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Social Exclusion: a metaphoric trap?

Moving beyond false dialogue (Part #1)


Paper for the European Continental Forum on Citizenship and Ways out of Social Apartheid (Paris 16-17 February 1995) on the initiative of Europe 99 and with the support of the Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Homme


There is little difficulty in agreeing with the individual suffering raised by the expression 'social exclusion' and the associated concerns. It is important however to recognize the nature of the metaphor through which these concerns are articulated and which may be responsible for the lack of real social progress on them -- despite a multitude of debates.

Exclusion as a mechanistic concept

'Exclusion', as with many communication-related expressions, is based on a very mechanistic understanding of human relations. As analyzed by Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors We Live By), it belongs to the same class as such polarities as 'In vs. Out', 'Up vs. Down', 'Forward vs. Backward'. Many such terms are used in the analysis of human and social development in order to identify desirable progress. Essentially it is based on the notion of a container or framework establishing a boundary. Some people (the 'haves') are then within this boundary, others (the 'have-nots') are outside it. To be 'in' is unquestionably associated with 'good' and the 'good life', just as to be 'out' is necessarily 'bad' and to be avoided.

Whilst this container observation may appear trivial, its effects on cognitive processes are not. As a generative root metaphor (following Donald Schon), it predisposes people to think in terms of mechanistic solutions to a problem which may call for quite different approaches. As an urban planner, Schon's classic example is a public policy approach that defines a slum area as a 'blight'. This medical metaphor then evokes and legitimates a surgical response which legitimates the excision of the slum with bulldozers. He pleads for alternative metaphors to counteract this tendency.

'Exclusion' has the obvious consequence of implying that some people are 'shut out', which is clearly totally unacceptable. However it tends to structure thinking in terms of obvious mechanistic responses such as how they should be 'let in'. Simplistic proposals invite simplistic counter-proposals. Furthermore the metaphor sets up a mind set that echoes the past tendencies to create fortified walled cities and monasteries to keep unwanted people out and to protect the privileged. The 'European fortress' is one possible consequence.

eople out and to protect the privileged. The 'European fortress' is one possible consequence.