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IB DP Philosophy Study Notes

5.1.2 Treatment of Minority or Marginalised Groups

The Concept of Minority and Marginalised Groups

Minority and marginalised groups are parts of society distinguished by their unique characteristics and cultural identities. They often have lesser power, fewer privileges, and reduced access to resources compared to the majority group.

Ethnic and Religious Minorities

  • Ethnic Minorities: Characterised by unique cultural practices, languages, and beliefs. They frequently confront challenges such as systemic discrimination, cultural assimilation pressures, and limited political representation.
    • Examples include the Kurds in the Middle East, Roma in Europe, and the Ainu in Japan.
  • Religious Minorities: Distinct in their spiritual practices from the predominant religion of a society.
    • Challenges include the risk of persecution, hate crimes, and social ostracisation, as seen in the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt or the Uighurs in China.

Minority Nations

  • Populations with a national identity but without a sovereign state. They often fight for self-determination and recognition of their cultural rights.
    • The Tibetans in China and Scots in the United Kingdom are instances of such struggles.

Indigenous Peoples

  • The original occupants of lands who retain distinct cultural identities and are often marginalised by post-colonial government structures.
    • Issues faced include land dispossession, denial of sovereignty, and environmental degradation, such as the plight of the Native American tribes in the USA.

Marginalisation Based on Gender, Sexual Orientation, Race, Language, or Ethnicity


  • Discrimination on the basis of gender remains pervasive, manifesting in various forms from the gender pay gap to societal expectations and roles.
    • For example, in many societies, women are disproportionately responsible for unpaid domestic labour.

Sexual Orientation

  • LGBT+ individuals face legal challenges, social stigma, and violence. Same-sex relationships are still criminalised in several countries, leading to systemic marginalisation.


  • Racial minorities often endure profiling, segregation in housing and education, and discrimination in the workforce.
    • The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the ongoing struggle against racial injustice, particularly in the United States.


  • Language barriers can hinder access to justice, education, and healthcare, impacting non-dominant language speakers' quality of life.


  • Ethnic disparities can lead to segregated living conditions, unequal economic opportunities, and targeted violence.
    • The Rohingya in Myanmar face severe restrictions and violence, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.

Dynamics of Marginalisation

Social Constructs

  • Socially Constructed Identities: These are powerful determinants of how groups are perceived and valued within societies.
    • The construction of race, for instance, has no genetic basis but has profound social implications.

Power Structures

  • Power Imbalance: Marginalisation is often a result of entrenched power dynamics, with dominant groups maintaining control over societal resources and opportunities.


  • Multiple Identities: The concept of intersectionality acknowledges that individuals may face multiple layers of marginalisation simultaneously.
    • A Black woman may experience both racism and sexism, affecting her experiences uniquely.

Institutional and Structural Factors

  • Systemic Barriers: Institutions can perpetuate marginalisation through policies and practices that embed inequality, such as racially biased law enforcement practices.

Responses to Marginalisation

Social Movements

  • Activism and Advocacy: Social movements play a critical role in bringing about change and raising awareness about the issues faced by marginalised groups.
    • The women's suffrage movement and the Stonewall riots are historical examples of such activism.

Legal Protections

  • Legislation: Laws aimed at protecting marginalised groups include anti-discrimination acts, equal employment laws, and affirmative action statutes.
    • The Equality Act 2010 in the UK is an example of legislation designed to protect against discrimination.

International Agreements

  • Global Frameworks: Various international agreements aim to set standards for the treatment of marginalised populations.
    • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is a key instrument in this regard.


  • Inclusive Curricula: Education systems are increasingly adopting curricula that recognise and value diversity, aiming to reduce ignorance and prejudice.

The Role of Philosophy in Understanding Marginalisation

Critical Theory

  • Examining Power: Critical theory philosophers explore the socio-economic structures that lead to marginalisation.
    • Theorists like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer analyse how culture industries perpetuate social stratification.

Feminist Philosophy

  • Challenging Gender Roles: Feminist philosophy investigates the intersection of philosophy with gender issues, questioning societal norms and the gender hierarchy.

Postcolonial Philosophy

  • Aftermath of Colonialism: This philosophy examines the lasting impacts of colonialism on societies, which often result in the continued marginalisation of indigenous and ethnic groups.
    • Scholars like Frantz Fanon have explored the psychological impact of colonisation on the colonised.

Ethics of Care

  • Relational Ethics: The ethics of care proposes a moral approach centred on personal relationships and empathy, promoting societal attention to marginalised groups.

Challenges in Addressing Marginalisation

Recognition and Representation

  • Visibility: Achieving adequate and accurate representation in media, politics, and culture is a significant hurdle for marginalised groups.

Resource Allocation

  • Equitable Distribution: Ensuring fair distribution of societal resources such as education, healthcare, and housing continues to be a challenge.

Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism

  • Moral Frameworks: The debate between cultural relativism and moral universalism involves the challenge of respecting cultural diversity while upholding universal human rights.

Balancing Integration and Multiculturalism

  • Cultural Autonomy: Societies face the complex task of integrating marginalised groups without eroding their distinct cultural identities.


Cultural relativism, the idea that a person's beliefs and activities should be understood based on their own culture, plays a crucial role in understanding the treatment of marginalised groups. It cautions against imposing external standards and judgements on different cultural practices, advocating for respect and tolerance of cultural diversity. This perspective is significant as it can help prevent the hegemonic imposition of the majority's values onto minorities, which often leads to marginalisation. However, it also poses ethical dilemmas when the practices of a culture include the oppression of certain groups within it. Thus, cultural relativism underscores the importance of balancing respect for cultural diversity with the protection of universal human rights.

Educational systems can perpetuate marginalisation through curricula that reflect the dominant culture's perspectives, values, and history, while marginalising or ignoring the contributions and experiences of minority groups. This can reinforce stereotypes and contribute to the social invisibility of these groups. Conversely, educational systems can be powerful tools for dismantling marginalisation by including diverse narratives, histories, and perspectives in the curriculum. When education celebrates multiculturalism and promotes critical thinking about social inequalities, it equips students with a broader, more empathetic worldview. Furthermore, inclusive education policies and practices can help ensure that students from all backgrounds have equal access to quality education, fostering a more equitable society.

In liberal democracies, marginalisation typically occurs within the framework of the rule of law and is often manifested through subtler forms of systemic inequality, such as socioeconomic disparities, implicit bias, and institutional racism. These societies may offer legal protections for minority groups but still face challenges in achieving true social equality and representation. In non-democratic regimes, marginalisation may be more overt and state-sanctioned, with minorities facing legal and social discrimination, suppression of cultural identities, and limited or no recourse to justice. The extent and nature of marginalisation can be more severe in autocratic systems where dissent is suppressed, and human rights are not universally upheld.

The concept of 'tolerance' can indeed be problematic within the context of multiculturalism. It implies merely putting up with or enduring something, rather than embracing and valuing it. Tolerance does not necessarily remove the underlying prejudices or power imbalances that lead to the marginalisation of certain groups. It may allow for a superficial coexistence of diverse cultures without addressing the deeper issues of equity and respect. True multiculturalism requires moving beyond tolerance to active appreciation and celebration of diversity, along with the dismantling of systemic barriers that prevent full participation of all cultural groups in society. It involves a commitment to justice and equality, not just a begrudging acceptance of difference.

Language acts as a vehicle for marginalisation when it reinforces power imbalances, typically when a dominant language supersedes the linguistic traditions of minority groups, leading to a loss of cultural heritage and difficulties in accessing services or participating in public life. For example, when indigenous languages are undervalued, their speakers can be effectively silenced in national discourses, perpetuating social and political marginalisation. Conversely, language can be empowering when minority groups assert their linguistic rights, preserve their languages, and use them as a means of cultural expression and solidarity. Language revitalisation efforts serve not only to maintain cultural identity but also to resist assimilation and advocate for equal rights and recognition.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the impact of social movements in achieving legal recognition and rights for marginalised groups. Discuss with reference to a specific social movement.

Social movements have been pivotal in advocating for the rights of marginalised groups, leading to significant legislative changes. Take, for example, the LGBTQ+ rights movement, which has successfully campaigned for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in various countries. The movement's use of strategic litigation, public demonstrations, and effective mobilisation of public opinion has shifted societal attitudes and resulted in a broader understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights. This has culminated in tangible legal reforms that recognise and protect these rights, demonstrating the powerful role social movements play in transforming the legal landscape to be more inclusive.

Analyse how the concept of intersectionality can deepen our understanding of the experiences of marginalised groups.

Intersectionality provides a nuanced framework for understanding the multifaceted experiences of marginalised individuals. It recognises that the converging dimensions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class create unique experiences of discrimination that cannot be understood in isolation. For instance, a Black woman may face both racism and sexism, which interconnect to produce a distinct form of marginalisation that is different from the sum of its parts. By considering these overlapping identities, intersectionality allows for a more comprehensive analysis of the systemic barriers that individuals face, thereby promoting a more effective and empathetic approach to addressing issues of social justice and equality.

George Christofi avatar
Written by: George Christofi
Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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