Homeless in San Francisco is more interesting than Rehabilitating morality in neoliberal Russia

My super productive weekend was put on hold thanks to headaches. I think I wrote a post about the value of headaches once before, how the distorted vision, waves of nausea and cascading thoughts can be useful for offering another perspective. No alternative perspective opened up this weekend, but I did sit on the couch and finish Zigon’s (2011) “HIV is God’s Blessing”: Rehabilitating morality in neoliberal Russia. Waiting to limp through the last couple of chapters of a book until you feel too ill to do anything else is probably not a ringing endorsement. On the other hand, it was interesting enough for my to pry my eyelids open for so it was not all that bad.

I could not help but compare the book with Gowan’s (2010) Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, a comparison which left me a little disappointed. While Teresa Gowan manages to weave fine grained political analysis with detailed accounts of places, people and relationships, Jarrett Zigon’s book lacks the empirical grunt and does not really compensate with its theoretical discussion enough to stand out as a particularly interesting read.

Clearly these are books which have come out of quite different projects. Both books discuss populations which are institutionally marginalised in their country in particular ways they are not necessarily in Australia (homeless recyclers in Gowan’s book and intravenous drug users/ HIV positive people in Zigon’s). However, even though both books deal with issues of subjectification, the levels of analysis are quite different. Gowan sets out taxonomy for how this marginalisation is understood by different actors. Zigon develops his model of morality.

The greatest contrast for me is the research which has gone into each of these books. While Gowan spent years developing an understanding, Zigon’s turn around has clearly been much faster. This would be a pretty poor yardstick if I was offering a proper review of the books, but as this is my blog (and I often wonder why I am doing a project which uses time so inefficiently) I feel justified in making that call. While in my own project I would never be able to get anywhere near the depth and breath of understanding of life narratives, lived experience and the policy context that Gowan provides, her book was a great encouragement to me to continue to put the hours into my own project. In the acknowledgements you find out that Gowan did not just step out there as the perfectly trained, confident researcher (apparently she was on the phone to her supervisor multiple times on her first day in the field). She is clearly a remarkable person. I really admire the way she weaved together the stories she was trusted with in a respectful way, without feeling the need to assign each character a halo.

There were glimpses of the researcher in Zigon’s book. I learnt that on at least one day of field work Zigon had an assistant with him, he got a tattoo sometime during his research, and he was a non-smoker. I got a few glimpses into Zigon’s sense of humour and willingness to test the waters. I have plenty of respect for him, after all he was able to collect a range of perspectives and pull them together with his own observations. However, much of the method behind the data which goes into his claims remains a mystery to me. I do not think I would go as far as saying “HIV is God’s Blessing” is difficult to read, but I certainly found it less engaging than Gowan’s work. When I read a book, rather than a paper, I like to feel like I can understand the data rather than just the argument. This does not mean I need to know whether the researcher was wearing sandals, but I want to know why a means b in context c.

With both books, but especially Gowan’s, I was often frustrated at how much of the theory was stripped out. I am sure if I revisit some of Zigon’s earlier work I will be able to work out what the important lessons from this book are for me. Although this will be a bit of work seeing as HIV is God’s Blessing does not have an index.


Gowan, T. (2010). Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco. Minneapolis & London, University of Minnesota Press.

Zigon, J. (2011). “HIV is God’s blessing”: Rehabilitating morality in neoliberal Russia. Berkely, Los Angeles & London, University of California Press.



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