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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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.