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Agency, Transgression and the Causation of Homelessness: A Contextualised Rational Action Analysis


  • Carol Mcnaughton Nicholls


Academic accounts of the causation of homelessness consistently refer to social structural factors. There is no engagement in these accounts with the possibility that 'agency' (individually taken actions) also has a role. The transgressive nature of factors associated with homelessness-substance misuse, poor mental health, and so on-and a desire to avoid pathologising people experiencing homelessness, may explain this lack of engagement. Transgression refers to acts that challenge boundaries of normative social behaviour. Yet, it is demonstrated in this article that agency has to be 'written back in' if adequate theories of homelessness and causation are to develop. Contextualised rational action theory provides a critical realist conceptual framework from which to do so, without losing sight of the importance of social structures. Drawing on three case studies, it is demonstrated that what may be considered transgressive acts that lead to homelessness-refusal to engage with support services, alcohol misuse, street sex work-can be identified as having a 'thin' rationality, when the context they occur within is incorporated into the analysis. This approach therefore takes agency into proper account, whilst also acknowledging the importance of structural constraints in the generation of transgressive acts and homelessness. The intention here is not to apportion 'blame' or to 'pathologise', but to take people experiencing homelessness and their circumstances, motivations and actions seriously.

Suggested Citation

  • Carol Mcnaughton Nicholls, 2009. "Agency, Transgression and the Causation of Homelessness: A Contextualised Rational Action Analysis," International Journal of Housing Policy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 9(1), pages 69-84.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:intjhp:v:9:y:2009:i:1:p:69-84
    DOI: 10.1080/14616710802693607

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    Edgework; critical realism; case studies;


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