Carroll, Nicola Jane (2017) Lone Mothers' Experiences of Stigma: A Comparative Study. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

There are two million single parents in the UK, more than nine out of ten of whom are mothers. Despite greater family fluidity and diversity, lone mothers remain materially disadvantaged and subject to derogatory stereotyping.

Media representations, public policy and existing research have tended to focus on young mothers or lone mothers in deprived areas. This study therefore responds to a gap in knowledge by taking a comparative approach in investigating subjective experiences of stigma among lone mothers in a more diverse range of circumstances. This thesis documents qualitative research involving 26 lone mothers in two locations in the North of England, which have contrasting socio-economic profiles. It considers the relative significance of agential and structural factors, particularly social class, in their subjective perceptions of, and responses to, stigma.

Theoretically, this study draws on feminist critiques of normative family and citizenship models, a critical realist perspective on agency/structure interplay and a feminist Bourdieusian approach to class analysis. These theoretical influences are brought together in a bespoke conceptual framework that seeks to explore stigmatisation of lone motherhood in terms of women's subjective mediation of gendered and classed de-legitimation. This thesis thus introduces the notion of 'subjective social legitimacy' (SSL) as an analytical tool. Importantly, SSL aims to examine women's accounts in a holistic way that recognises degrees of stigma, rather than assuming or reinforcing stigma.

Analysis of data from semi-structured interviews revealed the principal factors affecting women's SSL to be: their age; their personal relationship history; whether they were employed or on benefits; reproductive norms in their local area; their level of extended family support; and social connections with people in the 'same situation'. Some women were positioned more favourably than others to mitigate stigma through their access to cultural, economic and social capital.

The women's accounts demonstrate agential behaviour in negotiating stigma as well as responding to practical challenges. Analysis of case dynamics identified 'modes' of SSL among participants which could be deemed 'negative', 'positive', 'defensive', 'performative' or 'transformative'. Women in what might be objectively considered the most stigmatised situations did not automatically display 'negative' SSL. The theme of 'judgement' emerged inductively from interviews and using SSL helped understand women's agential response to stigma in terms of 'what matters' to them personally. This thesis includes case studies which illustrate how a process of 'judgement of judgement' can be pivotal to participants' rejection, resistance or absorption of stigma.

This research offers an empirical contribution to knowledge through its comparative approach involving mothers in a deprived and a more affluent location; a conceptual contribution through development of SSL; and a methodological contribution through exposition of evaluative judgement as a mechanism in agential mediation of stigma.

FINAL THESIS - Carroll.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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