Marginalization refers to the process by which individuals or groups are pushed to the edges of society, limiting their access to resources, power, and opportunities.
The process of marginalization is typically based on social factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, social class, and other attributes which diverge from the dominant culture and its norms.
Examples of marginalized groups include the poor, ethnic minorities, and persecuted religious minorities.
It demonstrates how people face social disadvantages and injustices and reveals how systems of power operate to exclude and disempower certain groups. This contributes to their ongoing (and often intergenerational) social and economic disadvantages.
Marginalization, also referred to as social exclusion, denotes a complex process of relegation to the fringe of society.
It is often triggered by the intersection of sociocultural, economic, and political forces that manifest in the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities.
As defined by Giddens (2006), marginalization is:
“…the act of consigning to a lower or outer edge, as of specific groups of people” (Giddens, 2006).
Social categories that tend to impact marginalization include:
- Race and ethnicity: People of minority races, ethnicities, and social castes are often seen with suspicion, leading to prejudice and social exclusion.
- Gender and Sexuality: Transgender people, and sexual minorities face discrimination and prejudice at higher rates than others in society. Similarly, women have historically faced gender discrimination, leading to difficulties in accessing social services and opportunities.
- Socioeconomic status: People who lack economic resources or are from a lower social class often face barriers in accessing education, healthcare, and employment.
- Immigrant status: Immigrants have low social, cultural, and economic capital (see: the types of capital), which often leads them to being socially excluded.
- Religion: Religious minorities are often discriminated against and looked upon with suspicion.
Marginalized groups often encounter ongoing discrimination and prejudice that can limit job opportunities and ability to avocate for themselves. For example, they are frequently excluded from decision-making processes, subtly denied access to opportunities, and face barriers in exercising their own natural rights.
- African American Communities in the US: Historical and systemic racism has led to the marginalization of African American communities, reducing access to quality education and employment opportunities.
- LGBTQ+ Individuals: Social exclusion and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals often result in limited access to healthcare, housing, and employment. This occurs, for example, when LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against in public places or made to feel as if they are not welcome in public space.
- Indigenous Populations: Indigenous communities are often marginalized due to a lack of recognition of their land rights, culture, and traditional knowledge systems. They have historically been pushed out of the cities and coastal lands, relegated to the outskirts of society.
Case Study: Indigenous People in Canada
In Canada, Indigenous populations have, for a long time, faced marginalization from society. Key examples include the failure of governments to provide clean drinking water for Indigenous communities, and failures of the RCMP (police) to sufficiently investigate countless cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, making these women feel very vulnerable in society.
- People with Disabilities: Those with physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities face marginalization through exclusion from educational, professional, and social opportunities. This may occur, for example, when a person with a disability doesn’t have physical access to spaces.
- Homeless Individuals: Homelessness often results in social stigma and exclusion, limiting access to services like healthcare and employment. Their lack of a home may mean they cannot access a bank account, for example.
- Migrants: Migrants often face language barriers, discrimination, and exclusion from services in their host countries. Their low cultural capital means they often find it hard to find jobs or be taken seriously in their new country.
- Refugees and Asylum Seekers: These groups face legal barriers, social exclusion, and limited access to resources due to their immigration status. For example, many countries like Australia and the USA will actively prevent access to legal services and rights for asylum seekers in order to prevent them from seeking reguge.
- Undocumented Immigrants: Lack of legal status often leads to exploitation, limited access to social services, and fear of deportation. For example, they may be paid less than minimum wage because the boss knows they have no recourse to complain.
- Ethnic Minorities: Ethnic minority groups often experience discrimination and exclusion based on racial and ethnic differences. This is particularly common in nations like Myanmar where the ethnic minorities are denied their democratic rights.
- Religious Minorities: Religious minorities can be marginalized through discrimination, prejudice, and violation of their religious rights. A key example of this is the Uyghur people of China, who are often prevented from practicing their religion.
- Women in Patriarchal Societies: Women in patriarchal societies are often marginalized due to gender biases, resulting in limitations on their rights and opportunities. Even in seemingly progressive societies, women often face a glass ceiling which prevents them from obtaining promotions and building economic capital.
Case Study: Women’s Employment
Historically, many women faced discrimination in the workforce because it was believed that men deserved jobs more than women in order to feed their families. Women were seen as a supplementary workforce, but men were given first pick in jobs. Over the past few decades, significant social change has seen it normalized for women to work, but they still are underrpresented in higher-level jobs like CEOs due to a range of issues relating to the glass ceiling effect.
- People Living in Poverty: People living in poverty often experience social stigma, limited access to resources, and reduced life opportunities. As a simple example, they won’t have the financial capital to pay for education, legal representation, healthcare, and so on.
- Elderly Individuals: Ageism can result in the marginalization of the elderly, with limited access to employment, healthcare, and social engagement. A common example of this is when elderly people cannot find employment due to unfair assumptions about cognitive decline.
- People with Mental Health Issues: People with mental health conditions often face social stigma and exclusion, reducing their access to opportunities and resources. Their mental health problems are often seen as personal weakness rather than issues of health care.
- Transgender Individuals: Transgender individuals often face discrimination and social exclusion due to their gender identity, and this is even overt and explicit in many areas of the world, where they are officially denied the right to dress and live freely as they wish.
- Untouchables: This refers to groups in society who may be of low social class or even with health concerns (e.g Leporacy) who often face stigma and discrimination, leading to social exclusion and limited access to resources and services.
- Non-native Speakers: Non-native speakers often face language barriers, social exclusion, and limited access to opportunities. These barriers can limit their employability, access to social services, and their ability to integrate into the community. These disadvantages can exacerbate their marginalization, particularly in societies where fluency in the dominant language is a prerequisite for social and economic participation.
Case Study: Migrant Enclaves
Each generation, new waves of migrants to Western nations find it difficult to integrate into society due to communication barriers and culture shock. As a result, they seek help from people who understand them and their plight – other expatriates. This leads to a phenomenon where migrants tend to congregate within certain neightborhoods, creating marginalized migrant enclaves in major cities.
- People Living in Rural Areas: Rural people often face marginalization due to limited access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities compared to their urban counterparts. For example, a person with cancer in a rural area may not be able to access appropriate treatment in a reasonably nearby hospital.
- The Working Poor: The working poor often face marginalization through low wages, job insecurity, and limited access to social services. Despite being employed, they struggle to meet basic needs due to inadequate income. Their precarious employment conditions may also restrict them from accessing benefits such as healthcare, further marginalizing them.
- People Living in Slums: Individuals living in slums often face social exclusion, limited access to basic services, and poor living conditions. Infrastructure and sanitation deficiencies exacerbate their hardship, while the stigma attached to their living conditions can limit opportunities for upward mobility. Their voices often remain unheard in urban planning processes, leading to the persistence of their marginalization.
- Single Parents: Single parents often face social stigma, financial instability, and limited access to resources and opportunities. Balancing employment and childcare responsibilities can be a significant challenge, which is often exacerbated by insufficient support services. Their economic vulnerability can lead to social exclusion and lesser opportunities for their children.
- Trafficking Victims: Victims of trafficking often face social stigma, trauma, and exclusion from social services. After escaping trafficking situations, they often grapple with psychological trauma and a lack of supportive resources, complicating their reintegration into society. Furthermore, societal stigma attached to their experiences can lead to further marginalization.
- Dalits in India: Dalits often face social exclusion, discrimination, and limited access to resources due to caste-based discrimination. Despite legal provisions for protection and upliftment, they continue to face severe societal prejudice, limiting their opportunities for education, employment, and social mobility. Instances of violence and social ostracism serve as constant reminders of their marginalized status.
- Roma in Europe: Roma often face discrimination, poverty, and limited access to education, employment, and healthcare. Their nomadic lifestyle and distinct culture have often been met with prejudice and exclusion. Barriers to education and limited employment opportunities perpetuate a cycle of poverty and marginalization.
- The Unemployed: Unemployment often leads to social stigma, limited access to resources, and reduced life opportunities. The lack of financial stability can lead to a multitude of hardships, including poverty, homelessness, and mental health issues. Society often stigmatizes unemployment, further contributing to the marginalization of unemployed individuals.
- The Illiterate: Illiteracy can lead to social exclusion and limited access to information, education, and employment opportunities. An inability to read or write not only limits economic prospects, but also impacts individual’s capacity to participate fully in society, including their access to essential services and ability to exercise their rights. Illiteracy is often associated with poverty, perpetuating cycles of marginalization.
Causes of Marginalization
The causes of marginalization are multifaceted and typically interconnected, leading to the rise of the concept of intersectionality (meaning the compounding effect of multiple forms of discrimination against an individual who is a member of multiple marginalized groups)
Marginalization’s causes often relate to systems of power designed by a dominant group, and therefore which advantage that group, as well as socio-economic structures that sustain and perpetuate social inequalities (Smith, 2010).
For example, societal norms and prejudices can fuel marginalization, as seen with racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination (Omi & Winant, 2014). If an individual does not perfectly fit within the cultural norms and social norms of a society, then they will have decreased social and cultural capital, causing people to view them as undesirables and outsiders.
Socio-economic policies can also contribute, where the unequal distribution of resources can leave certain groups disadvantaged (Piketty, 2014).
The digital divide, for instance, creates marginalization by limiting access to technology and the Internet for economically disadvantaged individuals (Ragnedda & Muschert, 2013).
Societal structures and systems can further marginalize individuals through lack of access to education, healthcare, and housing (Bourdieu, 1984). For example, people living in rural and remote locations tend to have less proximity to social services, leading to risk of poorer health and education outcomes.
Lastly, marginalization is often perpetuated by inadequate legal protections or enforcement for marginalized groups (Rawls, 1971). For example, the poor may lack access to a good lawyer, meaning they don’t get adequate representation.
Consequences of Marginalization
The consequences of marginalization include socio-economic impacts such as lack of access to employment or inability to find high-paying jobs.
Firstly, social exclusion can limit access to education and employment opportunities, creating economic disparities (Sen, 2000). This is particularly the case in societies where education is on an open market rather than provided free at the point of service for all.
Similarly, marginalized individuals may face health inequalities due to limited access to quality healthcare (Marmot, 2005), discriminatory healthcare practices, or lack of proximity to good health facilities. (For more on the healthcare impacts, see our article on the social determinants of health).
Marginalization can, by its very definition (exclusion of people), cause social isolation leading to low self-esteem (Link & Phelan, 2001). It can also engender feelings of powerlessness and loss of control, reducing civic participation and political engagement (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995).
Furthermore, it has intergenerational effects. You can’t pass-on wealth or capital that you don’t have, so your children inherit your social status in life (known as ascribed status) as well as your poverty and disadvantage (Corak, 2006).
Furthermore, marginalization can fuel social tension and conflict, as marginalized groups may resort to various forms of resistance against their status (Galtung, 1990). Multiple theories of deviance demonstrate that people turn to social deviance when they feel as if they have been disenfranchised by society.
In its most extreme forms, marginalization can lead to violations of human rights, including incidents of violence and discrimination (Donnelly, 2003).
Marginalization has multiple harmful effects, leading to compounding social disadvantage that keeps people in poverty and at social disadvantage. This can even lead to intergenerational marginalization and exclusion, causing subcultural groups of people who feel left out by society. To address this, societies need to attempt to increase access to the ladders of opportunity, especially for those without economic, social, and cultural capital.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Corak, M. (2006). Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1993.
Donnelly, J. (2003). Universal human rights in theory and practice. New Jersey: Cornell University Press.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291-305.
Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology (5th ed.). London: Polity.
Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual review of Sociology, 27(1), 363-385.
Marmot, M. (2005). Social determinants of health inequalities. The Lancet, 365(9464), 1099-1104.
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2014). Racial formation in the United States. New York: Routledge.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. New York: Belknap Press.
Ragnedda, M., & Muschert, G. W. (Eds.). (2013). The digital divide: The Internet and social inequality in international perspective. London: Routledge.
Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Sen, A. (2000). Social exclusion: Concept, application, and scrutiny. Social Development Papers No. 1. Asian Development Bank.
Smith, L. T. (2010). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Los Angeles: Zed Books Ltd.
Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. New Jersey: Harvard University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]