low status group, a covert participant observation study was conducted in a shelter for the homeless. From Social Identity Theory and previous research on the homeless, it was hypothesized that the identity maintenance strategies used would differ as a function of longevity of homelessness: the short‐term homeless (<2 years) would be less likely to identify themselves as homeless (social mobility), while the longer‐term homeless (>2 years) would identify themselves as homeless but engage in various types of social creativity to mitigate their situation. In addition to the strategies described in SIT, it was conjectured that some of the longest‐term homeless would have given up making any intergroup or other social comparisons. Of the various strategies found, some were beyond SIT. The pattern of strategy use was best interpreted mainly as a function of longevity of homelessness, but this was moderated by both experience and personality. A trajectory of change in identity strategies with longevity of homelessness was offered as a plausible frame of reference for further research. Methodological limitations, implications for Social Identity Theory and recommendations for improving the situation of the homeless were discussed. Copyright © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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