In recent years there has been a great deal of interest amongst health researchers in the role of social stigma in affecting health. Social stigma can be articulated as a majority view that works to spoil the identity of others on the basis of a discriminating characteristic such as race, gender or class. The social stigma associated with some minority groups has been shown to have health salience in terms of providing an obstacle to gaining access health care, housing provision, welfare, employment and other underlying factors affecting health. Groups that have been the subjects of research include disabled, homeless and itinerant populations and this body of work has revealed the multitude of interpersonal and institutional factors linking discrimination with health. Stigma has also been adopted as a deliberate strategy in health promotion initiatives, most notably in tobacco control with recent work beginning to question whether the denormalisation and stigmatisation of smoking (and the smoker) has reached its limit as a public health goal.
Given the long tradition of work on stigma and health, and the importance of stigma for establishing and perpetuating health inequalities, it is perhaps surprising that few researchers have considered the potential significance of place and the environment in establishing, perpetuating and mediating social stigma. In a recent commentary* on a Japanese paper on place-based discrimination published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, I argue that geographers (and others with interests in place, space and health) could productively consider the role of spatial stigma in affecting the health of local residents. Spatial stigma arises in places with notoriety in the public discourse, and that are constructed as ‘no-go zones’ or ‘sink estates’ that require constant policing. Neighbourhoods such as Toxteth in Liverpool, South Central in Los Angeles or the French banlieues have for instance been prejudiced by deep-rooted geographical discrimination. Key to the argument in the commentary is that there are a range of consequences for population health of residing in a highly stigmatised community. Yet very few empirical studies have tested the salience of spatial stigma in affecting population health.
So why should researchers with interests in the environment and spatial inequalities in health be concerned with place-based stigma? In the Social Science and Medicine commentary, I suggest that health might be compromised by spatial stigma through a series of (non-mutually exclusive) individualised and institutional pathways, which in turn can exacerbate geographical inequalities in health. These include:
1. Being ‘looked down on’ because of residing in a stigmatised community can detrimentally affect a number of life chances such as education and training opportunities, employment prospects and the prospects of developing interpersonal relationships. These factors have all been implicated in studies of health.
2. Stigma relating to particular places may act as ‘badge of dishonour’ that results in local residents taking actions such as concealing their address, avoiding receiving visitors or providing excuses to others for where they live. These feelings of shame can work to spoil, manipulate and mediate individual identities and social relations and affect health (e.g. health behaviours or mental health).
3. Place-based stigma affects the levels investment and disinvestment of public and private resources put into the local community. Progressive social policy is undermined by the lack of investment in the local infrastructure, housing and other services that provide the opportunities for healthy living.
4. Social networks, community social bonds and collective efficacy are affected by residents’ withdrawal from the public realm in response to the perceived threats associated with spatial stigma (e.g. crime). The breakdown of these community ties is detrimental to physical and mental health outcomes of local populations.
In short, there is plenty of evidence from the urban sociology and urban geography literature that through a variety of intersecting pathways place-based stigmatisation is harmful to the life chances of local residents. The population health consequences of place-based stigma are however less well established; understanding these pathways is an important challenge for researchers with an interest in the environment and health. This challenge is particularly important during a period of austerity with major reductions in state investment in a range of health related infrastructure. A likely consequence of this retrenchment is the heightened stigmatisation of many socially disadvantaged communities with potentially disastrous implications for public health and health inequalities.
Jamie Pearce, August 2012
*Library access required; if you are unable to get hold of the paper then I’d be please to email you a copy (firstname.lastname@example.org). .