By Preben Brandt, January 2016
Not for a second you should doubt that it is important knowing the entire life story of a human being in order to understands its circumstances of living. Therefore, the research forming the background of this SFI report is equally important.
The 300-page report presents very thorough and comprehensive research. The basic material is primarily register information, which analysed and thoroughly presented in tables and text. The result is a report, full of details and filled with figures and analyses and thus quite time-consuming reading. But once you have read it, you can return and find valuable knowledge about a large number of various aspects concerning the connection between family background and social marginalization.
While I was reading the report, I had a number of thoughts based on various deliberations in the text and thus a number of critical deliberations which I find relevant discussing in this brief text.
Understanding and extent of socially marginalized persons
The report gives the reader an impression of the concepts of social exclusion and social vulnerable having basis in research and finding their forms during the first decade of the 21st century.
However, the context of socially vulnerable was already an active part of the professional and political thinking without being evident from the report. I understand that natural science, also non-scientific, strives to be empirical consisting of “strong” data rather than data consisting of estimates and uneven empiric material. However, the thought occurs to me that such an absolutely clear-cut boundary is not an unfortunate, and often insurmountable, barrier between research and practice?
It is interesting that the researchers behind the SFI report estimate the number of socially vulnerable. It is estimated that approximately 120,000 persons within the past five years have been part of one of the marginalized groups of the survey, corresponding to just under 3 percent of all adults.
In 2002, the newly instated government appointed Rådet for Socialt Udsatte (Council for Social Vulnerable) as a result of the public and professional debate on social exclusion. The council immediately set about understanding who would be part of the group of socially vulnerable and reached the conclusion not far from the one used in the survey. And our estimation of the extent was that it was about 3 percent of all adults.
The Term Marginalization
The report says about marginalization of vulnerable groups that “socially marginalization typically emanates from an individual with social and mental issues in many areas of life” (p. 9). The report assumes mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, homelessness and crime as problem areas.
Thus the basis of an inlet approach consisting of variables at individual level has been created. The result is an analysis which cannot measure the importance of structual factors as is the nature of things.
Even if chapter 2 explains the importance of the interaction of structural, systemic, interpersonal and individual factors of social marginalization, the tale of the marginalization of vulnerable groups is closely connected to individual conditions is to me, after finishing the reading, the strongest statement.
There are many ways to interprete marginalization. In the mid 80’s we talked about socially excluded people, thus emphasising that we were the excluding. At the time, I spoke about understanding the people excluded as “those that we do not like” and saw an important part of the issue of excluding some citizens as a sign of the ordinary citizens, and thus the politicians, chosing one or more certain conditions of behaviour or ways of life as socially negative, despicable or fear-inspiring. You turned against these citizens with a negative approach, so to speak. A good example of the importance of public rhetoric when it comes to exclusion is the way we relate to illegal substance abusers. In the latter part of the 90s, these were the most discriminated part of the population. They were blamed of almost all accidents and crimes, and society was ready to isolate them, forced them into treatment or letting them die by injection if they did not choose to become clean. The way of speaking about drug addicts and relating to them as human beings has changed substantially into a much more understanding and non-excluding attitude since that period.
You could try understanding vulnerability and marginalization from a psychoanalytic discourse as described by the Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller (Banished Knowledge; Alice Miller, 1988 (in Danish: 1989): ”Most people have not the slightest interest in the question why a child has become like this or that. When you point out the reasons, the brutality of the father, the inner absorbtion of the mother, they say that it is no excuse for steeling. Everybody has had a rough patch in their childhood and have not become criminals for that reason. That the reason for this diverse development is in the degree of attention, the individual has received, does not interest them. Everybody will strive to disciplin these individuals, to give them something positive, but nobody wants to know the tragedy in their life.”
The report shows that socially vulnerable people have parental background from all levels of society. As far as homeless are concerned, we have known for a long time that socially vulnerable people do not stem from one special social group. My thesis from 1992 about young homeless shows a distribution of parent’s social class more or less as in the population as a whole. The description of the childhood conditions rendered by the people interviewed in my thesis shows in all plainness that it is those, emotionally let down that risk socially exclusion. It has nothing to do with the social class of the parents but much more the care they have known.
This brings me to the question of social inheritance which the report revolves a number of times. According to Morten Ejrnæs, you want to redress the issue of social inheritance and substitute this concept with the concept of inequality of opportunity which is found to be working stronger, both theoretically and empirically, in connection with describing the differences in risk factors and life opportunities connected with different family backgrounds.
The objection against the concept of social inheritance that seems to preoccupy the arguments of the writers the most, is that it is not a question of absolute transferral of issues from generation to generation. It is stated that “even though there is a higher risk of social marginalization of young people from families, where the parents have social and mental issues, an important – and positive – result of the study is that many young people from these families, in spite of the family’s issues, do not show any sign of social marginalization later in life and many get an education and a job.”
Whether an inheritence is legal, social or biological, it is very, very seldom something absolute. You know. e.g. from studies of twins that mental illness heritance is genetically determined. However, only a limited percentage of children with a mentally ill parent will have mental illness compared to children of parents, who are not mentally ill.
The discussion of heritance repeatedly raised by the report partly completely disregards the classical genetic inheritance in connection with the fact that special behaviour is inherited from generation to generation and partly the latest research on epi-genetic inheritance where the structure of the gene is not of vital importance but instead a learned reading of the gene transferred from generation to generation without changing the gene.
The extent of social marginalisation may be perceived as minor by some. However, 3 out of 100 adults is not a small number and action is demanded.
It must be prevented so that fewer will grow into socially marginalized adults. Consequently, individual preventive measures must be initiated.
In addition, social and formal exclusion mecanisms must be identified and minimised to the largest possible extent.
For those, where prevention has not worked, it is important to understand that a childhood without love and care seldomly can be replaced later in life.