The concept of marginality was first introduced by Robert Park (1928) and explained, almost as a minor theme, in Park’s analysis of the causes and consequences of human migrations. In his article, Park referred to a ”new type of personality” which was emerging out of rapid human migratory patterns during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and how they would affect present and future relations between groups. The most interesting feature of this essay was Park’s discussion of this new personality, which would be a ”cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples … a man on the margin of two cultures and two societies, which never completely inter penetrated and fused.” Edwin Stonequist (1937) probed the marginality concept more extensively than Park, but he highlighted the personality features of marginality and focused his critique into an assessment of the mental state of those marginalized. So closely allied are the views of the two that we can without distortion discuss their views as the Park-Stonequist model of marginality. It became the predominant model and a reference point for studies of marginality (Dennis 1991: 4) until Dickie Clark (1966) introduced the term ”marginal situation” and moved the discussion from the personality of the marginalized to a more pointedly sociological reference point. Dickie Clark concluded that the Park-Stonequist model, largely Stonequist’s extension of Park’s early model, subverted and distorted the sociology of marginality by creating an exclusive model of the marginal who became permanently stereotyped as ”irrational, moody, and temperamental.”

Dickie Clark’s emphasis on the ”marginal situation” is important in that he grounded the concept within sociology, not psychology, and made power and privilege precursors to its genesis. Likewise, the marginal situation evolved out of historical practices and policies which legitimized unequal status and opportunity structures. However, the heavy emphasis on demarcating marginal situations within largely unstructured temporary interactions and settings tended to deflate and underemphasize marginal situations within very structured institutional interactions (Dickie Clark 1966: 28). The importance of Dickie Clark’s approach, however, gave credence to the argument that marginality was more nuanced, complex, and multidimensional than had been assumed.

The Park-Stonequist model of racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural groups caught between two contrasting worlds, neither of which accepted them, is no longer the model used today. The term has been expanded to include many groups that differ in a variety of ways from the dominant culture, who are viewed by that dominant society as the ”other” and dwell on the fringes of their society. A current grouping of those who have made a case for themselves as being among the marginals would include women, the poor, homosexuals, and those with mental and physical illnesses. But central to the marginality query is the question of who wields power, who establishes policies, and the nature of the structural barriers created and the institutions most affected. The lack of access, however, does not translate into a non societal role, because imposed marginality (see below) is designed to create emotional and social barriers as well as structural ones as it imposes specific though limited roles and positions to be acted and played out by marginals. Thus, marginals are both ”of” and ”in” the society but with limited access and prescribed positions, and with special roles.

There are two types of marginality: imposed marginality and marginality by choice. Powerful groups using an array of legal, social, economic, and political measures push less powerful groups to the edges of the society and generally attempt to utilize them in the labor market, but in other ways render them invisible (Dennis 2005). This pattern may be seen in the United States as well as throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America (Dennis 1994). Usually, the group marginalizing another is numerically larger, but South Africa under apartheid was an example of how a numerically smaller population can marginalize and render momentarily powerless a much larger population. The Park-Stonequist model is of little help in defining or explaining marginality within the context of intergroup relations in the twenty first century. Marginalization may often lead to anger and resentment, and to a situation in which the marginalized lay in wait for opportunities in anticipation of a time when scores might be settled. Contemporary battles and skirmishes in the Sudan, Spain, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland represent cases of formerly marginalized groups seeking redress for historical grievances. The histories of these cases depict situations in which an accommodation strategy had been the modus operandi, but quite often dominant groups assume that the accommodationist strategies used by powerless groups have been accepted by these groups as a way of life and as an acceptance of their marginal status. That is often far from true.

The second type of marginality is marginality by choice in which groups, usually for religious reasons or for artistic and scholarly reasons, desire to separate themselves and become marginal to the larger social, political, and economic community. Hasidic groups in New York City, the Amish, and the Nation of Islam during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s represent this focus. Unlike an imposed marginality in which the marginalized may desire more extensive political, cultural, or economic participation, groups which choose marginality are all too happy to be excluded and left alone, and only those among these groups who desire to leave the group might be said to experience this dual marginality as they seek to find a place in the formerly forbidden worlds beyond the group’s enclaves. It is this dual marginality with its implied ambivalences, uncertainties, and choices which represents our present era and generation.

The concept continues to be useful in sociology because it describes structural linkages and relations, and permits us to chart, document, and locate who is a marginal and why, as well as probe the consequences of marginality for the larger society. This will require that we mine more extensively examples of marginality, especially in the areas of social class, ethnicity, and race.

Dual marginality has been suggested as a multidimensional approach to the marginality dilemma and as an approach which might res cue marginality from a theoretical cul de sac (Dennis 1991, 2003). A similar point had been made earlier by Peter Worsley (1984). In Dennis’s 1991 study the dual marginality theme focused on black youth and their position and role in a medium sized Midwestern city: they were caught between their role as youth under parental guidance and their role and position of soon to be independent young adults; caught between their role and position in a small and marginal black community and a larger, often hostile, white community; caught between their circumscribed role of black youth in a largely segregated city with its limited mobility and freedoms and the role of white youth and their greater freedom in the larger dominant community. The dualness of their marginality was described as the ambivalence of youth to their parents and the black community on the one hand, and their ambivalence toward both white youth and the white community on the other. What was clear in the definition of dual marginality was its structural framework and the fact that the youth were playing out specific roles and positions in segmented aspects of their dual marginal status: they had limited encounters with white youth in the white world, just as they had limited encounters with white adults in the dominant community. In each of these segmen ted worlds, black youth display both an acceptance and a rejection, mainly because their position is not clear to themselves and they believe that they are both accepted and rejected by parents, the black community, white youth, and the larger white community.

The youth are wedged between those segments presented above, but unlike the Park-Stonequist model, rather than the rejection by both and the personality problems which ultimately emerge, there are degrees of acceptance and rejection from the segmented structures, as well as degrees of acceptance and rejection by youth. The dualness of the marginality is seen more in the fact that the youth, though rejected by the “other,” continue to seek an entrance into that world, but when opportunities arise which make possible their entrance or absorption into that world, they may well reject such opportunities. One might see parallel examples in an examination of racial and ethnic groups within large dominant group organizations. Individuals may reject aspects of the culture into which they were born, and may wish to experience and assimilate into another culture or group but may not be able or willing to shed many of the values and behavioral traits of that culture. The ambivalence centers around the trade-offs seen as necessary to make the leap from one culture to another or from one group to another. So there is simultaneously a movement toward and away from the group to which entrance is sought, just as there is a movement toward and away from the group which has provided the primary socialization. In enlarging the scope of marginality beyond the Park-Stonequist model, it is apparent that today, individuals and groups must confront a world which reflects varying degrees of dual marginality (openness and closedness) as individuals and groups move in and out of group labels and identities and into a world of great certainties and uncertainties. It is this power and resource inequity and the blocked mobility experienced by those marginalized that warrant continued attention by both scholars and activist scholars.


  1. Dennis, R. (1991) Dual Marginality and Discontent Among Black Middletown Youth. In: Dennis, R. (Ed.), Research in Race and Ethnic Relations, 6. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.
  2. Dennis, R. (1994) Racial and Ethnic Politics. In: Dennis, R. (Ed.), Research in Race and Ethnic Relations, 7. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.
  3. Dennis, R. (2003) Towards a Theory of Dual Marginality: Dual Marginality and the Dispossessed. Ideaz 2(1): 21 31.
  4. Dennis, R. (Ed.) (2005) Marginality, Power, and Social Structure. Elsevier, London.
  5. Dickie-Clark, H. F. (1966) The Marginal Situation. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  6. Park, R. E. (1928) Human Migration and the Marginal Man. American Journal of Sociology 33: 881 93.
  7. Stonequist, E. V. (1937) The Marginal Man. Russell & Russell, New York.
  8. Worsley, P. (1984) The Three Worlds. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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