Social exclusion has been defined by the Department of International Development (DFID) as “a process by which certain groups are systematically disadvantaged because they are discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or where they live. Discrimination occurs in public institutions, such as the legal system or education and health services, as well as social institutions like the household” (DFID, 2005, 'Reducing Poverty by Tackling Social Exclusion: A DFID Policy Paper', p.3).
Whilst the concept arose in response to dissatisfaction with approaches to poverty that focussed on income alone, the term remains contested and there is no agreed definition. Most commonly, social exclusion is seen to apply to groups, involving the exclusion of individuals due to their membership of particular groups that suffer discrimination, i.e. according to racial, ethnic, gender, geographic or age characteristics. There are various understandings of social exclusion which emphasise different aspects: the groups at risk of being excluded; what people are excluded from, e.g. employment, education, citizenship, respect; the problems associated with the impact of social exclusion, e.g. low income, poor housing; the processes driving exclusion; and the agents and actors involved.
There is agreement, however, that social exclusion is multidimensional – it encompasses social, political, cultural and economic dimensions, and operates at different social levels. It is also dynamic, in that it impacts people in various ways and to differing degrees over time. And it is relational – it is the product of social interactions which are characterised by unequal power relations, and it can produce ruptures in relationships between people and society, which result in a lack of social participation, social protection, social integration and power. However, since there is rarely a complete lack of access, there is some arbitrariness in where the social exclusion lines are drawn, and therefore who is perceived to be excluded.
One particularly useful feature of the concept of social exclusion is its focus on process and relations. It complements the concept of inequality, which focuses more on disparities between different categories of people. ‘Social inequalities’, for example, are conceptualised as constraints on opportunity, in accessing education or healthcare for example, which are based on class and other status ascriptions such as gender, age or ethnicity. However, such a focus on structural constraints can ignore the actors who are continuously building and transforming these structures. Thus many believe that the utility of social exclusion is in that it offers an actor-oriented approach, which points to who is doing what, and in relation to whom. It also allows us to identify and tackle issues of power.
In development practice the term ‘exclusion’ has become popular with non-economic social scientists. This popularity is due to its focus on societal institutions, actors, relationships and processes, of which measured disparity in income or lack of access to social services may be both an indicator and an outcome.