Social exclusion as a process

Social exclusion is a process. It can involve the systematic denial of entitlements to resources and services, and the denial of the right to participate on equal terms in social relationships in economic, social, cultural or political arenas. Exclusionary processes can occur at various levels – within and between households, villages, cities, states, and globally. This is an actor-oriented approach which is useful because it points to who is doing what and in relationship with whom. It also provides information for international development agencies to identify those dynamic processes already extant which they could aim to strengthen or minimise. In a situation where there is a disparity in social power relationships, the question of who has the prerogative to define, who is the definer and who is the defined, becomes a site of conflict.

In the text below, Naila Kabeer identifies three types of attitudes and social practices which result in exclusion (2000: 91-93). These can be conscious or unconscious, intended or unintended, explicit or informal. They are:

  1. Mobilisation of institutional bias: This refers to the existence of ‘a predominant set of values, beliefs, rituals and institutional procedures that operate systematically and consistently to the benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others’. This mechanism operates without conscious decisions by those who represent the status quo.
  2.  Social closure:  This is the way in which ‘social collectivities seek to maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles’. This involves the monopolisation of certain opportunities based on group attributes, such as race, language, social origin and religion. State institutions cause exclusion when they deliberately discriminate in their laws, policies or programmes. In some cases, there are social systems that decide people’s position in society on the basis of heredity.
  3. Unruly practices: This refers to the gaps between rules and their implementation. Institutions unofficially perpetuate exclusion when public sector workers reflect the prejudices of their society through their position; in this way institutionalising some kind of discrimination.

Kabeer, N. (2000). Social Exclusion, Poverty and Discrimination: Towards an Analytical Framework. IDS Bulletin, 31(4).
The concept of social exclusion (SE) has emerged relatively recently in Northern discussions about poverty, inequality and justice. How transferable is this concept to the South, where poverty is a mass phenomenon? This paper examines the roots of the social exclusion concept and finds that it can be helpful in analysing social policy in the South, particularly in terms of understanding institutions at the ‘meso-level’. Exclusionary processes are not confined to the lower levels of a social hierarchy and can occur at various social levels. Marginalisation, disadvantage and discrimination can be experienced irrespective of poverty, and thus the concept of social exclusion can play an important role in aiding the understanding of social processes such as conflict.
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Fischer, A. M. (2008). Resolving the Theoretical Ambiguities of Social Exclusion with Reference to Polarisation and Conflict (Working Paper No. 08-90). DESTIN, London School of Economics.
Is social exclusion a redundant concept? This paper aims to resolve conceptual ambiguities by redefining social exclusion as processes of obstruction and repulsion. This definition brings attention to closely related processes of disadvantage while differentiating social exclusion from poverty. Exclusion occurs at all levels of a social hierarchy, and exclusions that do not necessarily lead to poverty may still have very powerful effects on social processes such as conflict.
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Power relations

A social exclusion analysis focuses on who is being excluded and who is doing the excluding, and why. For example, social exclusion can be the result of deliberate discrimination, exploitation and/ or an attempt to protect privilege.

Moncrieffe, J. (2008). Beneath the Categories: Power Relations and Inequalities in Uganda. In Bebbington, A. et al., Institutional Pathways to Equity: Addressing Inequality Traps. Washington, DC: World Bank
What are the broad dynamics that create and sustain poverty and inequality? This chapter uses evidence from Uganda to assert that power relationships often underpin and perpetuate inequality and poverty in societies. It suggests that understanding and addressing these adverse power relations are necessary for building capabilities and ensuring that disadvantaged groups and individuals can make the best of the assets and opportunities they possess.
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In the chapters below, Charles Tilly looks at how opportunity hoarding and exploitation are two key ways in which social exclusion is generated and sustained.

Tilly, C. (1998). Modes of Exploitation. In Durable Inequality. University of California Press
What are the processes of exploitation? In this chapter, Tilly examines the South African system of apartheid and categorical inequality to identify the key elements of exploitation. Drawing from this and other historical cases, Tilly applies his model to modern society to illustrate that exploitation, while not as overt as in South Africa, still thrives, such as in gender pay inequality and minority rights imbalances. Exploitation involves the coordinated efforts of power-holders, command over deployable resources and their returns, categorical exclusion and skewed division of returns as compared with effort.
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Tilly, C. (1998). How to Hoard Opportunities. In Durable Inequality. University of California Press
What is opportunity hoarding and how does it relate to social exclusion? In this chapter, Tilly uses examples of chain migration to illustrate how particular groups organise to hoard opportunities, excluding others from certain occupations and business sectors. While opportunity hoarding does not necessarily result in exclusionary costs to society, it is a potential mechanism of categorical inequality. It can couple with exploitation to create damaging differentials in opportunities and rewards among groups in society.
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The issue of agency is key to the social exclusion debate. This focuses on the role of various agents, as well as more impersonal forces and processes, in causing exclusion. These agents and forces can potentially include globalisation, international organisations, nation states, elites, and excluded groups and individuals themselves.

Atkinson, A. B. (1998). Social Exclusion, Poverty and Unemployment. In Atkinson, A. B., & Hills, J. (Eds.) Exclusion, Employment and Opportunity. Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), London School of Economics.
This paper defines exclusion in terms of relativity, agency and dynamics. It explores the three-way relationship between poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, and the position of the UK labour market. Unemployment may lead to poverty, but it does not necessarily do so. Whether employment promotes inclusion depends on the quality of the jobs. It is important to consider the role of the government and of companies in relation to exclusion.
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Exclusion may also be the outcome of a historical process which severely disadvantages particular groups. Inequality/ poverty traps refer to pervasive inequalities in economic, political and social opportunities that combine and persist over time to keep people poor. The following paper outlines the concept of an ‘inequality trap’.

Bebbington, A. J., Dani, A. A., de Haan, A., & Walton, W. (2007). Inequalities and Development: Dysfunctions, Traps and Transitions., In Bebbington, A. J., Dani, A. A., de Haan, A., & Walton, W. (Eds.), Institutional Pathways to Equity: Addressing Inequality Traps (chapter 1). Washington, DC: World Bank.
What are inequality traps and how can the international community help countries with inequality to progress toward more equitable and efficient societies? This introductory chapter contends that addressing inequality traps requires understanding the causal forces, be they economic, political, or social, which shape a society’s inequalities. It recommends that the international community shift its focus toward providing incentives for internal actors to change the structures and institutions that sustain inequality and the self-reinforcing mechanisms that generate inequality traps.
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The paper below outlines an analytical model for measuring empowerment, which consists of an interaction between two sets of factors: (a) changes in the opportunity structure, which includes the dominant institutional climate and social structures within which disadvantaged actors must work to advance their interests, and (b) changes in the capabilities of poor individuals or groups to exercise agency.

Narayan, D. & Petesch, P. (2007). Agency, Opportunity Structure and Poverty Escapes. In Narayan, D. & Petesch, P. (Eds.), Moving Out of Poverty. Washington, DC: World Bank
Why are some people able to move out and stay out of poverty while others remain in chronic poverty? There is little consensus on the underlying causes of poverty and processes determining access to economic opportunity and mobility. This introductory chapter looks at different approaches to analysing poor people’s mobility. It recommends an empowerment approach that seeks to understand underlying factors of exclusion and inequality.
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Some commentators argue, however, that social exclusion approaches take too simplistic a view of power, according to which the included are considered powerful and the excluded powerless. Instead, power should be seen as dispersed and fluid.

Jackson, C. (1999). Social Exclusion and Gender: Does One Size Fit All? The European Journal of Development Research, 11( 1).
Are social exclusion frameworks adequate for understanding the links between marginalisation and poverty? What are the gender implications of the core concepts of these approaches? Concepts of social exclusion claim to offer an integrated framework for analysing social disadvantage. However, this paper argues that such approaches are often simplistic because they rest on unquestioned assumptions about power, marginality, and agency. Gender analysis can strengthen social exclusion perspectives by revealing the specifics of particular forms of disadvantage.


’Othering’ and ‘bordering’ are two further important processes of exclusion. ‘Othering’ is the process through which a dominant group defines into existence a subordinate group. This is done through the invention of categories and labels, and ideas about what characterises people belonging to these categories. The literature defines ‘othering’ as what happens when a person,group or category is treated as an ‘object’ by another group. This ‘objectification’ allows actors to break the moral rules of social relationships.

‘Bordering’ often accompanies ‘othering’ and involves maintaining spatial and symbolic borders or boundaries to keep people excluded. These boundaries prevent people from equitable access to jobs, services and political spaces.

The final part of this section examines these and other processes of relational inequality.

Eyben R. (2004). Inequality as Process and Experience. In Eyben R., & Lovett J., Political and Social Inequality: A Review (IDS Development Bibliography 20). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
What are the key processes that contribute to inequality? Eyben examines four key, generic processes that offer an actor-oriented framework for understanding how inequality can be maintained or transformed. These processes are: (i)’othering’ and objectification; (ii) spatial and symbolic boundary maintenance; (iii) emotion management; and (iv) subordinate adaptation (which involves strategies including trading autonomy for protection).
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International development practitioners and researchers often aim to quantify and measure categories of people in order to define needs and design interventions to perceived problems. Not only can this constitute a potentially ‘othering’ labelling process, this kind of labelling can also affect power relations in ways that trigger social dislocation and undermine efforts to achieve greater equity.

Moncrieffe, J. (2007). Labelling, Power and Accountability: How and Why our Categories Matter., In Moncrieffe, J., & Eyben, R. (Eds.), The Power of Labelling. Earthscan.
Is there a value in labelling and framing? How are labelling, power and accountability connected? This chapter shows that framing and labelling processes are linked to the distribution of social, political and economic power, and are critical for securing hegemonic meanings and values. Labelling is inevitable and is important for policy but the uncritical approach to such hegemonic practices has harmful consequences that undermine many of the moral goals of development.
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The spaces of social exclusion

Social exclusion can occur in different sites and spaces: within state institutions, the market, the community and the family. A person can be denied access completely or given only unequal access; both can constitute exclusion.

Exclusion can result from the power relations that shape these spaces. In the article below John Gaventa argues that in this sense, the concept of boundaries is important: ‘Power relations help to shape the boundaries of participatory spaces, what is possible within them, and who may enter, with which identities, discourses and interests’ (2006: 26). Power needs to be understood in relation to how spaces of engagement are created, the levels of power that exist within them, and the different forms of power that flow across them.

Gaventa, J. (2006). Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS Bulletin, 37(6).
Development actors are increasingly aware of the need to understand and engage with power relations as a means of promoting pro-poor change. So where should they target their efforts and which strategies should they use? This article  explores one approach to power analysis, known as the ‘power cube’. If the development community wants to change power relationships to make them more inclusive, it must reflect on power relationships. The power cube may represent the first step in making power’s most hidden and invisible forms more visible.
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Cornwall, A. (2004). New Democratic Spaces? The Politics and Dynamics of Institutionalised Participation. IDS Bulletin, 35 (2), 1-10.
Across the world, political space for public engagement in governance appears to be widening. But do these spaces offer increased prospects for deliberative democracy, or are they forms of co-option that deflect social energy from other forms of political participation? This article introduces case studies that consider issues of representation, inclusion, voice, and the efficacy of citizen engagement. Much of the potential of these fledgling democratic institutions has yet to be realised, but change is already beginning.
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For further resources on the issues of power and representation, see the GSDRC Voice and Accountability guide

Structural discrimination

Social exclusion occurs where particular groups are excluded by mainstream society from fully participating in economic, social and political life. Discrimination can work explicitly, through institutions, norms and values. It can also have invisible impacts, where values and ideas affect the self-perceptions of excluded people and their capabilities to claim their rights. One approach to correcting this is to adopt rights-based approaches to development which emphasise non-discrimination, inclusion, and empowerment, aimed particularly at vulnerable or marginalised groups.

For further resources on the links between rights, groups and discrimination, see the GSDRC guide on Human Rights

The book chapter below discusses the concept of ‘structural inequality’, which is described as a condition which arises when certain groups enjoy unequal status in relation to other groups, as a result of unequal relations in their roles, functions, rights and opportunities.

Dani, A. A. & de Haan, A. (2008). Social Policy in a Development Context: Structural Inequalities and Inclusive Institutions. In Dani, A. A. & de Haan, A., Inclusive States: Social Policy and Structural Inequalities (pp. 1-37). Washington DC: World Bank ,
How can states achieve the Millennium Development Goals in the context of severe social inequality? This introductory chapter argues that the effective governance institutions necessary for achieving these goals can only emerge from policies that promote inclusion. There need be no trade-off between promoting inclusion and promoting economic growth. Rather, inclusive institutions can provide better services for the whole population, build human and social capital, increase agency and the rule of law and facilitate more sustainable and equitable economic development.
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At its extreme, structural discrimination can be described as structural violence. This is a concept which it has been argued makes visible ‘the social machinery of oppression’. The following study argues that our understanding of exclusion and marginalisation is distorted because the most marginalised and oppressed die and thus the extremes of their suffering become invisible and forgotten.

Farmer, P. (2004). An Anthropology of Structural Violence. Current Anthropology, 45(3), 305-325.
Why and how are diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis associated with poverty and inequality? This study from ‘Current Anthropology’ examines AIDS and tuberculosis in rural Haiti in relation to the social and economic structures in which they are embedded. A syncretic and biosocial anthropology shows how inequality and poverty create differential risk for infection and for adverse outcomes including death. It is important to link such anthropology to epidemiology and to an understanding of differential access to new diagnostic and therapeutic tools.
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