Marginality Essay

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From an intercultural perspective, the term marginal generally refers to an individual identity outcome of being caught between two worlds, with a sense of not quite belonging in either one, following a move into another culture, such as a migrant or study-abroad student. By moving into a new culture, an individual discovers that the known ways of being and doing no longer serve effectively. This discovery is both psychological and social: the initial shock of discovery that no longer does a mutual sharing of assumed cultural knowledge exist leads to difficulties in striving to create connections in this new cultural context. Individual outcomes of such cultural contact vary, and marginality—in the general sense of not quite belonging or fitting into a new culture—is one particular identity outcome of this process.

Ongoing study of marginality has occurred since the social science introduction in early 20th-century Europe of the concept of the stranger who wanders into and occupies a space in a new culture. The stranger stays and, over time, changes from contact with the new culture but remains, in essence, both close to and remote from the host culture so that there is a continuous tension and ambivalence in this relationship because full assimilation is not part of the European cultural milieu. This concept changed in the 1920s, when practitioners of the Chicago School of sociology introduced it to a U.S. audience. Its new interpretation was the construct of the marginal man resulting from cultural contact in the cosmopolitan setting of a pluralistic society whose groups are defined by ethnicity. The marginal man is the resulting cultural hybrid who belongs to two cultural traditions, aspires to assimilate and belong to the wider society, but is excluded on cultural grounds. There is no satisfying resolution, for the individual cannot break free of either culture. In fact, the marginal man has a dual perspective, namely seeing the world through two lenses that present conflicting images of the self.

Mobility and culture contact appear to create a particular personality type, and the marginal man concept dwells on the internal conflict that an individual undergoes during the process of cultural transition. For the marginal man, this process remains at the unresolved stage of not belonging to the new culture, no longer fitting into the previous one, and consequently existing in a state of crisis between the two. Immigrant children are also caught between two separate cultural worlds, as are converts from missionary activity where the resulting cultural hybrid no longer fully belongs to his original group and simultaneously is not accepted by the colonizing group. During the 20th century, the concept of the marginal man continued to intrigue, and a small number of empirical studies appeared to give evidence of the concept. Accompanying these studies were calls for further investigation and fresh attempts to redefine the concept.

The contemporary, intercultural focus on marginality is on its positive or constructive characteristics. At its core, marginality still consists of the idea of dealing with identity in multiple cultural contexts while feeling no full sense of belonging to any of them. However, the ideas of constructive marginality and encapsulated marginality now go beyond discussions of individuals with inner conflicts. The marginal individual is thus someone who can cross cultural borders and employs marginality constructively. Marginality is no longer just a debilitating condition of an individual caught in a paradox but can also mean a plurality of identities, in essence intercultural identity, translating into a dynamic position as constructive marginal-ity. A constructive marginal resolves identity issues and is in a state in which identity is multiple and fluid and its truths lie in the multiplicity of cultural contexts in which the constructive marginal operates. Such an individual uses this marginal position constructively in a personal sense or becomes a more public figure: an intercultural mediator able to effect negotiations across cultural boundaries.

In contrast, the encapsulated marginal is unable to construct a unified identity but remains perplexed by the situation of marginality and trapped within its context of fluid and shifting boundaries. The encapsulated marginal displays similarities with previous definitions of marginality as cultural and social alienation with pressures existing in both cultures: from one, the pressure of being corrupted, and from the other, pressure to behave in uncomfortable ways to gain acceptance. Friendship is problematic, as the encapsulated marginal feels so unique that there appears to be no peer group with which to form bonds. However, process-oriented intercultural training for marginals can raise awareness of the existence of other marginals who can fill this existential void as well as crystallize understanding of their particular identity perspectives.


  1. Bennett, Janet M. 1993. “Cultural Marginality: Identity Issues in Intercultural Training.” Pp. 109-35 in Education for the Intercultural Experience, edited by R. Michael Paige. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
  2. Bennett, Milton J. 1993. “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” Pp. 21-71 in Education for the Intercultural Experience, edited by R. Michael Paige. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
  3. Golovensky, David I. 1952. “The Marginal Man Concept: An Analysis and Critique.” Social Forces 30(3):333-39.
  4. Park, Robert E. 1928. “Human Migration and the Marginal Man.” American Journal of Sociology 33:881-93.
  5. Simmel, Georg. [1908] 1971. “The Stranger.” Pp. 143-49 in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by D. N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Stonequist, Everett V. 1935. “The Problem of the Marginal Man.” American Journal of Sociology 41:1-12.

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