Last year I saw a video interview of a modern day hobo that left an impression on me. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the video. Anyhow, what made it interesting is that a well to do executive took a month off every year to be a hobo. A hobo is a vagrant worker who travels the country, mostly by train. Of course, Train hopping is illegal and dangerous.
Through its 150 years of history, hobo culture has evolved a widely known code of conduct and has established a system of symbols, bizarre runic like graffiti, a code which warn or tip future hobo travelers of dangers or potential rewards. Camping on the outskirts of train yards and eating opossum cooked over a trash can appear to be favorite hobo pastimes.
Why would a corporate executive take a month off from his high status job and luxurious home to travel America illegally on trains, without cash, living on opossum, and camping in slum conditions? I’m guessing it’s a status driven enterprise just the same. It hints at the romantics of a carefree travelling lifestyle popularized by the likes of Jack Kerouac and combines it with a legacy and heritage that spans a century and a half into American history. To live like a hobo for a month is an accomplishment that makes for a heroic story.
Of course, not everybody with appreciate such a story. The American sociologist, Nels Anderson spent part of his early life living as a hobo. Later, Nels became a Masters candidate under Ernest Burgess at the University of Chicago where he conducted serious ethnographic research into hobos and homeless people. He later earned a doctorate at New York University. Despite Nel’s prolific research and publication record, he was unable to find a tenured position early in life. He published The Hobo in 1923, but he didn’t achieve a tenured academic position until 1965, when his work was finally beginning to garner some serious interest. Nels suffered over thirty years of academic exile because he was stigmatized for admitting that he had been a hobo. At least that is one version of Nel’s life story that I have read.
So how can something that is counter-status (stigmatized) be a status driven enterprise in its own right? Dare to be different? To stand opposed against the dominant establishment has always had its allure. To be free and unbound by society is the vagabond’s romantics. But dare I say that society isn’t always right, if not “often” wrong. Could the hobo be a freedom fighter that is just trying to survive in a society that she sees as oppressive? The status driven executive who spends a month pretending to be a hobo might just be sensitive to society’s injustice and the hobo’s heroics. Status should not be viewed exclusively in sociological terms. I am proposing that status is ultimately a self-communicative proposition of the idealized lifestyle, social role, and social justice that one heroically works to uphold or fights to achieve. Perhaps such a psychological proposition lacks efficacy but serves as the foundation from which the anthro-sociological phenomena manifest.