The idea of social exclusion has assumed a core position in current policy and social science debates in Britain with an almost astonishing rapidity. New Labour, the Economic and Social Research Council, many trusts and foundations, as well as an array of politically and policy-oriented academics, have embraced this idea with enthusiasm. The reasons for the now virtually ubiquitous spread of the term are complex. However, the degree to which "social exclusion" can variously be used both to incorporate and extend far more traditional arguments, for example, about social inequality, poverty and citizenship, has proved especially germane to its deployment. Not least, it appears to escape imprisonment from the constraints of a mountain of politically unrequited previous work. David Byrne's contextualisation of the idea goes some way to explain its construction, its roots and its possibilities. In particular, the term appears to allow the flexibility to construct a new agenda and a new politics, centred on some old and, one might legitimately suggest, hitherto intractable political and social issues, as well as around some burgeoning new ones.
Byrne sets his analysis in what he indicates to be a major shift of kind, rather than just of degree, in the rapidly changing dynamics of post-industrial society. He puts forward the view that a new and very problematic order has arisen through the congruent interface of economic and, more controversially, social policies in the postwar period.
Through this process, the "excluded many, the 'at-risk' most, and the excluding few" have been created. In this setting, left-of-centre, well-intentioned and politically enthusiastic assaults on structural inequalities and their effects often miss their mark. Right-of-centre, "blaming the victim" characterisations of such inequalities and their consequences are, in Byrne's terms, wrong, misguided and occasionally malevolent. Byrne draws innovatively on chaos/complexity theory to analyse the configuration of the new order and to suggest alternative ways forward. A glimmer of potential redress to current problems is seen in a focus on the collective actions and roles of "excluders", to counter-balance much previous work on the actions and roles of "the excluded".
Byrne's book is, he explicitly argues, a leftwing and partisan account of how the idea of social exclusion can be related to a raft of analyses of social inequities of many kinds. It can also be used as a springboard for future ways of remedying those inequities. Emphasising the multidimensional, processual, spatial and cultural as well as economic elements of social exclusion, the first part of the book is a substantial and scholarly review of previous and current related analyses. In the second part, Byrne develops his own diagnosis of post-industrial society and indicates how these issues might be addressed. Paradoxically, precisely because the text is partisan and, at the same time, knowledgably and informatively contextualised, it affords readers in the political and social science arenas an opportunity to get to the heart of debates that otherwise run the risk of being largely froth and spin.
Ian Robinson is reader in sociology, Brunel University.
Author - David Byrne
ISBN - 0 335 19975 5 and 19974 7
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 158