Perception and Handling of Social Exclusion

(Last modified September 2002)

In sociological research, the term exclusion signals a change in the way in which social inequalities and precarious life situations are perceived and dealt with. To date, social inequality has generally been understood to refer to the difference between “top” and “bottom” or between “rich” and “poor”; now, researchers are increasingly examining the difference between “inside” and “outside”, between “belonging” and “not-belonging”. The phenomena now addressed involve the sudden or gradual exclusion of individuals from socially relevant networks of communication and systems of recognition such as employment, careers, consumerism, families, or social security networks.

This study has two objectives. The first is to achieve a better understanding of the phenomenon of exclusion. Is this a new societal trend? Will processes of exclusion become increasingly unavoidable, as a result of rapid economic and social transformations? Are growing numbers of people affected? What threatens their stable status in traditional societal milieus? Are there emerging categories of people deemed “redundant” or superfluous, who, while they might not be considered poor, feel threatened or vulnerable as a result of massive processes of reorganization in business, industry, and the public sector? The second aim of this research is to identify and describe various organizational practices for dealing with exclusion. When and by virtue of what criteria is exclusion viewed as problematic by individuals or even entire populations? What organizational practices does society develop to mitigate the impacts of exclusion processes?

The study differentiates between three contexts and the organizational forms of dealing with exclusion with which they are associated: first, state organizations (welfare offices, public counseling agencies); second, commercial organizations (personal administration, outplacement agencies); third, organizations in civil society (foundations, associations). It is probable that these organizations have different approaches to the problem of exclusion; presumably, they employ context-specific methods, concepts, and tools and evaluate their practices according to their own criteria. The empirical parts of this study will elucidate what “counseling philosophies” shape these organizational practices. What notions do counselors have about the impacts of possible exclusion on individuals? Do these professionals regard them as “social clients” that must be controlled as well as cared for? Or do they instead see the potentially excluded as individuals who must be mobilized, do they emphasize the responsibility each individual has for him- or herself and thus propagate a kind of entrepreneurial model (using ideas such as “self-management“, “employability”, or “empowerment”)? By examining such ideas, this work aims to illuminate the conditions and limits of re-inclusion of those who have been excluded and perhaps to reveal, how these conditions and limits might be transformed or ruptured.

The study will utilize the method of comparative case studies. Interviews will be conducted with counselors, project heads, and clients in selected organizations, in order to identify, describe, and compare the practices of perceiving and dealing with exclusion that are typical in contexts shaped by state or commercial organizations or organizations from civil society. 

Work on this study at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research ended in September 2002 and was continued outside of the institute.