Social Exclusion Research Paper

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Social exclusion is less a single issue capable of empirical exploration than a way of viewing, or an orientation toward, society. The term itself implies on the one hand groups of people who are in some sense marginalized from society and on the other a societal mainstream composed of people who are not excluded. The range of excluded groups is very wide, extending from those subject to racism to older people, from those who are unemployed to those subject to homophobia, from those who are disabled to disillusioned youth, from the mentally ill to teenage mothers (Sheppard 2006).

There are, perhaps inevitably, an equally large number of definitions, although most contain the common “mainstream-marginalization” theme. The definition that perhaps best expresses the meaning of social exclusion was provided by the Child Poverty Action Group: Social exclusion “refers to the dynamic process of being shut out, fully or partially from any of the social, economic, political and cultural systems which determine the social integration of the person in society” (Walker and Walker 1997). This definition gives the sense of being “outsiders,” unable to participate fully in society, and that the problem was systemic, in that it involved—whatever the cause— social systems.

The Concept

Discussions of social exclusion reflect the effects of the great range of groups to which the term is applied. As a response to the conceptual difficulty of embracing such a range, one approach is to focus on a particular group, providing a “practical marker” for social exclusion. Unemployment, in particular, has provided such a focus, as it is regarded by many as the key issue liable to be associated with social exclusion, and also to be part of the situation confronted by many excluded groups such as the racially disadvantaged, disillusioned groups, and poor families.

The primary factor in social exclusion, from this perspective, is unemployment. At an individual level it has a profoundly demoralizing effect when sustained, and at societal level, it provides a threat to social cohesion and stability. The experience in pre-World War II Europe of the political effects of unemployment, and its association with the rise of fascism, provides a background in recent history of the societal threat presented to social order, both within and between [nation-] states. Late-twentieth-century structural changes in the European economies, which saw higher rates of long-term unemployment, fueled a concern for social inclusion policies (Commission for the European Community 1992).

In Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, social exclusion policies have emphasized unemployment and reemployment. By this logic, policies promoting social inclusion should first and foremost be focused on reintegrating the unemployed into the workforce and enabling this to occur through appropriate economic and social measures. In doing so, such policies would be expected to have a secondary effect on other features of social exclusion. Unemployment often has been used as a practical “shorthand” for poverty, underlying a range of issues of social concern relating to poor workforce skills, low income, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health, and family breakdown (Atkinson and da Voudi 2000, p. 435).

A more abstract, and hence more embracing, notion has connected social exclusion and inclusion to the “realization of human potential.” Individuals and groups suffer social exclusion to the extent that society does not offer them the opportunity to realize their potential. This notion of rights—that people have a right to achieve their potential, in conjunction with their fellow citizens—is embedded in the very heart of the European Union (EU). It takes precedence over, and makes sense of, some of the union’s most fundamental aims: “economic and social progress,” states the Comite des Sages, an official group of prominent experts from the EU whose task is to inform policy development, “must be subordinate to this aim” (1996, p. 26). It also links social exclusion with equality of opportunity. In Britain this was formulated by Chancellor Gordon Brown, who argued that everyone deserves to be given an equal chance to fulfill “the potential with which they are born” (1997). Poverty and unemployment could provide obstacles to this, but so could other disadvantages, which are multidimensional, such as health, disability, and age.

A range of responses could be made to these obstacles to inclusion and full social participation in the spheres of education, welfare, and the economic sector. For example, good educational provision, universally provided, provides a strong basis of opportunity for individuals to achieve their potential. All these strategies help promote an idea of “citizenship,” which is closely associated with the realization of potential. Citizenship involves participation and involvement in society, and hence the realization of human potential becomes, in part, an active concept focused on social participation.

Education can actively enhance the capacity for citizenship. However, other provisions, for example, the range of welfare support, can counteract or ameliorate the effects of disadvantage that prevent individuals or groups from being citizens. Citizenship stands as a means for curbing the excesses of the market, particularly through the welfare state (Marshall 1963). Material issues of economic inequality are important in this respect, but so too are prejudice and stigma suffered by some groups, affecting their life opportunities, sense of identity, and self-esteem.

Social citizenship involves living “the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevailing in society” (Marshall 1963, p. 74; Kymlicka and Norman 1995). What, it is asked, do people need in order to participate in society fully as citizens? One approach is that of “passive recipient,” in which professionals, as experts, identify and design responses to need. The doctor, counselor, or social worker is entrusted with ensuring that an individual’s needs are met. An alternative—with more active involvement—emphasizes the capacity of citizens to define, and act upon, their own needs. This rebalances the relationship between service provider and recipient. The service user becomes the “expert” in assessing his or her own needs, and the service provider becomes the facilitator of the response to that need (Smale et al. 1993). This covers the individual level, but it can apply also to groups or communities. In such a scenario, local communities come together in groups actively to improve their own lives, involving, say, community action in relation to rundown neighborhoods or local crime. When a group is active, they are taking up and enacting their rights as citizens. This notion of citizenship involves “realization of potential” in two respects. First, it becomes an aim of their actions, and second, it is embedded in the processes by which they seek to achieve these aims. As active citizens they are enacting their potential.

Social Exclusion And The Problem Of Order

Human potential may underlie one aspect of social exclusion. Another aspect is the problem of order. One (politically liberal-left) approach relates social exclusion and social order to the notion of the “just society.” Walter Runciman suggested that peoples’ sense of justice, and hence their sense of grievance, arose in the context of reference groups (1972). They measure their own situation, and rewards, by reference to others whom they consider to be like them. For example, plumbers might compare themselves with electricians, and expect similar rewards, but be unworried by being rewarded less than doctors.

A sense of justice and fairness, and therefore of inclusion and exclusion, involves those to whom people make reference. They do so in two ways. First, there are groups within society with whom people compare themselves, and second, on a wider basis, the general wealth of their own society, and its distribution, provides a reference. No one expects standards appropriate to nineteenth-century European societies to provide a reference for those same societies in the twenty-first century.

Runciman argued that three principles could justify distribution of wealth and status: those of need, merit, and contribution to the common good. However, there should be a limit to the degree of inequality. Following John Rawls (1971), he argued that the test of inequality was whether it could be justified to the losers, and for the winners to do this, they must be prepared, in principle, to change places (Runciman 1972, p. 307). It is also a test for a sense of inclusion, because acceptance would indicate commitment to a set of common fundamental norms and expectations widely accepted in society.

A just distribution of resources, then, is necessary to avoid a sense of social exclusion liable to feed political instability. The danger presented by poverty relative to others is that it could lead to a feeling of exclusion “from normal living patterns” (Townsend 1979, p. 32) and hence of alienation from participation in social life. Poverty, therefore, is not just material but emotional. The promotion of social inclusion should be at societal level, including incomes policy, full employment, higher social security, and a more redistributivist tax structure.

A (liberal-right) alternative to this societal distribution approach is one that emphasizes personal responsibility. A range of writers (Murray 1994; Field 1996; Etzioni 1995, 1998) have expressed concern about the development of a “moral underclass” not committed to the values of mainstream society, which might have a corrupting impact on mainstream society. According to these writers, welfare dependency, high crime rates, single parenthood, teenage pregnancies, and a decline in traditional family values characterize this underclass.

Amitai Etzioni considered parenting deficits to be the underlying feature in the development of a moral underclass (1998): When parents do not commit themselves enough to their children, a moral deficit amongst the young emerges. Children from single-parent and broken (particularly divorced) families are particularly vulnerable. Etzioni emphasized the need for moral renewal based on socialization, which would create shared norms helping bind society together. The key agencies of this [re]social-ization are education and child welfare. Policies supporting parents—including welfare-to-work and penalties for parents whose children are school nonattendees—also would encourage them to engage better with their moral responsibilities.

Charles Murray considered a large proportion of welfare-dependent families were in circumstances of their own making (1994). According to Murray, on the one hand, this group increasingly makes the wrong moral choices, including sustained unemployment, crime, and illegitimate childbirth; on the other, welfare policies, specifically social security benefits, create perverse incentives for them to remain welfare-dependent. For example, teenage pregnancy (and motherhood) is encouraged by the state’s giving the impression that once a child is born, housing and other financial benefits will be made available. Social policy needs to be directed not just at resocial-ization at the personal level, but also in policies (such as low benefits) that are a disincentive to welfare dependency.

Although undoubtedly influential on government policy making (Prideaux 2005), Murray’s concept of the underclass has been heavily criticized. The concept, it is argued, diverts attention from wider social, economic, and political causes of poverty. A commonly accepted assumption about the underclass is that poverty is “intergenerationally transmitted” (i.e., that it passes down from generation to generation), but Murray has emphasized culture, and more recently genetics, as key factors (Fitzpatrick 2001). However, evidence indicates that the benefits bestowed by wealth (or disadvantages associated with its absence) and “networks of association” (who you know) also are important features (Bartholomae et al. 2004). Where these facets are not recognized, the danger arises of “blaming the victim”—that is, erroneously presenting the victim’s poverty, disadvantage, and welfare dependence as being his own fault (Ryan 1976).

Teenage pregnancy, an example of an issue of wide concern in developed countries, shows the impact of these two (liberal-left and liberal-right) orientations. It is associated with other social concerns—poverty, unemployment, criminality, and so on—and has a negative impact on life chances. Countries with social policies that reduce inequalities, including Norway, Sweden, and Holland, have the lowest rates of teenage pregnancies, whereas more unequal countries, such as the United Kingdom and United States, have much higher rates. Nevertheless, even countries that have been only moderately successful at reducing teen pregnancies have included education and contraception as policy responses, underlain by normative, personal responsibility features (UNICEF Innocenti Research Center 2001).

The Functionalism Of Social Exclusion

Underlying all these approaches is a consensus functional-ism that would be recognizable to Talcott Parsons (1951) and Emile Durkheim (1947). This is reflected in an emphasis on the widespread adoption of common norms that would create order and stability in society, which would also be in the interests of individuals and groups. The means by which this would be achieved vary, depending on the ideological commitment of the protagonists.

Criticisms of social exclusion as an approach arise because of the ideological nature of the very term. Its use, some think, does a disservice to the vast range of phenomena with which it deals, drawing attention away from the specific issues attached to each of them. Furthermore, it assumes that those who are socially excluded should aspire to the values of mainstream society: This may not be what they want, and they may see no reason to do so. Lastly, it has an implicit notion of the “good society” encapsulated in these mainstream values. This notion may itself be contested.


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