what is social exclusion? how has society’s understanding of social exclusion evolved?

social exclusion

What are the consequences of being different? Basic economic theory suggests that the person/place/thing that is different would either become more valuable if there is sufficient demand, or less valuable if there is limited demand. But, how does this relationship change if that which is different is not a person/place/thing, but is a culture or a way of life? Does said culture lose its value if it continues to be different and fails to conform to mainstream culture, or does it, in fact, have intrinsic value independent of conventional culture? Moreover, what happens when the mainstream culture strives, either overtly or discreetly, to discount the non-dominant culture and advance the strength and power of the axial culture?

According to BYRNE (1994), when dominant cultural power attempts to reduce, eliminate, or assimilate the divergent cultures, the affected parties become part of a socially excluded population, particularly when these efforts have negative consequences for the minority culture while continuing to benefit the ascendant culture. 

The act of social exclusion is both systematic and multi-dimensional, in that “Various forms of exclusion are combined: participation in decision-making and political process, access to employment and material resources, and integration in common cultural processes. When combined, they create acute forms of exclusion that find a spatial manifestation in particular neighborhoods (MADANIPOUR et al. 1998, p. 22)”.

Historically speaking, social exclusion was first linked with the concept of poverty as poverty was believed to be the cause of a group’s inability to fully integrate and function within society (LABONTÉ et al. 2011). Poverty in this respect was initially measured in absolutes, meaning that there was a specific monetary threshold below which an individual/group was considered to be afflicted by poverty.

The concept of absolute poverty was, however, questioned by TOWNSHEND (1979) when he put forth the idea of relative poverty – the idea that the income needed to live a respectable and socially acceptable life was dependent on the space within which an individual/group functioned. Relative poverty, therefore, became aligned with the concept of deprivation, or the lack of goods, services, or rights that made it difficult or impossible to fully function within society (SEN 2000, p. 4), a concept that Adam Smith eluded towards when he described deprivation as, “Being able to appear in public without shame”. 

This was an important step away from using poverty as the sole indicator of inclusion or exclusion within a society because there was an acknowledgment that an individual/group did not necessarily have to be afflicted by poverty to be deprived. A normative element was subsequently integrated into the concept of exclusion when the notion of socially accepted standards were incorporated into the discussion. SAUNDERS et al. (2008) suggest that deprivation was then not only recognized as a lack of socially perceived essentials for some individuals/groups, but also that policy decisions caused or even enforced inequalities.

Still, the concept of social exclusion as a problem linked to multiple factors did not emerge as a matter of debate until the 1960s in France, where it remained on the fringe of social and political discourse until the late 1970s/early 1980s in response to both massive economic structuring (LABONTÉ et al. 2011) and the financial crisis of the 1980s (JEHOEL-GIJSBERS and VROOMAN 2007). According to LABONTÉ et al. (2011), there were hopes that acknowledgment of the various factors influencing inclusion within a society would aid efforts to avoid issues related to social cohesion and stability. Concerns about how any one element could affect the overall ability of individuals/groups to participate in society made this issue particularly relevant (SEN 2000, p. 5). Likewise, the continued focus strictly on income and therein purchasing power as indicators of exclusion continued to be criticized because it did not truly reflect the actual freedoms and liberty that an individual/group had within a society (SEN 1985). Instead, it was argued that there needed to be a practical means to measure real opportunities for individuals/groups to accomplish that which they value (ALKIRE 2002). 

Such criticisms became highly applicable to a more broad understanding of various social processes and their subsequent consequences that lead to social exclusion (BAILEY et al. 2004). The first waves of research on social exclusion focused on traditionally marginalized populations, e.g., the disabled, the poor or substance abusers, and the issues that impeded their participation in society. Later research began to focus on socially excluded groups as a general phenomena through the identification of the identifying characteristics of a given group that brands it different from those existing within the realms of conventional culture (SILVER 1994; LESSOF and JOWELL 2000).

Social exclusion has accordingly evolved to represent a normative concept that describes the effect of the establishment of economic, social, political, and cultural norms that hinder non-dominant groups’ societal participation in a manner that aligns with their respective social norms (LABONTÉ et al. 2011). 


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