Organizing Outsiders and their Spaces

Mona Florian, Jana Costas and Gideon Kunda

A fascination with “outsiders” (Becker, 1963) infuses the history of social sciences. Following the Chicago School, outsiders are people “who share the label and experience of being labelled as outsiders” (ibid., p. 10), such as “the nuts, the sluts and the perverts” (Goffman, 1959) who stand outside of the social order. Other established reference points of this fascination are Simmel’s personage of “the stranger”, Foucault’s studies on madness, clinics and prisons, Spivak’s thoughts on the subaltern (1988) or more recently Agamben’s “homo sacer” (1998) embodied in the refugee. Being labelled as an outsider not only excludes these people from access to education, goods, services, civil rights, law and order, it also pushes them to distinct spaces which are decoupled from the wider society.

These spaces can be “total institutions” (Goffman, 1961), isolated and enclosed spaces in which a community of outsiders lives and works under the more or less strict control of a formal organization. Examples are old-age homes, asylums, camps, prisons, abbeys or army barracks. Other socio-spatial formations in which outsiders dwell are illegal encampments like “the Jungle” in Calais, favelas or otherwise socially deprived neighbourhoods such as Alice Goffman’s Sixth Street (2014). Both types of spaces are inherently different. Total institutions take outsiders out of the city and impose the tight grip of a formally organized control regime on them, while these other spaces lack formal social organization and have limited or biased access to government services and intervention, which transforms the city in their area and shapes and limits relations to the world around them. Despite these differences, both may be seen as “spaces of the expelled” (Sassen, 2016), who’s populations have grown dramatically over the last decades of global capitalism. While we share Sassen’s concerns about the new quality of expulsions of outsiders, we think her argument overlooks the fact that “the expelled” are not only objects of suffering and help-receiving (Bauman, 2002) residing at the systemic edge. Given their often critical condition, it might be especially important to also explore how on a micro-level new forms of locality (Martin, 2015), subjectivity (Agier, 2002), community and political action (Sigona, 2014) are produced and organized, which potentially “unlabel” the outsider and blur the boundaries between the social system and its margins. Chances of “unlabelling” might lie in community projects, volunteerism, activism but also the creation of new digital spaces, which open up new possibilities for agency and community building but also for contact between insiders and outsiders.

Organizations play a vital role in “labelling” and “unlabelling” outsiders (Matza, 1969). As “thresholds” (Agamben, 1998; ten Bos, 2005) they classify people as citizens, mental patients (Goffman, 1961) or “bare life” and manage passages between these categories. Being part of an interorganizational network of local authorities, the police, security companies, third and private sector organizations and NGOs, they design, administer and supervise spaces outsiders inhabit. They control boundaries, but also shape and manage contacts between insiders and outsiders. At the same time, organizations dealing with outsiders are objects of labelling themselves. Muslim community organizations, for example, might be discredited as potential terror cells, philanthropic organizations as “do gooders” or “lefties”, public authorities as fascist or racist.

In this stream, we seek to examine how organizations produce outsiders and their spaces on the micro-level. We are interested in papers that deal with the following or similar questions: How are passages between the labels “outsider” and “insider” organized and legitimized? How do organizations “make” spaces in which outsiders reside? Which intraorganizational processes or phenomena influence their interaction with outsiders? To what extent do they enable contact, solidarity, participation or political action? How do outsiders and insiders deal with these organizations, how do they play by or with their rules? How are organizations themselves labelled when dealing with or consisting of outsiders? With its tradition of studying societal peripheries ethnography offers a range of opportunities to investigate these questions. It relates micro-phenomena of organizing to the broader social, cultural or historical setting and thus can shed light on the dynamics of managing outsiders within our neighbourhoods and cities. Its focus on practices allows to show how the “watchers” of the outsiders are involved in producing them (Van Maanen, 1978) and the spatial and material reality they live in.


Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Agier, M.; Nice, R. & Wacquant, L. (2002a): Between War and City. Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps, in: Ethnography, 3 (2), pp. 317-341.

Agier, M.; Nice, R. & Wacquant, L. (2002b): Still Stuck between War and City. A Response to Bauman and Malkki, in: Ethnography, 3 (2), pp. 361-366.

Bauman, Z. (2002): In the Lowly Nowherevilles of Liquid Modernity. Comments on and around Agier, in: Ethnography, 3 (2), pp. 343-349.

Becker, H. (1964). Outsiders. Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. American Journal of Sociology, 69 (4), 417–419.

Bos, R. ten (2005). ‘Giorgio Agamben and the Community without Identity’, in Jones, C. (Ed), Contemporary organization theory, pp. 16–29. Malden, Mass: Blackwell.

Goffman, A. (2014): On the Run. Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums. New York: Doubleday.

Matza, D. (1969): Becoming Deviant. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Sassen, S. (2016): At the Systemic Edge. Expulsions, in: European Review, 24 (1), pp.89-104.

Sigona, N. (2014): Campzenship. Reimagining the Camp as a Social and Political Space, in: Citizenship Studies, 19 (1), pp. 1-15.

Spivak, G. (1988). ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Nelson, C. (ed.): Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 271-314. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Van Maanen, J. (1978): ‘On Watching the Watchers’, in: Manning, K. & Van Maanen, J. (Eds.), Policing. A View from the Streets, pp. 309-350. New York: Random House.

Contact us

European University Viadrina

Contact us