“Shame [is at the] irreducible absolutist core” of the experience of poverty and disadvantage.
(Amartya Sen) 

The experience of poverty and disadvantage are widely perceived to be negative attributes setting people apart from the mainstream of society and devaluing them.  Research, particularly in the mental health field, has shown that the internalisation of the stigma these processes create exacerbates other drivers of social and health inequalities.  It is associated with internal feelings of shame and moral inferiority. It can cause psychological stress, poorer self-reported health and life satisfaction, and lower levels of well-being. It can create barriers to receiving services, finding jobs, or accessing resources.  Most perniciously, it undermines trust and fragments social relationships, limiting the potential for people experiencing disadvantage and powerlessness to recognise their common interests and act collectively to resist.

Stigmatisation processes can also create negative representations of different geographical places (e.g. regions, towns, neighbourhoods, housing estates) as well as liminal spaces inhabited by migrants and minority ethnic groups.  Although spatial stigma misrepresents the nature and scale of the “problems” highlighted it is a powerful force exacerbating disadvantage, marginality and social divisions. Yet, despite the potentially devastating consequences for people’s lives and health there is limited understanding about the processes that create and perpetuate spatial stigma and the agency of those impacted by it.

In recent papers with colleagues, we have aimed to contribute to this evidence base.  Our systematic review [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2021.102525] mapping the contours of existing qualitative research sought to identify how spatial stigma manifests in residents’ lives, the strategies they develop to cope and the implications for health.   The synthesised findings showed that residents do internalise the stigma associated with the places in which they live, and that spatial stigma did constrain life opportunities.  Yet the findings also reveal the different ways in which residents resist the potentially negative impacts of spatial stigma on their lives. Our own empirical study, [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102353] also explored how local newspapers sustained spatial stigma by circulating negative images of particular places, but they also provide unique insight into how area-based programmes with a strong participatory ethos can support residents to successfully challenge these negative portrayals.

More research is needed on the processes that generate and sustain spatial stigma, on the impact on people’s lives and health and on how these processes can be effectively challenged. However, as we conclude in our paper [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102353] multiple actions are possible at a local level  including place-based initiatives that enable communities to construct and voice their own narratives about where they live to challenge the negative discourses that typically dominant portrayals of ‘disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods.  Policy makers, professionals, academics and their institutions also sustain, even if inadvertently, contribute to spatial stigma [https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdy214]: in the language and images we use; in our failure to challenge negative portrayals of places; and in our inability to recognise the evidential value of knowledge people accumulated from their experience of disadvantage and powerlessness.   Whilst more research and local action are necessary, they will not be sufficient to mitigate the negative impact of spatial stigma without parallel action to address the structural causes of inequalities that are rooted in the unequal distribution of power and other resources.

Emma Halliday & Jennie Popay