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Arches, bridges and shopping malls - Street workers and keeping your distance on the Friedrichstraße

Building on Pierre Bourdieus conception of the bodily hexis, I investigated the bodily constitution of street workers in Berlin-Mitte, who were also affected by house- or homelessness.

Published onDec 15, 2022
Arches, bridges and shopping malls - Street workers and keeping your distance on the Friedrichstraße


A street-worker sits in front of a bookstore, gazing downwards into a small cup filled with coins, next to him lie some newspapers he wants to sell. People are making arcs around him, keeping their distance. Such movements may seem trivial, yet they are ways of creating and maintaining a certain social distance, and order, while at the same time constituting human bodies. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understood such outward movements and postures of the body as being part of the bodily "hexis". Yet this concept has found little use in research on the practices of street workers, unhoused individuals, and other marginalized groups (for an exemption see: (Bourgois & Schonberg, 2007)). I address this research gap by analyzing the interactions between bodies through socio-spatial practices of "distance-keeping", elaborating on how the hexis of street workers, is both constituted by and constitutive of such practices. The basis for this investigation is a qualitative, empirical study in the surroundings of the Friedrichstraße in Berlin. There, in the summer of 2022, I conducted qualitative interviews with street workers, and observations, and analyzed newspaper articles relating to the area and topic. Based on this data, I want to outline how the complex interactions between various social bodies – individuals and institutions, constitute a hexis, which may be described as “transparent”. Thereby I address the question, “How is the body of street workers, created and maintained by distancing maneuvers?”



Societies are full of differences, yet specific, marginalized bodies are often constituted as something homogenous. Every aspect of an individual is reduced to a single word, which serves as a referent for future practices. One of such words is the term “homelessness0F[1]”. Here, a rather diverse group of individuals is merged, through a variety of practices, into a single unit, a category (Pascale, 2005). Defined through these ascriptions, rather than their own actions, they turn into this category, describing someone who disturbs “civil order” (Kawash, 1998). Such disturbances are then often “removed” through various practices of displacement through policing (Pilone, 2022).

Within my investigation, I wanted to pay special attention to this construction process, yet also how the individuals themselves respond to the variety of practices aimed at them. Thus, I focused on the social practices of street workers, people working informally by selling newspapers, asking for money, or playing music. A group that is diverse in its housing situation, yet united in its relation to the means of production1F[2] (Gruber, 2006; Hennigan, 2019). Addressing the question, “How is the body of street workers, created and maintained by distancing maneuvers?”, I drew on Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the bodily “hexis”, all outward expression of the human body, such as movements, gestures, and emotions (Bourdieu, 2020, pp. 127–136). A process that is embedded in social structures of power. Powers which may repress certain ways of being, while also leaving space for resistance, hence subjectivity (Bosančić, 2021).

I begin by outlining a theoretical basis. This will be done by drawing on Bourdieu’s conception of the bodily hexis with the bodies of unhoused individuals as an example. After making some general remarks, I will schematize the core concept into three, dimensional facets: The physical, the discursive, and the symbolic body. Second, I will outline my methodological approach. Third, I will present my results based on the prior offered triparted division of the body. Last, I will offer some limitations, and thoughts for discussion and conclude by addressing the initial research question. This will be done by implementing some helpful input I received after the initial presentation of this paper by students from Singapore, as well as utilizing another Bordieuan concept, that of the “body-for-others” (Bourdieu, 2021b, p. 112).

The social body

We, as humans, are producers. We produce the world around us through practices, entering a permanent relationship of exchange with its elements, while simultaneously constituting our own being (Engels & Marx, 2015, p. 20; Mau, 2022, pp. 98–99). Through symbols we arrange this world, and we produce meaning (Crossley, 2005). While the “final” products of such processes may seem like “things”, as something stable, are never finished and in a constant state of being and change (Harvey, 1996, pp. 49–55). The human body is most central to such interactions, it is not only the source of such processes, yet also the product.

Bodily hexis

Outlining this constitution process, and how it is depicted in research concerned with unhoused individuals, I will now offer three bodily dimensions doe a schematic overview. The physical, the discursive, and the symbolic body. The levels do overlap, interact, and shape each other. Operationalizing Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the bodily hexis, these abstract dimensions reflect the outward expressions of the body. Its shape, movements, gestures, and emotions – all interactions of an individual body with the surrounding society (Bourdieu, 2020, pp. 127–136). However, the human body and its movements not only shape society with actions but are also shaped by it too, through learning processes or physical transformations. As time moves on the human individual thus embodies different schemata of how he or she thinks, moves, or looks like (Bourdieu, 2021a, p. 310; Fröhlich, 1999).

            This embodiment of society, this construction of the hexis, does not happen as if the human individual is a sponge, soaking up every experience passively. They are embodied based on the objective conditions where the body is formed, the social class. First, this means that there is a difference between individuals. This difference may seem “natural” in everyday interactions, yet it is actively upheld in a struggle for power and recognition. People create and keep distance from each other in order to keep or increase their own position in social space (Bourdieu, 2021a, pp. 736–737). This results in certain bodily practices being established as the norm, the dominant, legitimate meaning (Bourdieu, 2021a, pp. 310–311). As societies, and their hierarchies, are always in a state of struggle, the dominant create and maintain order through varying forms of violence, not only physical but also symbolic (Bourdieu, 2018; Moebius & Wetterer, 2011).  

However, what someone, a society, or an individual is, is always relative. Following Hegel’s conception of the self, it requires someone or something one is not, to be oneself (Berenson, 1982). The various practices of creating and keeping-distance, are therefore no unilateral relations. The inclusion (and exclusion) of specific bodies in (and from) specific spaces is therefore central to each society (Kronauer, 2013). In the following sections I want to exemplify how, through distancing practices, the bodily hexis is both constitutive and constituted.

Physical body

            On its physical level, the human body is vulnerable (Wimmer, 2022). We engage in all sorts of practices that change our physical composition. We eat, we drink, we move, and we simply age. For housed individuals, most of these practices are contained within and supported by a “complex exoskeleton” of infrastructures (Gandy, 2005). However, within the urban setting of a city or a village, access to such life-enabling infrastructures (and most other means of social reproduction) is not equally distributed, as it is determined by market mechanisms, in other words, whether you can pay for it or not. This means, that the mere ability to survive, objectified in this network of infrastructures, is subsumed by the logic of capital accumulation (Brenner, 2014).

Nevertheless, this vulnerability is most explicit for marginalized individuals who are without stable access to the mentioned “exoskeleton”, a home, water, and electricity. This in turn results in a movement between various infrastructural access points, such as public toilets, restaurants, or shelters, constructing a rather brittle cage of bones (Wolch & Rowe, 1992). This movement is not only forced due to a lack of infrastructural access, but also by legislature preventing individuals from resting in certain spaces for a prolonged period (Kawash, 1998). Andrea Protschky (2023) thus defines the infrastructural practices of many unhoused individuals, as forms of “niching”, spatially and temporally limited practices with which these individuals negotiate, avoid, or undermine dominant spatial strategies.

Here, however, it becomes important to also know how one moves in the first place. While most cities of the Global North, and villages to a certain extent, are equipped with a public transportation network, this network is also not accessible for all, but only for those who can pay (Jocoy & Del Casino, 2010). Therefore, the forced movement described before is mostly conducted by foot and results in subsequent damage to the bodily condition (Kawash, 1998). Prolonged periods of sitting, a common posture for those earning money by asking for change or playing music, leads to similar outcomes. It increases the risk of venous stasis, leg oedema, and frostbite and may result in the loss of limbs (Endorf & Nygaard, 2022; Raoult et al., 2001).

Within these bodily harms gender and sexuality also play an important role when it comes to the experience of sexualized and physical violence. Both women and queer individuals, living and working on the streets, are more likely to experience both physical and sexualized violence (Ecker, 2016). Yet such individuals, for example, women, more actively try to remain “unseen”, by making use of their social network to obtain various forms of social support (Bretherton, 2017). On the other hand, this is also due to a discursive construction of the “homeless” as male, something I will outline in the following dimension of the social body (Pascale, 2005). However, the experience of domestic violence itself can also be an influential factor to lose or leave the housing situation in the first place, especially for women and queer individuals (Brzank, 2009; Hail-Jares et al., 2021).

This list of infrastructural exclusions could continue for many pages, highlighting how varying aspects of the “physical” body are no biological constants, but socially constructed. They result from a cyclical deprival of most services within an urban space, services which are functioning on the logic of capital accumulation (Brenner, 2014). Yet, I now want to accentuate the role images play in such processes of exclusion. Such images are not only created in direct confrontations between individuals, but also within different levels of public discourse, where they are then distributed within a given society.

Discursive body

With the discursive level of the human body, I am referring to the imagery representation of unhoused individuals within public media and legislature (mainly Germany, Europe, and the US), such as newspapers, television, transportation rules, or zoning laws. This definition of “discourse” is rather narrow, yet I wanted to show precisely which images (bodies) were created and outline the associated practices later when talking about the “symbolic body”.2F[3] Therefore, I am concerned with the explicit, the visual. Yet, I do believe that I am able to present the most important aspects for the context of the present study while also highlighting how such “external” images also become embodied within the portrayed individuals themselves, leaving little room for negotiation or resistance.

Those without or with no or informal access to wage labor have been portrayed in a similar way over the years, if not centuries. Portrayed as individuals without a place, as “vagabonds”, they were the target of discursive ascriptions as early as the 16th century (Siegert, 2006, p. 128). This resulted for example in the publication of documents to identify those who could and those who just did not want to work, an example being the “liber vagatorum”, a book with a variety of different types of “vagabonds” (p. 109). However, the letters used to categorize them were also part of a larger set of violent practices to punish such individuals, branding being one example (Marx, 2021, p. 765).

In more recent times, from the 1980s and onwards, public media outlets gladfully took on the same function and even similar imageries. Within such modern depictions, however, there is little to no variety, and heterogeneity is reduced to the image of the white, male, single, “homeless” person (McCarthy, 2013). This homogenization intensified as the reasons why someone was not able to work in a formal condition expanded mainly due to an increasingly precarious economy in Western countries, such as the United States (Pascale, 2005). Being an unwanted “outcome” of such societal changes, the individuals fitting such descriptions, are portrayed as something opposed to the practices of housed, “working” individuals. Living spaces turn into “encampments”, and owned items into “paraphernalia” (p. 260).

Within the German legislature, a similar change has taken place. In times of National Socialism, those without a place were put under similar conditions as in the 16th Century. Their existence being deemed a threat to society, e.g., “begging” was deemed an illegal activity, worth punishing, based on §361 of the German “Strafgesetzbuch” (criminal code). A law that was only abolished in 1974 (Gerull, 2021). Nonetheless, the abolition of such laws did not lead to an end to the jurisdictive targeting of unhoused individuals and street workers. Many laws have been “specialized”, they often spread over various governmental and private actors within specific spaces. Spaces frequently used by those without stable housing and working condition. For example, the “Grünanlagengesetz3F[4]” (a law determining the proper “use” of each park in Berlin), the “Berliner Straßengesetz4F[5]” (doing the same for every public street), or the various house rules for private properties, such as shopping malls or train stations (Baumann, 2012; Eick, 2008; Gerull, 2021).

While practices associated with such legislature are practices of punishment (Gerull, 2021; Pascale, 2005), also the varying practices of care have been transformed, highlighting the shift from “welfare” to “workfare states (Loic Wacquant, 2013, pp. 291–300). Within many care organizations, “the homeless” is yet partitioned again into a duality, those who are “worthy” of being helped and those who are not. Often this is done through a fragmentation of biographical events, sorting out those with the wrong experiences, such as addictions, a family or a “wrong” nationality (Gerull, 2021; Girola, 2013).

Unlike the fragmented access to urban infrastructures, the images of unhoused individuals and street workers merge into a rather homogenous category. This category is then used as a means to either punish individuals or help them, revolving around the binary logic of the “deserving” and “undeserving poor” (Gerull, 2021; Pilone, 2022). However, categories do not simply arise but are historically constituted, for the category of the “vagabond” and the “homeless”, they arose during the rise of a system of wage labor, serving as both a means of action, punishment, and justification symbolic orders (Marx, 2021, p. 765; Loic Wacquant, 2013, pp. 15–30). I now want to turn to this symbolic dimension.

Symbolic body

The symbolic revolves around how we make sense of our world by creating and using symbols, it can thus be argued to be the “structuring principle” of society. The body not only creates them, but it is also a symbol itself (Crossley, 2005). The various expressions of the bodily hexis, take one’s odor as an example, have different meanings - for different actors, in different spaces. I will later of an example of this when talking about an altercation I overserved in a U-Bahn.

How certain symbolic meanings can be attributed to certain bodies should have been made visible in the prior paragraphs, yet we may extend this still superficial explanation, as most of what we perceive seems “natural” to us (Bourdieu, 2021b, pp. 18–21). Yet we may not recognize the different relations and structures of power constituting and reinforcing such meanings. Bourdieu calls this “symbolic violence”, a social relation. Something both the oppressor and the oppressed know, accept, and embody – “imperceptible” and “gentle” [own translation] (Bourdieu, 2021b, p. 8). Something which legitimizes social orders and dominance (Moebius & Wetterer, 2011).

Therefore, moving beyond the visual elements constituting the “homeless body” (Kawash, 1998), we need to extend our gaze and consider again, that we, as individuals, are re-produced within a certain societal setting. This society moreover is first reproduced through our practices, mainly within its organized and condensed form of work, wage labor (Engels & Marx, 2015, p. 26). Second, it is also reproduced through forms of distance-keeping, people not only “know” where they stand in relation to the means of production, but they also know where they stand in relation to other individuals. Hence, it becomes apparent in the hexis of individuals where they are positioned in a given society (Bourdieu, 2021a, pp. 739–740).

Being without one’s place does not simply mean that one likes to travel a lot, it means having a certain place within society, a place defined by a lack or even absence of resources and space. An exclusion is caused by an interrupted connection to a system of wage labor, which means not producing any (surplus) value for a society (Hennigan, 2019; Pilone, 2022). Hence, images and words attached to individuals, therefore, do not just describe, they always categorize (Bourdieu, 2016, p. 19). Being “lazy” or “dirty” does not mean that street workers sleep a lot and forget to shower, it means that they do not produce and do not consume. They are opposed to the “working”, hence “clean” citizens (Kennelly, 2017). The “functionalism of the city” Kawash (1998, p. 333) describes is therefore twofold.

 These two functions of individuals which “work”, bodies that produce and consume most visible in institutions of care. Therefore, even many care offers do not simply want to help, they want to, as Marx (2021) already put it, make them valuable again, and reintegrate them back into the system of wage labor. This process is often accompanied by various practices of disciplining the bodies, and teaching individuals to “behave”  (Hennigan, 2019; Speer, 2018). Nevertheless, it is of utter importance to note, that existing care offers, such as the “Housing First” program in Berlin (for an evaluation of this project: Gerull (2022)), do not adhere to these principles, even resisting them (Clarke & Parsell, 2020; Grainger, 2021).

Through these bodily dimensions I wanted to exemplify through which processes specific “bodies” of certain social groups, in this case, street workers, are created. First, we create our own material existence through an interaction with the elements that surround us, which in turn also shape our bodies. Second, there are always stories being told and images being created about how certain social groups look like. Third, all these processes are not just “random”, they are structured based on various symbolic processes, which aim at creating and maintaining a coherent, hierarchical society, which reproduces itself through an organized form of (wage) labor. I now want this theoretical derivation for my own research.


To identify the different bodies and movements of street workers, I relied on qualitative data. I conducted, for now, 4 interviews with street workers around the Friedrichstraße, which lasted from 25 to 70 minutes. Interviewees could select a name that they liked; this name was used to anonymize their identity. Moreover, I conducted 30 observations, five informal conversations and analyzed 9 newspaper articles. While I took the role of the “complete observer5F[6]” during the observations, not engaging within the situations that played out in front of me (Gold, 2017), I did notify people during the interviews and conversations of my own positions as a researcher, as well as the purpose of the study and the usage of the collected material. I tried to collect as many articles as possible that were connected to the Friedrichstraße, unhoused individuals, or street workers, yet in the end I

I then transcribed the data and coded it based on the three themes mentioned before, the physical, the discursive, and the symbolic (Hernandez, 2009). For now, data collection took place from June until September 2022.

Place of study

            I conducted the interviews, conversations, and observations around the Friedrichstraße in Berlin. This street is probably one of the more famous streets in Berlin, around three kilometers long. Its most known part is the “Flaniermeile”, which is a 600m long section full of commercial attractions. This choice of location was because of its commercial reputation. Similar areas in Berlin, such as the Kurfürstendamm (see for example: (Robe, 1999), are places that exemplify “ideal” forms of the symbolic logic of production and consumption, resulting in the displacement of those who do not adhere. However, not wanting to fall into a form of “spatial fetishism”, asserting a certain (stigmatizing), essential power to the “space” itself, I instead investigated how space or spatiality became relevant in the practices of the observed individuals (Belina, 2017, p. 45).


The following section is organized according to the three dimensions of the body; thus, I describe physical, discursive, and symbolic “distance-keeping” practices. Each of these sections is structured by describing first how street workers were distanced from and then how they themselves created and kept distance. Again, I separated these levels to unravel the abstract way we navigate within a complex world full of bodies, objects, discourses, and symbols. A navigation process, which takes place within seconds, yet is formed over centuries.

Physical distance-keeping

Physical distance-keeping was probably the most visible form of practices. Street workers were most often confronted with this movement when working. Quoting Böll (1973, p. 43): “Every border has a terrible definitiveness. There is a line, an ending [own translation]”, I first read such interactions, when people walked around street workers, in broad arches, eyes kept upward or to a different direction, as an interaction and differentiation between society (those consuming) and the “other” (those sitting on the floor, selling a newspaper). A clear-cut line, a one-sided connection. Yet, when talking to several street workers this clear border became much more blurred. Not only did they consume, and buy their groceries inside stores, but the outside of these stores was also one’s workplace. They also mentioned friendly encounters with neighbors, offering support through meals or conversations.

However, these friendly interactions quickly became overshadowed by violent forms of distance-keeping. This included the barring of house entrances, or the construction of defensive architecture, displaying how distance is also kept through objects. Other violent forms of distance-keeping included arrests, house bans, or even attacks on individuals. While not being a frequent occurrence both in the observations and interviews, such measures were mostly conducted by the police or security from the Berlin railway company (BVG) or private companies, an expanding business. In the interview with one female street worker, the gendered experience of working on the street became visible. Whereas male interviewees denied having experienced any forms of direct violence from security workers. She described her experiences in the following way:

“[With] the security it’s sometimes like with the lottery. [...] I don’t know. Really aggressive, kicking my stuff, or hitting me. One security hit me! [own translation]” - Clara

Interviewees themselves also created physical distance from certain people or places. For example, it was mentioned by one interviewee who was earning his money on the street, by selling newspapers, that he was afraid and did not want to work in the U-Bahn station or wagons. This was justified in the following manner:

“I don’t want to walk [in the U-Bahn station], [there] are many junkies and I am a little bit scared – Paul.

Other ways of “keeping-distance” were connected to the creation of privacy by building smaller or larger housing spaces within the urban environment, where I identified bridges or house entrances as popular locations during my observations, the latter mostly being barred with either gates or fencing. During the time of observations, at the beginning of July, I also witnessed the forceful removal of one larger living space by the police. When asking for the reasons, one policewoman stated, that it was due to noise complaints and then kindly offered me an eviction off the premise. For some street workers, this is a common experience, being encased in various zoning laws (Belina, 2022). Another way of distance-keeping mentioned was the avoidance of certain shelters or other social organizations. Here the two interviewees mentioning this occurrence, said that they had issues with other inhabitants in the past.

Discursive distance-keeping

As already hinted at, many of the physical practices of distance-keeping aimed at the street workers were legally justified, resulting in their eviction (Protschky, 2023). Each of these practices not only removes individuals from certain spaces, but they may also prevent them from entering these spaces again, as the arisen fines from such evictions, for example from using the U-Bahn without a ticket, can often not be paid in monetary terms and is then paid in prison time (Bögelein, 2020). These urban spaces are thus territorialized. Border practices select and exclude unfitting elements while letting those pass that adhere to the rules (Belina, 2017, pp. 88–96; Löw & Weidenhaus, 2018).

However, during one observation it became clear that even if one was fulfilling the formal conditions the specificity of such laws and rules lies in not who they are deemed to include, but in who they want to exclude. Being identified as “dirty” and “smelly” was enough for the ejection of a sleeping man by the security personnel, despite the offer to buy him a ticket. Him “disturbing” the other passengers was a bigger issue it seemed. Such practices are enshrined in the transportation rules of the VBB6F[7], the network of transport providers for Berlin and Brandenburg (Tarifinformationen, 2022).

In addition to this legal imagery, also newspaper outlets participated in creating and keeping-distance from street workers by displaying images identical to that of the law. While there were few news reports directly connected to the topic of homeless- or houselessness in relation to the Friedrichstraße, if they did make an appearance there was always the image of the white, single, homeless man. This “man”, and the people with similar living conditions were always related to notions of “dirt”, human excrement, or drugs7F[8]. Moreover, during the time of observation, the “Flaniermeile” of the Friedrichstraße was temporary, until November 2022, a “Fahrradstraße”, cars were prohibited to drive on the street (Neumann, 2022; Verwaltungsgericht Berlin, 2022). Due to these measures, an “alliance” of commercial operators formed, opposing the decision of the senate, arguing the street was now “closed” for customers, leading to reduced revenues, and “open” for non-consuming, “defiling” individuals, the homeless. In one article, this line of argument and the common depiction of the homeless body, as Pascale (2005) outlines it, became highly visible.  

This article starts with the image of a man sleeping on a bench. This single man is then made out to be one of the factors leading to the decline of customers and the overall “Flaniermeile”:

“Homeless use the trendy city furniture as a sleeping place. The Recordings [the picture taken] were made on a weekday, 14 o’clock. A difficult topic. Also the urine and the vomit in front of the house door [own translation].”- Bürkner (2021)

            Here, without actually seeing the used picture the emphasis on the “out-of-the ordinary” practices of the sleeping man becomes apparent (McCarthy, 2013). We don’t even know if the person is “homeless”, yet the body is positioned as someone “lazy”, sleeping while others are working, it was on a weekday! When seeing the picture, which most likely was taken without any consent, we may also realize that the person was made out to be “homeless” simply because of their clothes and demeanor. The “problem” of homeless individuals sleeping on the wooden furniture was also present in articles related to different parts of the Friedrichstraße (e.g., its Southern end at the “Mehringplatz”; Goldstein (2022)).

However, within the group of interviewees, there was also a lot of discursive distance-keeping, following if not adapting this pattern. This distance-keeping was strongly revolving around the bodily hygiene, behavior, and personal aesthetics of the interviewees and those in similar living conditions. Here, the adoption and embodiment of the dominant imagery became highly visible. As one interviewee put it, when talking about his neighbor, who brought him some food a few minutes earlier:

“More and more drink. He is [an] alcoholic. So, he is finished. [...] This is not good for health. This is not good for society.” - Evan

Nevertheless, sometimes interviewees also talked about themselves in a similar way. The same man for example showed me his ID, where a younger, beardless face was depicted, then pointed to his current face and said: “Now I look like a terrorist!”. Also, the reference to the “junkies” I mentioned earlier fits such discursive depictions of bodies, which also serve as a means of distancing from such people.

Symbolic distance-keeping

Returning to the societal level we may now ask, looking at the various harmful practices, how a society and a marginalized group re-produces a “functioning” system if there are so many inherent conflicts. Yet it is precisely this dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion, as I exemplified earlier, which results in a unity in contradiction (Kronauer, 2013). For this, I thought it to be helpful to offer two dialectical “word-pairs” of symbolic conflicts that exemplify the symbolic conflicts present in the current context, those between “the public” (Kawash, 1998), commercial operators, the police, news outlets, and the “other”, the street workers.

On the one hand, there is the “clean” and the “dirty”, which was mainly expressed in comments about the physical condition of a body, smell, and behavior. For the commercial operators, “clean” meant a Friedrichstraße full of paying customers, while “dirty” was connected to any elements disturbing this peace, unfitting furniture, fast bikers, or street workers. While most of the street workers and probably also some of the fast bikers were still paying customers, “dirty” did not only refer to an aesthetic (or physical) nuisance, but it also referred to a threat, a threat to the income of the commercial operators. Hence, “clean” means also “secure” (Wagner, 2011).   

For the street workers themselves, this environmental aesthetic was rather unimportant. They were more concerned with keeping up their most basic hygiene not only to not get sick but also to not be like the “junkies” and “alcoholics”, constituting themselves as harmless and friendly, sometimes at the cost of insulting one’s neighbor who just brought you some food. However, this “cleanliness” had an important function; not becoming the target of the gaze of the police or the public, as all interviewees indicated.

This gaze however can take a quite literal form. During one observation, I noticed a man who was sleeping on one of the wooden benches put up on the bike street, who was also being watched by a policeman sitting in a car. Shortly after the policeman drove away, which was after around 20 minutes, the man opened his eyes, taking an extensive observation of his surroundings. He then proceeded to start reading a newspaper but entered a state of agitation as he started hearing the noise of another car approaching, which turned out to be a money transporter. Here, it becomes clear, that the symbolic violence street workers experience is not simply “imperceptible and invisible [own translation]” (Bourdieu, 2021b, p. 8). It is also the embodiment of a gaze that does not just categorize but one which pursues the addressed.

Second, there is the relation between the “above” and the “under”. Here the spatial placement of the body is of utter importance. For example, where do you earn money, in the U-Bahn or on the street? For the U-Bahn security of one of the stations, as one interviewee told me, every person they identified as “homeless” was only recognized as such if they were traveling upstairs into the adherent station mall. If they stayed underground, they were ignored. For the interviewee I talked to in this station, however, there was a need to cross this boundary, namely, to return bottles or buy food in the station supermarket. This then required a quick and clear movement towards this supermarket, not to be perceived as “hanging around”.


Now I would like to conclude, offering both limitations to my project, as well as a discussion of my findings. First, I will also reflect on myself as a (student) researcher, as well as which steps may be taken to tackle the issues at hand. Second, I will then address the initial research question, by implementing feedback from Singapore, as well as utilizing another Bordieuan concept, that of the “body-for-others” (Bourdieu, 2021b, p. 112). For this, I will resort to another dialectical pair, that of the “visible” and the “invisible”, a symbolic interaction that constitutes the hexis of street workers as “transparent”. As a “scene [that] determines the ob-scene” (Lefèvbre, 1972, p. 176).

            I think it is always important when directly engaging with other individuals to consider one’s own role and position, in this case, that of the researcher. When searching for people to interview I relied on stereotypical assumptions of my (probably too small) sample. Someone selling a street newspaper? That should be a match! The initial question, after this “locating”, already set clear boundaries and positions, resulting in specific answers. Here, I believe it is important to consider the frequent highlighting of street workers, that they liked to be “clean”, as an indicator. With this, I do not want to say, that they did not tell me the truth, but rather that such an interview situation, between strangers, between two different hierarchical positions, may resemble an interrogation instead.

Here, I propose, when thinking about how to continue this project, it is most important to take a more ethnographic approach, where I myself must get vulnerable and not enter such situations as a stranger, but just as “one among many” (Wacquant, 2015). This would then also require me to leave the position of the “complete observer” (Gold, 2017). Yet I believe, that such ethnographic endeavors should also include participatory offers, especially since unhoused individuals are often excluded from contributing to the research projects they are portrayed in (Eisele, 2021). Their bodies become “transparent” in the sense that they are forms being filled by an “other”, the researcher. However, to deal with such issues, also politically, I believe there is too much distance being kept.


            How then may we describe the hexis observed and its constitution through various practices of “distance-keeping”? What becomes visible at first glance were situations of severe struggle and extreme cases of the “body-for-others” (Bourdieu, 2020, p. 112). For Bourdieu, such bodies are those which are constantly objectified through the gaze of others, for example, commercial operators, police, and security personnel. These gazes turned the (in)visible hexis “transparent” as if one could see right through the intentions of a street worker, positioning them as “Fremdkörper”, foreign bodies with the intention of disturbing the “civil order” of the street with every move they made.

Yet also a certain mutuality, a micro-cosmos of (re)cognition and denial, became apparent, as street workers did repeat the words of those other actors (Bourdieu, 2020, p. 115). This mutuality of differentiation, being distanced from, and keeping distance to, was constituted and reinforced by a complex system of exclusion. In my research, I tried to identify the physical (movements, architecture, etc.), the discursive (legislature, media, etc.), and symbolic forms of such exclusions.

            All these categorizing and judging gazes produce a hexis that is in a constant state of justification for the most common practices, a constant state of movement as Kawash (1998) explains. This forced movement, as displayed by the interviewees’ need to navigate between various access points for food or shelter, was caused mainly by exclusion from urban infrastructures. Such physical distance-keeping was however actively reproduced, for example through policing. However, many individuals who become homeless already lived in marginalized situations before they became homeless (Girola, 2013). Reflecting a societal fragility, which seems to be intensifying (Dörre, 2020). However, as I did not address this aspect during my interviews it would be fruitful to delineate parts of such marginalized biographies.

However, such extreme cases of the “transparent” body-for-others do not refer to a lack of subjectivity on the side of the street workers, it means that the street workers are seen as a potential threat. Here, I may mobilize a German synonym for transparent, “durchschaubar”, which refers, when applied to an individual, to someone whose intent is always visible and mostly a (normative) bad intent. Within various “visual” outputs, such as news reports, this image was often created, yet also reproduced by the interviewees, who rarely have the chance to display themselves in any news reports or legislature8F[9]. The image of the “white, homeless male”, a danger for an otherwise “clean” street was created (Pascale, 2005).

Consequently, making certain individuals visible, for example in the legislature, may lead to rather negative outcomes, as such laws then serve as modern forms of the “liber vagatorum”, a handbook on who to police. This aspect of categorization became apparent in the practices of BVG security personnel, who acted based on the image outlined above, neglecting other formal access criteria. However, and this can be exemplified in the case of Singapore, even the “invisible” are punished, as “homelessness” only emerged in public discourse after the housing crisis of 2008. Yet there still existed unhoused individuals who were categorized (and often punished) as “destitute”, persons without any means (Tan, 2021; Tan & Forbes-Mewett, 2018). Therefore, the constitution of a bodily hexis is inseparably connected to symbolic structures of a society, structures which encompass all elements of a society, even if they may be invisible on the visual-discursive level.

These symbolic structures, aiming to preserve the re-production of a given society (or social group) (Bourdieu, 2021a, pp. 730–734), are then connected to its dominant mode of organized work, wage labor, the creation of (surplus) value (Mau, 2022, pp. 121–124). Thus, the “lazy”, “dirty” and other stigmatized individuals are always bodies that must be both punished and/or re-integrated into wage labor, made “valuable” again, must be made sedentary, controllable - transparent (Foucault, 2017, pp. 279–284). A societal order that those suffering (and benefiting) from its weight are likely to adhere to and re-produce (Mau, 2022, p. 55; Tan, 2021).

How then could these harmful practices of exclusion be stopped? These practices are aimed at various stigmatized groups in different forms, such as women, people of color, and unhoused individuals (Gerull, 2021; Hooks, 2012; Sarbo, 2022). Is it possible to reverse the “transparent” body-for-others, the constant presence of a gaze, from the police, media, and legislature? A gaze that is not simply a phenomenological symptom, even though its consequences may as well be, but a mutual act of subsumption (Bourdieu, 2021b, pp. 27–28).

Ending this relationship of exclusion would need to move further than unilateral improvements, it requires a holistic change toward universal stability of individual (social) reproduction. Simple material improvements, even access to housing, are often of temporary nature if the following bills cannot be paid. Discursive improvements, letting affected people talk, are ineffective if the language being spoken is owned by the already dominant. It is the origin of the symbolic which must become transparent to us, the ob-scene (Lefèbvre, 2020, p. 176).

Returning again to Singapore; while plenty of people needed to sell their houses to pay off their debts after the crisis, others gladfully bought them (Doling & Ronald, 2014, pp. 27–28; Ooi & Le, 2012). Therefore, we must turn our eye to an “emergent feature” of our society (Mau, 2022, pp. 53–57). A feature that also constantly moves, even circulates, which requires infrastructures, yet feeds on them (Harvey, 2006). The accumulation of capital (surplus value), is the underlying transparent, formative aspect (Lefèvbre, 1972, p. 154) of a totality (society) which hands over the re-production of its members, “the” universal aspect of human life one could say, to market mechanisms (Brenner, 2014). I believe it is necessary to universalize a particularism through redistribution, namely material wealth, to break this cycle.



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[1] In this paper, I will refrain from using the term “homeless” (also for the reasons mentioned in the footnote beneath), as I want to describe the interviewees how they described themselves, which was mainly in terms of their work. I will make use of the term if I want to “speak” for others, who did use it. For other reasons, see for example Orenstein (2020)

[2] This relation is marked by unstable or non-existent access to wage labor and social welfare support, the origin of many forms of exclusion. There does exist great variety in the group of street workers, for example, based on nationality. Non-German, EU-citizens, which made up 3 of the 4 interviewees, are technically allowed to work in Germany, while they are often no eligible to receive social welfare. See for example Bouali (2022); Gruber (2006).

[3] As “discourses” are rather prominent within the field of sociology, it may also be of importance to note, that I do not want to adopt such a theoretical framework, for example, that of Hall  (1997).

[4] For an example of its use see: Beikler and Hofman (2017)

[5] §10 Par. 2, which constitutes the street as a place for traffic and subsequently bans uses that are not traffic, such as putting down a tent, is frequently used as a justification to remove individuals (see: Bezirksamt Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (2021))

[6] I will come back to this role taken when considering the limitations of this initial research. My initial motivation, why I did not want to “go native” during the research was mainly the fear of being “known” in a place close to where I live. Moreover, as some situations were more or less violent interactions, often due to police officers, I neither wanted to be hurt or end up in jail.

[7] §3 Par. 1 Sen. 7, deems “dirty and/or malodorant people” as worthy to be evicted, which mostly are street workers Protschky (2023).

[8] Here are four exemplary news reports that make use of the described rhetoric: Bürkner (2021); Goldstein (2022); Gröning (2022); Wenzel (2022)

[9] In Berlin and some other German states, it is possible for unhoused individuals to vote. If they are German and can prove that they have been residing in the city for at least 3 months. See: Krennerich (2021).

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