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‘”Culture of Poverty” Makes a Comeback:’ New York Times

3 November, 2010

In the 18 October New York Times, Patricia Cohen writes that the idea of a “culture of poverty,” first introduced by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis and popularised in a famous 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is making a public comeback in the US after several decades of being “shunned”

in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology. … Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly … conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed. “We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned. …

At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendeed discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty…

The article suggests that sociologists are “seeking to recapture the topic from economists,” but their new discourse of “culture of poverty” differs from that of the ’60s in that it does not see culture as monolithic or unchanging, and acknowledges structural and contextual factors. “To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is  best understood as ‘shared understanding’.” Particularly striking is a quote from black Harvard socologist William Julius Wilson: “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”

Now, this is not the first time I feel both pleased that non-anthropologists are discovering an understanding of culture that anthropologists have long held self-evident and annoyed that this is presented as a new insight. At a different level, I am also deeply ambivalent about what the return of notions such as “culture of poverty” in both urban settings and those of development aid. While the attention to the cultural context is welcome, it can easily relapse into the kind of determinism that the sociologists in the article disavow. The quite unabashed and unreflexive belief in “cultures of poverty” avant la lettre by Chinese development actors, who are increasingly influential, gives the situation an additional dimension.

To make myself clear: I do not agree with the anti-developmentalist ideology of “cultural survival,” do not think that “participatory development” has worked very well, and do not automatically oppose paternalistic approaches espoused by Chinese and increasingly, again, Western “developers.” But  I am also uncomfortable with the intellectual implications and power consequences of the latter.

I have been reading a Festschrift for Jojada Verrips, a prominent Dutch anthropologist whose house I am temporarily occupying (with his permission). Verrips contends that much of 20th-century anthropology has been complicit with the rest of social sciences in a grand exercise of rationalization, which exorcises evil from the “civilized world,” banishes the wild, and sweeps the sinister under the rug. It has focused too much, he says, on explaining and thus taming human behaviour, with the consequence that it is unable to accept irrationality. In contemporary China, the idea that some people are evil and need to be killed or put away is still more or less commonplace. Not in the West. Certainly not in Europe, where the rationalising exercise has gone farther than in the United States.

How does this relate to the “culture of poverty?”  On the whole, anthropology has rejected essentialist explanations of poverty, but while rightly pointing to structural reasons it has simultaneously naturalised the persistence of poverty through cultural argumentation. It has been strangely unable, or rather uninterested, in coming up with a convincing explanation of the very different experiences, meanings and dynamics of so-called “respectable poverty” of pre-consumer society West and many of today’s forms of poverty, both in Western cities and in the African countryside. I think it should.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 November, 2010 6:54 pm

    TTD, I’m so glad to see something posted here again. You’ve inspired me to revive my own contributions. First though I just wanted to mention that Daniel Lende has also recently written about the “culture of poverty” debate over at Neuroanthropology, AND he’s just published a guest piece writing about writing about the debate on a new blog about called Anthropology and Publicity.


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