The Culture of Poverty.

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

Comments

PRODUCTION(CREATION) OF SPACE.
As you know most of the communities (such as Bengali) in this sub-continent are covered by 'Culture of Poverty(hopelessness)', irrespective of class or economic strata, whoever lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is seriously ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-Governance, bad work place, weak mother language, filth, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming parents only by self-procreation - mindlessly, blindfold (supported by some lame excuses), depriving the forthcoming children's fundamental right(of a decent & caring society, fearless & dignified living). We are being driven by the very animal instinct, pushing persons for a nasty survival, indulging the entire community to go perish. Do not ever look for other positive alternative gesture/values to perform more human way of parenthood - deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself till the entire society improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. If the Bengali people ever opt for a freedom from vicious cycle of poverty, need to involve themselves in Production of Space(Henri Lefebvre), an intense attachment with the society at large to overcome the inherent ‘hopeless’ mindset, decent Politics would certainly come up. – Siddhartha B, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711101, India.

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