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Why do political science and policy sciences shun homelesness as a research focus?

homeless tentDespite the fact that I study comparative public policy using environmental issues as the core focus of my work, I’ve always been interested in tackling policy issues facing vulnerable populations, regardless of whether they’re associated with environmental issues.

After all, I study commmunities facing water insecurity, toilet insecurity, informal waste pickers. All of these groups are highly vulnerable. I even have an in-press coauthored journal article with Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) on the ethics of ethnography within marginalized communities.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. It doesn’t need to be an environmental issue. Individuals facing homelessness, elderly folks are both communities at the margins.

The policy solution space for issues these populations face is quite important and also very understudied. So even if neither of these policy areas are environmentally-focused, I’m very strongly interested in older persons policy and homelessness policy, and I look forward to doing some research on both of these topics (either with coauthors or students of mine).

homeless tent

Part of a tent city in downtown Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada)

Because of my work on the right to sanitation and publicness, I’ve had to examine policy issues that affect homeless populations (or, as they call them in the British literature, “rough sleepers”). One of the first things I had to learn is that homelessness is a temporary and temporal property. This means, individuals may enter and exit homelessness. It’s not a permanent state, but individuals may experience homelessness, rather than “be homeless”.

As a political scientist who also publishes in policy sciences journals, I’m flabbergasted that neither discipline (political science nor policy sciences) have really had homelessness as a major research focus. This, to me, is one of the greatest failures of the discipline. I know the topic isn’t as sexy as elections, or international development, or political behaviour, but…

I argued that we had an excess of electoral studies’ political scientists (which didn’t earn me accolades, I must say), not because I don’t think elections aren’t important (they are), but because so much journal space has been taken up by electoral studies, whereas there is NOT A SINGLE JOURNAL ARTICLE in the three major journals for political science (American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review and Journal of Politics) focused on homelessness. This, to me, is atrocious. A few fellow political scientists helped me find some political science-related work, but it’s really minimal compared to the magnitude and importance of this policy area.

My plea is not for electoral studies’ scholars to stop doing that kind of work, but for political scientists and policy sciences’ researchers to focus on an under-studied area. One that sociology, anthropology, social work and geography have done extensive work on, but that remains under-researched within our discipline.

Posted in academia.


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