Democracy & Justice

What does marginalize mean: definition, examples, characteristics of the phenomenon

What does it mean to ‘marginalize’ someone, and how do dominant groups do it? It’s happening in Europe, and we’re all worse off because of it.

by Jonathan Day

How free and fair is your society? How you answer that question may depend on the government you live under, but it will also be heavily influenced by your place in society. If you’re white and well-off, you may quickly answer that the society you live in is very free and very fair. But if you ask a member of a minority group or even your grandparents, the answer may be far different. That’s because dominant groups in Europe continue to marginalize minorities and other groups. And while it might not seem so, that’s bad news for everyone.

What does it mean to marginalize someone?

To marginalize someone means to make them less able to do things or access basic services or opportunities. When we talk about marginalization today, we usually refer to groups of people who face discrimination and exclusion – from society, from politics, from the economy. Marginalization exists everywhere, but there are certain groups that experience prolonged marginalization in many parts of Europe. Roma and LGBTQI+ people are two such groups. Their struggle to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as others continues to this day, in particular in places like Hungary and Poland. But government actions and broader public policy also marginalize other groups of people, like the elderly or the disabled.

Why and how we marginalize other people: everyday examples

Our societies marginalize people by making it more difficult to access things like good schools or hospitals, or to get a good-paying job or even exercise their right to vote. We marginalize groups by pushing them to live in areas without safe roads or public transport, as is the case with Roma communities in many parts of Europe, or by inadequate infrastructure to support access to public buildings by those with a disability.

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As mentioned, the LGBTQI+ community continues to struggle for the same rights as others. In Poland, for example, they are targeted with hate speech and persecution by government-friendly media outlets, and even scapegoated by the politicians to enhance their electoral prospects.

Our societies also marginalize ethnic groups, whether intentionally or through outdated policies and practices. Institutionalized discrimination in France and Belgium still marginalizes Black people and other minorities; Roma people are still marginalized by living in isolated communities in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, or through difficulty in accessing education in those countries as well as the Czech Republic and others.

Senior citizens are especially at risk of being marginalized. Their limited mobility and increased need of care create certain needs that strain even some well-intentioned governments. They, too, often live in segregated communities that increase their isolation and increase the difficulties they have in participating in everyday life or important events, like elections.

Our societies also marginalize people with disabilities, either through indifference to their plight or ignorance of the extent of the problem. But even in the wealthiest European countries, buildings may not be accessible for them or they may be marginalized by inadequate support, for example in following government debates or legal proceedings for those with visual or auditory impairment.

How do dominant groups marginalize others?

Living in a democracy means the people get to pick their leaders, those given the power to implement policies that shape our societies. But this also means that politicians are likely to be in some way representative of those who elected them. We see this not only in terms of ethnicity and gender, but also in things like religion and educational and socioeconomic background.

The more a person is “not like” their leaders, the less likely they are to have their voice heard. We see this quite clearly in minority groups. They are underrepresented in government and continue to face far more difficulty than others in finding stable jobs, accessing good health care, sending their children to good schools, or even taking public transport.

There are other examples of how dominant groups marginalize others that may seem more passive or less intentional. Neglect of public infrastructure or taxation or benefits policies can marginalize the disabled or poor people, for example. This is often caused by the fact that they struggle to have their issues heard and are overlooked by governments.

Women are another example – for far too long, and still today, both political and social culture is dominated by men. This has marginalized women in many ways, for example by making it difficult to join the workforce or participate in elections. Thankfully, this is (slowly) changing, and women are taking a growing share of seats in houses of parliaments and at boardroom tables.

Why is it bad? How do we stop it?

Most of us want to live in a society where people are treated equally, have equal chances to succeed or stay healthy, and can live in safety and happiness. When we marginalize people or groups, we pull society further away from these things. We make it less equal, less just, and less enjoyable for everyone. Marginalization also slows advancement, cutting off the free flow of ideas that could prove immensely beneficial to society as a whole.

There are several ways we can stop the marginalization. At the top, governments need to do a better job of considering the needs of all people, not just those who support them. This means policies that are fair, but also fair resource allocation and accessibility. Water and electricity, roads and public transport – it is necessary to improve practices and infrastructure, not only attitude.

Electoral systems must also be fair. The ease with which dominant groups can marginalize others is linked to the ease, or lack thereof, with which marginalized people can participate in elections. This means that they should have their voices heard in public debate before the election and have equal access to polling stations on election day. And, of course, this is tied to things like infrastructure, economic security and other issues related to marginalization.


Jelleke Vanooteghem, Raul Petri, Mohamed Lammah /Unsplash/Fauxels/Pexels
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