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

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4 Review: misrecognition, disrespect and the politics of fear

A recurring theme in discussions of poverty is the distinction between ‘the poor’ and ‘the non-poor’. Echoing nineteenth-century ideas of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, or 1930s notions of ‘problem estates’, such distinctions continue to permeate representations of poor populations today and also often figure prominently in policy.

Binary classifications such as those highlighted in Table 1 have long underpinned the ways in which poor and disadvantaged populations are seen as distinctive from ‘the rest of society’. In this way we can talk of the poor being ‘Other’. ‘Othering’ (Lister, 2004, pp. 100–101; Young, 2007, pp. 5–7) refers to the categorisations of the poor and other populations – for example, some migrant groups (though not others) and single parents – as variously undeserving and deficient. Othering works to present such groups as distinct, different from ‘normal society’; it underpins how the non-poor, and many politicians, policymakers and sections of the mainstream media, think and talk about, and act towards, poor people. In this way, ‘the underclass’, for instance, is constructed as a distinct and generally homogeneous group, even if no robust evidence has been produced that an underclass actually exists. One particular link that we can draw between the poor areas of New Orleans, banlieues and council estates is that they are generally portrayed as homogeneous localities inhabited by deficient people. The case studies highlight the importance of particular imaginations of places and people; problems are defined, diagnosed and policies developed and targeted at them to ‘cure’ them.

Table 1: Constructing worlds apart: ‘us’ and ‘them’
Society at largeThe underclass
EmploymentThe workless
Stable familySingle mothers
Law-abidingThe criminal
Source: adapted from Young, 2007, p. 22

Such processes both reflect and reproduce the kinds of discrimination and social injustices that blame people living in poverty for their own situation and for society's problems. People living in poverty may be demonised but they are also feared; feared for who they are – or who they are thought to be – and resented for representing a state of existence into which others fear to fall. History also reminds us that the fear of sudden descent into cataclysmic long-term poverty, with its inevitable terminus in the dreaded workhouse, was the nightmare of the British working class until the Second World War and the subsequent development of the welfare state.

As we have seen, poor and other disadvantaged populations tend to experience not only a lack of material resources but also a lack of respect. This returns us to important questions of social (in)justice. We need to consider how people are recognised and valued.

Activity 5

Taking into account recognition and respect, in what ways do the representations of disadvantaged populations and places, as considered in the case studies in this course, reflect issues of ‘non-recognition’ and ‘disrespect’? How might these be reflected in policy outcomes?


‘Non-recognition’ and ‘disrespect’, which involve being rendered either invisible or routinely maligned and stigmatised in everyday vocabularies and through policymaking, is the lived experienced of disadvantaged groups. This social devaluation is an important dimension of social injustice and it compounds inequalities of material resources. It infringes human and citizenship rights, denying voice and agency to those who are treated in this manner. In some ways, as we have seen in all our examples, the problem of problem populations can be that they have ‘too much’ voice and agency, especially when they are resisting, rebelling, and struggling for social justice – but of the ‘wrong sort’! But non-recognition and disrespect work in other ways too, shaping social and crime control policies. Viewing the problems experienced by poor people as the problems of poor people leads to a focus on their lifestyles and behaviours. Ideas of social inclusion and exclusion, therefore, reflect the translation of material disadvantages and need into cultural processes. In turn, the redistributive dimensions of social justice argued for by Fraser (1995) and others (e.g. Levitas, 2005; Lister, 2004) are rejected as viable policy options. Misrecognition and disrespect provide what we might see as a ‘triple whammy’ – stigmatising the poor, pathologising welfare and material need, and obscuring the inequalities of wealth and income.

This course has explored some of the many ways in which poor and disadvantaged groups come to be regarded as problem populations afflicted by assorted deficiencies. It has highlighted how these processes can be understood as part of a generalised war, not on poverty, inequality or injustice, but on poor people themselves (Gans, 1995). In each of the case studies that featured in this course, the different populations can be seen as vulnerable to environmental disasters, reductions in (or the absence of) welfare, state hostility and apathy, and to the denial of voice, agency and respect. At the same time, they are also often seen as an actual or potential threat to society. The coming together of particular class-based and assumed racial characteristics with an assortment of ascribed cultural and social deficiencies enables such populations to be represented as being both in need and ever more disorderly and threatening – an enemy ‘within’. In this way, problem populations come to be target populations, whose ways of living and whose cultures that enable survival are under attack.

While poor and problem populations are often constructed as marginal or surplus to society, they play a central role in the dominant debates about poverty and inequality that circulate in the world today. As Perlman (1976) and Stallybrass and White (1986) have forcefully argued, that which is marginal is usually symbolically central. Problems of social injustice and the unequal social relations of poverty, wealth and inequality become pitched as the cultural deficiencies of the poor, necessitating intervention in efforts to ‘develop’ cultures and personal lives and behaviour. Here, we can see also the collisions between welfare and crime control: how what are ‘crimes’ of acute, unmet welfare needs come to be portrayed as behaviours and cultures requiring control and management.

This brings us back to the central idea of this course: social justice. We can see that economic disadvantages and cultural disrespect are interrelated in important ways. Poor people are resented, scapegoated, stereotyped, ‘viewed through a social lens which renders most of their existence invisible while focusing on every blemish and dysfunction of their existence’ (Young, 2007, p. 75). By contrast, the behaviour, lifestyles and cultures of the rich and powerful have received comparatively little attention. Rarely are these social groups seen as a problem population. Nor are the rapidly spreading gated communities and enclaves that many rich people inhabit seen as problem places. What this implies is that the lens of our investigation and analysis should not approach poverty in isolation from wealth, nor the poor in isolation from the rich, but should see them both as part of a wider social whole characterised by pervasive and entrenched social inequalities.