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The links between socioeconomic circumstances and health have been extensively studied in Britain but surprisingly few studies consider lay perspectives. This is problematic given popular efforts to reduce health inequalities appear to be based on assumption that public understanding is limited (this is evident in efforts to raise awareness of both ‘upstream’ causes of health inequalities and health-damaging behaviours). The results of this meta-ethnography, involving 17 qualitative studies, fundamentally challenge this assumption. We show, first, that people who are living with socioeconomic disadvantage already have a good understanding of the links between socioeconomic hardship and ill-health. Indeed, participants’ accounts closely mirror the research consensus that material-structural factors represent ‘upstream’ determinants of health, while ‘psychosocial’ factors provide important explanatory pathways connecting material circumstances to health outcomes. Despite this, people living in disadvantaged circumstances are often reluctant to explicitly acknowledge health inequalities, a finding that we suggest can be understood as an attempt to resist the stigma and shame of poverty and poor health and to (re)assert individual agency and control. This suggests that work to increase public awareness of health inequalities may unintentionally exacerbate experiences of stigma and shame, meaning alternative approaches to engaging communities in health inequalities discussions are required.
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