The social nature of being human
The social nature of being human

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The social nature of being human

3.2 Partiality and public perceptions of deservingness

Research about real-world phenomena doesn’t just come from academia, but draws on concepts that are observable in the real world. One particularly important concept in thinking about altruism and charitable giving is the idea of ‘impartiality’, with questions raised about whether altruism has to be ‘impartial’.

The concept of partiality might be related to our own ideas of who is most in need, or who we think is most ‘deserving’ of our support, or even how they will make use of our donation. Homelessness researchers tend to be asked the same questions in conversations with friends and family: ‘Should we give money to people on the streets, or to a charitable organisation?’; ‘Should we offer food or drink, rather than money?’; ‘Which homelessness charity should we give to?’ These questions all relate to being ‘partial’ in choosing our actions, and there aren’t any easy answers to these questions. Indeed, many of the answers rely on each person’s own moral viewpoint. So, what other people would do might differ from you: we might feel differently about what is a suitable response to the plight of homelessness, and with good reason. Our lay opinions and moral frameworks can influence our own patterns of giving.

However, our opinions can be influenced by a range of factors, from numerous sources of information and opinion.

In the reading in Activity 5, anthropologist Stephen Gaetz explores where public perceptions of homeless youth come from, as well as the ways in which attitudes to youth homelessness matter.

Activity 5 Thinking about youth homelessness

Allow approximately 30 minutes

You should now read the following article, then try to answer the questions below.

Gaetz, S. (2009) ‘Attitudes about homelessness - how we THINK about homeless youth matters!’, Homeless Hub. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

  • a.Where does Gaetz suggest public ideas about homeless youth come from?
  • b.According to Gaetz, what role does the media play in shaping attitudes about youth homelessness?
  • c.How can media and political portrayals of youth homelessness affect public perceptions of it?
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Public attitudes towards homelessness are shaped by various factors, including our own direct experiences – such as encounters with people experiencing homelessness – and indirect experiences, for example, portrayals in the media and claims made by people around us (such as politicians or friends).

The media can play an important role in influencing public perceptions about homeless youth, through their reporting of homelessness as a ‘problem’, and their subsequent framing of this ‘problem’. Accordingly, such portrayals can impact on public attitudes towards homeless youth.

Portrayals of homeless youth can impact on public perceptions of whether an individual or group is ‘deserving’ (or not) of charity, so it’s important to think about this critically.


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