Dr Alice Butler-Warke
Image by: Jack Stott

Expectation vs reality

By Jack Stott - 05 May 2021

Our opinion of places can be heavily influenced without ever experiencing what’s there for ourselves. How the public perceive places – and the people who live there – is of major interest to Human Geographer and Sociology Lecturer Dr Alice Butler-Warke.

Alice says: “We all know places we consider to be desirable or less than desirable. When you’re looking to move to a new town, you may well be wondering which streets you should avoid living in. Everyone has some picture of what a particular place is like, and that’s what I find really interesting: how these stereotypes about places happen and in what ways they stretch out to affect our society.”

Places can gain a stereotype or stigma for many reasons. Alice used in-depth social media analytics to investigate the varying factors that make people talk a place down. Across 155 days, and more than 2,000 tweets with a specifically targeted derogatory keyword, netizens shared their feelings on places they thought were boring, dirty, populated by people of different races or faiths, poor, or where they simply didn’t like the football team.

The social media insults about places were notable for their gendered dimension. More than 80 per cent of the tweets targeting other places came from men. Women mostly preferred to keep their insults closer to home – their town, their house, their street or bedroom.

Authority Figures, Facts and Ramifications

The media, politicians and netizens in general can all let slip the occasional stereotype into their daily routine. Sustained stereotyping like this can give a place – and its people – a bad name. However, if this core stigma suddenly comes to the fore when event stigma strikes – a tragedy or a disaster – then the stereotype suddenly becomes a lot harder to get rid of, and may have unfortunate consequences for the people who live there.

“In business, where you have a robbery, or a fire, or somebody in your organisation has committed fraud – that event can damage your brand, causing people to lose trust,” says Alice. “It’s the same with places. Event stigma tends to clear faster, but if you've got background stigma when a severe event occurs, the overall effect is really sticky and it doesn't go away.”

As part of Alice’s research, she examined Liverpool’s Toxteth area and how the media have portrayed it over the years. There were riots in Toxteth as result of tensions between the police and the community in the 1980s: largely a result of stop-and-search laws. At the time, unemployment in Britain was at a 50-year peak and the area had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The community was pushed to breaking point, with even a local magistrate stating “they would be apathetic fools […] if they didn’t protest”.

Alice adds: “Even 20 years later, newspapers mentioned the riots at the top of each story concerning Toxteth. It couldn’t escape its label.”

Toxteth became attached its stigma. It would go on to affect the area in ways that would make it struggle to grow out of its employment predicament. Would businesses want to set up in the area? Were people looking to buy a home there? Would a job interviewer be unbiased with someone from the area?

“What’s worse, is that journalists never interviewed the residents, only police and politicians,” said Alice. “Locals never had a voice in their situation. I think that's the biggest thing to take away. If you’re writing about a thing, talk to people who are experiencing it. They're the ones who actually know about what’s going on.

“If we purposely exclude people from having a voice, then it is very difficult to change the narrative of a place. But that’s something this research does. It gives a voice back to the people.”

Research Impact Potential

Alice’s research could impact many industries: how estate agents sell houses in stigmatised areas, how insurance companies tackle increasing the cost of living in climate-change-vulnerable homes, or how journalists report on major events.

Alice adds: “I’m happy to hear from anyone interested in the research to see if there are areas we can collaborate on.

“Psychologists may be interested from the point of view of mental processing of stereotypes and structures. Sociologists and geographers may be interested in the lived experience. Architects and construction experts may want to find out how different people perceive the built environment in various ways.”

You can learn more about Alice’s research from her profile page on RGU’s website and through her ORCID iD.

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