Understanding Marginalisation: Emancipatory Research

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 2 August 2018

This is the third post about “Emancipatory Research” (ER), the research that promotes empowerment. The first post in this series was an introduction to the emancipatory research. Part 2 was about different kinds of research approaches – scientific, participatory and emancipatory.

Students of emancipatory research training, Gaza, image by Sunil Deepak

This 3rd post is about how we think about and understand the mechanisms of oppression and marginalisation in the specific population group in which we are planning our research. Since my personal experience of ER is among persons with disabilities, most of my examples come from that area. However, I believe that a similar approach could be useful in all the different groups of marginalised groups.

Understanding Marginalisation

There can be different ways in which we can understand why and how some groups of persons become marginalised. Let me give you three extreme examples.

For example, we may think that every human being has a free will and is responsible for his or her destiny. Therefore, if I am marginalised, it is my fault and probably I have not made enough efforts to change my situation. I call this way of understanding marginalisation as the “Ayn Rand view-point”. Ayn Rand was a well-known American writer and she has written some famous books which exemplify this way of thinking, which can also be called "victim-blaming".

Or, we may think that all of us are born with our destinies already decided by a God or the circumstances of our life are decided by our actions in our past lives. Therefore, if I am marginalised, it is God’s will or it is result of my actions in a past life, and I must accept my destiny without fighting it.

A third way of thinking is what was used by the Brazilian philosopher and educationist Paulo Freire, who felt that marginalisation and oppression of the poor is because of the way societies are organised, which marginalises certain groups of persons, especially those who are different from the majority in some way, such as - queer persons, persons belonging to ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities. In this view the causes of marginalisation are inherent in the systems of the societies. Therefore, if I am poor and marginalised, all my efforts for changing my situation will face enormous difficulties as I will need to fight the system.

The view-point for promoting empowerment through research

For promoting empowerment through research among the marginalised groups, we need to use the understanding approach of Paulo Freire. This means that in the research, we have to focus on systemic causes of marginalisation in the societies. Looking at systemic causes means looking at the major challenges facing the “group” of marginalised persons. Thus, our understanding and approach has to be “collective” rather than “individual”.

To better explain this point, let me tell you more about the different viewpoints used for understanding disability and the marginalisation of disabled persons.

Different ways of understanding disabilities

Over the past couple of centuries, disabilities have been seen mainly as a medical problem. This means that we think of some persons’ bodies or minds having some kind of “defect”, which has to be corrected by an operation or physiotherapy or other treatment. This way of understanding disability is called “medical model of disability”. This model considers some persons as “normal”, it looks at disability as “not being normal” and being a problem of the individual.

Traditionally, disability was seen as a divine punishment. This way of thinking is still prevalent among some persons. In this view, disability is seen as destiny and people are asked to be charitable towards disabled persons and to help them. This is called "traditional model" of disability.

There is a third way of thinking about disability. In this third way, we think of all human beings being different from each other and having different needs. Here disability is seen as a result of the barriers created by the societies so that some persons are not able to participate equally in the community life. Barriers creating disability can be physical, social, cultural, economic and attitudinal. If we can break those barriers, persons with disabilities can participate in most of the life-activities like other persons. This is called a “social model of disability”.

Impact of Social Model of Disability

Looking at the systemic causes of disabilities as the barriers created by the society has played an important role in some of our social innovations. Making of ramps in the buildings, smoothing the edges of the side-walks for the wheel chairs, having red lights with acoustic signals for blind persons, having subtitles in videos and sign language translators for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, are some examples of making the world accessible by removing the barriers.

Many of these changes make life easier not only for persons with disabilities but also for others such as elderly persons, sick persons, pregnant women and parents with babies in a pram.

Social model of disability is used for Emancipatory Disability Research (EDR) – that is research for promoting empowerment of persons with disabilities. By focusing on the barriers created by the societies, this kind of research helps us to fight for our human rights and to change our societies so that we become more inclusive.


Research for empowerment needs to focus on collective and systemic challenges faced by the different groups of marginalised persons. In this way, we can promote discussions and understandings about how societies exclude and oppress people, so that we can then raise our voices and fight for our rights. This whole process creates empowerment.

Students of emancipatory research training, Gaza

The next step will be to understand how can organise an ER process in practice. That will be the subject of my next post.


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All the images used in this post are from an emancipatory research project in Gaza, Palestine.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com