In recent years the term social exclusion has gained much popularity in political dialogues on social policy issues in developed countries outside the United States. In the late 20th century, the European Union adopted “social cohesion and social inclusion” as its theme; and “social exclusion” became part of the UN standard vocabulary to address the broad range of issues related to global inequality and injustice.
In Britain, Tony Blair’s Labour government created a special interdepartmental branch of government, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), in 1997. The SEU identified various social and economic problems associated with specific underprivileged population groups and proposed a series of policies to tackle these problems. As a result, this term became the main currency of public debate in addressing social policy issues ranging from unemployment to homelessness, from child poverty to health care.
Concerns about inclusion and exclusion have deep psychological and sociological roots. Psychologists view inclusion as a natural need, because the sense of belonging and membership is critical to one’s physical and mental well-being. Since exclusion always exists in tandem with inclusion, the psychological impact of inclusion lies as much in the fact of being included as the fact of not being excluded.
Sociological scholars also recognize this innate, natural need of human beings. For instance, Max Weber identified exclusion as a form of “social closure” preserving the privilege of one group against competition from other groups. Also, Georg Simmel provided a vivid depiction of the outlook of the “excluded” in his portrayal of strangers in a society, those who are physically close yet socially distant.
Modern usage of this term traces back to Rene Lenoir’s 1974 book One in Ten French People, where he invoked the term social exclusion to describe the social and economic divide in then-contemporary French society. Specifically, the “excluded” were administratively excluded by the state, the victims who fall through the social welfare safety net. He thought such exclusion was a threat to French national unity, since social cohesion is considered the essence of the society.
One view of social exclusion focuses on the lack of monetary resources and the material deprivation of individuals. Causes of poverty, joblessness, and economic hardship, as well as their resulting pathologies, receive primary attention. Some critics allege that often social exclusion is actually a euphemism to avoid the sensitivity of the “P” word for political convenience. For example, the initial adoption of the term in the United Kingdom was to highlight the failure of the Conservative Party to recognize the existence of poverty.
Lack of Participation and Access
Increasingly, application of the social exclusion concept goes beyond this conventional emphasis on deprivation to include also a lack of access and healthy participation in the community and society.
First, social exclusion represents the expansion of scope from the materialistic to the nonmaterialistic, such as access to information, services, and participatory activities in social and communal life. Such access and participation play nontrivial roles in shaping life experiences and could alleviate or exacerbate the impacts of materialistic deprivation.
Second, social exclusion increases the dimensionality of the existing concept. Going beyond the traditional focus of income and employment, social exclusion incorporates more aspects, such as welfare, housing, education and training, health care, public service and assistance, and so on.
Third, social exclusion also represents a shift from static state to dynamic process that involves multiple players engaging in constant conflicts, negotiations, and competitions at multiple levels. It highlights the relational features of deprivation and calls for specific examination of the relationship and interaction between the excluders and the excluded.
Fourth, social exclusion implies change of focus on levels of resources responsible for deprivation. Besides individual factors, social exclusion draws attention to broad impacts of the community environment on social and economic progress. This perspective shift from individual to community has profound implications for understanding the causal dynamics and mechanisms of various social problems.
Some scholars use the concept of social exclusion to illuminate a special feature of capability deprivation: the need to participate in community activities. They argue that social exclusion includes incapacity to participate in social and communal life. Restoration of this basic human right is the collective responsibility of the state and society. Any infringement of this right, as often occurred to certain vulnerable groups, diminishes their capacity for fully and effectively participating in their communities, which then contributes to other observable social problems.
Challenges to Research
Both the complexity and dynamic process of social exclusion pose significant challenges to data collection and analysis. Its multidimensional nature dictates multidimensional measurements to adequately represent multiple indicators at multiple levels. To go beyond any isolated concrete indicators, the measurements must also reflect its broadened perspective from micro to macro.
Further, the dynamic nature of the problem requires measurements that can capture the interactions of the excluders and the excluded in the process. This kind of analysis demands collection of large scale, in-depth, comprehensive, multilevel, and longitudinal data. Some critics argue that existing data—the readily available statistics collected in conventional methods for conventional purposes—may not be suitable for investigating social exclusion.
The relative lack of attention to this concept in the United States is intriguing, and social observers attribute various historical, political, and philosophical reasons to account for this. The most common explanation is that Americans tend to emphasize personal responsibility and oppose government assistance or intervention for the progress and development of individual well-being. Since the concept of social exclusion carries with it a sense of innate rights and inherent obligations of state to individuals, some Americans find this concept difficult to accept.
Moreover, confusion and criticism exist regarding the meaning of social exclusion. Critics question its validity as a separate entity and useful concept with measurable properties to assist in studying and understanding such related issues as group relationships, social problems, inequality, unfairness, and social justice. Some characterize use of this term as overreaching, as an umbrella term more rhetorical than substantive.
- Hills, John, Julian Le Grand, and David Piachaud, eds. 2002. Understanding Social Exclusion. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sen, Amartya. 2000. “Social Exclusion: Concept, Application and Scrutiny.” Social Development Papers no. 1. Manila, Philippines: Office of Environment and Social Development, Asian Development Bank.
- Social Exclusion Unit. 2001. Preventing Social Exclusion: Report by the Social Exclusion Unit. London: Social Exclusion Unit.
- United Nations Development Programme. 2000. Human Development Report 2000. New York: United Nations Development Programme.
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