Marginality: A Key Concept Revisited
Marginality is a rich and nuanced concept.
Posted Sep 14, 2015
The term marginal comes from the Latin, “marginalis,” and is in reference to an edge or border. In my discipline (Sociology), we trace the concept to Robert Park, who referred to the marginal man as a “cultural hybrid” (1928). Park, one of the famous “Chicago School” sociologists, was writing in particular reference to immigrants who, once in the United States, found themselves between two worlds – that of their homeland and that of America. More specifically, sociologist Everett Stonequist (1935) pointed to the Jew as the classic illustration of the marginal man. This position is reflected, as well, in Louis Wirth’s The Ghetto (1928).
In this essay, I consider some of the nuances of this concept and highlight other, related concepts. In so doing, I hope to illustrate the richness of the concept as well as to demonstrate potentially positive aspects of holding a marginal position.
Social scientists, and most particularly sociologists, are drawn to individuals and groups who are deemed “marginal” in some way. We strive to test, apply, and develop theories that challenge stereotypes and domain assumptions, shape policy, and potentially transform lives. Those in the helping professions, such as social work, and many religious leaders, too, shed light on factors that can have the effect of marginalizing individuals and groups, with the objective of ameliorating the “problem” of marginality and being advocates for the disenfranchised. In this regard, focus is placed on structural conditions that largely dictate a marginal (i.e., disenfranchised) position. Inevitably, those on the margin are viewed as lacking power, resources, chances at upward mobility, etc. The current refugee crisis is certainly a poignant example of this kind of marginality.
Geographers Bradley Cullen and Michael Pretes (2000) note: “Research on marginality generally assumes a hierarchical relationship between the marginal and the nonmarginal. Usually this relationship is expressed in a Center/Periphery (or Core/Periphery) model” (p. 221). Similarly, Judith Roberts (2014) observes that: “The groups or individuals that experience life on the fringes are denied full access to opportunities and resources that are normally available to dominant groups (e.g., housing, employment, health care, civic engagement, democratic participation, and due process under the law)… The marginalized are always aware of their location in relation to those at the centre…The place in the centre is where we are absent, voiceless, or invisible” (pp. 191, 192). This prevalent (and important) perspective on marginality can sometimes overlook other, perhaps unexpected, aspects that a marginal position may carry with it. In turning to a broader consideration of the concept, let’s first explore some related terms.
The famous anthropologist Victor Turner (1967) identified liminality as an important stage in a rite of passage. For Turner, the liminal individual is between two positions. The between status perspective rings true to the original notions that Robert Park had about the marginal man. While this feeling of being between two positions can be experienced as discomfiting, it also has the potential to be experienced as liberating. Georg Simmel (1908) used the term “the Stranger” in reference to the marginal person, and he suggested that one who is in such a position may feel emancipated because he/she is not bound by one set of rules or expectations. Turner likewise recognized that for the person who is “between,” the given social order is suspended, thus affording the individual a withdrawal from normative expectations and a position from which to critically scrutinize the dominant culture. Contemporary criminology scholar Jeff Ferrell (2012) has coined the concept of drift in reference to people who may be dislocated spatially and geographically and, correspondingly, separated from the normative social order. Ferrell, while recognizing the potentially serious detrimental effects for those who find themselves adrift, also suggests that occupying such a position brings with it the potential for transgression. That is to say, with an outsider perspective, the drifter can better identify cultural contradictions and, because he or she is “outside the frame,” it is possible to experience some sense of emancipation much as Simmel described.
With the recognition that holding a marginal position may carry with it the potential for a more positive experience than is typically (automatically) assumed, we also recognize that, although structural conditions may largely dictate one’s marginal status, the way in which the individual experiences this phenomenon may be (refreshingly) unexpected due to one’s sense of agency. The most striking example is bell hooks’ (1984) declaration of marginality as a site of resistance. She contends that marginality “offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.” In a similar vein, cultural critic Henry Giroux (1997) acknowledges the presence and significance of “different cultural logics” – that is, those experiences that may not readily be reflected in the dominant ideology and could thus be called counter-hegemonic (or, for our purposes here, marginalized). Both hooks and Giroux highlight the importance -- and necessity -- of acknowledging, and giving voice to, a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences. From a position of marginality, we may find an opportunity for creativity, innovation, and new possibilities.
I am presently embarking on a study of the actual lived experience of people who are, in some way, marginal, and I invite readers to share (if they are comfortable doing so) their experiences (whether through the comments function on this site or by sending me an email). If, in some way, you occupy a position that could be considered marginal, how does this experience shape your everyday life? How does this sense of marginality affect your identity, your relationships with others, etc.?
I shall close with this: An image that I immediately think of when I think of “the margin” is an image that I presume will resonate with others: The margins of a page (in a book, an article, etc.) may at first seem inconsequential – there are no words from the author there. Yet, it is in this space where the reader jots notes, insights, points seeking clarification, and even emotional proclamations (e.g., “Right!” or “Amen!” or “Yes!” or “Ouch!”). In this way, the margins on the page become “alive,” and when we read through the piece later, it is what has been noted in the margins that really catches our eye.
Cullen, B.T. and Pretes, M. 2000. “The Meaning of Marginality: Interpretations and Perceptions in Social Science.” The Social Science Journal 37(2), pp. 215-229.
Farrell J. 2012. “Outline of a Criminology of Drift,” in New Directions in Criminological Theory, edited by Steve Hall and Simon Winlow. New York, NY: Routledge.
hooks, b. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.
Park, R. E. 1928. “Human Migration and the Marginal Man.” American Journal of Sociology 33(6): 881–893.
Roberts, J.E.B. 2014. “Discipleship with the Marginalized at the Centre.” International Review of Mission 103(2), pp. 189-199.
Simmel, G.  1971. “The Stranger,” in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 143–149.
Stonequist, E. V. 1935. “The Problem of the Marginal Man.” American Journal of Sociology 41(1):1–12.
Turner, V. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Wirth, L. 1928. The Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.