. MARGINAL DISTURBANCES
Ann K. Lincoln
B.B.A., University of Michigan, 1965
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
Department of Humanities
This thesis for the Master of Humanities degree by-
Ann K. Lincoln
has been approved for the
Craig R. Janes
Lincoln, Ann K. (Master of Humanities)
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Mark A. Clarke
Social concern with the problem of marginality often
focuses on devising ways of coping with or correcting those who
fail to fit in, who lie outside the mainstream. Perceived as a
deficiency that disqualifies, marginality offers both explanation
and justification for partial exclusion. The analysis undertaken
here focuses on the processes, circumstances, and implications of
marginalization. Marginality is explained as a relationship that
shapes and is shaped by social interaction. It is an unstable and
shifting concept in respect to the ideas, behaviors, and traits to
which it is attached, consistent only in indicating that which
deviates from standard. As such, instances of perceived marginal-
ity can serve to illuminate assumed standards and standard assump-
tions and make them available for scrutiny. It is suggested that
the very process of marginalization typically serves to prevent
this scrutiny because it insulates prevailing standards and prac-
tices from the realization that the lack of fit between the normal
and marginal in society is reciprocal.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend
Faculty member in charge of thesis
I. INTRODUCTION.............................................. 1
Theoretical Framework.................................. 6
Scope and Arrangement................................... 7
II. THE MEANING OF MARGINAL ITY.............................. 10
Social Marginality..................................... 11
Limiting Constraints................................... 13
Enabling Constraints................................... 16
III. MARGINAL IDEAS........................................... 17
Standard Science: Science as the Standard.............. 18
Marginal Science: Probing the Proof............... 21
Ideas in Practice...................................... 24
IV. LEARNING MARGINALITY..................................... 28
Deviating from Standard................................ 29
Marginalizing through Ethnicization.................... 30
Biological Causation: Learning Disabilities............ 35
Peripheral Learning: Learning the Periphery........... 38
V. STANDARD DISTURBANCES................................. 41
Marginalization: Constructing Peripheries............ 42
Disturbing Standards................................ 45
Mastering Marginality................................ 46
"Alas," he said, "nothing is that simple. Science does not
give us a clear enough concept of what man is. That is natural
If, for instance, science defined man as a creature with two
arms and two eyes, then certain elements of the population who
have only one arm or no arms at all would find themselves in a
Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, excerpt from Tale of
the Troika (1976)
Being marginal is a tenuous position. It is based on dif-
ference. It indicates lack of fit. It implies the need for cor-
rection. It is a position that all of us find ourselves in at one
time or another, for one reason or another.
As an interdisciplinary student participating in classes in
a variety of academic disciplines, I have often felt marginal
(somewhat outside) in the situation and marginal (less qualified)
to the task due to lack of background knowledge of the subject
(jargon, subject focus, basic facts and and concepts) shared by
others in the class specializing in the field.
Right off the bat in a new disciplinary realm there is spe-
cialized vocabulary to be dealt with. New terms (terms new to me)
appear and must be made sense of. A less immediately apparent but
more sizeable and less seizable hurdle is specialized vocabulary in
the sense of specialized meaning, as terms used in one field take
on different senses or more restricted or comprehensive meanings
in others. Because this type of not understanding involves misun-
derstanding, it is less easy to discover. The unfamiliar recog-
nized as such can be rather easily added on; defamiliarizing the
familiar requires recognition and revision in addition to addition.
Obtaining a grasp of the conceptual framework that sets the
subject of study and guides the study of the subject presents simi-
lar difficulties of discovery, revision, and addition. Explicit
attempts that I have made early in a term to establish the operat-
ing framework of presuppositions and procedures have been less than
successful. My (variously phrased,) question, "What is taken to be
axiomatic here?", commonly elicits an emphatic "Nothing!", followed
by enumeration of the diversity of approaches and the many issues
in a state of dispute and debate within the field.
Evidence to the contrary--indications of a fundamental
shared framework--usually appears, however. I become aware of this
when an utterance of some insight newfound to me is greeted with,
"Of course X, but ..." (and then on to the important questions),
or when the lack of working within some general set of assumptions
is indicated by a comment such as "I think we can all assume
that. . "
Failure to share shared meanings, assumptions, concepts,
and subject focus places one outside the main body, on the margins.
It hinders common understanding; it restricts participation.
Through experience I have learned not to be too disturbed
by initial confusions and uncertainties. Jargon can be picked up;
facts, learned; restricted meanings, discovered. This helps. And,
along the way, both intradisciplinary disputes and relative disci-
plinary focus become classifiable in recognizable ways that cut
I try not to be too disturbing to the class as I add and
rearrange and attempt to sort this all out. But as I do so, in so
doing, I remain somewhat outside, a bit detached from the core of
the subject and the core of the class. As I perceive my engagement
in the (particular) discipline as partial and my marginal status as
situational and temporary, my lack of fit is only marginally dis-
As a topic, "marginal disturbances" can be alternatively
interpreted as indicating disturbances emanating from the margin
(the border, the periphery) or disturbances that are only margi-
nally (less than significantly, not deeply) disturbing. In prac-
tice the alternative interpretations tend to merge, and it becomes
difficult to separate one sense from another. That which lies out-
side immediate focus is peripheral and, so perceived, is granted
only peripheral significance and peripheral consideration. It is
not fully engaged and does not fully engage.
Perceptions of marginality are only marginally disturbing
(i.e., not disruptive to existing premises, practices, and social
relations) as, and to the extent that, circumstances permit the
difference focused upon by the classification to be easily accommo-
dated by way of (1) imposed exclusion from a context (as failing to
fit) or (2) self-exclusion from contexts (in which lack of fit is
Marginality involves the informal logic of nonengagement.
This is disturbing to the extent that it constrains the range of
acceptable differences and creates the conditions for differences
(in values, competencies, practices, etc.) to become disturbing.
The excluding aspect of ascribed marginal status is prob-
lematic in societies and in social institutions where the reality
of exclusion of ideas and people contradicts the rhetoric of inclu-
sion. To the extent that problematic marginality is tackled, this
often involves devising means to treat the condition that is
excluded rather than the conditions of exclusion.
Viewed from a center (mainstream) position, marginality is
understood in terms of accepted standards and, so understood, is
explained and addressed with an eye to containment:
When are we going to wake up to the fact that immigrants
have a responsibility to adapt and "fit in" to the existing
society? When I came to this country, I quickly learned to stop
talking about the way we did things "over 'ome" . (letter
to the editor, The Globe and Mail 18 March 1989).
. . various forms of epistemological skepticism ought
[not] be entirely deprived of institutional legitimacy but
rather . they must by their very nature remain peripheral
or marginal, encompassed within the wider allegiance to science
as value (Sangren 1988:423).
A common trait among children with learning problems is
difficulty in paying attention to what is important (Osman
But from the margins, demands of settings that are per-
ceived to be of peripheral importance need not be complied with or
conformed to--either the demands of the setting or the setting in
which the demands are made can be avoided and the avoidance justi-
fied by redefining the center (and sealing off as peripheral evi-
dence to the contrary in the extended environment):
. . the world that made science, and that science made,
has disappeared, and scientific thought is now an archaic mode
of consciousness (Tyler 1986:123).
I don't need no diploma to open a store. Like I said, if
you know how to do something, you do it. If you don't, you
don't (testimony of a high school dropout quoted in MacLeod
There are many vantage points operating within society from
which it is (variously) interpreted. From peripheralized posi-
tions, people create their own centers and margins. As centers and
margins are variably perceived, nonengagement is reciprocated.
Marginality is not a simple matter. It is relational and
situational. It involves interpersonal relations within a particu-
lar setting, personal interpretation of relation to the setting,
the relating of different settings.
Designating as marginal is one way of responding to and
managing encountered social complexity and diversity. Understand-
ing the set of norms that predominates as one of many possible and
as one of many actually in operation opens established standards
and standard procedures as well as deviations from standard to the
consideration of revision to achieve a better fit.
In keeping with the subject of consideration, a relational
perspective is adopted. Interrelated ideas from the following
areas are drawn upon: (1) culture theory--man as shaped by, and
shaper of, the human environment (Douglas 1982; Geertz 1973; Wagner
1981, 1986), (2) information theory--rules operate simultaneously
to constrain possiblities and permit diversity (Campbell 1982), (3)
systems' theory--focus on interactions, relations, and levels of
relations (Bateson 1972), and (4) context theory--distinction
between open and closed systems, context as a necessary part of
explanation of open systems (Wilden 1980, 1987).
The concept of culture indicates agreement arising from
shared experiences and shared understandings of experience. It
takes a plural form (cultures) in recognition of, and/or as a way
of explaining, human diversity within the larger idea of species
similarity. It is subject to subdivision (subcultures) in acknowl-
edgment of, and/or as a way of explaining, both shared and unshared
experiences and understandings within a perceived cultural whole,
an encompassing social system.
Geertz (1973) promotes a view of culture as context in
which social events, institutions, and processes can be explained,
rather than a force to which these phenomena can be causally attri-
buted. Analyzing contexts and effects, Wilden (1980) suggests
that questions of boundaries and different systems are not matters
of objective fact, but always "the result of a definition made by
some subsystem in the wider ecosystem" (p. 159).
Bateson (1972:429) asserts that people (as systems), and
systems of people are self-corrective against disturbance to their
premises. Information that might disturb premises can be framed in
such a way that it doesn't cause a disturbance. In the same vein
Douglas (1966:36-37) suggests that "uncomfortable facts that refuse
to be fitted in" with established assumptions tend to be distorted
Definitions are made, premises are learned, assumptions are
established, and cultural and subcultural understandings are formed
by people as they interact in varying contexts. That which consti-
tutes a disturbance because it cannot be comfortably fit in is sub-
ject to ongoing redefinition as interaction shapes experience, as
experience shapes beliefs, and as ideas give shape to experience.
Working within this framework suggests a redefinition of
the "problem" of marginality as residing not in the differences so
designated but in the prevailing premises and practices that give
rise to the perception and the circumstances of interaction that
permit ongoing validation of the perception.
Scope and Arrangement
Marginality goes by different names. Before considering
specific instances of the perception and management of marginality
--and as a way of defining them as such--I first consider the
implications of the concept in the abstract (Chapter II).
Abstracted from the particular, devoid of content, what does the
concept of marginality describe? What defines it? What does mar-
ginality imply as it is interpreted in the immediate context? As
it is considered from a wider perspective and over a longer term?
Specific instances of perceived and managed marginality in
the context of contemporary North American society follow. Margi-
nal ideas and marginal learners commonly constitute and create dis-
turbances to established orderings of the settings in which they
are classified as such. Chapter III considers marginal ideas as
evolving from and discredited by a dominant belief system. Chapter
IV focuses on marginal learners as a problem created by and con-
fronted in the school system as it operates within and as part of a
larger social system. As examples of differences encountered as
diversity to be countered, they suggest that various ideas of
what is important, right, and necessary are commonly (by all par-
ticipants) and collectively (as systems' units interact) being
defended against the threat of disturbance.
The final section offers a summary, critical look at the
process and consequences of marginalization of differences. Assign-
ment to the periphery permits differences encountered that disturb
ideas of "what is" or "should be" to be included by way of exclu-
sion, denying their relevance and denying them representation. To
the extent that deviations from standard are encountered as disrup-
tive and undesirable and are so managed, prevailing standards
reflected in and shaped by practices in public institutions remain
impervious to evidence that might provoke revision.
An understanding of the socially real fact of being margi-
nal as a matter less of substance than of classification that
effectively constrains the range of acceptable differences provides
an additional perspective from which to view the category, its
inhabitants, and the viability and desirability of current proce-
dures for managing marginality.
THE MEANING OF MARGINALITY:
DEFINING THE CONCEPT, SETTING THE CONTEXT
. . for all its beauty, a distinct concept always means
a shrinkage of meaning, cutting off loose ends. While the
loose ends are what matter most in the phenomenal world, for
Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One (1986)
Nothing has meaning "in isolation." The problem is always,
what kind of context?
Talal Asad, "The Concept of Cultural Translation" (1986)
Margins of the concrete type are visible, identifiable, and
measurable. They define the core they are perceived to surround
and set the outside limit of the whole of which they are. a differ-
entiated part. The perception of a margin, a border area, entails
the conception of a totality and, within the whole, an area more
central, in position and, most often, importance.
Margin notes find their way onto the border area for a rea-
son. They are available for perusal but are separated from the
main body in order not to unnecessarily complicate or disrupt the
orderly flow. Their content is considered--in the judgment of the
person assigning them to their position--relevant but less rele-
vant peripheral to the main text. Positioning on the margins sig-
nals this relationship. It is a position defined by the positioner
and related to the position taken. On the margins can be found
information that strengthens the argument only by being related as
peripheral (e.g., "I do not wish to imply. . . . However, for the
purposes of this essay's argument" (Sangren 1988:405n)).
"Marginality" employed as a social category retains the
features and functions of more concrete margins while it personal-
izes the implications. It requires the perception of a segmented
totality, a social whole differentiated within. It signifies a
position on the borders, outside of the main body, and this is
related to being in some way distinguishable from the social core.
Social marginality, however, adds and emphasizes a different dimen-
sion of difference to the relation. It indicates being, (as def-
ined in Webster's) "close to the lower limit of qualification,
acceptability or function." This introduces the idea of substan-
dardness, and it suggests a common standard, a social norm. A mea-
sure is there; people and things are held up to it and evaluated
accordingly, as more or less qualified, more or less acceptable,
more or less functional.
As a social classification "marginal" is not a neutral
designation. It is a label that discredits and disqualifies that
which it categorizes as failing to adequately to meet the measure
or conform to the norm. It indicates a complex mix of partial
inclusion and partial exclusion. That which is (a) excluded for
failing to conform to the norm is (b) included in being held to
evaluation according to the norm, but (c) excluded from the sphere
of defining the norm.
To the extent a norm or measure is accepted as given,
requiring no outside validation or justification, it is self-
validating. That which is perceived to be marginal (outside the
center, distinguishable in some way from the social mainstream) is
marginal (less qualified, less acceptable, less functional).
The social core, the mainstream that simultaneously con-
forms to and acts as the general standard, is a problematic con-
cept. It is not uniform; it accommodates many differences. It is
not static. It is difficult to pinpoint. Questioning the idea of
a "superculture" and his own use of the terms "mainstream" and
"dominant," Hannerz (1980:293-294) warns that "once we start
scratching on the surface of what is supposedly the dominant cul-
ture, we often have to report back that it dissolved in front of
our eyes, turning again into a number of smaller and subtly inter-
linked units." The linkage is not all internal. "Marginal" serves
as the counterpoised classification that sets off the mainstream as
it is set off from it. The two concepts are contrasting and com-
plementary. What is excluded by one is included in the other. The
point of reference, the difference, lies between.
Difference is not an attribute. It is not localizable, not
in things (Bateson 1972). Marginality does not reside in people
or ideas. It is ascribed to that which fails to meet a measure or
conform to a norm. Measures are meaningful only as applied. Norms
evolve as ideas of what is right or necessary. Ideas about one
constrain ideas about the other (Frankel 1979), and both are def-
ined in context.
Particular qualities are not marginal per se. A social
context is required before they can be so perceived. That which
"fits in" because it is fit in becomes representative and falls in
the category of mainstream. That which does not, because it is
not, is marginal.
Limiting Constraints: Contexts. Aspects. Classes
There are always many aspects to consider in social situa-
tions. Contexts vary, are variably (individually and collectively)
perceived, and are open to variable interpretation as different
aspects are focused upon, differently grouped, and variously con-
Aspect is a cautionary concept. It acknowledges multiple
vantage points and the possibility that any one may offer a
restricted, incomplete, and possibly distorting view. From a
particular vantage point, as particular aspects are abstracted out
as objects of focus, other aspects are necessarily excluded from
active consideration. Consideration of aspect acknowledges the
possibility of something missing from sight or consideration or
both. But this needs reminding.
A casual discussion of aspects of life in our adopted city
(Toronto) with some fellow transplants to Canada turned to the high
incidence of traffic accidents and the related problem of high
insurance rates in our adopted city. One in the group remarked:
"You know, we are frequently seen as the cause." When I (a recent
arrival from the U.S.) asked why "we" were a cause, she (an offi-
cially permanent resident from Hong Kong with twelve years of resi-
dency) replied, "Oh, I don't mean you. I mean . . uh, Asians."
"We" can be inclusive or exclusive. Its meaning shifts
as different aspects of a situation are focused upon.
During a week spent with my family in a fairly isolated
village in the mountains of eastern Czechoslovakia, the inhabitants
of the area singled my son from Korea out of our group (two adults,
two adolescents) as an object of special curiosity. Adults merely
stared in passing, but groups of children clustered around and
pressed up against him all the while noisily chattering among them-
selves and wearing expressions of bewilderment.
He was devastated by all the attention. We explained that
perhaps this was the local residents' first face-to-face encounter
with someone Oriental (physical) features. This didn't help. He
withdrew. He was reluctant to leave the hotel, avoided the town
whenever possible, and was visibly relieved when we left the area.
Once home, he recounted the unwanted attention he had
received to a friend who shared his age, self-consciousness, and
braces. The friend responded to his tale, after a moment's hesita-
tion, with great empathy: "Oh yeah . .cause of your braces!" A
good point. This was an aspect of the situation we hadn't consid-
ered, another way in which he differed visibly from the rest of us
and the rest of them. An adolescent with teeth bound in metal does
not occasion much comment in our home setting. But braces were as
absent from the area in which he was remarkable as Orientals.
Full pictures are composed by generalizing from one aspect
and/or by collecting and integrating different aspects. Reminders
of limited vision, the existence of aspects unconsidered, intro-
duces uncertainty into all explanations. Aspect, as a limited,
partial view is easy to know about in the abstract. It is less
easy to be aware of and consider in practice as situations are
assessed, classified, and explained.
Szasz (1961:43) cautions that "since all systems of clas-
sification are made by people, it is necessary to be aware of who
has made the rules and for what purpose. If this precaution is not
taken there is the risk ... of mistaking the product of classifi-
cation for 'naturally occurring facts or things.'" Marginal char-
acteristics are products of classification rather than naturally
occurring facts or things. But it is not necessary to assign sin-
ister motives to the classifiers. The question is not who draws
the line around what fits in and what does not (we all do, individ-
ually and collectively, and within constraints, variably) but
rather the conditions that constrain the range of the category and
the implications of more or less constricted ranges both for indi-
viduals and for the societies they comprise.
A perception of marginality indicates that a standard is in
place and a norm is in operation. Marginality, as deviation from
the norm, calls for correction. Marginality, as deviation from a
norm, allows room for consideration of the norm as well as the
Campbell (1982) and Wilden (1987) suggest that the negative
(that is, limiting) character of constraints has the positive
result of defining relative freedom. Social rules constrain, but
they show variation. Order has value because it enables the cre-
ation of new forms out of old forms. Constraints that limit possi-
bilities also demonstrate possiblities and permit complexity, div-
ersity, and choice.
Another sense of the word "margin" supplied by Webster's.
"a factor or group of factors making for ample scope or personal
choice in proceeding freely," captures this aspect. In theory we
view such choice positively. We demand and assume such scope and
choice under such terms as "liberty" and "freedom." In practice, in
public institutions, in academic debates, in classrooms, "factors
making for ample scope or personal choice in proceeding freely"
tend to be problematized as disruptive to order and to orderly pro-
Within constraints, individuals are construing agents.
But as subjective judgments gain collective strength, they tend to
become accepted social facts. "I (we) do not respect" institution-
alized as "is not accepted (by us)" becomes "is not acceptable or
qualified." As the construing agent is obscured in the process,
the risk of mistaking the product of classification for a "naturally
occurring fact or thing" increases.
MARGINAL IDEAS: REINTERPRETING THE CONTEXT
All things must be crossed a little or they cease to live.
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (1903)
. . unless uncertainty exists first, there can be no
Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man (1982)
Divorced from the particular, marginal ideas share only the
neutral characteristic of lying outside the mainstream of current
thought. At any given time the specific content of ideas that find
their way into the marginal category varies, with the culture, with
the social context. Over time ideas change. A number of factors
or combinations of factors may provoke change.
The intrusion of evidence that does not fit can act as an
impetus to a change of the collective mind. Peripheral consider-
ations may gain greater consideration as gaps that need to be cov-
ered are discovered. Ideas from the margin can introduce noise
into the system by pointing to areas not included in existing
orderings. Ideas lying on the margins can provide missing informa-
tion when this is sought. Historically considered, ideas marginal
at one time (in credibility or in relevance) have, over time,
served to indicate gaps and to suggest ways of filling them. They
are part of an ongoing ordering and reordering that is part of
individual life histories and the histories of societies.
But within a particular location of time and place, as
ideas are perceived to be marginal, the contingent nature of the
classification is obscured. Instead, marginal ideas become margi-
nal because they are considered less valid. And deviations from
conventional thought, to the extent that they gain attention and
demand understanding, are understood with an eye to containment.
They pose the threat of disorder, of internal disturbance, to the
system of the believers as well as to their belief system. Douglas
(1966:121) suggests both the reality and the nature of the threat:
"all margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that
the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of
ideas is vulnerable at its margins." For beliefs to remain believ-
able to those who hold them, other interpretations must be kept
Of course, and fundamentally, "without the true doctrine
there would be no heresy at all" (Watzlawick 1984:220) and nothing
in danger of being endangered. But without collective standards,
there would be no collective criteria, and without a point of ref-
erence, nothing to refer to and little intelligibility. Orthodoxy
and heresy work in tandem to create each other.
Standard Science: Science as the Standard
To the extent that a "true doctrine" is felt to exist
today, the authority of science claims center stage as the standard
against which the validity of various opinions, contradictory
assertions, and disparate views might be judged and arbitrated.
Overriding validity is claimed for that which has been scientifi-
cally determined and, conversely, scientific research is undertaken
to produce valid claims to resolve areas of uncertainty.
"Studies have indicated . . ."is both a textbook phrase
and conversational device to offer proof of the rightness of one
view or set of facts over another. But this can (in many cases) be
countered or tempered with, "other studies have shown ..."
Science provides an uncertain standard.
It is also a confusing term. It lacks an unambiguous ref-
erent. It does fairly clearly and quite generally refer to study
of a systematic rather than haphazard type. But it equally refers
to the products of such study and to the study itself. Science as
a method--involving the steps of (1) problem definition, (2) data
collection, (3) hypothesis formulation, and (4) hypothesis verifi-
cation- -encompasses both probing and proving. In practice (as for-
mally practiced in research institutions and as put into practice
outside) the steps are not so distinct, the sequence, not so cer-
tain. Data collection is not a random activity. What is probed
depends on what is proved; what is proved depends on what is
probed. Problems are differently defined.
Both the context to be considered and its interpretation
are affected by the social context in which the consideration and
interpretation takes place. There is much room for variation here.
Reinterpretation of the relevant context frequently engenders a
reinterpretation of the order within.
And there are different aspects of the standard, many stan-
dards within the standard of science. That which ties them
together is the appeal to science as the operating standard and the
appeal of science as a valued human endeavor. These appeals are in
turn derivative. They are not self-explanatory. As Frankel
(1986:358) muses: "All the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology--
taken together or separately--cannot explain or predict the
existence (much less the motivations) of physicists, chemists, or
As it aims and claims to clarify the confused and to sim-
plify the apparently complex by way of rigor and objectivity,
scientific activity is, presumably, triggered equally by an uncer-
tainty to be resolved and certainty as to how to resolve. Szasz
(1961:217n) suggests as a general rule that "scientific behavior
is motivated by the prospect of intellectual, emotional, technolog-
ical, and other forms of mastery and the enjoyment inherent in such
mastery." This offers an explanation of the aim, but it assumes
the claim as self-evident. And it sets up an opposition. A sense
of mastery once obtained does not engender continuing inquiry.
Science as an ongoing process of "extracting . explana-
tory order from the previously disordered, diverse, or seemingly
unique" (Jarvie 1988:428) requires both the perception of disorder,
diversity or particularity and their engagement. As a process it
works against the stability of its own products--both the imper-
sonal "facts" of order previously (and authoritatively) established
through systematic study and the sense of mastery inherent in so
viewing. A belief in the process as capable of producing the prod-
uct (some sort of mastery) may motivate the activity, but, once
produced, this product removes the impetus to the process.
In theory, and over a wide enough span of time, science
does appear open-ended and ever probing. As today's discovery
shows yesterday's scientific truths to be partial and provisional,
scientific statements appear, retrospectively, as hypotheses or
tentative theories subject to an ongoing process of proof, dis-
proof, or improvement (modification).
But at any given moment, a reminder of, or and emphasis on,
the provisionality or the contingency of scientific statements
undermines the prospect or sense of mastery (to be) gained by
investigating. The product, once proved, inhibits further probing
of the area, while the validity of the procedure, and its general
applicability, is implicitly assumed. Questions remain outside,
discredited by the standard--peripheral, marginal.
Marginal Science: Probing the Proof
In the introduction to a collection of essays that address
the issue of the marginal status of the social sciences as science,
the editors suggest a contributory factor: "social science general-
izations are not very general" (Fiske and Shweder 1986:4). The
various findings of the social sciences are criticized (from within
and without) for their variability. They are scientfically suspect
because they do not appear to be widely generalizable or free of
the bias of their formulators.
Context-dependent formulations are less than acceptable,
if universal laws constitute the operating standard of measure.
Subjectivity is marginal when generalizability is the aim. State-
ments of recursiveness and multiple causality are less than satis-
factory, if findings of simple causality are the goal. But from
the margins it is the use of these standards to define the general
standard of science that is suspect. Simple causality, neutral
objectivity, and universality form a disturbing subset of stan-
dards, if the objects of systematic study are viewed as complex,
There is value in the debate, both in the content intro-
duced (additional aspects to consider) and beyond. To the extent
that the challenge from the margins is engaged, it becomes part of
the discourse and transforms it in a way that brings the rules, the
standards, and the practices in use to the foreground.
Accusations of "marginal science" (for claims rejected as
arising from the practice of "bad science" or for those that are
rejected from serious consideration as "nonscience") act to set off
and define what is assumed for the dominant standard. Counter
charges of scientism ("absorption in context-free method" (Rabinow
and Sullivan 1979:14)) or scientific reductionism (complexity
obscured) leveled by those whose probes have been marginalized (as
marginally scientific) or whose probes lie on the margins (as mar-
ginally significant), point to and define an alternate sets of
Both positions give indications that something is being
protected against disturbance within the appeal to science as a
common standard. Each denies the transcendency of the standards
used by the other that might undermine the legitimacy of their own
interests, approaches, and undertakings. Each side is accused of
biting, by failing to recognize, the hand that feeds: "It's not
enough to be excellent. One has to meet the norms of science as
well" (quoted in Time. 11 May 1987). "Science is in, not above,
historical and linguistic processes" (Clifford 1986:2).
Consideration of context and contextual constraints raises
questions about the value or possibility of working strictly within
the standards of objectivity, simplicity, and generalizability.
Calling these standards into question undermines both the aims and
claims of systematic study. But a distinction between closed (con-
text-neutral) and open (context-dependent) systems suggests the
need for different sets of standards:
Given adequate information about it, a closed system can be
understood without reference to its environment, its context.
But no amount of information is adequate to understand or ana-
lyze an open system--an organism, a person, a family, a corpo-
ration, a natural ecosystem, a society, a system of ideas--
unless its context is also part of the explanation (Wilden
That which is suggested as generalizable about human social
behavior is the significance of context, and more complexly, inter-
related contexts and levels of contexts. The methods and standards
of physical science are affirmed as appropriate to the study of
closed systems. But the caution to include context in the explana-
tion of open systems applies to the studiers as well as the objects
under study. Shweder (1986:174) summarizes the situation: "There
is a soft side to all hard data, or perhaps the crucial part is
that without the soft side there is no hard side."
Ideas in Practice
The intermingling of the soft with the hard tends not to be
acknowledged as the products and process of science are put into
practice. A physicist responding to the cold fusion confusion
maintains the distinction: "Science is about knowing. It is not
about believing" (Time 15 May 1989). As Peller (1987) remarks,
"even after the notion that the world can be neatly divided in the
Cartesian way between the mind and the body has been rejected
intellectually, these categories for perceiving and talking about
the world continue to play powerful roles in our day-to-day lives,
in the way we understand ourselves and each other" (p. 28).
This thought is echoed and expanded in another direction by
Scheper-Hughes and Locke (1987:9-10) as they point to evidences of
the "intractability of Cartesian thinking" that acknowledges mul-
tiple possible factors to be considered, but settles on an explana-
tion in terms of one--clinical diagnosis being "never both nor
The act of leaving possibly complicating aspects or addi-
tional factors out of the explanation does not remove them from the
scene. But a sense of "having accounted for" does remove them from
sphere of consideration. The appeal of simple explanations and
perceived or purported mastery works against the prospect of
searching for (or even considering) the prospect of a better, if
more complex, fit.
Everyday life is full of either-or choices and decisions
that may fail to adequately explain. Each time I cross the
U.S./Canadian border I must declare whether my trip is for business
or pleasure by checking the appropriate box on the required form.
Aside from why I must check a box at all (for whom or for what is
this information relevant?), I have difficulty determining which
box to check. Is education business or pleasure? Both? Something
not-quite-either? Once I failed to check either box, but this was
noticed. I was detained and questioned; the line behind me grew;
everyone was inconvenienced. Now I randomly mark one or the other.
Personal reservations often do not find their way into in public
And ambiguous assertions tend to be unambiguously inter-
preted. A civil architect,- after examining a sixty-yea.r-old struc-
ture, remarked: "According to the way we analyze these things now,
this building shouldn't even be standing." An indication of less
than adequate construction (and the likelihood of impending col-
lapse) or (since it hadn't collapsed) less than perfect knowledge
regarding how things are held together? Differing interpretations
generate different responses.
Continuing scientific study is based on the caution that
things may not be as they seem. Apparent (known) order may be an
illusion; apparent (known) disorder may be an illusion. Scientific
discoveries involve uncovering new ways of explaining known phe-
nomena or the uncovering of new phenomena to be explained. The
latter often provides the impetus for the former (and vice versa).
Responding to an article marginalizing his views, Rabinow
(1988) asserts that "scientific debate does not imply agreement; it
does imply . acceptance of difference, imagination, and risk
taking" (p. 430). As scientific methods and knowledge are prac-
ticed and disseminated in the activities of everyday life, the
products (facts and mastery) tend to assume the status of the
proved. The probe is overshadowed.
A recent article (Kolata 1989) on an attempt to implement
an elementary school curriculum designed to encourage both learning
and enjoyment of learning by drawing on a variety of talents and
aptitudes and active student participation reported resistance from
the ranks of parents and teachers. Both groups expressed concern
about the time taken away from learning traditional skills
(examples given: workbook assignments, test taking) that determine
success in school. While an outside supporter of the program
brushed aside these objections, remarking "It's not as if you are
taking time from some fantastic learning experience. ... I don't
think that people should be worried that traditional education
might be undermined," one of the developers of the pirogram acknowl-
edged the concern: "The bottom line is, 'Can these kids fare well
on the criteria used to determine success--standardized test scores
and reading books?' We can't say, 'You're wrong about this and you
have to change your goals.'"
The criteria are there. They constitute the standards in
use. As people and programs are measured against them, goals
become connected to them. Activities with no direct or proven con-
nection to meeting established criteria become peripheral. Wagner
(1981:54) suggests that "ultimately, motivation is simply, the iner-
tia or the felt necessity of having to resolve things in a certain
way." With the way definitively set, there is little room for
acceptance of difference, imagination, or risk taking in respect to
either redefining the criteria or redefining ways of meeting estab-
Among his own, the stigmatized individual can use his dis-
advantage as a basis for organizing life, but he must resign
himself to a half-world to do so.
Erving Goffman, Stigma (1963)
Entropy is missing information.
Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man (1982)
Marginal learners, as considered here, are those whose
progress through the established curriculum is noticeably less than
smooth. They are discovered in the process of schooling as they
veer from the path set by exhibiting difficulty in mastering age
appropriate skills and concepts within the alotted time frame.
They disrupt the system as they fail to learn according to standard
operating procedures and to perform in line with grade-level stan-
Currently implicated as sources of marginal school perfor-
mance are ethnicity (environmental disvadvantage) and learning dis-
abilities (cognitive dysfunction). Specific ethnic or minority
groups and the learning disabled commonly experience difficulty in
meeting classroom demands and, in so doing, commonly create diffi-
culties in classroom management. While the two groups are similar
in this respect, they are held distinct in respect to attributed
source (cause) of marginal school performance and, based on this,
the corrective treatment undertaken to lessen the problem. The way
these problems are managed differ in specifics, but they are com-
monly geared to the treatment of differences (sociocultural or bio-
logical) as deficiencies.
Deviating from Standard
Differences in academic achievement (within a given time
span, at a given age, or over time) have presumably always existed.
In the relatively recent institution of universal schooling this
has become a problem to be analyzed and accounted for and, from the
explanation, to be managed. Ethnicity offers one explanation of
classroom difficulties, learning disabilities another. But these
explanations raise questions: What does it take to fit? What is it
that is not being fitted in? What is learned by all participants
and conserved in the system in learning this?
An apparently paradoxical situation arising from the estab-
lishment of uniform standards to encourage uniform minimum attain-
ment is that it effectively differentiates the whole by separating
out those who do not keep pace. Performance that fails to meet
pre-established standards signals a problem in need of treatment.
Scheper-Hughes and Locke (1987:26) posit that "the proliferation of
disease categories and labels in medicine and psychiatry, resulting
in ever more restricted definitions of the normal, has created a
sick and deviant majority." The proliferation of categories and
labels in the schools to explain substandard achievement similarly
contributes to increasingly restrictive definitions of what is
acceptable in the classroom.
All participants enter with social histories, capabilities,
and abilities that differ to some degree. The difficulties exper-
ienced and caused by these two groups indicate not only their dif-
ferentness relative to the mainstream learner but also that these
differences are difficult to accommodate in the classroom. What-
ever differences of substance may underlie classifying as marginal,
problematic marginality is created by the perception, and a diagno-
sis of less than sufficiently able, ready, or receptive may fit not
only the marginal learners encountered in the schools but the oper-
ation of the system that encounters them as well.
In public institutions of education mandated to impart a
common fund of knowledge and skills, ethnicity becomes a problem as
commonplaces turn out to be not commonly held; discrepencies in
specific learning abilities turn into a problem as common competen-
cies turn out not to be so common. These problems are dealt with
on an ungoing basis, and they remain ongoing problems as defined.
Marginalizing through Ethnicization
We shall never get a rose to understand that five times
seven are thirty-five, and there is no use in talking to an oak
- about fluctuations in the price of stocks.... when we call
plants stupid for not understanding our business, how capable
do we show ourselves of understanding theirs?
Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872)
. . there are no forests where the trees are too far apart.
Stephen A. Tyler, "Post-Modern Ethnography" (1986)
The concept of ethnicity alludes to and acknowledges the
idea of unshared commonality--characteristics or qualities shared
by a group that set if off from other groups. Differing socializa-
tion practices and patterns in home environments may present diffi-
culties in the classroom in respect to uneveness in initial readi-
ness or the meaningfulness of performing specific academic tasks
(Heath 1983). But this becomes a problem in being so perceived,
defined, and managed.
Hannerz (1980) offers a view of intrasocietal cultural
differences that addresses the problem aspect but sees it as deriv-
ing from an (unwarranted) assumption of cultural similarity:
The "one society-one culture" notion implies that individu-
als in a society start out from a common cultural baseline, a
structure of meanings of much the same form inside every head,
never mind how it got there. Cultural differentiation then
tends to be seen as a deviant pattern to be problematized (p.
The use of the classification "culturally disadvantaged" as
an explanation for poor school performance draws not on the assump-
tion of "a common cultural baseline" but works instead from an
acknowledgment of the contrary and of the significance this may
hold in respect to classroom performance. Yet despite the differ-
ence in orientation, the view of cultural difference as a "deviant
pattern to be problematized" remains. Addressing this aspect, Har-
mon (1987:103) warns: "It must be borne in mind that the children
of families and environments that do not value and support literacy
and education are severely handicapped in their own quest for
What is acknowledged to exist (an uncommon cultural base-
line) is not accepted as acceptable. If "one society-one culture"
is not a reality, it should be. In order for it to be, interven-
tion is aimed at the culturally different to make it more, possible
for them to fit into and succeed within the school system.
This vantage point suggests that learners from the margins
of society should (for their own good as well as the general good)
be changed to better fit in with established standards and prac-
tices. Cultural differences are accommodated by way of correcting
the deficiency (e.g., preschool enrichment programs or remedial
treatment within the school). Following this line of reasoning
("defective nurturing" results in some children being "not ade-
quately prepared for school"), Adler (1982) proposes one to three
years of preschool tutelage for those from "unfavorable environ-
ments" and recommends that "the sooner a democratic society inter-
venes to remedy the cultural inequality of homes and environments,
the sooner it will succeed in fulfilling the democratic mandate of
equal opportunity for all" (pp. 37-39).
To the extent that such terms as "cultural deprivation" or
"environmentally disadvanged" are perceived to be apt descriptions
of the situation and the people, this approach appears appropriate.
But there are two interpretations of "cultural inequality" as it
relates to integrating home and school life. If cultural differ-
ences are viewed as mere differences, in an "all cultures are
equal" sense, the picture--and the picture of the treatment--
changes from humane concern to sinister denial of other, equally
valid practices and beliefs. This orientation redefines the prob-
lem of cultural differences and suggests inequities in the treat-
ment and representation of different cultures within the school
system as due for correction. It fails to address the "non-ethnic"
status assumed for mainstream values and practices and the signfi-
cance of this both in the classroom and beyond.
In addition to our separate ethnicities, we all participate
in a culture that is in some sense experienced and shared, albeit
to greater or lesser degrees and in different ways, by all. MacLeod
(1987:118) states, "no matter how strong and insular the group,
contact with the dominant culture, especially through school and
work is inevitable." Hannerz (1980) similarly observes that in the
United States "one can hardly avoid the meanings of what is largely
middle-class culture, even deep in the ghetto" (p. 290) and points
to mass media, schools, courts, and social services as purveyors of
standardized meanings. Those who lie outside the social mainstream
are not immune to the influence of mainstream meanings.
Distinguishing between cultural forms and behavior and eth-
nic identity, Barth (1969) suggests that while social contact might
be expected to lessen cultural differences, when interaction takes
place within the framework of a dominant group's statuses and
institutions, ethnic distinctions and cultural differences are
likely to be maintained.
To the extent that schools act as the disseminators of
"neutral knowledge" (Peller 1987), input from individual experi-
ences is unnceccesary and might be disruptive. If knowledge is
considered and presented as a given that ought to be common, there
is little call for input into a shared perspective. Giving consid-
eration to differing perspectives would be demanding for all con-
cerned. But perceptions marginalized do not act as correctives,
and situations are more likely to become relevant to people when
they are accepted as credible, acceptable, and qualified to par-
Marginal status in the classroom is more or less disturbing
and variously responded to as individuals link differing social
contexts (home, neighborhood, school, community, work) in which
they presently participate or aspire to in the future. Felt margi-
nality offers the deviator from standard in the classroom a limited
range of obvious alternatives: conformance to the demands of the
context or disengagement from it. The former may be perceived as
entailing the latter (as indicated below, first in one form and
MF: Eartha, when you were a kid, did you participate a lot
Eartha [a sixteen-year-old inner city high school dropout]:
Not me, I was a good kid. Made no trouble.
That which is marginalized may disappear from the class-
room, but it is not thereby removed from society. Perceptions not
checked may be corrected, or confirmed, or held in check as private
reservations in contexts where they are discredited. That which is
unrepresented need not be perceived as suggesting a better alterna-
tive. Bringing it in would merely offer a fuller picture of .
society and perhaps increase the range of alternatives. Implement-
ing the idea of "one society-one culture" from a single position
creates the conditions for different positions to be viewed as, and
to become, disturbing.
Biological Causation: Learning Disabilities
Without the utopian premise, the actuality of the situation
might be quite bearable.
Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, Change, 1974
People are not just bags of genes.
"Genes Rampant," The Economist. 25 June 1988.
"Learning disabled" is a catchall category. It accounts
for otherwise unaccountable failure to meet classroom demands.
Individual placement in it is earned by disappointing school per-
formance; the common bond uniting this group is failure to perform
in line with expectations. Like ethnic dissimilarity, it brings
into the classroom the disorder of difference. But a neurological
defect rather than defective home environment is implicated as the
primary source of difficult-to-deal-with difference.
Thus while the manifestation of this disorder--difficulties
encountered in meeting classroom demands--is similar to those that
might be attributed to more tangible physical impairments or to the
social environment, it is held distinct in not being attributable
to other established sources of difficulty. Ruled out by the offi-
cial U.S. (HEW) definition of this condition are problems in learn-
ing "due primarily to visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, to men-
tal retardation, emotional disturbance, or to environmental disad-
This handicapping condition cannot be seen by the untutored
eye. The individual, parents, and friends must be told. It is
suggested by disappointing school performance. A diagnosis to con-
firm suspicions is most simply made on the basis of a discrepancy
between potential educability as determined by tested IQ and actual
capability as measured by performance on achievement tests. While
tested intelligence represents a narrow range of human abilities,
it is considered a fairly good predictor of how well children do in
school (Kolata 1989). This discrepancy is explained as indication
of a learning disability.
Once diagnosed, expectations and academic demands are
altered in order to bring them more in line with individual compe-
tences. Doubly substandard achievement (below classroom standards,
below potential indicated by IQ scores), suggests a mismatch
between the learner and the learning environment. Remediating
treatment thus involves taking into account the individual's handi-
capping condition and placing the individual outside the demands
of the regular classroom (and often outside the classroom).
A fifteen-year-old, nine year veteran of various programs
of treatment for the learning disabled (ranging from complete aca-
demic segregation to assistance when requested, in private schools
and public), currently attending a small private school (not geared
to treating learning disabilities), offers the following view of
AL: Do you think learning is hard?
LL: Well, it depends on the situation and the subject and
AL: When is it hard?
LL: When I have to read out loud in class. When I have to
spell something ... I mean, when I have to spell
AL: Why is this a problem?
LL: It's a problem for the class ... my reading slows
them down, and they can't continue the pace they
were . .
AL: And spelling?
LL: It makes it more difficult for them to understand . .
but they should understand that we all have weaknesses
and not make people feel funny.
An aspect of this brief exchange relevant to the focus here
is the responder's focus on her substandard written language skills
as causing problems for her because they cause problems for others,
and this (they?) in turn makes her feel funny. She simultaneously
demands that others both accept her lesser capabilities (i.e.,
lessen their demands in light of her differentness) and ignore them
(not make her feel different).
She is quite comfortable with her marginal skills outside
of the problems they cause in school. She discounts others'
reliance on reading (for example, reporting proudly that she
learned to operate a word processor without ever reading the
instruction book) and assigns little importance to correct spelling
(she does not engage the processor's spell check feature).
She has adjusted to her learning disability. In school she
uses her disabled status to exempt herself from demands made on
others. But outside of school, she carries books with her that she
never reads ("because the other kids do"), and she delights in
reporting: "I told her I had a learning disability, and she was
real surprised and said, 'I wouldn't have known that!'"
The learning disabled enjoy a position of privileged infe-
riority within the schools. The diagnosis provides the marginal
learner with special treatment, a more comfortable learning envi-
ronment, reduced demands, a reason and rationale for lesser attain-
ment, and a stigma. There is discomfort in the comforts.
Peripheral Learning: Learning the Periphery
To the extent that schooling is a different experience for
each individual participating in the process, it is differently
experienced. The experience varies among mainstream learners and
within the classifications of marginal learners discussed here.
Content presented (in general, in specific areas) is taken in with
varying degrees of ease and disease. Various skills are acquired
smoothly or less so.
In the process of participating, the learning that takes
place is not limited to the content and the skills that are expli-
citly taught. What is incidentally learned by all of the various
ways of inclusion and from the absence of that which is excluded
may be equally signficant.
Writers addressing the subject of negative role acceptance
(Edgerton 1967, Estroff 1981, Goffman 1963, MacLeod 1987, Szasz
1961) point to an active aspect of the acceptance of marginal mem-
bers of society to their status. While the status may be disturb-
ing, it is less disturbing to remain somewhat outside of the main-
stream of the wider social context if the effort involved, in gain-
ing nonmarginal status is considered inordinately difficult or
unlikely and/or if gaining insider status elsewhere would involve
giving up achieved status in existing groups.
Estroff (1981) describes the dissatisfaction of some of her
subjects (psychiatric patients) with their limited world and their
desire to break out of it, a desire tempered, however, by the con-
straint of "their perceived and actual lack of fit" (p. 250).
MacLeod (1987) makes the point doubly. He addresses his own per-
ceived and actual lack of fit with the subjects of his study (the
"hallway hangers" in housing project) as well as theirs in the
wider social context and points out the costs and difficulties
involved in gaining entry to their group (e.g., silencing his own
views, adopting some of their practices).
In the schools, the lack of fit of marginal learners to the
context is actual, and this is perceived and learned, by those who
fit and by those who don't. The effort to fit in more fully will
not be made if it appears unlikely to succeed or too costly in
terms of effort or existing group membership. But the costs
involved in accepting the role may be too great as the implications
spill over to other areas. Nonacceptance of situational marginal-
ity is also explainable as varying social contexts are linked and
because they are linked.
A compelling reason to rejoin the mainstream classes
despite the experience of prior frustrations and subsequent success
in a more segregated environment was tearfully blurted out by a
thirteen year old disabled learner: "Amy [a neighbor of the same
age] was telling me what classes she was taking in school, and I
didn't even know the words she used."
Inclusion by exclusion may strengthen the units and estab-
lish the order of greater uniformity in restricted contexts, but it
may also weaken connecting links in the extended social environ-
ment. It is certainly less disruptive and less disturbing in the
short term for indviduals to retire to their various ethnicities
and ability classifications and to group themselves according to
similar abilities and outlooks. But as differences are assigned to
the periphery, the range of tolerable differences narrows.
Peripheries and centers are maintained to the extent that
they fit experienced reality. Marginality is reproduced as demands
of uniformity are made and uniform standards are applied that are
not uniformly acceptable or capable of being met. People fail to
fit social situations in which they are not fit in.
In complex systems, change and evolution result from factors
that at first seem to be deviations and pathology; but without
them the system would congeal into hopeless sterility.
Paul Watzlawick, The Invented Reality (1984)
The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves
grows by what it feeds on. If resistance waits till life is
reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that
type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even mon-
strous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable
to conceive diversity when they have been for some time unac-
customed to see it.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
In the years that have passed since Mill issued the above
warning, life has not been reduced to nearly one uniform type.
Across and within nations, cities, neighborhoods, and families,
over the history of societies and the lifetimes of individuals,
standard characteristics are observed from above and and situ-
ational norms are observed within, but nonuniformity has not been
stamped out. Differences and change are often resisted, sometimes
embraced, and frequently go. unnoticed.
The demand that "all other people resemble ourselves" may
grow from having been demanded of ourselves, but the implications
of this demand vary greatly with the degree of inclusivity with
which "ourselves" is conceived. The range is significant, for what
it includes is likely to be defended. Margins are constructed
around it. Deviation is defined as that which lies outside it.
Taken as encompassing the species, a demand that we
resemble ourselves produces a mere tautology. We do, in doing
whatever we do and in being whatever we are noted to be. From this
perspective species uniformity translates into the commonality of
difference. With this as a frame of reference, Geertz (1973:40)
asserts that "there are no generalizations that can be made about
man as man, save that he is a most various animal." Conforming to
this norm suggests being various. But it is not at this abstract
level that the demand to resemble others is felt. Variety is per-
ceived, interpreted, classified, evaluated, and constrained in
Marginalization: Constructing Peripheries
Margins are both individually and socially constructed.
Marginalization--the process of delegating things to the periphery
--appears as a very human phenomenom. It provides a way for indi-
viduals and groups to cope with and make sense of diverse phenomena
by separating the relevant from the less relevant, the significant
from the less significant, the important from the not so important.
Peripheral considerations confuse issues and introduce uncertainty.
Individual knowing entails perceiving that which does not fit as
peripheral. Aspects left out of consideration can be fit in as
relevant when they become relevant. Social encounters offer the
opportunity of encountering other understandings, perspectives, and
practices that make it possible for individuals and groups to
extend, revise, or consider their own.
Marginality institutionalized constrains the likelihood of
this possibility. Marginalization in institutional settings serves
a conservative function of perpetuating the conventions that dom-
inate by validating their value and their dominance. Assigning that
which does not conform to the criteria in use to the periphery con-
tributes to the idea of social uniformity (shared premises, common
knowledge, standards, practices, and values) and to the idea of
neutral, objective criteria that need be conformed to.
There is functional value to the group, and to the individ-
ual as a member of the group, in conforming to the ways that dom-
inate, in engaging in self-censorship, in accepting "what is impor-
tant" and "what must remain peripheral," in quickly learning "to
stop talking about" other ways or other considerations, in adapting
to a changed setting by adopting the ways accepted in the setting,
and then demanding that others do likewise. Socially conforming
behavior validates a common norm and common values and, in so
doing, promotes order, harmony, and stability.
But there are social costs as well. Marginalizing that
which fails to conform effectively, if unwittingly, defends conven-
tions from disturbances that might provoke revision. Meanings,
orderings and rules of operation that dominate the setting remain
unexamined, more implicit than explicit, something to be adhered
to, promoted, and defended by excluding that which does not fit.
Other understandings and ways of proceeding are denied representa-
tion either as viable alternatives or as suggesting additional
aspects for consideration.
Social conventions unacknowledged as such are not a matters
open to ongoing scrutiny and revision. Personal responsibility to
fit the context absolves individuals from responsibility for their
part in creating and perpetuating the contexts in which they par-
ticipate. Choices are not made as the accepted way comes to be
perceived as the only acceptable way.
As that which is perceived to be marginal is removed from
the sphere of interaction (incorporated as peripheral, or subjected
to treatment to make fit, or some combination of the two), there is
little need to bring active consideration to bear on the fitness of
prevailing approaches and practices in respect to the purposes they
are professed to serve.
While social rules vary, social conventions, and deviations
from them, are everywhere the rule. But the ways in which devia-
tions and deviators are responded to influence both the flexibility
and viability of the criteria in use. The disturbing aspect of
practices aimed at managing the marginal is that they tend to neu-
tralize the disturbances from the margins and thereby leave unex-
amined, on a different sort of periphery, the standards and conven-
tional premises from which margins are constructed. In so doing,
both central assumptions and peripheral considerations tend to be
closed off from the possiblity of reciprocal correction, creating
constant disturbances and social problems as norms are not met.
The mental habit of assigning differences that disturb to
the periphery compounded by accepted social practices that remove
them from the immediate scene may effectively perpetuate differ-
ences that disturb and exacerbate the disturbance caused by differ-
ences. Counterevidence not evidenced or not admitted as credible
evidence when encountered does not act as a corrective and
provokes no revisions. Excluding the periphery in defining the
norm can lead to narrowly restrictive and rigid norms, disturbing
standards, and an unacceptable, unattainable range of acceptable.
Goffman (1963) suggests that the combined multiplicity and
exclusivity of social norms and standards has the effect of dis-
qualifying the entire population:
. . in an important sense there is only one complete
unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban,
northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education,
fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a
recent record in sports. . Any male who fails to qualify in
any of these ways is likely to view himself--during moments at
least--as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior (p. 128).
Deviating from this set of norms, failure to meet all these stan-
dards, is the general rule. There is a readily apparent reciproal
lack of fit between that which is normative and that which is nor-
mal, as the "ourselves" that others must resemble is so narrowly
defined. But a demand of uniformity considered at this extreme
raises the question of the range of diversity that might be
socially valuable as well as socially viable and opens the matter
Bateson (1972) calls for diversity in civilization "to
accommodate the genetic and experential diversity of persons" and
"to provide the flexibility necessary for . . unpredictable
change" (p. 495). Wilden (1987:194) warns that "de-diversified
systems have available to them fewer and fewer responses to pertur-
bation." They also have more and more possible sources and occa-
sions of perturbation as the center shrinks and the periphery
grows. Disturbing social standards are those that in failing to
accommodate genetic and experential diversity create marginal
groups that must be considered nonrepresentative and denied repre-
sentation in order to maintain the standard.
From a position in the social mainstream the perception of
marginality involves a question that ignores its own premise: You
are one of us, why aren't you one of us? It simultaneously denies
the actuality of the uniformity it affirms and the reality of the
heterogeneity it acknowledges. It assumes a core of necessary or
desirable uniformity in acknowledging the breach and fails to con-
sider diversity within the encompassing society as representative,
viable, or valuable. In so doing, it suggests a one-sided lack of
fit and promotes the perception of actual diversity (biological,
social, mental) as a problem to be managed and controlled. It
obscures the fact that lack of fit is always reciprocal.
There is a crucial difference in approach depending upon
whether "mastery" emphasizes understanding phenomena or controlling
phenomena, whether in the hard sciences or the soft. Weather is an
object of study despite being considered an area largely beyond
human control. Were it to be controllable, we would encounter
great difficulty in agreeing on the way it should be. Climatic
conditions are instead measured and analyzed to gain an understand-
ing of the factors involved and how they relate, and this, informa-
tion is used for purposes of prediction. The weather remains
imperfectly predictable despite all the known variables and the
monitoring of many. The lack of certainty of predictions is
accepted by the specialists in acknowledgment of many interdepen-
dent variables. It is experienced by the rest of us.
Human thought and behavior have also proved resistant to
mastery in the sense of being completely predictable or control-
lable. Acknowledgment of constraints--biological limits, social
guidelines, and cultural meanings--as governing variables permits a
degree of behavioral predictability, but within or around each of
these constraints there is room for variation, and they complexly
interact to produce human differences.
Marginality is based in these differences, and it cannot be
eradicated. The content it encloses shifts because the constraints
generate differing interpretations as well as material differences.
Lack of fit due to differences may disturb and call for correction,
but it not is one-sided. And because it is not,one-sided solu-
tions are inappropriate.
An understanding of marginality not as the inherently and
necessarily excludable but as that which is excluded from partici-
pation in defining the norm suggests management by excluding as a
factor contributing to the problem of lack of fit rather than its
resolution. From this perspective, mastering marginality calls for
reduced efforts in the area of management of the marginal and
greater attention to relational aspects and reciprocal fit.
Wilden (1987) posits that discourse, not language, is the
problem for understanding reality, "for, unlike a language, a dis-
course has a subject and a subject-matter. A discourse is some
people talking to some other people about a some relationship or
other" (p. 132). Marginality is a relationship. And it is "spo-
ken" by people as they interact by the way they interact. Because
marginality is communicated by excluding, it is particularly diffi-
cult for it to become the topic of discussion.
Choices, alternatives, and options are not self-evident.
Nonengagement restricts choices by excluding possiblities. The out-
come of engaging what is assumed to be peripheral is uncertain.
Perceptions may be left unchanged, reconfirmed, or falsified by the
experience. The following narrative exemplifies the latter:
Once--a few years ago--I thought that I would much rather
go out with a sighted man than with a blind man. But I have
dates off and on, and slowly my feelings about this have
changed. I value the understanding of the blind for the blind,
and now I could respect a blind man for his own qualities and
be glad for the understanding he could give me.
Some of my friends are sighted and some are blind. This,
somehow, seems to me the way it ought to be--I cannot under-
stand regulating human relations one way. or another (quoted in
Differences are noted here and so are similarities; but the inter-
pretation of their significance is revised in the course of this
tale. Perceptions of "what is" connect with perceptions of "what
ought to be" throughout, but they are subject to revision. Signif-
icantly, both the revision and the contemplation of the revision
follow the experience of interaction that demotes the difference or
the similarity noted (in this case, the similarity of being differ-
ent) to being merely one aspect of the situation or one character-
istic of the person that need not regulate human relations one way
or the other.
Knowledge is less than perfect. Perception is selective.
Glassifications focus narrowly and fail to do justice to variation
within the class. Definitions are relevant to the purposes they
serve, and this applies to definitions of relevancy as well. "Dif-
ferent" indicates "differing from" and is interpreted in context.
Norms vary. But all of this needs reminding.
Occasional glances at the periphery for relevant informa-
tion might defamiliarize the familar and bring assumed standards to
the foreground for consideration. Frequent exposure to the periph-
eral might work revision without consideration. Working against
filling in the gaps and filling out the picture are continual evi-
dences and comforting assurances that peripheral considerations are
peripheral, that the unrepresented is unrepresentative, that coun-
terexamples are anomalies with which we need not be concerned, that
whatever measures marginal against the standard in use really is
marginal (less qualified, less acceptable, less functional).
When facts are known and knowledge is certain, the chal-
lenge from the margins is denied, and central assumptions remain
unassailed. As alternatives are obscured, choices are not made.
Without a bit of uncertainty, and the circumstances and practices
that provoke it, the answers are provided before the questions are
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