The essay that follows will consider the problem of homelessness in the United States from the sociological perspective of class theory. To start, the paper will detail a set of unobtrusive naturalistic observations whilst on a visit to Los Angeles in the city of Hollywood, in what will be a qualitative study. The paper will be bipartite in nature, and will commence with personal reflections on this social problem from the perspectives of society and church respectively, concluding, then, with an interpretation of the data from the aforementioned sociological theory of class relations as particularly outlined by Marx and Bourdieu.

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A Reflection on Homelessness in Los Angeles from the Perspective of Class Relations

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The unobtrusive observations took place on Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and La Brea, an area celebrated for its legendary cinemas and history. The Boulevard comprises, however, a curious mix of throngs of tourists, souvenir stores with cheap imported wares, and homeless individuals peppered along the sidewalks. This serves as an interesting microcosm of society at large: a sharp divide between rich and poor, though greatly magnified. What is further remarkable about the Boulevard is the fact that the homeless populous simply exists in the shadows, seemingly unnoticed by the tourists that walk by. On this point, in considering how ‘society’ treats this problem, this could be considered from three perspectives, namely that of the homeless individuals, the passers-by, and indeed the city itself as a collective entity.

With respect to the first, the homeless, whilst possibly victims of circumstance, also perpetuate their status as marginalised individuals by way of continued embodiment of their social sphere. Through ignoring them, the passers-by are also complicit in this relegation of the homeless to the shadows—this is true in the context of both acts and omissions (in accordance with the associated ethical doctrine). The passers-by act in such a way that they ignore the problem, and partake in a gross omission on account of their failing to act in their self-absorption. Then, it is uncontroversial to assume that the city is also complicit in this on account of the proliferation of the problem.

Interestingly, there is a church called Mosaic on Hollywood and La Brea, outside which throngs of worshippers gather for social events. The church is not linked to any particular denomination, but seems to focus on exuberant and quasi-charismatic expression of devotion. The participants seem bright, cheerful and illuminated by the ritual participation in religious congregation, strangely divorced from the poverty a couple of blocks away. Interestingly, during their outdoor gatherings that spill out onto the street, the participants take it upon themselves to deliberately engage in eye contact with passers-by, presumably to reel in new devotees. This contrast between the congregation and the above account of the homeless seems somewhat odd, pointing to an elitist distinction from one street to the next, where the sanctimonious pretences of the crowds serve as hypocritical contrast and where divinity seems to be reserved for the privileged. However, this remark is only possible if it is assumed that altruism is an inherent preoccupation of religious practice, where this might not actually be the case. The same can also be said for the nearby Church of Scientology and its representatives along the sidewalks, drawing upon human desperation for the absolute in what is essentially a resolve to capitalise on vulnerable participants. The homeless that sit perched alongside the Scientologists strike the researcher as a somewhat eerie testament to this real social problem.

This can be understood in terms of the aforementioned class theory, whether through the lenses of Marx or Bourdieu respectively. Marx argues that the history of human society has been marked by a class struggle (Marx & Engels, 2016). He thinks that human beings have an innate disposition to a culture of production, where this then assumes a hierarchical division (Marx & Engels, 2016). In response to this, he proposes a radical form of egalitarianism in which hierarchical distinctions and private property are abolished, where this will presumably give rise to a spirit of universal cooperation. Bourdieu remarks on the concepts of doxa, habitus and fields (Bourdieu & Johnson, 1993). In brief, these concepts centre upon the segregation of human society into segments that are regulated by a fixation on a particular form of cultural capital; by way of doxa and habitus, then, the respective segments are driven by unconscious processes that result in their embodying the assumed traits of the segment in question (Bourdieu & Johnson, 1993). This might explain the agency of the mutually complicit actors discussed above, where it can be inferred from this that social relations of this sort cannot be avoided in their constraint by deterministic factors, unless, of course, this determinism can be overturned by way of the sort of revolution espoused by Marx.

However, the approach of class theory simply involves the impressing of a particular lens on the problem, where a true understanding of it would require a more probing investigation from multiple perspectives. Indeed, the present study is limited by its transferability and ecological validity, where it would be preferable to consider alternative environments in conjunction for a more comprehensive insight into the research problem. Nonetheless, the study serves as an interesting insight into social injustice, and certainly offers the scope for further investigations of this nature. There are particular strategies that could be recommended. Firstly, a meta-analysis of studies on homelessness in a range of American cities could be conducted, where this could be conjoined with other studies across the developed world. This would allow for the more cogent application of the named theories to the stated problem.