Struggling Along: The Possibilities for Experience among the Homeless Mentally Ill 886


  • Robert Desjarlais

    1. Sarah Lawrence College
    Search for more papers by this author
    • 2

      Robert Desjarlais is Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708.


An ethnographic study of a shelter in downtown Boston for people considered homeless and mentally ill documents the way in which the category of “experience,” which many have taken to be universal and natural, is culturally and historically constituted. The residents of the shelter tend not to experience—defined here as an inwardly reflexive process that proceeds, coheres, and transforms through temporally integrative forms—but rather “struggle along” by way of an acutely tactile mode of perception that attends to episodic, temporally finite encounters. The fact that experience in the shelter is only a possibility, not a given, points to the need for a critical phenomenology that would help us to consider how this and other ways of being come about through specific social, cultural, political, and material forces.