A Critique of the Concept of Social Exclusion and Its Utility for Australian Social Housing Policy

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper is based on the findings of a review undertaken for the Australian Housing Urban Research Institute (AHURI) that addresses the relevance of the concept of social exclusion for Australian social housing policy. The review was premised on the assumption that, because social exclusion is emerging as an important theme in Australian housing policy, it is worthy of greater exploration. In particular, the term social exclusion is frequently used to augment policy around the future of Australian public housing estates that are characterised by problematic housing, and concentrations of residents experiencing poverty, low incomes and high unemployment and crime rates (see, for instance, New South Wales Department of Housing, AHURI & Department of Family and Community Services 1999; Randolph &Judd 2000). In South Australia, the idea of addressing social exclusion was recently put into practice through the establishment of a Social Inclusion Unit by the incoming Rann Labor Government in 2002, with the stated priority areas of addressing homelessness and increasing education retention rates (Australian Labor Party 2002).

Nonetheless, despite this use of social exclusion in policy development, there is limited systematic analysis in Australia of the various meanings ascribed to social exclusion, the problems associated with the concept, or assessment of its applicability, specifically within the Australian context (Arthurson 2002). Conversely, the concept of social exclusion is well established in the UK and other parts of Europe, with a substantial analytical and critical literature available, which assesses its usefulness as a framework through which to view the issues of poverty and inequality. Thus, it is constructive to synthesise the lessons of the UK and European literature, in order to assess the value of social exclusion before it becomes firmly established in Australia. This task formed the basis of the current review.

In general terms, social exclusion is understood to denote a set of factors and processes that accentuate material and social deprivation. However, from the outset, a key point highlighted by this review was that any assessment of social exclusion needed to distinguish between its utility as an academic explanatory concept, to understand poverty and disadvantage, and its political deployment to justify new forms of policy intervention. Often a clear distinction between the two aspects is not discernable within the literature. Wherever possible, these two aspects are separated out within this paper but this distinction is not always clear-cut. The first part of the paper explores the way social exclusion is used by academics and how it is linked to housing. In the second section, its political deployment is examined. The final section draws together the findings to assess the utility of adopting social exclusion in the context of Australian social housing policy.

Academic Use of Social Exclusion

In considering the concept of social exclusion, academic discussions have sought to understand:

   1. the societal spheres or dimensions where social exclusion arises;
   and

   2. the range of causes and processes that lead to social deprivation
   and poverty and, in particular, the interrelationship between
   individual volition (agency) and wider social processes (structure).

These factors and their relationship to housing, where it is discernible, are discussed in turn.

The Different Societal Dimensions of Social Exclusion

In attempting to assess the value of social exclusion, some commentators (see for instance Madanipour 1998; de Haan 1999; Vobruba 2000) argue that the concept's usefulness lies in its emphasis on the different dimensions or realms of everyday life where inequalities arise. They also emphasise the importance of making links across these dimensions.

Sommerville (1998), for instance, identifies three dimensions of social exclusion: the economic, political and moral. …