Social Exclusion: Concept, Application, And Scrutiny

Amartya Sen


What new insight into poverty – if any – is provided by the approach of social exclusion? This paper from the Asian Development Bank scrutinises the nature, relevance and reach of the idea of social exclusion, as well as its usefulness outside the European context in which it arose, with particular attention to Asia. It argues that this approach does indeed offer useful insights for poverty diagnostics and policy, if used with discrimination and scrutiny.

Although the term social exclusion is of relatively recent origin, it has already made substantial inroads into discussions and writings on poverty and deprivation. The term is seen as covering a wide range of social and economic problems, sometimes to excess, and its critics have been as vocal as its advocates. In fact, this idea has conceptual connections with well-established notions in the literature on poverty and deprivation and has antecedents that are far older than the specific history of the terminology might suggest. It reinforces the capability perspective on poverty (poverty seen as the lack of the capability to lead a minimally decent life), in particular its multidimensional approach.

  • The real importance of the idea of social exclusion lies in emphasising the role of relational features in the deprivation of capability and thus in the experience of poverty.
  • The perspective of social inclusion is broad and inclusive, but need not lack coherence and cogency, if used with discrimination and scrutiny.
  • It is important to distinguish between the constitutive relevance and the instrumental importance of exclusion; that is, between exclusions which are of intrinsic importance in themselves, and those which lead to impoverishment through their causal consequences.
  • Another distinction with relevance for both causal analysis and policy response is between the active fostering of exclusion and the passive development of exclusion.
  • The European origin of the concept does not compromise its usefulness in other parts of the world, including Asia, where it can be employed to discriminate between economic experiences in different parts of the region.
  • Investigation of the recent Asian financial and economic crisis emphasises the role played by social exclusions of specific types both in the genesis of the crisis and the penalties it generated.

In identifying policy issues around social exclusion (in Asia or in other regions) it is important to:

  • Pay attention to the distinct types of exclusions and the different ways in which they can impoverish human lives.
  • Take into consideration the forces of change – arising from globalisation and other forces – which characterise the contemporary world.
  • Study the links between exclusions in different spheres of individual and family life, involving both overlap and causal linkages.
  • Continue to take an interest in other types of deprivation (including those associated with unfavourable inclusion) which may be best investigated in more traditional lines of analysis.
  • Recognise the gains to be made from comparing shared experience and diverse problems from different regions of the world.


Sen, A (2000), ‘Social Exclusion: Concept, Application, And Scrutiny', Asian Development Bank