Published: March 22, 2021

Fincher, R. (2021). “Interpretations of “Place” in Place-Based Social Policy”, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2021-08. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland. 


Ruth Fincher

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2021-05

Non-technical summary:

This paper starts from the viewpoint that social research and policy interventions should always make clear their assumptions and conceptual underpinnings. Assumptions and conceptual underpinnings not only influence the design of research and policy approaches, they also frame the understandings of social environments and people’s lives into which intervention may be proposed.

Accordingly, the paper asks how different views of the concept of place might help to frame ways of enhancing inclusion (reducing disadvantage) in local living. Taking up an interest in place requires one to consider that ‘being’, for humans – that reality we are trying to improve by reducing disadvantage – is, in fact, ‘being there’.

Place has, of course, been a consideration over many years in Australian social policy that has redistributive aims.  Most prominently, this policy-thinking has viewed places as bounded, administrative ‘containers’ of individuals who might have characteristics deemed to indicate advantage or disadvantage, or has identified locations as advantaged or disadvantaged by the services or infrastructure they have compared to what is available elsewhere.  The first of these approaches seeks policy interventions tailored to the people in places having the highest proportions of disadvantaged individuals; the second seeks to upgrade infrastructure in locations which are poorly-served.

More recent conceptualisations of place may provide new avenues for social policy that is concerned to facilitate inclusion.  (Inclusion is the focus here – a norm that contributes to the reduction of disadvantage. By inclusion is meant the opportunity to be involved equally with others in activities that occur across the forms of social difference in our society, be these differences of wealth and class, ethnicity, ability, gender, age, or sexuality, and across varied regions and spatial settings). These more recent views see place as produced in the actual practices of people, rather than imposed administratively as in the mapping of census-based spatial units; this ‘production’ of place is in fact done by encounters between people in the contexts in which they live together. Inclusion is participation in the forms of ongoing encounter that constitute a place. To facilitate inclusion thus requires identifying those encounters that make a place that is positive and welcoming, and seeking to facilitate these encounters through social policy so that they can be participated in by people, across their differences.

The longstanding approaches to place-based social policy thinking – place as container and place as sites of locational (dis)advantage – provide important information about the enabling infrastructure of localities, and their populations as depicted in census and other government data. Understanding that place is the product of practices conducted through encounters between people, however, is also important.  Census data can never indicate what people’s collective activities are and with whom, using services and infrastructure, as place is made. Accordingly, when interventions are made in places, information on the actual encounters that are important to people’s lives in places is needed to ground these interventions and make them effective.