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The social in social science
The social in social science

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2.3 The challenge of terminology

Probably the biggest challenge that you will encounter is acquiring a command of the terms and concepts of this field of knowledge – even the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘science’ can seem off-putting. In your reading around this course you will come into contact with a wide range of ‘-isms’, ‘-sophies’ and ‘-ologies’, some of which you may have encountered in previous studies. Actually, these terms are best seen as shorthand for groups of assumptions and ideas about the way the social world is organised and the most appropriate methods for studying it. Although they save us from repeating the same assumptions over and over again, there are dangers in becoming over-dependent on these shorthands. In sticking rigidly to a set of methodological principles, we can become inflexible. Some of these concepts have become so widely established that they have the same status as articles of faith – they are taken for granted as true. As social scientists you will encounter unexpected social phenomena for which conventional approaches are no longer adequate in providing a plausible explanation. In such situations you will have to innovate with your existing theoretical assumptions and research methods and you may decide that even the fundamental assumptions need to be rethought.

The existence of specialised terminology and language poses a significant challenge to anyone trying to study a social science. Over the last hundred years, each social scientific discipline has carved out its own space and, in defining its own distinctive object of analysis, has equipped itself with a specific set of concepts and references which hold meaning only for those who work or hope to work within it. Most of the key concepts are open to disagreement and, as you read through this course, you will begin to identify the ways in which science itself is a contested concept and can mean very different things to different approaches in the philosophy of social science. In addition, frequently used concepts, such as experience, causality, theory, models and scientific method, may have very different meanings in each social scientific discipline. These may also vary from everyday uses of the same terms. Everyone who has studied in the social sciences has encountered this problem at some point and most of us still do. Another good reason for using shorthand concepts for collections of assumptions and ideas is that they provide a shared language for the discussion of complex ideas.

Activity 1

Now select the first of the four readings, which are all from recent social research on housing and homelessness. Reading A, ‘Owning and renting houses’, an extract from A Nation of Home Owners by Peter Saunders, concentrates on empirical trends in housing. In Reading B you are asked to ‘read’ a documentary photograph of a homeless woman. In Reading C, ‘The homeless’, Jean Conway adopts a more campaigning approach in this extract from Capital Decay, An Analysis of London's Housing. Finally, Reading D, ‘The meaning of home’, from ‘The Experience of Homeless Women’ by Annabel Tomas and Helga Dittmar, considers responses to in-depth interviews with women in Brighton conducted by Tomas.

Compare and contrast these examples in order to make a short list of the similarities and differences between them:

  • Make notes on how they define their objects of analysis.

  • What do you think they are attempting to achieve?

  • Can you identify the audiences for each of the examples of social research?

  • Which of these studies would you consider to be scientific?

Which of these examples attempt to take sides and provide a voice for powerless individuals? Whose voice is most audible in each of the extracts? Is it that of the researcher or that of the people being studied?

You should also consider whether any of these readings demonstrate political bias and, if they do, what political values are involved.

Keep these examples in mind when you work through Activity 2 later in this course.


Owning and renting houses

Peter Saunders

All studies of council house sales show that buyers have higher incomes than other tenants – … the mean income for the heads of households who bought was twice that of those who continued to rent. Studies also show that buyers are disproportionately middle aged and are often drawn from households with more than one earner. In Aberdeen, for example, 75 per cent of sales have been to multiple-earner households … and sales have been concentrated among households where the principal earner is in secure employment, where he or she is in a skilled manual or a non-manual occupation and where the family is of a conventional nuclear type. …

There is in Britain a worrying gap opening up between what have been termed the ‘middle mass’ and the ‘underclass’. This division is, of course, generated by factors other than the housing system, but it is coming to be most vividly expressed through housing differences and it is reproduced through tenure-based inequalities. However it is defined, the underclass appears to be concentrated in the least desirable parts of the council housing sector. State rental has today become associated with low incomes, high dependency on state benefits, high rates of unemployment and disproportionate numbers of single parents and single elderly people. When council tenants do have jobs, they are increasingly likely to involve unskilled or semi-skilled employment.

The residualization of the low paid and the economically inactive on what remain of the nation's council estates (for much of the best housing has been sold into owner-occupation) does not simply reflect existing economic inequalities but actually contributes to new ones. While home owners of all social classes share in the expansion of the country's wealth by virtue of their ownership of domestic property, those who remain in the council sector (many of whom would like to buy) are deprived of the chance to benefit from the rising value of the house or flat they live in. Instead, they face the prospect of indefinite rent payments (subsidized where necessary by housing benefit). As the home-owning middle mass gets wealthier, those who are trapped in state housing stay exactly where they are. Socialist defenders of state housing call this ‘rent pooling’. Tenants themselves call it ‘money down the drain’.

Source: Saunders, 1990, pp. 320, 369.


The homeless woman: a documentary photograph

Figure 2
Figure 2
Source: Photograph by Jacky Chapman, Format.


The homeless

Jean Conway

While some homeless people actually sleep on the streets, thousands more do not have a permanent home and move between various types of unsuitable and insecure housing. There is no measure of the scale of this housing need. The number of homeless households accepted by the London boroughs has been steadily rising over a long period – from 4,000 in 1971 to over 12,000 in the mid-1970s and over 24,000 in 1983.

The incidence of recorded homelessness is far greater in London than elsewhere, with 4.6 households per 1,000 resident households accepted in London compared with an average of 2.3 for England; for Inner London the figure was even higher at 6.6 households per 1,000 resident households.

But these figures only show those whom the authorities were obliged to accept under the Homeless Persons Act, notably excluding most single people and childless couples. Thousands more do not apply because they know they will not be accepted, and do apply but are rejected…. This suggests that there is a massive problem of homelessness in London, only a small proportion of which is officially measured or dealt with by the statutory agencies.

Yet these agencies are overwhelmed. In spite of giving one in three lettings to the homeless, over three quarters of the boroughs resort to using bed and breakfast accommodation for some homeless people because they are unable to give them council housing. In December 1983 there were over 3,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation in London, including nearly 2,000 in bed and breakfast hotels. This is obviously a highly unsatisfactory response to the problem, both for the family and for the boroughs … It may be cheaper for a borough to build or acquire a house for letting than to keep a family in bed and breakfast.

The London boroughs are clearly swamped by the scale of homelessness and are unable to cope with the problem. At the same time, they are failing to rehouse many people from the waiting list, to carry out adequate decanting programmes for modernization schemes, and to meet other pressing housing needs. The continuing housing shortage and consequent difficulty in obtaining accommodation suggests that London will be unable to provide a decent home for many of its residents for the foreseeable future. …

Examination of London's housing situation suggests that there must be a London-wide authority to deploy London's resources effectively in order to meet needs which are unevenly spread. This function is vital because:

  • the scale of housing need remains beyond the abilities of individual boroughs to tackle alone;

  • need is unevenly distributed across London, as are the resources to tackle the problems;

  • by their very nature, some housing problems and activities cannot be effectively tackled on a borough basis;

  • each borough programme needs to be fitted into a co-ordinated approach for the metropolis as a whole.

Source: Conway, 1984, pp. 59–61, 72.


The meaning of home

Annabel Tomas and Helga Dittmar

The need for a practical understanding of homeless women's lives motivates and underpins the life historical and experiential approach adopted in this study. Homelessness is seen as a life process and the lives of homeless women, and the stories they tell about their lives, are examined and specified in terms that are appropriate to a social understanding (Blasi, 1990). There is a concern in this approach to frame the issue of homelessness in terms of an agent, contending with a set of social problems, rather than as an individual entrapped in history, or borne along by an unspecified disease process. People are viewed as active participants in the experience, negotiation, and (re)creation of their personal and social histories. They are understood to be purposive, resilient and goal-directed in their creative use of symbols, space, language, and ritualised behaviour, even as these activities are seriously curtailed (Fiske, 1991; Glasser, 1988; Jackson, 1988; Snow et al., 1988). Furthermore, whether people are constrained or enabled, they experience, negotiate and are creative, not only in practice, but also in the stories told about this practice. The stories homeless women tell about their experiences of housing are considered especially important, since we understand them as ‘going beyond’ the event, offering an evaluation of it. Thus, a life history narrative offers an important source of data (Bruner, 1990), and a useful resource to an understanding of homelessness, and by implication, the meaning of ‘home’. …

In our study, interview data are seen as displaying cultural realities (Silverman, 1985), neither true nor false, but simply ‘real’. Interview data, from this point of view, are not one side of the picture to be balanced by observation of what respondents actually do, or with what an observer may say. Instead, realism implies that such data reproduce and rearticulate cultural particulars in given patterns of social organisation. It is in these patterns of social organisation, expressed in a life history narrative, that the experience of housing and the meaning of home for homeless women is sought. …

One difference between ‘home’ and ‘ideal home’ spontaneously expressed by eight of the securely housed women, but not expressed by the homeless women at all, was the probability of attainment. For example, “I know what I want, but I don't know if I'll get it”, and “Well, that's what I would like”. This suggests that these women were differentiating in their definition between home and ideal home. In their responses to the question ‘What would be your ideal home?’, all 12 securely housed women said that their ideal home would be a place of warmth and belonging surrounded by family and friends. In addition, a number of material attributes were highlighted, such as a desirable location (e.g. “a cottage in the country”), more space indoors and outdoors (e.g. “somewhere with a big garden and plenty of room”), or a greater level of material wealth (e.g. “the usual – roses in the garden, honey in the cupboard”). In the definitions of ‘ideal home’ given by securely housed women such material features are foremost, and the ‘ideal home’ is therefore more than ‘a place (house) of warmth and belonging (home)’. In the same way that the defining features of ‘house’ (safety and security) had been assumed in their definition of ‘home’, so too, was ‘warmth and belonging’ (home), assumed in their definition of ‘ideal home’.

The hierarchical and progressive nature of securely housed women's distinctions between house, home and ideal home are consistent with the current theoretical proposition of there being an intimate link between the experience of housing and the meaning of home. The positive connotations attached to the concept home as a place of psychological significance dependent on, yet over and above, the safety and security of four walls and a roof, was clearly expressed. The psychologically meaningful home appears to have arisen from the reality of their housing histories – safety and security in housing. …

However, turning to the homeless women, it is apparent from their responses, that the distinction in meaning between a ‘house’, a ‘home’ and an ‘ideal home’ is not so easily rendered. Only three of the 12 homeless women could confidently define any difference in meaning between a house and a home. Nine of the 12 homeless women had great difficulty. Unlike the securely housed women who readily understood the question, most of the homeless women responded with uncertainty by asking such questions as “What do you mean?”, “A place to stay?”, “Is there a difference?”, or “Um … I don't know … Do you mean a children's home?”. They appeared to have difficulty with the question itself, as well as finding it hard to provide an answer. Those three who did define a difference did so as follows (the names given here are pseudonyms):

  1. A house is just a house … it's where people live with you. A home is somewhere I can go that doesn't close the door at 10 pm … somewhere that's mine. Ideal home … no-one … I don't want no-one living there. (Daphne, 31 years)

  2. If you have your own home you can come back when you want… um … somewhere I can be alone. (and a house?) It's not mine. At the moment where I am it's full of people. Ideal home … A mansion of course! … it would be far away… (laughing) … a different country if possible. (Pat, 37 years)

  3. A home is where you can stay, you have the run of the place. A house I imagine you don't. It's not yours. A home is somewhere nice. (Ideal home?) would be a four-bedroomed house. (Mandy, 33 years)

Whereas for securely housed women, the house is defined in terms of its neutral independence, and home as dependent on the social relations contained within it, for homeless women, a house is someone else's house where other people live with you (dependence). Home is a place of your own where you can be alone (independence). With the exception of “somewhere nice”, expressions such as ‘warmth’ and ‘belonging’ were not mentioned at all by homeless women.

Again, as could be expected, and in line with current theorising, the relationship between a homeless woman's experience of housing (abuse and relocation) and her definition of ‘home’ (safety and security) is clearly expressed. However, whilst the securely housed women's definition of home appears to reflect their experiences of housing, the definitions of home given by homeless women appear to reflect their umnmet needs for housing. The house of safety and security that securely housed women had assumed, homeless women had not yet achieved, neither in the reality of their housing histories, nor in their definitions of house and home. … For homeless women, the identity-related concerns of ‘home’ were not so easily abstracted from the physiological requirements of a place of safety. The fact that nine homeless women could not articulate any difference in meaning between a house and a home may also suggest that the relationship between ‘housing’ (as a place of safety and security) and ‘home’ (as psychologially meaningful) has been severed completely. In this case the definition of ‘home’ as meaningful would be expected to be confused with the experience of housing as abusive, suggesting that the house/home distinction is not so easily rendered in the absence of safety and security. … Finally, homeless women did not consider themselves to be homeless. None of the 12 women would accept being called homeless. They said they were not homeless because they lived somewhere. Thus, they were neither ‘homed’ according to the housed women's definition nor ‘homeless’ according to theirs.


  • Blasi, G. (1990) ‘Social policy and social science research on homelessness’, Journal of Social Issues, 46, pp. 207–19.

  • Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

  • Fiske, J. (1991) ‘For cultural interpretation: A study of the culture of homelessness’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, pp. 455–74.

  • Glasser, I. (1988) More than Bread: Ethnography of a Soup Kitchen, Tuscaloosa, AL, University of Alabama Press.

  • Jackson, P. (1988) ‘Street life: The politics of carnival. Environment and planning’, Society and Space, 6, pp. 213–27.

  • Silverman, D. (1985) Qualitative Methodology and Sociology, London, Gower.

  • Snow, D., Baker, S. and Anderson, L. (1988) ‘On the precariousness of measuring sanity in insane contexts’, Social Problems, 35, pp. 281–8.

Source: Tomas and Dittmar, 1995, pp. 497–8, 503–5.


These four brief examples of research on homelessness demonstrate how varied social research can be, but also how important it is to be careful in one's own choice of research techniques. Some social researchers attempt to keep their distance from the object in question in order to remain objective or to gain an overall picture. Nevertheless, this does not prevent cultural values and even moral judgements from entering the research process in fundamental ways. A great deal of policy-oriented research on topics such as housing or poverty have political objectives built in. For instance, Peter Saunders in Reading A develops a case for the operation of the free market as a way of satisfying housing needs. This account of the problem and proposed solution is founded upon ‘neo-liberal’ political and social values, which view individual freedom as a central part of a smoothly functioning market economy. This approach assumes that human beings can and should act in terms of their own self-interest, and that if all individuals are left to their own devices the consequences will be the best possible outcome for everyone. In particular, Saunders recommends that all council house tenants should take out mortgages or loans and enter the private housing market. According to the ‘neo-liberal’ position, ‘homelessness’ and ‘poverty’ are personal troubles rather than social problems and, therefore, not the responsibility of the state. For Saunders, state intervention distorts the housing market and produces unsatisfactory outcomes, such as the growth of inadequate state housing schemes. If we contrast this with Jean Conway's account of homelessness in London, in Reading C, we can see a very different approach which reaches the opposite conclusions on the role of the state in housing policy. For Conway, ‘homelessness’ is a social problem rather than a personal lifestyle choice. This approach raises the need for a social policy response by the state authorities. So we can see that each of these examples suggests a very different view of where the boundary between private choices and public responsibility lies. This has demonstrable consequences on the nature of the research practices in each case.

Other social researchers become much more involved with those being studied and try to provide a personal and vivid account of the everyday experiences of the homeless and what their situation means to them. These are not mutually exclusive options and some social researchers have shown themselves to be inventive in combining a range of research strategies. In Reading D, the empirical research carried out by Annabel Tomas attempts, much more explicitly, to understand the gendered dimensions of research on homelessness by focusing upon what home and homelessness mean to homeless women. Actually, most existing research concentrates upon homeless men, or treats the experiences of homeless men as universal, so that homeless women are invisible. The photographic representation of a homeless woman (Reading B) has the appearance of a close and personal representation, but we also need to address the control of the documentary researcher over the representation. The image is designed to tell a particular story and may reflect the presumptions and prejudices of the researcher rather than offering an authentic account of the experiences of the homeless woman depicted. Social scientific knowledge is shaped by the values and aims of researchers, and the choice of research methods can reflect this.