How do you solve a problem like… stigma?

11 December 2018

Topic: REACH, Stigma
Author: Daniel Busso

Daniel Busso, Senior Researcher, FrameWorks Institute


What can we do to change the dialogue on social issues like poverty, homelessness, and child neglect? How can we build public support for a fairer, more equitable society? How do we tackle corrosive stereotypes about marginalised communities? These are questions of central importance for advocates working to drive social change.

A long, straight, road leading into the disctanceAt the FrameWorks Institute, we use social science to help answer these questions. Earlier this year, we completed the first stage of a project exploring public perception of the care system and looked after children in Scotland. Our research reveals a set of deep and widely shared ways that people think about these topics: they see trauma as leaving mental scars that can’t be erased; they trace the problem to selfish parents trapped in morally deficient communities; and they understand the system itself as deeply dysfunctional and ill-equipped to provide the love and care that they recognise that children need.

It is these ways of thinking that help explain why children and families in the care system are so stigmatised. They also create obstacles for those working to provide better supports for children in care.

A steady diet of stereotypes

At Frameworks, we’ve also explored how stigma and bias play out in related issues like poverty and homelessness. Tabloid newspapers, so-called reality TV programs and other media feed us a steady diet of stereotypes about the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society. Caricatures of a lazy, weak-willed underclass point the finger at individuals rather than the system itself. Over time, these images become etched into our public consciousness, shaping our attitudes, behaviour, and even policy preferences, in ways that we may not even realise. As psychological research has shown, these unconscious biases are particularly insidious, sustaining prejudice even in a society that strives to be fair and just.

Depressing? Yes. But now, the good news: advocates have the power to redirect and contest these existing patterns of thinking. The stories we tell about the children’s care system – about how it works, why it matters, and the solutions that can help improve it – have the potential to change public attitudes and discourse in powerful ways.

Recommendations for changing the narrative

Based on our findings, we’ve put together a set of initial recommendations to help anyone looking to change the narrative. These allow the public sector, third sector, organisations and individuals to change their own stories and messaging in order to reduce stigma.

  • Avoid “othering” those with care-experience. Advocates are often tempted to tell stories of people in extreme circumstances in order to create a sense of empathy. But, counterintuitively, this strategy can inadvertently reinforce 'us and them' thinking, positioning people as objects of pity, and obscuring our common humanity and interdependence. Thinking this way, the concerns of underprivileged communities become disconnected from the shared concerns and aspirations of the rest of society. Communicators should tell stories about “us” and not about “them”, making it clear that improving the lives of looked-after children has implications for everyone, not just those who are directly affected.
  • Explain the role of systems in shaping child and family outcomes. The media has many stories about the care system but mostly they focus on individuals; of badly-behaved children, resilient adults, neglectful parents, and heroic care professionals. These stories make it easy to vilify or champion individuals based on our assessments of their strength of character or the wisdom of their choices. We need to explain why children might need formal care and explain how social policies have contributed to this problem. These explanations should push people beyond their default thinking about personal choice and willpower. This doesn’t mean removing people from stories, but it does mean always placing stories in a social context. These should make it clear that our society’s issue doesn’t lie with immoral communities with deficient values, but rather with a set of social policies that constrain people’s options and makes it harder for certain children and families to be successful.   
  • Build a sense of efficacy. It is important that advocates strike the right balance between documenting the problems with the children’s care system (the urgency of the situation) with a sense that these problems can be addressed (the efficacy of solutions). Stories that leave the public with the impression of an impending child welfare crisis lead to only one place: disengagement and apathy. This makes the problem feel hopeless, which in turn leads to assumptions that looked-after children are a lost cause, for whom little can be done. By pointing to effective policies and programs, advocates can combat this sense of pessimism and generate more buy in for the prospect of meaningful change to the children’s care system.   

Changing cultural attitudes and reducing stigma is a long, effortful process. However, framing and effective messaging is a critical dimension of delivering progressive social change. By disseminating a new, productive set of stories about the children’s care system – just as we are working to do on social care, poverty, and homelessness - it is possible to reshape how people understand those within it and reduce stigma by reminding us all of the ties that bind us to each other and to our society.

The children’s care research led by the FrameWorks Institute was undertaken as a project sponsored by and conducted in close partnership with The Robertson Trust, Life Changes Trust and CELCIS.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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