Stigma and the Unintended Consequences of Inequality

Dr Lisa McKenzie (was University of Nottingham now London School of Economics) gave a troubling and hugely insightful presentation at the ESRI seminar, on Wednesday 20th November.  The talk was slightly different to the proposed one – Belonging and Exclusion: Council estate life in Nottingham exploring instead stigmatized families and neighborhoods in terms of the unintended consequences of social inequality.  Lisa is an ethnographer, something she found herself to be like other curious and nosy individuals who become academics, and fitting of a methodology that seeks to relate complex social phenomena it was a talk built from personal narrative in relation to the content.

Lisa became an academic after joining an access course to go to university – it was either studying sociology or becoming a social worker, something that would be more likely to lead to a job. What helped her make the decision was hearing about Ken Coates and Richard Silburn’s (1983) study Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, an ethnographic study of poverty in St Ann’s in Nottingham.  St Ann’s is a notorious council estate in Nottingham, a community in which Lisa had lived for 25 years.  That such research took place was a revelation to Lisa.  Since then she has sought to understand such communities from the inside; in comparison the tradition of white, middle-class men travelling into a community to research ‘them’, she wanted to understand why ‘we’ are like this?

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Her research agenda was to understand why there were so many white single mums with mixed-race babies and how the women living in St Ann’s found value in their lives.  To live in St Ann’s is to live in a maligned community, stigmatized by the media and citizens of Nottingham.  So how then do people living in St Ann’s come to value in their lives?  Belonging was a key dimension of the lives of the women Lisa researched.  ‘Being St Ann’s’ and claiming ‘I’m typical St Ann’s’ were repeatedly heard in conversations with the women she interviewed – but what did that mean?

Lisa found it difficult to get women living in St Ann’s to talk to her. Before consenting to be interviewed they would ask other people whether they knew her and then once they met the women would probe into her background asking who she knew, who her child’s father was, where she went to school and gradually connections would emerge and they would feel they could talk to her.  Thus part of St Ann’s is being known but also being talked about.  It was within these close networks on the estate that the women felt safe from the stigma, stereotypes and racism they experienced when as people from St Ann’s they went out into other communities and areas.  And so, St Ann’s gave stability and a place for people who’d been in care, lived in poverty or otherwise at the vagaries of a hard and uncaring world.

A deeply conservative message could be read into Lisa’s description of life in St Ann’s, with the unintended consequences of the benefit system meaning that father’s could not live with the mother’s of their children because it would cancel housing benefits and they did not have jobs to meet the bills themselves.  These were people that needed jobs and support but were not receiving it due to the way in which the welfare state engages with disadvantage.  It would be interesting to apply ethnography to understand how policies could engage with the interrelatedness and complexity of the lives of people living in communities such as St Ann’s.  However, as Lisa explained, maybe ethnography does not provide clear and definitive answers but rather makes accounts of communities more complicated, more interrelated and truer.

James Duggan

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