The New York Times reports on the resurgence of sociological research looking into the "culture" of poverty. Those in liberal circles, of course, view the premise that cultural mores lead to poverty with skepticism; it bears too much resemblance to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's idea of cultural pathology, which he introduced in his infamous report, released during the Johnson administration. He blamed a lot of the problems of poverty African Americans faced in the 1960s on their family structures.
But the idea that shared values, norms, and expectations are affected by the material conditions in which people find themselves, and can also reinforce those conditions, is pretty much a no-brainer. The sociologists the Times quotes each define culture slightly differently, but it's worth noting that almost all of them describe culture as a response to societal structures and inequality. None of them argues that poor people don't value work, for example, but the type of jobs that are practically available for members of a community might change the type of work they see as worthwhile to pursue.
But the piece falls apart when the writer, Patricia Cohen, has to give it the newspaper treatment. Because most of the academics she speaks to are liberal, she gives a nod to a conservative, Kay S. Hymowitz, who argues that conservatives have been keeping talk of "culture" in the anti-poverty policy arena all these years. The problem is that Hymowitz equates culture with "family values" and "marriage," and disagrees, of course, with the previously quoted sociologists.
Watered-down definitions of culture, Ms. Hymowitz complained, reduce some of the new work to 'sociological pablum.'
'If anthropologists had come away from doing field work in New Guinea concluding ‘everyone’s different,’ but sometimes people help each other out,' she wrote in an e-mail, 'there would be no field of anthropology — and no word culture for cultural sociologists to bend to their will.'
But that oversimplifies the word "culture," as I've tried to explain before. Anthropologists spend a lot of time arguing about the definition of culture, and some would say that we shouldn't even use the word any more. Definitions of culture in anthropology can go on for pages and pages, but it usually ends up divorced from the reductive starting point that Hymowitz's definition assumes. The important thing is, you can't isolate culture as one element of a society and change it without changing anything else. You can't ignore the roles racism, lack of fundamental necessities, and social isolation play in shaping culture, and you can't use it as a convenient way to blame poverty on the individuals who suffer from it. Culture is a complicated concept, but that's not how many in the U.S. understand it, and it's worth being suspicious of tossing the word around for that reason alone.
-- Monica Potts
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