Marginalized Situations and Exclusion Trajectories

(Last modified May 2004)

In 1989 the European Community (EC) decided to label its activities to combat poverty and unemployment as a campaign against "social exclusion". In choosing this name, the EC expressed its concern that, with rising unemployment and increasing social inequality in many member states, some parts of the populations of these countries might lose their links to the rest of society. Since then, social scientists and politicians throughout Europe have addressed the question of how social exclusion develops and how it might be countered. Great Britain created so-called social exclusion units in the 1990s in an attempt to improve the living conditions of residents of urban problem neighborhoods. France–the country in which the exclusion debate began – for a time even had a minister who was responsible for integration and the fight against exclusion. And in Germany the term exclusion is now used more or less as a matter of course in academic discussions as well as in debates about social policy.

But what exactly does exclusion mean? Some sociologists point out quite rightly that it marks an important change of perspective in the description of social inequality. Those who refer to exclusion assume that part of the population is in some way separated from the rest of society. Class models that have otherwise been employed to describe society do not incorporate this kind of social dividing line. Even terms such as poverty or social marginalization do not focus as sharply on inequality as the concept of exclusion. Defining social exclusion for empirical research has proven, however, to be difficult. One result is the paradoxical phenomenon that what is novel and unique about the term is stressed at the same time that social exclusion is often used synonymously with other categories of social structure analysis. Thus, exclusion is frequently merely equated with poverty, unemployment, or social marginalization.

This use of the concept of exclusion obscures its unique aspects, thereby reduces its analytical value. The project "Marginalized states and processes of exclusion", which ended in December 2003, therefore aimed to define the concept of exclusion more clearly and differentiate it from other categories employed in the analysis of social structure. In this work, an attempt was made to determine what exactly distinguishes those who are excluded from individuals regarded as poor or socially marginalized or as members of the lower class? In search of an answer to this question, the relevant debates in scholarly literature as well as selected empirical case studies were considered. Results show that three elements that characterize the differences between the concept of exclusion and other familiar categories of social structure analysis can be discerned:

1. There is broad consensus within sociology that an individual's position in society can be determined by ascertaining their access to money, power, and prestige. Thus, those who have especially limited amounts of these resources at their disposal are considered to belong to the lowest social classes or the periphery of society. In empirical research, factors such as income, educational status, and occupation are generally employed as measures of these resources. Exclusion takes a different perspective on society. It refers to the fact that fundamental claims to participation and recognition within various spheres of social life remain unsatisfied; these spheres include, for example, the employment market, a minimal standard of material prosperity, and existing social networks. This last element marks an especially significant difference between exclusion and established categories of social structure. In highlighting the degree of integration into social networks, the category of exclusion points to an aspect long neglected by social structure analysis. This distinct feature of the exclusion perspective can hardly be emphasized enough. Exclusion is not only determined with respect to material standards of living or an individual's position in the labor market but also in terms of how successful people are when it comes to finding and securing contacts, support, and recognition in their own social milieu. The term thus draws attention to an element of social inequality that presumably has considerable influence on how people perceive society and how they behave in social life.

2. Since social structure analysis focuses on the unequal distribution of resources such as money, power, and prestige, discussions about the socially disadvantaged generally center on the poor, deprived, and underprivileged. Exclusion frames the debate in a way that goes beyond the issue of uneven distribution of resources in that it also always assumes that people define claims to these and other resources and that these claims and expectations serve as a yardstick for assessing their actual situation in society. An example from Germany will serve to illustrate this point. Generally, poverty is viewed as a characteristic of social exclusion, since poverty means that an individual can no longer live her or his life as expected. After World War II, however, many people in Germany barely reached the subsistence level and poverty had a different meaning. Deprivation and hardship were common throughout the population. Despite the fact that this situation was perceived as arduous, lack of material goods was seldom linked to the feeling that one could not "keep up" with others in society. Thus, poverty was not necessarily a feature of social exclusion. In other words, the phenomenon depends to a large extent on societal standards and expectations and these vary not only historically but also within a given society, based on regional differences and conditions in various social milieus. What may be seen as normal in a particular social environment may be perceived as no longer belonging in another context. For this reason, exclusion cannot be determined by merely considering the resources (standard of living, education, employment status etc) available to an individual. Instead, that person's position in a particular society and the relevant indicators of belonging socially must be taken into account. Attempts to measure social exclusion empirically often prove unsatisfying because they fail to consider this aspect.

3. Although poverty and unemployment are seen as two important elements of social exclusion, relevant debates seldom refer to the poor or the unemployed as such but instead focus on people those who have minimal opportunities for finding new jobs, have often been unemployed for long periods, or whose income barely meets their basic needs. These criteria are related to the fact that the exclusion concept always implies a situation that is precarious for a long period or indeed permanently. Those who are excluded are not only "on the outside"; they also face considerable obstacles to "getting back in" and find closed doors wherever they turn. This observation marks a further important difference between exclusion and the established categories of social disadvantage, which are generally applied to describing people's current living situation or their social origins. If individuals are classified as belonging to a marginalized group or the lower classes, for example, then this assignment does not necessarily have significant consequences for a prognosis about their opportunities for social advancement. Such opportunities for members of the lower class and of marginalized groups can vary, depending on the kind of society they live in and the historical context. Social exclusion is considerably more fixed in this respect, since it implies a fundamental lack of individual options for action and prospects for the future. The excluded are trapped in a situation that is not only precarious – it also seems resistant to change. It is this connotation that marks the unique hardship of exclusion and its explosive potential in the realm of social policy.

In summary, the exclusion concept opens up a new perspective on phenomena of social inequality and does indeed differ in a number of ways from established categories of social structure analysis. Processes of exclusion thus at times run counter to the picture that usually emerges from social structure analysis. And there are also signs that exclusion has become increasingly prevalent at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. This study has, however, also demonstrated the difficulties faced by researchers who attempt to measure exclusion empirically. Socio-demographic characteristics are by no means adequate for determining and studying this phenomenon.

(The project was completed in December 2003)