New hobos or neo-romantic fantasy? urban ethnography beyond the neoliberal disconnect

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18 Scopus citations


This article describes an anomalous social space within the field of homelessness in San Francisco, that of "pro" recyclers, homeless men who spend much of their time collecting recyclables for redemption. Unlike the panhandlers, broken shelter-dwellers and small-time hustlers of San Francisco's Tenderloin and other skid row zones, the recyclers orient much of their existence around work. By working within a unique economic niche provided by the state-supported recycling industry, and by drawing on support from sympathetic residents and advocates, the recyclers create an unusual homeless subculture which, as they themselves argue, has more than a little in common with the hobo jungles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To interrogate the sociological (and political) implications of this case study I use Loïc Wacquant's eloquent manifesto against sociological "neo-romanticism." While agreeing with some of Wacquant's analysis, I argue that his emphasis on the moralism of contemporary urban ethnographers blinds him to the very real concerns with morality and ethics among poor people themselves. The recyclers' concerns with mutual respect and the pleasures of labor represent, I believe, not post hoc justifications of desperate survival strategies, but a dogged, often passionate collective effort to create a truly different experience and understanding of homelessness itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)231-257
Number of pages27
JournalQualitative Sociology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009


  • Ethnography
  • Homelessness
  • Informal economy
  • Recycling
  • Work

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