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Working paper

Intersections of stigma, social capital and community engagement in the suburbs: a social network analysis

26 Jan 2017

The issue of how to build community engagement and promote pathways to economic and social inclusion for the most excluded social groups is one of the most vexed policy questions. Place-based stigma is frequently named as a barrier for the successful implementation of community development strategies designed to address these (Warr 2005a), with the layers of stigma within and across communities often unacknowledged. The literature suggests that the stigmatisation that affects identifiably ‘disadvantaged ’ places is reproduced on a smaller scale internally. That is, within an area labelled by outsiders as ‘bad’, insiders may project this reputation onto certain streets or groups of people or manifestations of behaviour as a way of disassociating themselves from the tainted reputation. Therefore, certain members of the community are subjected to multiple layers of stigma, and, this may present a barrier to their involvement in community development activities premised on the idea of a more homogenous community.

To examine this issue this project takes an innovative approach designed to identify how place-based stigma creates division and social exclusion within the neighbourhood itself. It aims to map social and relational networks in order to build on our understanding of the processes of stigma (re)production and mitigation. To this end, the project mapped social networks and relationships within sub-sections of a disadvantaged urban Tasmanian community. This relational approach to understanding people and place has provided a knowledge base about intra-neighbourhood manifestations of stigma and reputation.

Touraine (2000) argues that the process of stigmatisation can cause communities to become introverted, effectively functioning as a process of ghettoisation. Our research highlights that this introversion is not limited to reactions to perceptions of a ‘bad area’ from outside, but continues, in a kind of ‘micro-process of introversion’, into the topography of the area itself — an ‘intra-territorial stigmatisation’. While our data supports Warr’s (2005a, p. 8) point that the ‘unsympathetic attitudes and actions of outsiders’ add to the challenges of living in a stigmatised neighbourhood, it also suggests that intra-neighbourhood stigma perpetuates the social and spatial divisions that already exist because of external stigmatisation.

This is a form of ‘othering’ (Crisp 2013) well recognised in stigmatisation literature per se but not understood as well in relation to intra-territorial or intra-neighbourhood stigma. Further, unlike other studies, which attribute intra-neighbourhood stigma to situations where middle class residents in an area resent and reject social housing tenants or other low income groups, our social network analysis methodology revealed that stigma is correlated less with socio-economic differences and more to the number and type of social ties within the neighbourhood. Relative intra-neighbourhood isolation and internal density contributes to a self-perpetuation of neighbourhood divisions, providing fewer reasons to engage and greater reason to internalise the Chinese whispers and dark urban legends relegating one place as a scapegoat for the rest. In this sense ‘...stigma is more than simply the presence of a negative group stereotype: it is an active, corrosive process that undermines relations between communities’ (Stevenson et al., 2014: 465).

Thus, the study shows both empirically and specifically that social space is ‘roughly superimposed’ (Bourdieu 1999, p. 125) upon physical space, and this results in intricate entanglements of power (Sharp et al. 2000). This knowledge provides a unique lens for understanding disadvantaged urban places, particularly when laying the foundation for community development strategies to address disadvantage and stigma. In particular, we stress the need for supporting the identification of entry and re-entry points for building relationships across and between the micro-territories that are most and least at risk of internal stigmatisation. Without them for example, community development strategies may (unintentionally) continue to deepen internal stigmatisation by continuing to build relational capital within rather than between the spaces where representational struggles are fought (Harvey 1996). Strategies can thus be used to repair spatial and relational fragmentation by building collaborative relationships across individuals and organisations, particularly focusing on those who have become isolated or ‘districts of relegation’ (Wacquant 2016) within their wider urban territory. Addressing these internal divisions will deepen our understanding of how everyday social practices and (symbolic) performances converge with spatial geography and topography to heal social divides.  

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