Marginalization comprises those processes by which individuals and groups are ignored or relegated to the sidelines of political debate, social negotiation, and economic bargaining—and kept there. Homelessness, age, language, employment status, skill, race, and religion are some criteria historically used to marginalize. Marginalized groups tend to overlap; groups excluded in one arena, say in political life, tend to be excluded in other arenas, say in economic status. Concern with marginalization is relatively recent. As the advance of democratization and citizenship swell the ranks of those “included” in the social order, the plight of those with limited access to the franchise and without rights or at least enforceable claims to rights becomes problematic.
Our discussion focuses on two main issues. First, what are marginalizing processes and how do they operate? Second, why are so many of the same groups—women, ethnic groups, religious minorities—marginalized in a variety of situations and institutions? Major approaches to marginalization are represented by neoclassical economics, Marxism, social exclusion theory, and recent research that develops social exclusion theory findings.
Neoclassical economists trace marginalization to individual character flaws or to cultural resistance to individualism. Their explanations of poverty stress the notion of the residuum, defined as those “limp in both body and mind.” This residuum—the term was made famous by the Cambridge economist, Alfred Marshall—will only work when forced to do so. Generous social policies encourage its members to stay out of the labor force. To explain why some groups are found disproportionately in the residuum, economists sometimes cite the presence of a “culture of poverty,” which although adapted to alleviate the worst effects of poverty in fact reinforces it.
In contrast, Marxists see marginalization as a structural phenomenon endemic to capitalism. For Marx, the “reserve army of the proletariat,” a pool of unemployed or partially unemployed laborers, is used by employers to lower wages. Together with déclassé elements, the most impoverished elements from the “reserve army” form the bases for the lumpenproletariat—in Marx’s time, a motley conglomeration of beggars, discharged soldiers, prostitutes, and vagabonds. Marx also noted the presence of ethnic minorities, such as the Irish, in the “reserve army.” He attributed the composition of the reserve army of labor and thus the lumpenproletariat to capitalist efforts to divide the working class along ethnic lines.
Although strongly influenced by Marxism, contemporary social exclusion theory stresses the importance of social networks and symbolic boundaries. Studying the economic recovery of the late 1970s, French sociologists noted that some groups—particularly migrants and youth—benefited relatively little from renewed growth. They concluded that sustained unemployment leads to poverty, which in turn leads to social isolation, including the breakup of families and the financial inability to fully participate in popular culture. Shorn of kin ties and cultural associations, the unemployed have difficulty finding a job and eventually become unemployable.
Current research has led to modifications of social exclusion theory. States and kin networks can play a significant role in moderating the effects of prolonged unemployment. Generous Dutch and Danish welfare states keep the unemployed out of poverty. In Italy and Spain the tendency of all unmarried adult children, including unemployed adult children, to remain in households with members who have ties to labor markets moderates social isolation. Less generous welfare states and the relatively early departure of adult children from households leaves the unemployed in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom especially susceptible to social isolation. Everywhere, immigrant workers, who do not receive the full benefits of the welfare state and whose families are often not integrated into job markets, remain marginalized.
Recent work by American sociologist Charles Tilly further stresses the importance of economic structures and social networks to marginalization. For Tilly, capitalist control of jobs combined with included groups’ monopolization of job niches help explain why adult, native, white men are privileged in many different hierarchies, whereas nonadult, migrant, nonwhite women are invariably among the excluded. He emphasizes that new job hierarchies within capitalist industry tend to be filled according to already existing social distinctions; employers use old distinctions to justify and buttress new workplace distinctions and maintain harmony by endorsing distinctions that already divide the labor force. In so doing, employers and included groups perpetuate existing social distinctions and reinforce them, creating durable inequality.
Increasingly, modern interpretations stress marginalization’s collective character and the role of the state, elites, and entrenched groups in determining who is marginalized. But wherever it occurs, marginalization seldom begins afresh. Institutions typically fill new job hierarchies in line with existing social ranks. Groups marginalized in the past have the best chance of being marginalized in the future.
SEE ALSO Education, Unequal; Inequality, Income; Inequality, Political; Lumpenproletariat; Marxism; Social Exclusion; Stratification
Romero, Mary, and Eric Margolis, eds. 2005. The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities. Oxford: Blackwell.
Silver, Hilary. 1994. Social Exclusion and Social Solidarity: Three Paradigms. International Labour Review 133 (5–6): 531–578.
Tilly, Charles. 1999. Durable Inequality. Berkeley: University of California Press.
"Marginalization." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/marginalization
"Marginalization." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/marginalization
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Marginalization became a major topic of sociological research in the 1960s, largely in response to the realization that while certain developing countries demonstrated rapid economic growth, members of these societies were receiving increasingly unequal shares of the rewards of success. The process by which this occurred became a major source of study, particularly for those influenced by dependency, Marxist, and world-systems theories, who argued that the phenomenon was related to the world capitalist order and not just confined to particular societies.
Anthropologists, in particular, have tended to study marginal groups. This stems in part from the idea that, by looking at what happens on the margins of a society, one can see how that society defines itself and is defined in terms of other societies, and what constitute its key cultural values. See also EXCLUSION.
"marginalization." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/marginalization
"marginalization." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/marginalization