Strange Bedfellows: The social human factors of distance learners and the homeless, Part 1

“It is in social situations that most of the world’s work gets done.”Erving Goffman

I have an odd job. I watch what people do, ask what they think and how they feel and then try to make sense out of it to design a better situation for them. Recently, I found myself studying two different groups of people who share a condition – students who get their degree online, and the homeless; both are unable to gain access to communities they desperately need.

After completing research for a distance learning client at frog, our project team discovered that most of the student-participants are lonely and lacking confidence. They think they are the dumbest ones in their class and trudging behind everyone else and yet they don’t know who their classmates are or whether THEY are good or bad students because, well, they can’t see them! Lacking the social meter that actual classmates in a classroom provide keeps them from calibrating their own progress. We also found that low self-esteem was widespread among the diverse group of students we interviewed and it affected their motivation, confidence, and performance in their studies. As we prepared for our AC4D Design for Impact Boot Camp last Saturday, I was curious to see if there was a parallel between those students we talked to and the homeless people we would be studying because both seemed to be held in a captive and disheartened state by their circumstances.

Walking to work a few days later, I passed by some homeless men and women and wondered why many of them talk to themselves in public (and, presumably in private). Is it mostly drugs and mental illness or are there other social factors in play such as the loneliness that results from lack of companionship? Could it also be a reinforced rejection of social norms? Like, implicitly, “Fine – if you aren’t going to treat me like part of your society, then I’m not going to behave like I’m part of your society.” Although our day-long work session at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) didn’t quite get to the bottom of this issue, it did show me that homeless people, similar to distance learners, take a hit to their sense of self because they lack a normal volume of everyday interactions that us social creatures need to stay emotionally stable, such as chance encounters with people we know, eye contact, ordinary talk and conversation, glances, and posturing. We take this “sense-data” for granted because it is usually transmitted to us through our own impressions of very subtle, everyday exchanges but it is deeply felt and directly informs our actions. For example, if I was having trouble understanding Professor Kolko’s lecture on design frameworks, I might look around the class to see if others appeared as perplexed as I was before raising my hand to ask a question. And, if I were waiting to cross the street on a nice day at lunch time I might make eye contact with the person standing right next to me and nod my head in order to graciously acknowledge his sharing of street corner space. Erving Goffman refers to this behavior as “the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society.”

So, what social human factors, tactics, and technologies should we consider to help the homeless improve their bearing and relations with others? And, could these same methods also help those distance learners who are held captive and home alone? In my next post, I’ll talk about personal skills, engendering community, establishing “co-presence”, setting and meeting small milestones, the role of affirmations, and the importance of gradually building social capital. Stay tuned.