Needs, Barriers, and the Enclosure of Life

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

When I set out on this journey to contemplate an “education for liberation”, it became important to define liberation, and in so doing, it became excruciatingly clear to me that such an ideal is fundamentally at odds with schooling in the United States and other settler colonial nations.

Yet regardless of how we define liberation, it is indisputable that certain factors obstruct any movement toward that ideal. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes about a “matrix of domination”, which lays out the interlocking ways that oppressions act on any given person with a compound, cumulative, emergent effect.[1]Hill Collins, P. (2002). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Taylor & Francis. The impacts of these oppressions land in different ways, affecting people’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and even spiritual “outcomes”, that is to say, their trajectories through each of these domains toward a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. 

In charting these trajectories, under the pretext of “human motivation”, psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a widely popular framework known as the Hierarchy of Needs. It purports to explain the stages an individual passes through on the road to “self-actualization”, a rather vague philosophical concept which Maslow himself struggled to get a firm handle on, and which in any case avoids any systemic analysis of the oppressive vectors which inhibit, redirect, or completely obstruct the fulfillment of a person’s needs.

In this section, I offer up Maslow’s hierarchy, not as a “theory of human motivation”, but as a lens to make visible the overlapping, interlocking lattice of enclosures which comprise the experience of life under capitalism, and more specifically young people’s experience within schools. 

The hierarchy is ripe for critique on several grounds — some of which I will address below — highlighting how the model was itself conceived under the same conditions, and how it has been co-opted extensively for capitalistic purposes. Yet it is also important to recognize how Maslow’s own thinking evolved in the years following the initial publication of A Theory of Human Motivation in 1943.

Maslow Misrepresented and Appropriated

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) is widely regarded as a pioneer, if not one of the founders, of the field of humanistic psychology. His “hierarchy of needs” purported to explain how human motivation is directed by the fulfillment — or inability to fulfill — a successive sequence of “needs”, until reaching the ultimate, universal goal of self-actualization. While the hierarchy of needs has been transmitted across the globe, with various degrees of fidelity, this proliferation has seems to have mostly been powered by the engines of capitalism, for the benefit of international business, organizational management, and marketing. For this reason, the evolution of Maslow’s thinking to include “self-transcendence” — an extension of the human condition beyond both the individual self and one’s material concerns — did not take root as widely. 

The global reach of Maslow’s framework means that it has inevitably shown up, in one form or another, in schools. As Kress and colleagues point out, the hierarchy can “reduce human experience to a cause-and-effect equation that reads: IF students’ needs are met THEN learning can occur”[2]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading, which speaks to how student needs are subordinate to their productive activity, and thereby subordinate to the needs of the institution, and the demands of capital.

Maslow posited that humans are motivated by a successive fulfilment of different needs, starting with the physiological (e.g. food, sleep), through safety and security, then the emotional (e.g. belonging, esteem), until reaching a state of “self-actualization”. This, Maslow defined as a “person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially”.[3]Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

An important thing to understand about the hierarchy of needs is what Maslow called the “prepotency principle”, which says that one cannot move “up” the hierarchy until the needs at a given level are fulfilled. 

At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on[4]Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Very commonly the hierarchy is represented visually by a pyramid, with physical needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Though Maslow did not create this image, he did not dispute it as a useful representation of the theory.[5]Feigenbaum, K. D., & Smith, R. A. (2019). Historical narratives: Abraham Maslow and Blackfoot interpretations. The Humanistic Psychologist. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

What Maslow may not have predicted or anticipated, was how widespread this image would become, far more established than any deeper understanding of the theory or the reasoning behind it. This has led to a sort of “commodification” of the framework, that is, a “simplified symbolic representation (sometimes with a lack of consideration of their intellectual or societal background) and their translation into a standard and/or merchandise”[6]Bouzenita A.I., & Aisha Wood Boulanouar, A.W. (2016). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: An Islamic critique. Intellectual Discourse, 24(1)

Social work scholar Cindy Blackstock (Gitxsan Nation), in positing a “Breath of Life Theory” as a unifying theory of the human condition, emphasizes the importance of spirituality in Native cultures, going so far as to place it at the core — not the bottom — of any conceptualization of human needs.[7]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16. Bouzenita & Boulanouar, critiquing the capitalist appropriation of Maslow’s hierarchy, suggest that if we are to “acknowledge humankind as more than ‘consuming units’, the model would need to be completely inverted, so that self-transcendence was the initial step, the step which defined purpose, before eating, drinking, and seeking shelter.”[8]Bouzenita A.I., & Aisha Wood Boulanouar, A.W. (2016). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: An Islamic critique. Intellectual Discourse, 24(1)

This leads us to a question posed by Kress, et al: “What would a human needs theory look like if it were not a deficit-laden, cause-and-effect pyramid?”[9]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading Blackstock’s holistic model situates human needs in four large categories — physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual — recognizing them as overlapping, and of equal importance, existing in constant relationship to one another. 

Human needs are not uniformly hierarchical but rather highly interdependent in nature with cultural values and laws defining how balance is achieved on personal and collective levels[10]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16.

The work of being human is navigating these overlapping domains, ever shifting toward an equilibrium. Within the context of education, we must recognize that young people are more than “productive units”, and that their biological, social, and spiritual needs should not be alienated from their learning and labor. On the contrary, learning should be in service of young people’s material and spiritual concerns, and those of their communities. 

Kress and colleagues relate the story of a student who was regularly hungry and suffered from poor hygiene, but who “once we fed him, sometimes an apple, sometimes other food, he physically perked up and showed his academic brilliance.”[11]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading It would seem that this young man temporarily or circumstantially occupied multiple levels of the hierarchy at once, his access to any of them at any given time determined by structural conditions. In response to Taylor’s story, Melissa Winchell says:

Maslow’s hierarchy forces us to consider whether/how/why students have need. […] What structures prevented Cindy’s student from having the food he needed? What agency did his family have, or lack, by virtue of class, gender, race, and so on?[12]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading

One’s ability to navigate the hierarchy of needs is mediated by power. This evokes Hill-Collins’s matrix of domination, as the student — poor and Native-American — is contending with interlocking oppressions.  For the student in this example, even though the teachers fed him in recognition of his need, that act was still tied to the productive activity of the school, as a means of accessing his “academic brilliance”, rather than taken on its own merits, feeding as an act of life-affirmation.

I can acknowledge thinking in similar ways, if only unconsciously. I looked favorably upon Maslow’s hierarchy, as it did seem to “explain” human behavior. I have even literally brought the hierarchy into the classroom, as a tool for students to reflect on their own challenging behaviors, and think to critically about their actions. This was successful precisely zero times. 

Still, I thought the hierarchy of needs presented a way of thinking about what students really need, not just for academic success, but more holistically, which in turn informed how I thought about my role as an educator. If I understood that a lack of student “engagement” or “performance” may be rooted in basic needs — like food, shelter — not being reliably fulfilled, then it allowed me to approach students with more compassion. Of course, the problem remained that my understanding of what “engagement” or “performance” even should look like, was narrow, and that I was still placing the productive activity as the end, rather than the means of affirming young people’s lives.

Needs as Mediated by Capital and the State

Maslow presents the hierarchy of needs as a theory of human — that is, individual — motivation, while saying nothing about the systems that obstruct or mediate one’s movement through the hierarchy. The reason it has been so easy to exploit by forces of capital is because it offers no challenge to hegemony. On the contrary, it is has been used by those very same entities to enclose people’s needs into discrete categories, offering to meet them only where it improves efficiency. Yet we can use the hierarchy of needs to identify the various structures and forces — (e.g. the state, capital, time, labor, knowledge) that mediate people’s access to their needs. 

For basic biological needs, we can focus on food, which comes from the land or sea, and yet before it reaches most people, it must pass through a variety of nodes or staging points. The “owner” of the land determines what is exported to suppliers, and under what conditions. Suppliers determine access through what they purchase from owners, the prices they set, and how it reaches the retail market. Retail additionally determines prices and supply, based on demand and previous waste. For schools, opaque transactions between districts or municipalities and industrial food suppliers dictate what food students have access to, with the priority placed on low cost and quantity, at the expense of quality, nutrition, or inevitable waste. 

Capital, usually in the form of money, mediates this movement at every juncture, and is the most immediate barrier or facilitator to people’s access to food. Labor, as the source of capital, further mediates access through the setting of wages. Geography and time mediate access based on people’s proximity to a grocery store, and their “non-productive” time outside of work or family obligations. Young people’s access is mediated further still, by their parents’ or caretakers’ access to capital, given that their labor is legally restricted by the State.

There are knowledge barriers as well, where people simply do not know where how or where they might access food more easily — such as from state or non-profit sources, who themselves act as additional mediators, though usually as facilitators — and in not being able to identify food growing in the wild for the fact that this knowledge is obscured by the priorities of the market. This void of knowledge, which is reinforced by education under capitalism, has the additional effect of convincing people that their physical needs can only be fulfilled by a labyrinthine system.

[A]n extraordinary thing that the system has done, has been to interpose itself in between us and the real world, because if your experience is that your water comes from the tap and your food comes from the grocery store, you’re going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you, because your life depends on it.[13]Jensen, D. (2010, November 26). Author and Activist Derrick Jensen: “The Dominant Culture is Killing the Planet…It’s Very Important for Us to Start to Build a Culture of Resistance”[Video] … Continue reading 

The system manipulates people by holding their material needs hostage to labor, while at the same time providing for those needs as either an incentive to work, or in recognition of the basic biological reality that people need energy to work. 

Schools feed young people, not out of kindness or care for their health or well-being — as evidenced by the poor quality of the food they offer — but to provide the energy to work and to mitigate biological distractions. Schools break the prepotency principle by a placing a literal premium on productive activity, the fulfillment of the institution’s “needs” taking priority over the those of the student, as evidenced by the quality and availability of food, and how quickly “security” turns into violence against students, how social activities are policed.[14]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365. That the priority is on productive activity is also evident in the spatiotemporal limitations placed on the very consumption of food: only certain kinds of foods can be eaten, it can be eaten in the cafeteria, not the classroom, and only at the designated time. 

People’s security needs are mediated by the state, by way of the police — whose true function is to protect capital  — becoming a threat to one’s security where the relationship to the state is mediated by enclosures of the body such as race and gender. In the same way, schools police young people under the pretext of “discipline” or “security”, teachers, administrators, and security personnel also tasked with protecting capital by way of the productive activity. Schools are often unsafe for young people, both for this reason, and because the interior cultures are shaped by dynamics of resistance and punishment, even before we consider the external social and biological conditions which exert a force from the outside. 

Put more simply, young people often enter these buildings hungry, afraid, angry, depressed, and/or with any other demands on their attention and capacity, and where they express any of these outwardly, the school exerts a counter-force (discipline and punishment) to subordinate them to the productive activity — and thereby to capital — nearly identical to the carceral system.

The belonging needs are mediated by enclosures of community, by way of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy which obstruct, sociocultural norms of individualism, the construct of the nuclear family, intergenerational animosity, spatial and temporal alienation, separations of and imbalances and between labor and leisure. Schools mostly leave young people on their own to find belonging, while obstructing the possibility through the policing of social activity, especially where it interferes, yet again, with the productive activity. 

As we consider belonging and esteem, material concerns seem to be put aside, and yet in a capitalist economy, patterns of consumption reveal that the material and the social are tightly intertwined. Trigg points out how consumer habits are also informed by society and culture. He discusses “tastes” as tendencies toward consumption, on the basis of either necessity or “the social conditioning associated with particular combinations of economic and cultural capital”.[15]Trigg, A. B. (2004). Deriving the Engel curve: Pierre Bourdieu and the social critique of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Review of Social Economy, 62(3), 393-406.

I am reminded of the phenomenon of low-income individuals spending beyond their means, purchasing high-end products such as phones or sneakers, for what it provides in social capital, even if that comes at the expense of the lower needs such as eating well or having a safe place to live. It is important to note that how these needs are even defined is subjective, and informed by race, culture, and class.

Bouzenita & Boulanouar discuss how consumer choices are influenced by marketing, which operates entirely on manipulating human needs. They make the case that branding “positions products in minds of consumers as having human/friend characteristics, [allowing] consumers to feel they have relationships with products – proxies for Maslow’s higher order needs (social, esteem, etc.)”[16]Bouzenita A.I., & Aisha Wood Boulanouar, A.W. (2016). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: An Islamic critique. Intellectual Discourse, 24(1)

Yet Allison Pugh discusses how low-income people are not merely subjects of corporate manipulation, but make consumer choices with agency, and toward a very particular purpose. Low-income parents, for instance, purchase specific items or experiences for their children that “yield the most social impact for their dollars”, “the most significant symbolic value for the children’s social world”, by establishing parity between them and their peers. Pugh calls this “symbolic indulgence”. which is contrast to “symbolic deprivation” practiced by more affluent parents, an attempt to show their “moral restraint” by what they did not purchase for their children.[17]Pugh, A. J. (2009). Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. University of California Press. 

At the same time, while there is no material gain (i.e. no fulfillment of the lower levels of the hierarchy), these purchases are practically mandatory, not seen as a “waste of money” — for the social capital, which corresponds to belonging and esteem within a peer group, that they provide. The absence of the status-signifying products are more noticeable than their presence, such that it’s practically mandatory for one to have them. 

The esteem needs are mediated by enclosures of mind and body, enclosures of community, time and space, labor, much the same as belonging needs, and self-actualization is nearly impossible within these barriers. Schools tether esteem to the productive activity through grading and competition, with self-efficacy, — or lack thereof — being the best predictor of student disengagement from school-based learning.

The Scourge of Individualism

Blackstock recognizes that while certain needs are universal, they are mediated by culture. “We all need food but what food is eaten, when it is eaten, and how it is eaten are highly dependent on cultural norms and contextual factors”.[18]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16. And as Koltko-Rivera states, “The reality is that so-called “higher” motivations, such as self-actualization and self-transcendence, can appear as the dominant motivations in individuals who seem not to have firmly resolved the needs for survival, safety, and so forth.”[19]Koltko-Rivera, M. (2006). Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General … Continue reading The mere fact that people can move fluidly between levels of the hierarchy, influenced by their own social and cultural context, shows that the prepotency principle only holds where structural factors mediate people’s access to their needs. 

Some critics take exception to the individualistic bias inherent to the hierarchy of needs.  Kress and colleagues acknowledge that while Maslow considers other people with respect to “belonging” and “esteem”, these levels of the hierarchy are concerned with the “individual’s need for and reception of these things, not so much about the relationships with other people. The collective society is absent, which is perhaps its deepest flaw. When needs are intrinsic and self-actualization is an individual accomplishment, human experience is splintered, the collective is forgotten”.[20]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading 

It seems Maslow disregards the obvious truism that nothing human beings feel, do, learn, or otherwise experience, happens in isolation. But in his later thinking, he acknowledged “it is quite clear that a purely intra-psychic, individualistic psychology, without reference to other people and social conditions, is not adequate”.[21]Maslow, A. (1982). The journals of Abraham Maslow. Lewis Publishers.

The real substance of the critique, however, is that how needs play out for different people can be understood in terms of whether they are members of a more individualist or collectivist culture. According to Gambrel & Cianci, “Achievement, self-actualization, and self-respect characterize an individualistic society, and also characterize self-esteem and self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”[22]Gambrel, P., & Cianci, R. (2003). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Does It Apply In A Collectivist Culture. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 8(2), 143-161., while people in a collectivist society, prioritize belonging and the esteem of their particular peer or family groups. 

Much of this distinction between individualist and collectivist societies draws upon the work of Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, who considered it to be one of six “dimensions of national culture”. The trouble with Hofstede’s work is that where any given population consists of diverse subgroups, the data will skew in favor of the majority.[23]Hofstede Insights. National Culture. For example, the classification of the U.S. as the most individualistic society in the world is likely founded on data collected mostly from white Americans, who make up the demographic majority. In turn, it suppresses data from other groups, such as Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, whose cultures tend to be more collectivist, even where they have adapted to a more individualist milieu. Refer back to the Pugh’s concept of “symbolic indulgence”, in which low-income families prioritize belonging (that is, a relationship to others) sometimes at the expense of individual needs. 

The fact that Maslow’s work was done entirely in the U.S. context, and that his work was preoccupied with U.S. presidents, professors, and other people he considered to be “self-actualized”, and who he called the “best specimens” of humanity, likely skewed the development of the hierarchy of needs toward a whiter conception of reality, and thereby a more individualistic one. As Gambrel & Cianci note, “The hierarchy of needs developed by Maslow was based on U.S. middle class values when the American culture stressed individual achievement.”[24]Gambrel, P., & Cianci, R. (2003). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Does It Apply In A Collectivist Culture. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 8(2), 143-161. It is no secret that “middle class” bears a strong correlation to race, which is to say that middle-class Americans are disproportionately white. It is perhaps on these grounds that Kress, et al interrogate Maslow’s framing:

Who decides what “needs” means? Who decides in what order humans can experience needs? What does it mean to be self-actualized; says who? Are needs only intrinsic/individualistic? Do women and minorities experience needs differently than a White male?”[25]Kress, T.M. et al. (2011). (Re)theorizing Maslow Using Critical, Sociocultural, Feminist, and Indigenous Lenses. Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-First Century: A New Generation of Scholars, pp. … Continue reading

The stress placed on “individual achievement” within Western societies, is endemic to schooling in the United States, reinforced by way of grading, competition, and behavior management strategies such as “Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS)”, which provide rewards for individuals being particularly “productive” or exhibiting compliant behaviors. Blackstock, recalling Maslow’s time with the Siksika Nation, comments that if he “had more fully integrated Blood First Nations perspectives, the [Hierarchy of Needs] would be centered on multi-generational community actualization versus on individual actualization and transcendence”.[26]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16.

In developing the foundations of her Breath of Life theory, and drawing upon Terry Cross’s relational worldview principles, Blackstock proposes a more holistic model, “experienced within the four dimensions (physical, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive) and at all levels (personal, family, community, society, and world).” She goes on to discuss First Nations/indigenous concepts of time as cyclical rather than linear, such that “past, present, and future are mutually reinforcing”.[27]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16.

This again makes me think of spatiotemporal alienation — individualism as not merely isolation of the self in physical or mental space, but in time. For the individualist, not only am “I” the only one that matters, but my concerns are immediate, with no consideration of how they are influenced by the past, or how choices made will reverberate into the future. By contrast, many indigenous people “consider their actions in terms of the impacts of the ‘seven generations’, meaning that  “one’s actions are informed by the experience of the past seven generations and by considering the consequences for the seven generations to follow.[28]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16.

Hierarchy of Domination

While the hierarchy of needs purports to represent a “theory of human motivation”, it also implicitly reveals the mediators — both barriers and facilitators — between people and their fundamental needs, most prominently: 1) the state, which claims ownership or control of land under false premises of democratic appointment and collective good, and 2) capital, the fictional commodity exchanged for the “right” to access the means of living. Schools, as proxies of both state and capital, serve primarily as incubators for the next generation of state subjects, employees, and consumers.

If the hierarchy can be said to chart one’s aspiration toward a particular quality of life, toward “self-actualization” or even “transcendence”, then schools foreclose on that very possibility by delaying the fulfillment in favor of production. Taken together, the many forms of enclosure that these institutions reproduce — of land, time, space, community, body, knowledge, learning, labor, and experience — altogether comprise an enclosure of life, dividing it into discrete aspects for purposes of profit and control, the boundaries between them mediated by capital, the State, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and settler colonialism, along a 500 year continuity of domination. 

Put another way, these forces obstruct or control the movement of material goods, experience, communication — very flow of matter and energy — that underlie people’s needs. Schools, as proxies for State and capital, reproduce these relations of domination by enclosing young people’s experience of living into spatiotemporally limited zones, in order to subordinate them to capital, and/or the needs of the institution itself.

Scroll to Top