Snow, D.A. and L. Anderson. 1987. “Identity Work Among the Homeless: The Verbal Construction and Avowal of Personal Identities.”

Snow, David A. and Leon Anderson. 1987. “Identity Work Among the Homeless: The Verbal Construction and Avowal of Personal Identities.” The American Journal of Sociology 92(6): 1336-1371.

How do people at the “bottom” of status systems create identities that imbue dignity/self-worth? (Impacts areas of role, identity, self-concept.) Backstory: Too often we focus on how low-status individuals find themselves at the bottom, or how they fulfill their needs; here, we focus on how they create meaning/self-worth.

Lit-Review: Identity as either (a) role-based (a la McCall and Simmons 1978; Stryker 1968, 1980; Burke 1980; Burke and Tully 1977) OR (b) processual and negotiated (Strauss 1959; Shibutani 1961; Stone 1962; Goffman 1963; Blumstein 1973).

  • (a): Stryker (1968, 1980: 59-67) – identity as “internalized positional designations” which “exist insofar as the person is a participant in structured role relationships” (here, 1366).
    • Identity not in self-concept or situational self, but embedded social roles
  • (b): processual identity perspective notes ongoing construction/avowal of self/identity

*** Authors’ perspectives attempts to integrate role-approaches to processual-approaches, through the techniques they identify (distancing/embracement — as role-based, and fictive storytelling — as emergent, situtational)

 “Identity talk” as primary form of “identity work” by which studied population (homeless) construct/negotiate personal identities. Identity work involves “the range of activities individuals engage in to create, present, and sustain personal identities that are congruent with and supportive of the self-concept” (1348). Performed through: (1) procurement/arrangement of physical settings/props; (2) arrangement of personal appearance, “cosmetic face work”; (3) selective association with other individuals/groups; and, (4) verbal construction/assertion of personal identities — here labeled “identity talk” (1348). Patterns that emerge: (1) distancing; (2) embracement; and, (3) fictive story-telling.

kx^ – “identity construction and avowal” – what is avowal?


  • Becker (1969) – one of our basic drives is self-worth/personal significance, which is dependent upon the roles available to us —- thus, in a stratified system, not all have equal access to “ a measure of self-worth” – here, as homeless folk lack traditionally positive roles/are heavily stigmatized
  • There as strategies that people use to reduce stigma (Goffman 1963) – “passing” through concealment/withholding of “stigma symbols” (again, Goffman). Possibly, physical isolation/withdrawal, grouping together/congregating with others of similar stigma?
  • There are differences between social identities, personal identities, and self-concept.
    1. Social identities: “identities attributed or imputed to others in an attempt to place or situate them as social objects” —- “not self-designations or avowals but imputations based primarily on information gleaned on the basis of appearance, behavior, and the location and time of action” (1347)
      1. This definition is consistent with Goffman (1963) and McCall and Simmons (1978) – as well as Turner (1978)’s concept of “appearance principle” – where “people tend to conceive another person (and thus impute social identities) on the basis of the role behavior they observe unless there are cues that alert them to the possibility of a discrepancy between person and role” (6, here 1347).
    2. Personal identities: “meanings attributed to the self by the actor” […] “self-designations and self-attributions brought into play or asserted during the course of interaction” (1347)
      1. Differs from above Goffman and McCall/Simmons as they define PI in terms of “unique, biographical facts and items that function as pegs on which social identities can be hung” (1347) — authors instead argue that biographical facts do not fully determine the ways people construct/avow/assert their personal identities

*** Personal identities and social identities may be inconsistent!

  1. Self-concept: “one’s overarching view or image of her- or himself ‘as a physical, social, spiritual, or moral being’ (Gecas 1982: 3)” (here 1348).
    1. A la Turner (1968): self-concept as “a kind of working compromise between idealized images and imputed social identities” (1348).

Strategies of Identity Talk

  1. Distancing: conscious discernment/removal from roles/interpersonal associations/institutions that confer social identities that may disagree with personal identities (changing audience?) – by:
    1. discerning self as apart from stigmatized group (categorical associational distancing) or unlike other members of the stigmatized group (kx^ – just plain old associational distancing?);
    2. distancing self from role of stigmatized group (situational, categorical role distancing?) or distancing self from specific occupational roles (role distancing); and
    3. distancing self from institutions that are “frequented/indicative?” of stigmatized status (institutional distancing)
  2. Embracement: “the verbal and expressive confirmation of one’s acceptance of and attachment to the social identity associated with a general or specific role, a self of social relationships, or a particular ideology” (1354, see also Goffman 1961b: 106-7) – through:
    1. role embracement (possibly through names/activities that adopt tenets of the role);
    2. associational embracement (acknowledging/reciprocating/avowing social relationships with others of same, stigmatized identity);
    3. ideological embracement (taking on set of beliefs/ideas that distinguish self from others (???? – wouldn’t this be a distancing technique?)/// to accept/avow personal identities as congruent with ideals).
  3. Fictive story-telling: “narration of stories about one’s past, present, or future experiences and accomplishments that have a fictive character to them (1358-1359) – not altogether intentionally deceptive – through:
    1. embellishment – “exaggeration of past and present experiences with fanciful and fictitious particulars so as to assert a positive personal identity” (1359, see also Goffman (1974)’s concept of ‘lamination), and
    2. fantasizing – “future-oriented fabrications about oneself […] that place the narrator in positively framed situations that seem distantly removed from, if at all connected to his past or present” (1360).

Ethnographic observation consistent with Blumerian S.I. (see Blumer 1969) and Geertzian interpretive anthropology (see Geertz 1973) – where “an understanding of the social worlds people inhabit requires consideration of the meanings imputed to the objects that constitute those worlds and that these meanings can be apprehended best by intimate familiarity with the routines and situations that are part and parcel of those social worlds” (1138).

Methods Interjection: “Interviewing by comment refers to an attempt to elicit spoken information from a respondent or informant by making an intentional statement rather than by asking a direct question” (1343 – for more on this technique, see also Snow, Zurcher, and Sjoberg (1982)).

***Look up more on ‘lone ranger’ ethnography of Douglas (1976, pgs 192-193).



  • Population studied was overwhelmingly male, under 40, and white —- how may these strategies change for women, particularly women within emergency/long-term transitional housing programs?
  • Institutional distancing, and ideological embrace, but no ideological distancing?
  • How problematic is the following statement on page 1342: “The basic task was to acquire an appreciation for the nature of life on the streets and the ways in which the homeless managed street life both experientially and cognitively”?
  • They acknowledge that the frequency of “embracement” techniques may infer homelessness as a choice — however, address this through noting that this casual inference is impossible to make, particularly without contextual understanding — kx^ – but, this possibly ignores the inherent agency of acknowledging/accepting position, and appropriating it to be a “desired” identity, or perceived as an “agentic choice”?
  • Would have loved to hear more on how each of these techniques explicitly reconciled the personal to social identities. Maybe we can make those associations for the authors?
  • How long does this discussion section have to be? And, further, where are they obtaining these numbered findings associating social/personal roles, ego relations, and the impacts of stratification/stigma?  It’s an interesting work, but I’m not sure these findings are supported through the observations presented here.



Becker, Ernest. 1965. The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: Free Press.

Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Blumstein, Phillip W. 1973. “Audience, Machiavellianism, and Tactics of Identity Bargaining.” Sociometry 36(x): 346-345.

Burke, Peter J. 1980. “The Self: Measurement Requirements from an Interactionist Perspective.” Social Psychology Quarterly 43(X): 18-29.

Burke, Peter J. and Judy Tully. 1977. “The Measurement of Role Identity.” Social Forces 4(X): 881-897.

Douglas, Jack D. 1976. Investigative Social Research: Individual and Team Field Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Gecas, Viktor. 1982. “The Self-Concept.” Annual Review of Sociology 8(X):1-33.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Goffman, Erving. 1961b. “Role Distance.” Pp. 84-152 in Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

McCall, George J. and J.L. Simmons. 1978. Identities and Interactions. New York: Free Press.

Shibutani, Tamotsu. 1961. Society and Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Snow, David A., Louis Zurcher, and Gideon Sjoberg. 1982. Interviewing by Comment: An Adjunct to the Direct Question.” Qualitative Sociology 5(X): 285-311.

Stone, Gregory P. 1962. “Appearance and the Self.” Pp. 86-118 in Human Behavior and Social Processes, edited by Arnold M. Rose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Strauss, Anselm L. 1959. Mirrors and Masks: The Search for Identity. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Stryker, Sheldon. 1968. “Identity Salience and Role Performance.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 30(X): 558-564.

Stryker, Sheldon. 1980. Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin-Cummings.

Turner, Ralph H. 1968. “The Self-Conception in Social Interaction.” Pp. 93-106 in The Self in Social Interaction, edited by C. Gordon and K.J. Gergen. New York: Wiley.

Turner, Ralph H. 1978. “The Role and the Person.” American Journal of Sociology 84(X): 1-23.


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