Unequal Recognition: Othering ‘the poor’

A lecture given at the Challenging Inequalities Conference at the London School of Economics International Inequalities Institute on the 14th June 2017

Unequal recognition through the othering of people in poverty represents an important dimension of what has been called relational inequality, and speaks to one of the Institute’s three research themes – in what ways does inequality matter? It matters not just because of its material impact on individuals, communities, society and the economy, important as it is, but also because of its psycho-social impact on those who bear the heaviest burden of inequality – what have been called ‘the hidden injuries of class’.

The deepest injury of class is lack of or mis-recognition. Recognition has been described by the political philosopher, Charles Taylor, as ‘not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need’ that can only be provided by others. As leading recognition theorist Axel Honneth notes, a striving for recognition rises from ‘the experience of humiliation or disrespect’. This experience is all too common for people in poverty especially in a highly unequal society.

Before explaining how I’ve applied the concept of ‘othering’ to poverty, I’ll put it in the context of a relational perspective and in particular what Robert Walker and colleagues have dubbed the ‘poverty-shame nexus’. And I’ll conclude with some suggestions as to how we might challenge the othering of ‘the poor’, a term I try to avoid, other than in scare quotes, because in its objectifying and homogenising of people in poverty it contributes to the othering process.

A relational perspective

An understanding of poverty grounded in lived experience brings home how poverty is experienced not just as a disadvantaged and insecure economic condition but also as a shameful and corrosive relation. A relational perspective draws on psycho-social analysis in an attempt to understand what Frost and Hoggett call the ‘relational wounds’ suffered by the least powerful. Poverty is experienced in relation to others at both the societal and inter-personal level. Those relations are also constituted through other dimensions of inequality, such as ‘race’ and disability addressed today by John and Liz, but also in particular gender.

Scientific empirical evidence of the relational nature of poverty comes from Walker and colleagues’s cross-national study, which found that ‘despite massive differences in material conditions, the psycho-social experience of poverty is very similar and is much shaped by the shaming to which people in poverty are exposed and the stigmatizing and discriminatory practices to which they are frequently subjected’. The ubiquity of the ‘poverty-shame nexus’ supports Amartya Sen’s claim that shame and its avoidance lie at poverty’s ‘absolutist core’.


Othering is a social process, rooted in relationships of power, through which ‘the poor’ are treated as different from and inferior to the rest of society. It’s a dualistic process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – between the more and less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained. It’s not a neutral line, but one imbued with negative value judgements that diminish and construct ‘the poor’ variously as a source of moral contamination, a threat to be feared, an ‘undeserving’ economic burden, an object of pity or even as an exotic species to be explored. Broadly, othering condemns ‘the poor’ for what they do or looks down on them for the qualities or capacities they are considered to lack.

This is all too often reflected in how people in poverty are treated by welfare institutions – schools, social security agencies, social services. An account of a recent participatory project, involving family members of ATD Fourth World, a human rights organisation working with some of the poorest families, observed that ‘the othering dynamic actively constructs families involved in the child protection system as “different” from “us”, which dehumanizes and reinforces feelings of shame and worthlessness’. The term ‘povertyism’ is sometimes used to denote how, like racism or sexism, such discriminatory attitudes can become embedded in institutions.

Othering thus makes it easier to blame people in poverty for their own and society’s problems so that they themselves become the problem. This fits neatly with the current dominant identification of the root causes of poverty as lying in individual behaviour and capacities rather than structural conditions and processes. As Andrew Sayer explains ‘othering is likely to support and be supported by relations of economic inequality, domination and social exclusion and indeed to be stimulated as a rationale for these’.

To the extent that people in poverty’s supposed difference is visible – through for instance the symbolic signifier of clothing, first identified by Adam Smith as such and particularly powerful for children in today’s consumer society – othering can be experienced in a very bodily way.

It also operates as a discursive practice, which shapes how the ‘non-poor’ think and talk about and act towards ‘the poor’ at both an inter-personal and institutional level. By and large the language and labels used to describe people in poverty have been articulated by the more powerful, thereby denying ‘the poor’ what Imogen Tyler terms ‘representational agency’. In his Australian study of poverty, Mark Peel, reflecting on the pejorative terms used by ‘some of our most respectable citizens’, concludes that ‘to treat poor people so harshly you have to see them as unlike you in a very fundamental way’.

The pejorative terms vary to some extent between countries, reflecting their different historical roots. A particularly influential label, which Britain imported from the US, has been that of the ‘underclass’. It carries echoes of the Victorian residuum, which denoted sewage waste as well as the city poor. It’s been described as a discourse of ‘disgust, excess and waste’, which threatens to contaminate the wider society. In her analysis of disgust and its role in the Othering process, Imogen Tyler also makes the link, via the related abusive term ‘scum’, with the more recent label of chav. Although not quite coterminous with poor, and mired in judgements about consumption and taste, the chav label has been stamped with the mark of the ‘underclass’.

These labels have also been racialised in varying ways. In the US, the ‘underclass’ was explicitly applied to inner-city blacks, supposedly mired in ‘welfare dependency’ (another dominant derogatory label imported to the UK). In the UK, the underclass and more obviously ‘chav’, Tyler argues, propagate ‘categories of contaminated whiteness’, even if the term ‘white trash’ has not been imported from the US alongside the underclass.

The process of Othering is reinforced and to some extent shaped by political and media discourses. As John Hills put it: ‘It’s skive;rs against strivers … families where three generations have never worked against hard-working families; …”Benefits Street” against the rest of the country; undeserving and deserving. It’s them against us’. The reference to Benefits Street is to a programme, which has come to symbolise what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn’ TV, in which the lives of people in poverty are dissected and villified as popular entertainment. Even more supportive media representations sometimes serve to widen social distance through a process of sympathetic othering by emphasising difference or evoking pity.

Dominant Othering representations and discourses don’t only influence how the wider society view ‘the poor’; they are of course seen and heard by people in poverty themselves. Lisa Mckenzie observes of the residents of St Ann’s, Nottingham that they ‘are fully aware that they are “looked down on”, they are “made to feel small” and they are “disrespected”. The women ‘raged at how they were misrepresented within the media, ridiculed, laughed at and hated. They were also hurt by these representations’.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that one reaction, identified in a number of studies, is to try to protect one’s own identity through a strategy of what Ruth Patrick calls ‘defensive othering’ whereby it is deflected on to yet others. This is brought out in a German study in which benefit recipients distanced themselves from fellow recipients portrayed negatively in programmes similar in spirit to Benefits Street. By the same token, there is often a reluctance to own the label ‘poor’, which can itself be perceived as stigmatising. Moreover, poor may well not be part of a person’s identity – poverty after all represents a socio-economic position rather than a personal defining characteristic. All these factors make it much harder for people in poverty to resist the process of Othering by turning it into a positive identity in the way that say black or disabled activists have been able to do. Proud to be poor is a banner under which few want to march.

Challenging Othering

This brings me to how the Othering of people in poverty might be challenged, through the development of counter narratives. One, with particular significance for those who write about people in poverty – whether academics or in the media – is through recognition of their agency, which challenges their characterisation as passive objects: be it lazy, welfare-dependants languishing on benefits, or pitiful victims. Of course, agency is exercised within the structural constraints and opportunities that frame people’s lives – moreover, one of the insights from Walker and colleagues’ study is that the corrosive effect of shaming on a person’s self-worth can itself stunt agency. Nevertheless, study after study is testimony to the agency and hard work involved in the struggle to get by in poverty, and I’ve suggested a taxonomy of other forms of agency deployed by people in poverty.

ATD Fourth World’s ‘the roles we play’ multi-media project and exhibition is an example of an attempt to challenge stereotypes and ‘to highlight the efforts and validate the achievements of people who experience poverty’. Other examples include the Scottish Poverty Alliance’s ‘stick your labels’ campaign, developed with people with direct experience of poverty to challenge the stigmatising myths around poverty. And in Northern Ireland, a collective story-telling participatory research project has helped to counter shame and create solidarities among low income participants.

Solidarity can also be built through a human rights narrative (deployed more successfully hitherto in the US than the UK, perhaps reflecting the influence of the civil rights struggles). I’m not talking about a legalistic discourse, but one which has at its heart the foundational human rights principle of recognition of and respect for human dignity. This speaks to the desire for respect so often expressed by people living in poverty. It also helps to counteract the shame of poverty and strengthen agency. A human rights discourse helps to counter the Othering process because it emphasises what we have in common as human beings rather than what separates us. In the US it has made it easier to develop a collective identity with others living in poverty – the first step to collective challenging Othering and also material inequality.

A human rights approach to poverty includes the involvement of people in poverty in decision-making and debates that affect their lives, in recognition of the expertise borne of experience. And it should inform the ethos of public services delivery to shift them from ‘being shame-inducing to dignity-promoting’ to quote Walker and Chase. With regard to social security, Scotland is showing the way with its commitment to thread the principles of dignity and respect through its policy-making on social security and to listen to people with experience of the benefits system.

One of the key points raised in response to the Scottish consultation on social security was the need for improved staff training to help change the overall culture. This applies to other services too. For example, ATD Fourth World and Royal Holloway’s social work training project involved people with experience of poverty in the training to help social workers better to understand what poverty means and the damaging effects of disrespectful treatment.

Finally, more broadly, I’ve argued that challenging the Othering of people in poverty must draw on a politics of recognition&respect, rooted in cultural or symbolic injustice, as well as the more traditional politics of redistribution, rooted in the struggle against socio-economic injustice. But whereas a politics of recognition is typically associated with the assertion of group difference – as say in black is beautiful, or the assertion of disability or gay pride – in the case of people in poverty we’re talking about a struggle for recognition of and respect for their common humanity and dignity. Unequal recognition – most acute for the othered ‘poor’ – is both an injury and an engine of inequality. A politics of recognition thus has a vital role to play in challenging inequality itself.