Introduction to urban social deprivation

By Matt Burdett, 18 May 2020.

In this article, we introduce urban social deprivation, including the cycle of deprivation and geographic patterns of crime.

  • A scene showing multiple instances of urban social deprivation in Varanasi, India, including poor quality buildings, unhealthy conditions, and potential poverty. Source: By the author.

Urban social deprivation

Social deprivation refers to a situation in which a member of society is unable to interact with their community in the ‘normal’ way. Therefore it is a highly relative term – there is no global standard, and each community may experience social deprivation differently.

In England, there are seven aspects: income, employment, education, health, crime, housing and living environment. They combine to make up the English Index of Multiple Deprivation with different weightings, as seen on the image below.

Social deprivation is often worse in urban areas compared to rural areas but this is not always the case. Social deprivation can be worse in urban areas because of the cumulative causation of the cycle of deprivation, which creates pockets of extreme deprivation among the otherwise socially connected city. This is explained in more detail below in the section ‘The cycle of deprivation’.

Social exclusion

Social exclusion results from several combined factors which can include social deprivation. Social exclusion occurs when an individual or group is pushed to the edge of society. Although social deprivation is a major cause of this, it can also be due to other issues such as mental illness, racism and culture. Therefore, social exclusion is not the same as social deprivation: social exclusion can contribute to social deprivation, and social deprivation can contribute to social exclusion.

The cycle of deprivation

The cycle of deprivation was a theory outlined in the 1970s. It suggested that the cause of deprivation was the surroundings of an individual, not the individual themselves: families and communities and societies pass deprivation from one generation to the next, resulting in communities with a long history of deprivation and little chance of escaping it. The theory has been widely debated ever since, with many studies suggesting that this cycle may be observed, but is not unbreakable and in fact has many other causes.

The cycle is a type of cumulative causation, in which one action causes the next action in a continuous cycle and eventually reinforces the original action. An example of a cycle of deprivation is shown below, but there are many different factors that could work together, not only the ones shown here.

The cycle of deprivation idea accepts that a combination of factors result in social deprivation, not simply the individual’s own actions. Therefore a variety of different groups are involved, and can do something about it:

  • The individual
  • Families
  • Government authorities
  • Educational institutions
  • Basic service providers
  • Businesses
  • Security services (the police, as well as private security)
  • Community organisations

The cycle of poverty

The cycle of poverty is another example of cumulative causation. The cycle of poverty differs from the cycle of deprivation in that it only looks at income and its effect, rather than including wider issues of deprivation such as the quality of education. However, the two are very closely linked especially in countries where the state has a low level of social security resulting in health and education being directly paid for by individuals.

Geographic patterns of crime

Determining the geographic patterns of crime has become a point of political contention. It is well accepted that to be able to determine the geographic pattern of crime, crimes must be accurately recorded. There is a massive weakness in many statstics as crimes are under-reported, especially violence against women, and domestic violence.

A further criticism is that the mapping of crime has been used to marginalise areas of poverty by suggesting that crime is more likely to occur in and around poor districts, or by criminals who come from those districts. One focus of these criticisms is the type of crime recorded and whether it has a spatial aspect. For example, a street mugging occurs at a particular physical point, whereas a non-violent offence such as embezzlement may take place anywhere with an internet connection. This is often known as the ‘white collar crime’ issue, whereby crimes with very serious impacts – such as tax evasion, insurance fraud and false accounting, which can all lead to millions of dollars of losses for individuals, communities and the state – are seen as less important compared to violent crimes which affect a smaller number of people.

With these caveats, two general geographic patterns can be determined (Donnelly, 2008):

  1. Macro patterns. Violent crimes tend to be focused on specific areas of cities. These are often “communities characterized by low socioeconomic status, high rates of transiency, racial heterogeneity, and family disruption”. (See below for explanations of these terms.) These factors in themselves are not the causes of crime, but they contribute to a reduced cohesion within the community which can result in ‘otherness’ and an increase in crime.
  2. Micro patterns. Many crimes happen in very specific places, rather than in general areas. Particularly important is that most offences occur relatively near to the offender’s home.

Explanations of key terms

  • Low socioeconomic status: people who are likely to be unemployed, and suffer from social deprivation
  • Transiency: movement of people, usually referring to immigration. It can also refer to people who are moved on from their accommodation such as being evicted.
  • Racial heterogeneity: racial diversity, meaning that lots of racial groups are represented in the area. This is the opposite of racial homogeneity, meaning that only one racial group is represented.
  • Family disruption: divorce, absentee parenting, early death of family members, and so on.


Department for Communities and Local Government, 2015. The English Index of Multiple Deprivation (2015). Accessed 12 May 2020.

Donnelly, Patrick G., “Geographic Patterns” (2008). Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work Faculty Publications. Paper 29. Available at Accessed 12 May 2020.

Matheson-Monnet & Matheson, 2008. Community development: Freire and Grameen in the Barrowfield Project, Glasgow, Scotland. Development in Practice. 18. 30-39. 10.1080/09614520701778330. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Ongkiko & Flor, 2006. Introduction to Development Communication. 10.13140/RG.2.1.2952.6887. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Introduction to urban social deprivation: Learning activities


  1. Define ‘social deprivation’. [2]
  2. Identify the seven features used to measure social deprivation in England. [2]
  3. Explain why the definition of social deprivation varies from country to country. [3]
  4. Distinguish between social deprivation and social exclusion. [2]
  5. Explain why social deprivation and social exclusion are closely linked. [3]
  6. Outline the cycle of deprivation. [2]
  7. Suggest why the cycle of deprivation is not universally accepted by all Geographers. [4]
  8. Explain why geographical patterns of crime may not tell the full story about the level of criminal activity in a city. [3]
  9. Describe the distribution of crime in urban areas at:
    1. The micro level [2]
    2. The macro level [2]
  10. Explain the distribution of crime in urban areas. [4]
  11. ‘Crime is a necessary component of any social deprivation index.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement? [10]

Other tasks

Conduct research on Oscar Lewis and his ‘Cycle of Poverty’ theory. Do you think it is still fit for use today? Why?

© Matthew Burdett, 2020. All rights reserved.

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