The Marginal Figure: Communities, Conflict, and Change

By Davood Gozli and Peter Limberg

Members of conflicting groups tend to think about each other with reference to typical or focal group members — someone who embodies all the relevant features of the outgroup while possessing none of the features of the ingroup. But groups are rarely homogenous and could not be fully represented by their focal members. If communication within and between groups is only controlled by the focal members, there is little chance for intra-group change and inter-group reconciliation. To deflect attention away from focal members, it is useful to pay attention to a concept that stands in sharp contrast to it — the marginal figure.

The roots of the present article were formed during an episode of The Stoa podcast, where we briefly touched on the concept of the marginal figure. Our aim here is to further explore the concept and its consequences both concerning the status of marginal figures within a community and with regard to what could be a constructive attitude, on the part of the community, toward the marginal figure. The theme of being in a marginal position came up again in another episode of the podcast with Glenn Wallis. The concept of memetic mediators, which is a possible variation on the same theme, was also brought up in a discussion with Jason Snyder. The discussions hinted at the potential role of marginal figures as sources of insight and connection across domains and communities. All this fueled the motive for our exploration.

We do not claim originality with regard to the concept, and in fact, we hope that we or others continue exploring the topic with reference to existing and relevant work in philosophy, sociology, and psychology. In the present article, we take a basic and modest aim. In Part I, we turn to the very idea of the margins. In Part II, we turn to how that idea is manifested in a person and, thus, the marginal figure. In Part III, we consider the genesis of the marginal figure. And, finally, in Part IV we discuss possible relations between communities and their marginal figures.

I. Margins

What are the margins? A better question might be: What or who is contained in the margins? The margins contain, paradoxically, both what is left out and what persists. This short statement requires unpacking. We could begin with basic elements of experience, including perception, judgments, and thought. In perception, the margins constitute the periphery.

  • Focus: object X is present
  • Margins: yes, but other objects, currently out of focus, are also present; the environment is also present; I, the perceiver, am also present, etc.

The same can be identified in judgment.

  • Focus: object X belongs to category Y
  • Margins: yes, but object X also belongs also to categories Z, W, V…

For example, consider the statement, “This apartment is my home”. The statement leaves out other ways of categorizing the same object, “apartment”, (e.g., that it is part of a three storey building, or that it is poorly designed). In addition, the statement will be false at some point in the future and its opposite (“This apartment is not my home”) will become true. We can, nevertheless, utter the statement, leaving out those peripheral facts. Those peripheral facts persist despite our neglecting them.

In thinking, the margins consist of neglected implications, unexamined assumptions, or missing links in reasoning.

  • Focus: given that object X is not a Y, therefore…
  • Margins: yes, but why should we follow the consequence of X-is-not-a-Y, rather than X-is-a-Z; and, is the consequence self-evident? Are there circumstances in which X can be treated as a Y?

The margins can interrupt, threaten, or de-stabilize what is in focus. In typical cases, what is marginal is left out of our awareness, quietly, though it persists as a potential target of inspection. The margins could be the product of ignorance, thinking habits, repression, or our inflexibility. Their very existence, however, is unavoidable, because our perspectives, our categories, and our theories do not exhaustively cover our reality.

In certain atypical cases, the distinction between the focal and marginal weakens. Consider, again, the statement, “This apartment is my home”. Consider that you might utter the statement about an apartment you either have just moved into or are about to move out of. There now is an incongruence between what the sentence is supposed to convey (familiarity and comfort) and what it actually means (unfamiliarity or loss). What is typically in the margins when we are thinking about home is now intruding into the foreground. Similarly, the statement, “My friend is here with me”, could be said by a person who is grieving for his lost friend. Again, there is an incongruence between what the sentence typically indicates (presence of someone) and what it means in this context (intense awareness of absence). By virtue of their incongruence, these expressions blur the distinction between the focus and the margins of experience, and they enable what is typically in the margins to enter into awareness.

What is in the margins differs from what is simply in the background. Like the margins, the background goes unnoticed. Unlike the margins, the background can fit perfectly with what is in focus, even after it is noticed and inspected (think, for example, of the supporting cast of a movie). The margins, by contrast, contain the so-called glitches in the matrix. They challenge what is in focus. Once they are attended, they can open up a political dimension by challenging and destabilizing what was initially in focus. Discovering, for example, that I can get along well with a member of an outgroup can afford such a glitch in the matrix. Thus, to say that the margins can threaten what is focal is to say they can also transform it.

II. The Marginal Figure

Now let us try to connect the ideas of focal and marginal to types of members in a community, associating them with archetypal figures. Focal figures could be those who re-affirm the status quo and maintain order and stability. They embody the values and norms that cohere the group. That is, we could think about them as the anthropomorphized manifesto of their communities. They can be the leader of the group or followers of those leaders. The community is designed to continually draw attention to them, to reinforce or celebrate them, and to envision their paths into the future (success or failure). In academic, business, or spiritual communities, there are collectively held ideas of evaluation and visions about how members of the community succeed or fail. The essence of the focal figures, we could say, is identified based on where their effort is directed, namely toward pursuing the values and ideals of the community. Consequently, these efforts maintain the status quo and reinforce the community’s beliefs and values.

In contrast to the focal figure, the marginal figure could disorient, destabilize, destroy, or renew the community’s status quo. Given that the beliefs and values of the communities are subject to change, and given that communities must adapt to internal and external changes to survive, it is necessary to recognize and value both the focal and the marginal figures of the community. In contrast to the focal figures, however, the marginal figures often go unnoticed because their energy is directed away from, or even against, the status quo. Consider, for instance, reputation and prestige within a community, which function as effective incentives. Seeking reputation and prestige drives people into action or inaction. By challenging these values, a marginal figure is challenging the mechanisms by which the actions of other community members are regulated.

Marginal figures are not necessarily silenced, repressed, or ignored. They might have status and respect in society at large. Nor are they necessarily powerless, as they may have the power to injure or transform their community. A marginal figure might branch out from the original community to build another one. In the case of Glenn Wallis, who was originally a member of a Buddhist community, the branching out came out of his re-interpretation of his community. He diagnosed that spiritual traditions become overly restrictive by placing emphasis on metaphysical belief systems. He subsequently channels his efforts into building a community that emphasized practices over belief systems. This example shows how a critique of one’s community does not indicate a wish to destroy the community. Under the guise of harsh criticism, marginal figures might seek improvement. It is worth asking, therefore, whether there are any regularities that could be associated with marginal figures. Are marginal figures, for instance, consistently misunderstood? If so, could the misunderstanding be explained with reference to a social mechanism?

Being misunderstood could be a sign that one is receiving a type of attention that aims at dismissing or pigeonholing. There is an asymmetry of understanding here: The marginal figures understand the community but the community, to preserve its stability, must have to actively mischaracterize and misunderstand them. As a consequence, their disagreements and criticisms go unrecognized, because they fall outside of the frame of how the community understands itself and its critics. They might want recognition, but for something for which the community is not ready. Given this, they exist with inner conflict, the desire to belong with the desire to remain an outsider.

Not all marginal figures are created equal, of course. They could differ in perspective, the accuracy of their judgment, maturity, self-awareness, and power. From relatively advantageous positions, they could exert influence on others or at least nudge them toward the direction of their choice. If they are successful in resolving their inner conflict and become recognized without getting assimilated into the status quo (what is also described as the “mainstream” or the “official narrative”), the community will not necessarily improve. Their ideas, if accepted, have the potential to dissolve the community as it has the potential to transform it. In short, the community’s acceptance of the marginal figure is always a gamble.

There are many examples of people that could be identified as marginal figures. Although it is easier to identify people from the past who had marginal status, with extreme cases such as Giordano Bruno or Socrates, we can detect marginal figures in the present time. One contemporary example is the psychologist Amedeo Giorgi, who has stood against mainstream academic psychology since the early 1960s, holding the unpopular position that the mechanistic, third-person approach to psychological science, one that is guided by the principles of measurement, prediction, and control is misguided. He developed an alternative approach to research that emphasizes understanding and the lived human experience.

Glenn Wallis. The archetypical marginal figure.

Another well-known example is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, particularly in his relation to academic and financial institutions. Taleb has argued that the modeling of random events based on the assumptions of Gaussian distributions, despite their theoretical elegance, fails to prepare us for low-probability and highly-consequential events. He has further emphasized the importance of focusing on the practical consequence of future events, rather than estimating their likelihood. Another example, already mentioned, is Glenn Wallis, who has criticized popular Western adaptations of Buddhism, arguing that the core of a spiritual tradition can be lost in the process of subordinating it to a culture of optimized productivity and self-help. Wallis has argued for the preservation of Buddhist practices while resisting the commitment to the worldviews that are often attached to them.

What these individuals share in common is that they have each identified a mismatch between the purported goals of their community and the means by which the community is moving toward those goals. In other words, they have identified certain hypocrisies in the established community norms. Their critiques and correctives involve either revising the communities goals or the means of pursuing those goals.

III. The Genesis of the Marginal Figure

Our interest in genesis comes from the interest in tracing the characteristics of marginal figures to their earlier and simpler forms, and to see those characteristics in light of a developmental trajectory. What is, for example, an earlier-and-simpler form of a cultural critic? We would not describe a child as a “cultural critic”, we might find early instantiations or tendencies related to that concept. We might not be able to pinpoint the genesis of marginal figures to specific events or types of events, though there are probably common themes that characterize the development of the marginal figure, particularly themes in the early phases of life.

Becoming a marginal figure, we assume, could be traced back to childhood or adolescence. This idea enables us to see the pre-conditions of the figure, and offer an explanation for its emergence. But what kinds of pre-conditions? We can consider events that prevent someone from having a stable perspective or to believe comfortably in what everyone else believes. Take, for example, the experience of moving into a new culture as a child, which not only involves encountering new people, but also new norms, habits, beliefs, and values. One discovers that the old norms do not apply and new norms must be learned. This requires a type of attention to aspects of the social world that people don’t ordinarily have to think about. It can even force one to realize the arbitrary features of both cultures. When Giorgi reflects on his own marginal status within academic psychology, he contemplates such an association to his childhood events.

Of course, one doesn’t have to move to a new place to feel like an outsider. Not fitting in can result from any number of factors, including not being a good student, not being good at sports, not getting along with others socially, and in general not meeting some group-level standard. A young person, moreover, can for whatever reason lose their faith in authority figures, coming to the conclusion that one cannot simply trust authority.

These formative conditions can push the young person out of the “center” into a place where things appear ambiguous and uncertain. They force the young person to pay attention to features of the world that are usually in the periphery. Not relying on a culturally dominant lens, the young person is forced to take a step back and look at the “brute facts” of life, taking fewer things for granted. The causal link is not straightforward. After failing to fit in, for instance, one way to cope is to tell yourself, “I’ll try again” — insisting on occupying a focal-figure status — while another way to cope is to disengage from the very standards against which you failed, “there is no point in trying again” — occupying a marginal-figure status. The latter coping style could perhaps be a decisive moment in the formation of the marginal figure.

Having taken, or being forced to take, unpopular positions, the marginal figure learns that the threat to the center is not a threat to him/her. One might think, “if my father, my teacher, the authority figures are wrong, it doesn’t mean that I am wrong, because I am already detached from their viewpoints”. Similarly, one might think, “not having the approval of the authority figures, or the majority in my group does not hurt me”. For the young person who is on the early stages of marginality, therefore, the value of what is at the center is diminished. And, those values (e.g., approval of others, status, and prestige), as a consequence could be given lower priority, compared to other values (e.g., experience, facts, creativity). Likewise, the young person who finds himself on the margins might find himself already in a place that prevents him from enjoying the benefits of the center, such as the unambiguous/handed-down judgment of events.

Being a marginal figure, therefore, can both be seen as destiny and as choice. It is destiny in so far as the events and conditions of early life prepare one for the marginal position; it is a choice, in so far as residing in the margin, due to the events and conditions of early life, is now an option that can be consciously embodied.

IV. Reactions to the Marginal Figure

The community can respond to the marginal figure in three ways. Under normal circumstances the marginal figure is “swallowed up” by the community, their differences and peculiar views are explained away, through selective attention and distorted interpretation. The community commits interpretative violence against the marginal figure and misunderstands them in a way that draws attention back to the center. The marginal figure may be allowed to operate freely but they are hand-waved away as an eccentrics that prove the rightness of the focal figure. Portraying the critic as misguided supports the “conspiracy of the center” which the focal figure upholds. Essentially the figure is ignored and left alone.

In trying circumstances, when the ecology is in flux and the community begins to doubt itself, the relationship between the marginal figure becomes critical. If they enter into dialogue and earnestly begin the process of understanding their positions, the community may begin to transform. Such a transformation involves risk or loss on the part of the focal figures — who occupy positions of power — which explains resistance against dialogue. If they decide against dialogue, they may seek out to destroy the figure and sacrifice him to appease the gods of stability. Suppression is a direct and efficient method, at least in the short term, of avoiding collective doubt and crisis. Describing such authoritarian method of thought control the philosopher Charles S. Peirce writes:

Wherever there is an aristocracy, or a guild, or any association of a class of men whose interests depend, or are supposed to depend, on certain propositions, there will be inevitably found some traces of this natural product of social feeling. Cruelties always accompany this system; and when it is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man.

Similarly, in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton introduces the term totalism to describe social movements aimed to seek total control over their members. If ecological instability invokes extreme anxiety, they may demand status quo purity. The community writ large may become enamored by what Cognitive Behaviour Therapists call dichotomous thinking. The world is seen in black and white prohibiting anything outside of the binary. You either agree or you will be canceled. This is what Lifton’s refers to as “dispensing of existence”. In effect, the margins (elements of experience discussed in Section I) are denied. Any internal dissent from the status quo will be punished swiftly, either through social shame or through more convulsive means.

This is a problem for the marginal figure, whose existential livelihood depends on having a healthy distance from the status quo. The marginal figure cannot openly exist in community captured by totalism. In totalistic communities, it is assumed that evolution has ended and the space for exploratory dialogue has ceased to exist. This fossilization of the status quo may serve as an evolutionary advantage to the group as a whole in certain circumstances, allowing it to survive past its expiry date. Nevertheless, this strategy involves a denial of reality, the collective shutting down of minds, and “the end of history” for the community.

Instead of doubling-down on the status quo, the community can risk exploring new ways of understanding. Rather than viewing the marginal figure as misguided or dangerous, they can view them as a gift. As already noted, the experience of being an outsider, while still residing within the community, affords an asymmetry of awareness. Marginal figures can know the community better than the community knows them. It is also possible that the marginal figure knows the community better than the community knows itself. This is, incidentally, why public debates can be widely interesting and revitalizing, though for reasons that are not explicitly known to the community members.

By entering into dialogue with its marginal figures, a community has the opportunity for self-discovery and transformation. The marginal figure is uniquely positioned to point out the unexamined beliefs of the community. They can offer suggestions for a new direction. If such a dialogue is fruitful, then the community’s focus may shift closer to that of the marginal figure, encouraging the group to coalesce around a new center. This is an opportunity for the marginal figure as well. It might not always be preferable to branch out and create a new community, which is isolated from the original larger community. The inner tension that plagues their entire lives could finally be resolved if they are recognized by the community and appreciated on their terms. By contributing to the community, the marginal figure affirms his/her belonging — the practical and emotional bond — to the community. As such, the community’s crisis of doubt is the marginal figures opportunity for redemption.

About the Authors:

Davood Gozli is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Macau. You can follow him on Twitter @DGozli or his blog at

Peter N. Limberg is a writer, podcast host and event organizer based in Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter @peternlimberg

The Stoa was once a covered portico where Stoics met to philosophize. Now it’s a digital space, where we can gather and talk about what matters most.