Contrasting lives, contrasting views? Understandings of health inequalities from children in differing social circumstances

Kathryn Backett-Milburn, Sarah Cunningham-Burley, John Davis

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60 Citations (Scopus)


Children's differing socio-economic, cultural and familial circumstances and experiences are part of the pathways implicated in health and illness in adulthood. However, in the existing, mainly survey based, work children's own voices tend to be absent and adult-defined data about health and illness accumulated. Little is known about the social and cultural processes, in children's very different childhoods, which underpin and ultimately constitute these epidemiological findings. This paper reports findings from a qualitative study examining the socio-economic and cultural contexts of children's lifestyles and the production of inequalities in health, carried out in a large Scottish city. Two rounds of semi-structured interviews, using a range of child-friendly techniques (photographs, drawings, vignettes), were carried out with 35 girls and boys aged 9–12 years living in two contrasting but contiguous areas, one relatively advantaged and one relatively disadvantaged. Thirty of their parents were also interviewed and community profiling and observational work undertaken. Children and parents described often starkly contrasting lives and opportunities, regularly involving material differences. However, children appeared to locate inequalities as much in relationships and social life as in material concerns; in this their direct experiences of relationships and unfairness were central to their making sense of inequality and its impact on health. Although children from both areas highlighted several different inequalities, including those related to material resources, they also spoke of the importance of control over their life world; of care and love particularly from parents; of friendship and acceptance by their peer group. Many children challenged straightforward causal explanations for future ill-health, privileging some explanations, such as psychological or lifestyle factors. The accounts of children from both areas displayed considerable resilience to and downplaying of the effects of both relationship and material inequalities; also showing how familial and personal challenges, such as bullying, divorce, learning difficulties, cut across structurally based differences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)613-623
Number of pages11
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number4
Early online date31 Jan 2003
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2003


  • children
  • qualitative
  • health inequalities
  • socio-cultural contexts
  • families
  • lay health perspectives
  • Scotland

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