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

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3 Worlds apart? The problem of problem places

3.1 The idea of problematic places

Katrina offers us a rich case study through which we have begun to explore some of the concerns surroundng problem places or populations. In reflecting on the controversies that emerged in the aftermath of Katrina, we can see that for some commentators it was a ‘problem place’ long before the hurricane struck in 2005. The idea that different places can be seen as problematic is a recurring theme that emerges in the context of ongoing debates around poverty and inequality, and the relationship between social justice and criminal justice across the world. In particular, urban spaces have often been viewed as sites of problem populations.

Activity 2

In the extract below, French sociologist Loïc Wacquant offers us some ways of understanding the idea of problem places.

  • What do you feel are the main themes that are raised by this commentary?

  • How might we reflect on the different sources of attention that these localities receive and to which he refers?

Extract 6

Ghetto in the United States, banlieue in France, quartieri periferici (or degradati) in Italy, problemområde in Sweden, favela in Brazil, villa miseria in Argentina, rancho in Venezuela: the societies of North America, Western Europe, and South America all have at their disposal in their topographic lexicon a special term for designating those stigmatized neighbourhoods situated at the very bottom of the hierarchical system of places that compose the metropolis. It is in these districts draped in a sulfurous aura, where social problems gather and fester, that the urban outcasts of the turn of the century reside, which earns them the disproportionate and disproportionately negative attention of the media, politicians, and state managers. They are known, to outsider and insiders alike, as the ‘lawless zones’, the ‘problem estates’, the ‘no-go’ areas or the ‘wild districts’ of the city, territories of deprivation and dereliction to be feared, fled from, and shunned because they are – or such is their reputation … – hotbeds of violence, vice and social dissolution.

Wacquant, 2008, p. 1


It is immediately striking that each different national context has a vocabulary carrying a pejorative rhetoric which produces and sustains the notion of problem places. The social and the geographical come together in notions such as ‘the problem estate’ to describe particular places – and also their populations – as being characterised by social problems and as locales of crime and disorder. These localities are often symbolic, representing all that is problematic about urban life and society more broadly. They become catchwords for a diverse assortment of social ills and work to identify these social ills as belonging to particular places and their inhabitants. In other words, while Wacquant himself identifies ghettos and other problem areas as part of a wider system of social stratification and inequality that characterises the urban world today, this is not a prevailing view. Disadvantaged locales are more generally understood as the sources of urban (and wider) social problems. This is reflected across a range of urban social policies and regeneration programmes that speak of ‘poor people and poor places’ and carry ideas about what they should be like. In other words, a sharp distinction is drawn in the language identified by Wacquant between ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ ways of living. It is the culture that exists in poor places, rather than the wider social organisation, which is constructed as being the obstacle to the successful eradication of poverty, crime and other social problems. This recourse to cultural explanations of poverty is encapsulated in the terms ‘culture of poverty’ (Lewis, 1966) and ‘cycle of deprivation’ (Joseph, 1972). Through these terms, two worlds are created: the world of ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal’ society (‘us’ ) on the one hand, and the world of the needy, the deviant and the criminal (‘them’) on the other. This binary division informs and permeates understandings of social exclusion and inclusion, an issue to which we shall return in Section 4 of this course. Wacquant highlights the kind of language used by politicians, policymakers and the media to describe problem places, and it is important that we be aware of the sources of such language, why it is being used, by whom and for what purpose. It is equally important to note that alternative images and accounts, generated by the residents of places so labelled, are often neglected.

Following the discussion around some of the controversies surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the main concern of this section is to explore some of the other ways in which populations in need or in danger come to be seen as a problem for wider society. Here the emphasis is on how they come to be seen as a problem associated with particular places. In other words, the focus is on how types of people inhabiting types of places come to be problematised. There are many different ways in which these problematisation processes have emerged historically – from the fears of politicians and of the rich of the slumdwellers and crime-ridden ‘rookeries’ of nineteenth-century London, the closes and wynds of Glasgow, the ‘little Irelands’ of Manchester and other British cities, through to the concerns of politicians with ‘problem estates’ in the 1980s and 1990s. As noted previously, the creation of particular places as problems, places of danger and crime, and places in and of need is common to different countries. But across these different national contexts, they take on particular meanings and understandings. To illustrate this point, the next two subsections focus on two such places: the suburban housing estates of urban France (the ‘banlieue’); and the council estate in parts of the UK.