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‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places
‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places

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1 Aims of the course

The aims of this course are to:

  • Explore some of the many complex and different ways in which questions of social justice and of inequality come to be seen in terms of the deficient behaviour of different problem populations. In particular, it explores how particular groups of people and particular places come to be identified as ‘problem populations’ and how social welfare and crime concerns intersect in the management of these populations.

  • Highlight some of the enduring legacies of the past, both in terms of the language that is often mobilised to represent disadvantaged and poor people, and also the continuing presentation of certain groups as ‘problems’ to be managed. While highlighting some of these historical legacies, this course also draws attention to the ‘newer’ ways in which the notion of problem populations is being mobilised.

As you work through the course, you are encouraged to reflect on some of the possible historical antecedents that might influence contemporary manifestations of such ways of thinking, as well as on how ideas of problem populations come to be associated with particular social groups and geographical places. You might also wish to reflect on why it is that the idea of problem populations is rarely, if ever, associated with rich and powerful groups.

This course is structured around a series of case studies. Through a range of case studies from the USA, France and Britain it explores some manifestations of the representation of poor people as problem populations in different national contexts in the early twenty-first century. Before proceeding to explore these it is important to consider the role of a case study in work such as this. Case studies offer what we might term ‘windows’ on particular events which allow wider themes and processes to be revealed. In concentrating light on an issue, case studies allow us to make comparisons and enable bigger claims to be made. In this course, a case study approach is used to illuminate ideas of problem populations and problem places. Case studies are valuable tools to help us make sense of a particular issue, but we must also be sensitive to their limitations. The choice of case studies reflects the particular values and perspectives of the person making the selection. We need to be alert to the subject matter of the study, reflecting on what is the focus, which voices are being heard (or are missing), and from what perspective claims are being made. The case studies in this course involve selected extracts, comments from eyewitnesses, media sources, politicians, political commentators and social scientists; they also include photographs and other images. As you work with these you need to pay attention to what is being claimed – and what might be missing from the arguments advanced. We shall return to these issues during the course.