Social exclusion is a term used in sociology and psychology to describe a process in which individuals or groups are shut out from the rights, opportunities or resources that are available to other members of society.
For example, under social exclusion, people may suffer from a combination of interlinked problems such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, bad health, high crime and family breakdown.
As a result of these problems, people who are affected by social exclusion are not able to fully participate in economic, social, political and cultural life and are often pushed to the fringes of society.
It is very hard to overcome social exclusion and it often passes from generation to generation.
There are many definitions of social exclusion and the term remains a contested one, meaning that it is defined in different ways by different authors.
One simple definition is as follows:
“[Social exclusion is] all the ways in which people are excluded from the necessities in life.” (Munck, 2005, p. 1)
Despite the contested definitions, all authors agree on one point: social exclusion should not be confused with poverty. Social exclusion and poverty are related but do not mean the same.
Poverty refers to the lack of material resources or income and social exclusion refers to not having the same rights, opportunities and life chances as other people living in the same society.
Characteristics of Social Exclusion
Although there is no agreement on a definition of social exclusion, there are some common characteristics that can help understand the concept:
- Multidimensional: social exclusion cannot be measured by income alone but its made up of various forms of exclusion combined, such as lack of employment, difficulty accessing or staying in education, poor housing or living in a deprived neighborhood
- Dynamic: people are excluded not only because of their present situation, but also because of their future chances. Social exclusion is a process and we need to look at the reasons why people become excluded and how they can get out.
- Relative: exclusion happens in a particular society at a particular time. It is not the same being socially excluded in India than it is in Canada; or in the 1960s compared to the 1990s.
- Agency: the exclusion lies outside of the responsibility of the individual and it is the result of the actions of others.
- Relational: social exclusion is about being disconnected from society. This means that there is inadequate social participation, little social integration and lack of power.
- Gender Exclusion: various risk factors make women more likely to suffer social exclusion than men. For example, women are paid less than men, they are more likely to bear the cost of rising children or be victims of domestic violence.
- Age-Based Exclusion: Elderly people are at a higher risk of suffering social exclusion due to limited income, ill health or social isolation. All these combined make the elderly particularly vulnerable to social exclusion.
- Ethnic Exclusion: People from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be discriminated against, for example, in relation to accessing the labor market. This makes them more vulnerable to being socially excluded.
- Exclusion from the Job Market: being unemployed and unable to participate in the labor market is pivotal to social exclusion. Unemployment leads to other forms of exclusion such as homelessness.
- Societies with Rigid Class Systems: Social exclusion can also happen due to rigid segregation in certain societies. For example, in India, the caste system, where people born into the lowest caste, called the “untouchables”, cannot become members of a higher caste.
- Discrimination: People may also be excluded through being constructed and feared as a threat, people who themselves may be at risk of victimization, for example, young people, ethnic minority groups, people with mental health problems, and ‘strangers’ such as asylum seekers.
- Mental Health Stigma: there is a link between having poor mental health and social exclusion. Mental health problems lead to poor outcomes in employment and education and increase the chances of social isolation.
- Homelessness: People who are sleeping rough can be considered the most extreme example of social exclusion. Without shelter, the chances of finding employment decreases. Substance abuse and mental health problems are causes and consequences, aggravating the situation.
- Educational Exclusion: educational attainment is central to the generation of social exclusion. Its relationship is mainly based on success in the labour market, both in relation to income but also to employment stability.
- Exclusionary Neighborhoods: Social exclusion is concentrated in certain areas, so it means that neighborhood is a risk factor. Where one lives affects outcomes such as education, employment or health and ultimately, life chances.
There are many overlapping causes of social exclusion. Different schools of thought have focused on different potential causes. Below are some commonly highlighted causes.
A Marxist perspective holds that social exclusion is an in-built design feature of capitalism (Steinert, 2021).
Through capitalism, the people who hold economic capital are given social advantage and privileges. The capitalist class needs an oppressed working class to do the labor. This working class is excluded in a range of ways. Namely, they’re excluded from ownership of the means of production; access to costly goods and services; and access to costly neighborhoods.
Many scholars have also highlighted the role of globalization in sustaining and exacerbating social exclusion (Munck, 2005).
For example, in a globalized society, wealth transfer from the global south to the global north represents the exclusion of the poor from access to financial markets, social mobilization, and high-quality social services.
Self-exclusion refers to the practice of intentionally excluding yourself from society and social services (Van der Horst, 2019).
We can see examples of self-exclusion in religion (monks, priests, etc. choosing to turn away from materialism) and counterculture (subcultural groups who signify their dissent from the dominant culture by challenging it and removing themselves from participation).
While self-exclusion exists, a major concern of scholars is how the concept is used as a way to blame excluded and marginalized populations for their own predicament.
4. Cultural Practices
People may be excluded from society and culture due to their beliefs, caste, appearance, disability, neurodivergence, and so on.
Cultural practices represent one of the most significant examples of social exclusion. For example, theocracies often suppress religious minorities and exclude them from positions of power; traditional conservative societies might exclude women from leadership roles; and a society with a medical model of disability (as opposed to social model) may exclude people with disabilities and make no efforts to modify their practices in pursuit of inclusion (Barnes, 2019).
5 Topics to Explore
1. Income and Social Exclusion
The relationship between being in poverty and being socially excluded is clear: low economic capital can lead to social exclusion.
Having a low or unsteady income means not being able to afford items and activities that are enjoyed by the majority of the population. And this in turn can affect people’s life chances.
For example, if we think about having access to a computer and a Wifi connection, most low-income households will struggle to have those. However, both items are necessary tools for education attainment and can put some pupils at disadvantage in the short and long run.
2. Employment and Social Exclusion
Being able to participate in the labor market and being in employment is central to social exclusion.
And one of the reasons employment is so important is that it is linked to other aspects of social exclusion.
Without doubt, lack of employment is related to homelessness, physical and mental ill-health, amongst others.
For example, unemployment increases the risk of being homeless, and at the same time, homelessness is a barrier to finding work. Poor health directly contributes to unemployment and economic inactivity, but not being employed can be detrimental to peoples’s health.
3. Health and Social Exclusion
There are health inequalities in society that put some people at a greater risk of experiencing social exclusion.
These inequalities in health are not, however, distributed randomly amongst the population. Instead, they are influenced by socio-economic class, geographical area, ethnicity, age and gender.
Some of these health inequalities include poor access to healthcare, poor mental health care, teenage pregnancy, disability, and neurodivergence. Just like with homelessness, these factors are both a cause and a consequence of social exclusion.
Health inequalities range across a number of dimensions: by socio-economic class and by geographical area, by ethnicity, age and gender. These risks of early death and poor health have different impacts at different stages of the life course.
Furthermore, health inequalities across the generations, significantly affecting the life chances and quality of life, not only for individuals, but for their children and grandchildren.
4. Education and Social Exclusion
Early school leavers are more likely to experience social exclusion and the lack of formal or further education diminishes people’s chances to move on in life.
Amongst young people, lack of education means poor access to the labour market, higher risk of spells of unemployment and low income. In the long run, this situation also affects their “social mobility”, that is, their opportunity to advance within a society.
As adults, the limited prospects of employment continue amongst those with lower educational attainment. But those with poor education also show lower levels of community and civic participation, which are also components of social exclusion.
5. Housing and Social Exclusion
An extreme form of social exclusion in housing is homelessness.
Being without a home refers both to sleeping rough or staying in insecure accommodation, like night shelters or hostels.
The importance of homelessness lies in its power to not only be a consequence of social exclusion but also a cause. The interaction between homelessness and other forms of exclusion is complex.
So, people without stable housing have poorer mental health, less chances of being employed or exercising social rights like voting. At the same time, those suffering from social exclusion, for example because they are long-term unemployed or are mentally ill, are more likely to end up in the streets.
Not everyone faces the same risk of experiencing social exclusion throughout their lives: the poorest individuals and communities are those more likely to be marginalized from society.
The problems that cause social exclusion include unemployment, poor skills, discrimination, low income, disability, family problems, high crime, ill health or poor housing. These problems are mutually reinforcing and when combined they create a vicious cycle.
Social exclusion creates deep and long-lasting problems not only for individuals, families, for communities, but also for society as a whole. For those experiencing social exclusion, it is very difficult to rise above it.
Abrams, D., Christian, J., and Gordon D. (2007) Multidisciplinary Handbook of Social Exclusion Research. Chichester: John Wiley & sons.
Barnes, C. (2019). Understanding the social model of disability: Past, present and future. In Routledge handbook of disability studies (pp. 14-31). Routledge.
Bradshaw, J., Kemp, P. & Baldwin, S. (2004) The drivers of social exclusion: Review of the literature for the Social Exclusion Unit in the Breaking the Cycle series. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
Byrne, D. (2005) Social Exclusion. Maidenhead: Open University Press
Munck, R. (2005). Globalization and social exclusion: A transformationalist perspective. London: Kumarian Press.
Steinert, H. (2021). Participation and social exclusion: a conceptual framework. In Welfare Policy from Below (pp. 45-59). Routledge.
Van der Horst, M. (2019). Internalised ageism and self-exclusion: Does feeling old and health pessimism make individuals want to retire early?. Social Inclusion, 7(3), 27-43. doi: https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v7i3.1865