top of page

Stigma, a wicked problem for social housing
by Hannah Absalom

Hannah Absalom is a former social housing practitioner and a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham. Thanks to an ESRC grant and an industry award, she has converted key findings from her thesis into training for the social housing sector. You can find out more about the Rethinking Homes Network at 


“A successful plan is one that provokes a more serious problem. While people dream, there will be problems. Having complex and “wicked problems” is a sign of progress” (Skaburskis, 2008)


Stigma is defined as a set of negative beliefs that a society or group of people have about something (Britannica) is a tricky concept. On the surface, it looks to be a clearly defined problem that we can treat with better policy or at a personal level by challenging negative beliefs. Framing stigma this way, as a simple or tame problem, fails to grasp its complexity. Thanks to inspiration from Henderson and Gronholm (2018) and their framing of mental health as a ’wicked problem’, I use the same framework to understand stigma in social housing. It’s helpful to outline what is different about approaching stigma as a wicked problem.


Wicked problems is a framework developed by Rittel in the 1970s (Skaburskis 2008). Rittel developed the framework to explain the difference between technical and social problems. He outlined succinctly 10 points of a wicked problem that make clear how different a complex social problem is. I will not be outlining each of the ten points, but I do ask you to bear in mind the two points; ‘the wickeder the problem, the more important the worldview’ and that it is the  ‘best course (based on what you know), not the correct course’ that is helpful when approaching a wicked problem. I will outline an understanding of stigma in social housing as a wicked problem that intends to provide a ‘worldview’ summary before elaborating on possible actions.


Stigma is not a new problem in social housing. Traces of stigmatising assumptions about tenants can be traced back to the proto-housing management days of the Victorian era and the decisions as to who deserved a home (Card 2006). Stigma was present in the post-world-war II council housing boom, expressed through some poor quality builds (Dunleavy 1981) and discriminatory allocations (ref) that in part contributed to the creation of black and minority ethnic housing associations. The 1980s saw a turn on housing policy towards celebrating home ownership over public ownership and the incorporation of behavioural ideas that framed poverty as caused by feckless behaviours and a moral decline caused by the welfare (Murray 1990, Mead 1992). This framed home ownership as a form of social success (Forrest, Murie et al. 1990) and renting, especially social renting, as indicative of poor character and social failure. New Labour’s social inclusion approach reformulated stigma. While housing finally got much-needed property investments, housing associations became the preferred managers of social homes, ending decades of local authority influence and opening the sector up to marketised technical management techniques and ideas. Area-based investments framed tenants as both responsible for neighbourhood decline and responsible for reversing it, an ambiguity that perpetuated the division of tenants into a good/bad divide. The election of the Coalition government saw social housing stigma again repackaged. The ideas of moral decay were returned to with family breakdown a cited cause of ‘Broken Britain’  (Social Justice Policy Group 2006). Right-leaning think tanks asserted moral behaviourist ideas of sink estates Slater (2018), and social housing as a sector was accused of contributing to social decline through the facilitating of passivity that kept social tenants out of the employment market* (Social Justice Policy Group 2006). Stigma in social housing then has a long history, is of political utility, and is a lot more complicated than a false set of ideas applied to an elusive social group. Hopefully, this introductory framing has made clear that stigma is indeed a wicked problem, so now we can consider what the best course, not the correct course, of action might be.


Academic research tends to focus on how stigma is perpetuated by political elites and media giants. There is also a concern about how stigma affects those who are subject to it. Shildrick highlights some of the strange effects of stigma in how people living in circumstances of poverty talk about themselves, and others and how this works to perpetuate the ill effects of stigma. There is not a great deal of research about how organisations and the more financially well-off public both perpetuate and benefit from stigma from sociological perspectives. This is in part corrected by the research of behavioural economists who highlight the biases of institutions and the affluent and how this works to contribute to stigmatising social inequality. Research then is good at telling us how stigma is created by powerful elites, how it harms people but is less informative at telling us what we can do to tackle stigma in our day-to-day lives and our work. This is where the insight to consider what a best course of action might be.


I have taken the ‘best course’ based on what we know’ approach in Stigma training I have developed. The training pulls together informative and actionable insight that can help practitioners and tenants understand the complexity of stigma, and identify points were action can be taken. I outline some of the negative effects that can happen if stigma is approached as a technical problem, solvable through the application of technology and data analytics. Ultimately, there is aneed for political change in housing policy. Research shows that when social housing access is widened, stigma is reduced (angel). Wicked problems helps us to keep focussed on that goal, while also asking what we can do, in the here now. This is where I find highlighting and explaining insights into how stigma is perpetuated in organisation practices, by thw affluent, and by those who are stigmatised is useful for identifiying the best course of action that individuals and organisations can take, now.


Understanding stigma in social housing as a wicked problem is a key step in directing campaign action, in guiding organisation service change and in helping people to decide on the actions they can take in their day-to-day lives. Stigma may not be a tame solveable problem, but that does not mean we cant improve our knowledge of it and make best shot efforts to reduce itsill effects in our work, and day-to-day lives


*A set of assumptions that ignores, or intentionally sidesteps that more working households than ever are in poverty, that half of homeowners are in poverty, that private rents are often extortionate and that homeownership no longer means financial security.

Scope to work with where we are, but not loose sight that stigma is a product in part of the housing crisis and dominance of home ownership



Card, P. (2006). Governing tenants: from dreadful enclosures to dangerous places. Housing, Urban Governance and Anti-Social Behaviour. Perspectives, policy and practice. J. Flint. Bristol, Policy press.

Dunleavy, P. (1981). Th Politics of Mass Housing in Britain 1945-1975. A Study of Corporate Power and Professional Influence in the Welfare State. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Forrest, R., A. Murie and P. Williams (1990). Home Ownership. Differentiation and Fragmentation. London, Unwin Hyman.

Henderson, C. and P. C. Gronholm (2018). "Mental Health Related Stigma as a ‘Wicked Problem’: The Need to Address Stigma and Consider the Consequences." International journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15(6).

Mead, L. (1992). The New Politics of Poverty. New York, Basic Books.

Murray, C. (1990). "The British Underclass."  The Public Interest(Spring): 4-28.

Skaburskis, A. (2008). "The Origin of “Wicked Problems”." Planning Theory & Practice 9(2).

Slater, T. (2018). "The invention of the ‘sink estate’: Consequential categorisation and the UK housing crisis." The Sociological Review 66(4): 877-897.

Social Justice Policy Group (2006). Breakdown Britain. Interim report on the state of the nation. London, Social Justice Policy Group.

bottom of page