Marginalization is a metaphor that refers to processes by which individuals or groups are kept at, or pushed beyond, the edges of society. The term outsiders may be used to refer to those individuals or groups who are marginalized.
The term marginalization is attributed to Park (1928) who coined the expression ”marginal man” to characterize the lot of impoverished minority ethnic immigrants into a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon protestant USA. It later became popular, particularly in Latin America, as a term that captured the supposed ”backwardness,” not of immigrants in developed countries, but of people in developing countries who fail or are prevented from participating in the economic, political and cultural transition to modernity. Modernity makes the subordinate status and cultural differences of rural peoples and the urban poor anomalous. More recently the term marginalization has been largely superseded, especially in Europe, by the term ”exclusion.” None the less, marginalization often appears as a synonym for extreme poverty or for social exclusion and it may sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the concepts other than in terms of who is using them. People may be marginalized from economic production; from consumption (including the consumption of public services); from political participation; and/or from social or cultural interaction.
The nature of the capitalist production processes is such that not everybody will be employed by them and Marx famously referred to those who are rendered outsiders as the ”reserve army of labor,” who are pushed to the margins of the labor market. Those outside the formal economy may engage in marginalized forms of economic activity, for example in subsistence agriculture in the developing world, in informal or unregulated economic activity, or in street-level activities, such as hustling or begging. Equally important, especially in the context of a consumer society is that those who cannot afford to obtain access to goods or services may be marginalized: not only can they remain or become outsiders or strangers to the kinds of goods and facilities that others use, but they may inhabit marginalized neighborhoods that are poorly served by public services or which may, for example, have been ”red-lined” by credit providers. Ultimately they may exist outside the parameters that define a customary lifestyle, as happens, for example, when people become homeless. Democratic systems may marginalize or ignore the interests of minority electoral groups, and those who are for whatever reason stigmatized or reviled may be marginalized from mainstream social networks and community life.
It is not only what people may be marginalized from, but why? The poor may become outsiders, but so too can the rich when they choose to live separately in gated communities. Disabled people may quite literally be outsiders if, because their needs are marginal to the interests of architects, builders and planners, they cannot obtain access to public buildings or housing accommodation. Minority and/or itinerant ethnic groups may be marginalized because of racism and so form outsider communities.
The most extreme form of marginalization is associated with criminalization, which occurs when individuals or groups are labeled as deviant (Becker 1963). This can occur when popular or media inspired ”moral panics” stigmatize particular kinds of behavior (which may or may not be technically criminal) and when the offenders assume a marginalized identity.
- Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
- Park, R. (1928) Human migration and the marginal man. American Journal of Sociology 33: 881-93.