Outsider-Within Essay

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Patricia Hill Collins’s idea of the outsider-within has quickly become a classic in feminist theories. The term was originally used to describe the location of individuals who find themselves in the border space between groups: that is, who no longer have clear membership in any one group.

Dissatisfied with this usage because of its resemblance to early sociology’s ”marginal man,” Collins later modified the term to ”describe social locations or border spaces occupied by groups of unequal power” (1998: 5). Rather than static positions, these locations contain a number of contradictions for the individuals who occupy them. While individuals in these unique locations appear to be members of the dominant group based on possession of the necessary qualifications for, and apparent rights of, member standing, they do not necessarily enjoy all of the experiential benefits afforded to formal members. Collins uses the example of blacks in the United States; while they have basic citizenship rights, they are often treated as second-class citizens.

Knowledge production is also central to Collins’ work. In a search for social justice, the outsider-within location describes not only a membership position but also a knowledge/power relationship. This unique location is one where members of a subordinated group can access information about the dominant group without being afforded the rights and privileges accorded to group members. It is this unique knowledge of both sides that distinguishes the outsider-within from both elite and oppositional locations.

Bibliography:

  • Collins, P. H. (1998) Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

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