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In this essay, I will be studying various definitions of the term social exclusion, in an attempt to explain what it is. The term exclusion tends to refer to an individual or group of people who are kept out from a place or group or privilege (English Oxford dictionary). When we talk and write about ‘social exclusion’ we are talking about changes in the whole of society, which have consequences to some people in society (Social exclusion, David Byrne 1999). Hence I will be focussing on definitions of social exclusion in social sciences and a social and political setting.

In relation to British social policy, the term social exclusion is relatively new. The government has described social exclusion as a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, bad health and family breakdown. (social exclusion unit, preventing social exclusion, www. socialexclusion. gov. uk). The definition of social exclusion by the government is intentionally flexible, with several other types of exclusion, which exist.

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In the ‘Preventing social exclusion’ document, it concluded the most important characteristic is that the problems are linked and mutually reinforcing. Hence different dimensions of social exclusion combine with each other creating a complex and vicious cycle, which needs to be fully understood before policies can become effective. For example, results from the social exclusion unit reveals out of those who sleep rough, 30-50% suffer mental health problems, only 38% have educational qualifications, up to 50% have serious alcohol problems and finally up to 80% have drug problems (SEU, Rough Sleeping, 1998).

Hence these results can emphasise the concept of different characteristics being linked and mutually reinforcing, combining to create complex and vicious cycles. To receive benefits and medical help, the person needs to have an address. If the person is spending what money they have on drink and drugs, then the can struggle to afford the rent, and end up sleeping on the street. Issues with mental health, drink and drugs needs to be addressed if the person is going to find affordable accommodation and hold down a job.

The social exclusion unit was set up by the labour government in 1997, and help those who are being socially excluded. In terms of another perspective of social exclusions, the concept can be traced to Weber who identified exclusion as a form of social closure (Parkin 1979). Weber saw exclusionary closure as an attempt by one group to secure a privileged position through a process of subordination of others. Weber believed social exclusion was based on conscious and unconscious human agency. Hence humans decide consciously or unconsciously to exclude others.

For example, those with the financial means, opt for private health care, often avoiding large waiting lists, which those who don’t have the financial means are faced with on the NHS. Jordan (1996) takes a similar stance to Weber, giving an example of those in a community with private provision to high-quality services with security preventing others from accessing the services. In British society those who are willing to or have the financial means can afford private health care and private education leaving those without the financial means to rely on basic state provision.

An example of this is postcode health care, where the prescribing of certain drugs is dependent on the area, which you live. In contrast to Weber, Marx argued that capitalism was at the centre of social exclusion, in that capitalism relied on the unemployed to ensure there are sufficient workers in case of an economic boom. Hence social exclusion is a product of the economic system, rather than as a result of the individuals behaviour. Although I can see a logic in Marx’s theory, I believe his focus on work and the economy is somewhat reductionist, in terms of exclusion being more complex and having several dimensions to it.

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