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An Analysis of Youth and Young Adult Street Speakers in a U.S. American Community
This study examines the boundaries of youth and young adult street persons and their strategies of communicating social identity. This communicative process is observed in the daily lives of these young speakers as they interact with other community members. The article discusses the various membership sets (Sacks) speakers call upon in constructing social identities. Youth and young adult street speakers rely on membership sets that conflict with those employed by parents, legislators, and other community members. The young street speakers attempt to challenge the membership sets of the more powerful speakers but are unsuccessful.
Within the last few decades, most communities in the United States have become aware of significant numbers of youth and young adult persons living on the streets of their communities. Researchers disagree whether the population is growing or simply becoming more visible as public space is rapidly becoming privatized (see Barak, 1991 for a review). Regardless, efforts are being advanced from many different perspectives (e.g., health, religious, educational, and safety) to curb this growth and/or increase the quality of life for those remaining on the streets.
Researchers from a variety of disciplines have become interested in this phenomenon, but only a few from within the communication discipline (Campbell, 1988; Dollar, 1998; Dollar, Zimmers, & Nichols, 1998; Fiske, 1991; Schmitz, Rogers, Phillips, & Paschal, 1995). A communication perspective can advance an understanding of and response to youth and young adult street communities in at least two ways. First, many researchers have noted the communication barriers resulting from the identity of a homeless label (Fiske, 1991; Rosenthal, 1994; Snow & Anderson, 1987). Identity is an interactional accomplishment, and therefore a topic for communication researchers. Second, policies are being created at state and federal levels in response to the youth and young adult street population. Although some research has addressed the implications of such policies, none has directly investigated them from a communicative perspective.
Theoretical and Methodological Framework
During the past five years, a series of studies has aimed toward understanding the communication of youth and young adult street persons (Dollar, 1998; Dollar et al., 1998). These studies suggest that youth and young adult street persons engage in the communication of their own as well as others' social identities in ways that conflict with some nonmembers' communication of social identities (Dollar, 1998; Dollar & Zimmers, 1994; Dollar et al., 1998). With this in mind, this study investigates the issue of communicating social identity and the boundaries encountered in this process.
Social identity is assumed to be an interactional accomplishment grounded in a cultural landscape (Carbaugh, 1996). As such, they are both created and enacted through communication. Social identities are created through situated performances characterized by individual style. Social identities are enacted in that they call forth a set of expectations grounded in the cultural history. As Tajfel (1974) notes, our social identifies are grounded in our perceptions of social group membership. These perceptions include an acknowledgment of and comparison with other social groups to which we do not belong. Although Tajfel
takes social identity to be a psychological construct, we build on his notion of identity and social group membership in pursuing a communicative focus.
We rely on symbolic interactionist, ethnomethodological, and social psychological research in pursuing this study of the communication of social identity. From a symbolic interactionist point of view, people construct their communicative lines of action to align with a situational definition (Goffman, 1959). Furthermore, in presenting themselves, people depend on altercasting (Weinstein & Deutschberger, 1963) and thereby cast the other into particular identities that serve their lines of action. These identities that are altercast, we argue, are derived from conventionally recognized membership sets (Sacks, 1972, 1974), or groups of membership categories discursively organized to identify people in talk. Speakers rely on prior expectations and understandings of these categories of persons only as a "resource from which the detailed sense and implications of the category account is manufactured" (Potter & Wetherell, 1987, p. 137). These expectations are not always realized in every interaction. Rather, speakers make choices as to which expectations they take up in their talk and which they choose to ignore. The range of social categories available to speakers is constrained by their cultural membership. That is, social identities are situated within a cultural landscape.
We share the assumption of many sociologists, symbolic interactions, cultural anthropologists, and more recently, communication scholars, that to understand persons' social and cultural worlds, we must develop a strong sense of familiarity with these persons and their world. As such, our study is grounded in ethnographic and qualitative methods. In the broadest sense we relied on Hymes's (1972) ethnography of speaking to guide our collection and analysis of data. The first stage of our study was oriented toward understanding how the youth and young adult street persons talk about social identity, their own and others'. In this phase, we conducted ethnographic interviews and participant observations of youth and young adults who identified with the streets. In our data analysis, we used the grounded theory approach, thus allowing the social identities to emerge from the data rather than imposing researcher-developed categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The second phase consisted of examining a socially situated communication scene with members of one community who talked about recently passed legislation affecting street youth and young adults. Our analysis of this scene was guided by two research questions: (a) What communicative practices are employed in this speech event? and (b) What social identities are taken up in these practices?
We have organized the presentation of our analyses to reflect the longitudinal aspect of this study. We will introduce you to the social identities as we met them. In addition, this analysis seeks to locate all interaction within the larger cultural landscape. As such, our presentation provides a thick description (Geertz, 1973) of specific interactions. We begin with a discussion of social identity as communicated by youth and young adult street speakers. Next, we introduce some parents and elected officials. Third, we introduce the social identities communicated at the community forum. Each level of analysis unfolds in time across our study and incorporates the previous level of analysis.
Youth and Young Adult Street Persons in Two U.S. Communities
In this section of the report, we illustrate how the youth and young adult street speakers (YYAS) in our study communicate social identity. We consider two aspects of this communicative process: how these speakers use social categories (e.g., cops, youth) when they talk about their relations with other community members, and the definitions they communicatively construct for these social identities as well as the relations that bind them. In the remainder of our report, we will refer to these speakers as the YYAS persons or speakers simply for ease of reference. This is in no way an attempt on our part to reduce these speakers to a homogenous group whose speech is determined by their membership in the group. Rather, our intent is to reference an identity they perceive to exist among them, an identity that distinguishes them from other social identities within the United States, yet retains the notion of diversity within. The same is the case for all social identities we discuss in our report. Consistent with the theoretical outline above, we intend only to claim that these speakers call on situationally relevant social identities to pursue specific lines of action. These social identities are made intelligible to other speakers when their selection comes from a set recognized by other participants as salient in these scenes, relevant membership sets. According to our research, both the relevant membership sets and their relations among members, however, is a point of contention, a communicative boundary experienced by these speakers. This boundary, we argue below, does not necessarily lead to miscommunication. Rather, it often results in successful communication in terms of the more powerful social group.
As noted in the introduction, we began this study with a focus on YYAS speakers, a group defined by the U.S. legal system as homeless (i.e., one without a fixed nighttime residence or one occupying space not intended for human sleeping accommodations). In our data set, these speakers generally are between the ages of 13 and 21. Although it is important to acknowledge the diversity within this social category, we argue with other researchers (Barak, 1991; Bronstein, 1996; Powers, …