Social exclusion

Joanna Mack

Many of the approaches to poverty explored in other sections within ‘Definitions of poverty’ incorporate within them aspects of social exclusion. The definition of ‘overall poverty’ adopted by the United Nations talks of ‘social discrimination and exclusion’ and of ‘lack of participation in decision-making civil, social and cultural life’. Elements of social exclusion are an integral part of Townsend’s conception of poverty (see Deprivation and poverty), and the original Breadline Britain and subsequent PSE surveys (see Consensual method) incorporated aspects of social exclusion within the concept of necessities (such as ‘celebrations on special occasions’ or ‘a hobby or leisure activity’). However, poverty emphasises material as well as social deprivation, while social exclusion forefronts a person or a group’s ability to participate in social, economic, political and cultural life and their relationships with others. And while poverty has a profound effect on some, though not all, of these aspects of social exclusion, there are other important causal factors of social exclusion such as age, disability, ethnicity, gender and employment status. 

Based on a comprehensive review of the literature in 2007, Levitas et al. (in their report The Multi-dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion for the last government’s social exclusion task force) take as their working definition of social exclusion:

Social exclusion is a complex and multi-dimensional process. It involves the lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people in a society, whether in economic, social, cultural or political arenas. It affects both the quality of life of individuals and the equity and cohesion of society as a whole.

To further this concept, a matrix of domains and topic areas was constructed looking across four stages of the life course: childhood, youth, working-age adulthood and later life. This matrix, the Bristol Social Exclusion Matrix, or B-SEM, contains three domains of potential importance in social exclusion under which there are ten sub-domains:


Material/economic resources


Access to public and private services


Social resources


Economic participation


Social participation


Culture, education and skills


Political and civic participation

Quality of life:

Health and well-being


Living environment


Crime, harm and criminalisation

This definition has the advantage of not narrowly limiting the causal processes at work in social exclusion or the factors that affect life chances. These are open to empirical investigation.

While the B-SEM identifies the appropriate domains of investigation, estimating or tracking social exclusion depends on the prior understanding of the causal relationship between domains and there is potential complexity in interactions between these domains. With the present state of knowledge and data available, it is not known how the domains interact and it is risky to identify which of the domains have greater or lesser importance.

The current PSE: UK research project is developing this approach further by separating out cultural resources as a separate domain and including more measures of life satisfaction, personal development and self-esteem within the ‘health and well-being’ sub-domain.

In the last ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion survey’ in 1999, the indicators of the extent of social relations and an ability to participate in society that had been covered in the Breadline Britain surveys were extended to widen the investigation. Levels of social participation were found to be affected by age, gender, household type and employment status as well as poverty. Of all those variables, poverty had the strongest negative effect on social relationships.

In ‘The concept and measurement of social exclusion’ (2006), Ruth Levitas discusses the development of definitions and indicators of social exclusion in the UK and the European Union and the development of these indicators in the 1999 PSE survey.


Levitas, R. (2006) ‘The concept and measurement of social exclusion’ in Pantazis, C., Gordon, D. and Levitas, R. Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Bristol, Policy Press.
Levitas, R., Pantazis, C., Fahmy, E., Gordon, D., Lloyd, E. and Patsios, D. (2007) The Multi-dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion, London, Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG); also available online at (accessed 3 January 2012).


Last updated: 21 January, 2016

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