3 November 2015

Engaging with the Edges


This is the first part of a trilogy of posts in which What Works Scotland's guest blogger Patricia Anne Rodger explores the issues around those deemed "hard to reach". 

In this post she looks at social shorthand and stigma.


Part 1: social shorthand and stigma



The term “hard to reach” probably originated in social marketing - latterly, however, it has become the normalised term of reference applied to entirely disparate populations and communities that the standard methodologies of engagement do not encompass. In offices across the country, boxes are ticked, labels are applied and entire sections of the population are pushed to the margins and consigned to the file marked “hard to reach”. Health and Safety Executive documents, for example, consistently refer to communities or groups they consider to be “…inaccessible to most traditional and conventional methods…” as being “hard to reach” with their range of identified groups covering a broad spectrum from the very specific and self-limiting “self-employed elderly farmers with small holdings” to “ethnic minorities”, which, I would suggest, is something of a sweeping and highly problematic generalisation.


In addition to minority ethnic communities, others in these (often intersecting) groups include the very youthful and the very old, those with mental / physical / learning disabilities, those with low levels of literacy and/or without English as a first language, the LGBT communities, the homeless and those living in significant poverty, those unable to assimilate to mainstream society and/or cannot be the primary agents in their own lives and those who, by choice or necessity, live without instant Internet access. Of course, there are many more categories and sub-categories…and many individuals may meet the criteria of a number of these diverse boxes…and different communities are defined as “hard to reach” in different contexts by different service providers, purse-string-holders and policy-makers.

The resulting melange has, unsurprisingly, become a very contentious topic of discussion…a large and complex arena of controversy in which, especially in the current age of austerity, the mere mention of the need to engage with people perceived as deviant from accepted socio-cultural and/or socio-economic norms may generate an audible chorus of tutting and sighing overlaid with the ubiquitous thrum of intense budget discussions.

The rise of political correctness has seen a number of alternative terms to describe such groups appear in the lexicon of public engagement. These include, for example “hidden populations” and “the seldom heard” – however these are surely just mildly less pejorative variations on an overall theme, a theme that ensures that the people to be engaged with are identified as the problem rather than signifying that the problem is rooted in where the power lies, who is holding the purse strings and what the agenda may be.

Thus the label “hard to reach” can be seen to have become accepted shorthand for the perceived failure or inadequacy of designated groups of people to successfully engage through the standard methodologies rather than there being any failure being on the part of the people/organisations who have probably not, in fact, have tried very hard to reach those groups.

And then, of course, there is the woeful failure to appreciate that applying labels to human beings, individually or collectively is extremely damaging to both groups and individuals. In addition to the unwarranted connotation of responsibility for failing to engage, a label like “hard to reach” also implies that such groups and individuals are undeserving, service resistant, information-poor, dysfunctional, damaged and difficult people. This sweeping generalisation is much beloved of particular newspapers that consistently blame, demonise, ridicule, ostracise and perpetuate negative ideas about anyone who is understood (by them) not to conform to their societal ideals. In doing so, those papers generate and propagate the injurious stigma applied to anyone and everyone categorised into these “hard to reach” groups. 

Just pause and take a moment to consider the implied differences between “hard to reach” and that other very contemporary and nebulous concept “hard working families”. The connotations of one term are damaging and discriminatory, implying that those under that particular umbrella have somehow chosen to exist on the margins of society, do not aspire to societal norms and are therefore undeserving – while the connotations of the other are that those families are reputable, diligent and worthy of societal approval.

Last Sunday, for the first time, I watched Sean Penn’s tour-de-force performance as the eponymous hero of the movie Milk. Earlier this year, I went to the cinema to see the profoundly moving and inspiring Selma. Both films are based on real lives and authentic moments in time that were key to the Civil Rights movement in the USA. The marginalized, the stigmatised, the discriminated against became a grassroots movement, rose up and demanded equality for all. Neither perfect nor yet complete, the social revolution of the sixties is inspiring because, although both films documented struggle and highlight personal tragedy, the overwhelming message is the need for hope. And half a century later, when there seem to be as many individuals and communities marginalized by society as there ever were, as society continues to label individuals and communities as “hard to reach” and “seldom heard”, it strikes me that hope may be the factor most needed in those lives. People privileged with power and purse-strings are the already-haves…they are safe, secure and bolstered by ambition, aspiration and supported by a British government that recognises and rewards “hard working families”; they have little need for hope.

But those on the edges…those labelled and stigmatised and easy to ignore…they need hope. And my hope is that we can reach out to them through social inclusion, personal respect and participatory democracy.


Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland

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