Who are the wayfarers (and why are they still here)?

Martin Whiteford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Depictions of homeless people moving into and out of rural and urban spaces have long been a popular conceit in cinema, literature and
socio-cultural research (Duncan, 1983; Hardy, 1994; Healy, 2008). In the English-speaking world, for example, this interest has focused
explicitly on the American “hobo”, the Australian “swagman” and the British “tramp” (cf. Anderson, 1961; Crane, 1999; Cresswell, 1997;
Minehan, 1977; Richardson, 2006). In the popular imagination, “men of the road” are portrayed as part of a downtrodden, degenerate and
atomised underclass of itinerants. An alternative, and superficially more expansive and positive interpretation, views such a peripatetic
existence in a more genteel, bucolic and romanticised light. Arguably, these overlapping interpretations have given rise to an iconography of
“men of the road”, which is too narrow and easily stereotyped. Yet, in spite of this wide body of work and interest, it is difficult to find any
direct or detailed reference to wayfaring or wayfarers within the broad purview of the social sciences beyond Cloke et al’s (2007) singular
and significant investigation into the provision of emergency services for homeless people in rural areas.

In this article, I set out to consider the sociological significance of wayfaring in the wider context of the geographical mobility of
homeless people. Given the paucity of empirical accounts grounded in thick descriptions (Geertz, 1975), the principal aim of this short
Volume 2 (1), 2009 ISSN 1756-822619 exploratory review is to provide a more developed and nuanced picture of wayfaring. This is its modest, particular focus. The main body of this article is divided into four sections. In the first part, I suggest that beyond a fleeting engagement with the “new nomads”
(May, 2000) and the “happy hobo” (Cloke et al, 1999) relatively little academic attention has been assigned to wayfarers or wayfaring. Second, I focus on the mobility strategies and environmental knowledge of itinerant homeless people. In this respect, I take inspiration from Paul Higate’s critical engagement with ex-servicemen on the road, and go on to argue that wayfaring is underpinned by a narrative which explicitly articulates the importance of personal
autonomy, self-dependency and “freedom on the open road” (2000a, p.331). I then outline a basic typology of wayfaring with particular reference to empirical examples drawn from extensive ethnographic research in rural Dorset. I conclude the discussion by considering the motivations and experiences of men who decide or feel compelled to come off the road.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18-32
Number of pages15
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • homeless people
  • wayfaring
  • geographical mobility


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