Oct 192010

But, a dissertation chapter is a dissertation chapter.

The Sunday New York Times struck fear into my heart this week. This doesn’t happen every week, though goodness knows, more often than I’d like. This week brought us this headline:

‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback

The problem here starts with the title: if the “Culture of Poverty” is making a scholarly comeback, then it is really time to start yelling in loud and boisterous protest. The quotation marks are important. Why?

“Culture of Poverty” vs culture and poverty

Or the cultural aspects of poverty, or the various behavioral contributory factors to poverty. Why are these rephrasings important? The “Culture of Poverty” is a phrase that was coined by Oscar Lewis, around 1959. In spite of what Laura Briggs suggests were his good intentions — “The full tragedy of this event was that Oscar Lewis was a socialist who favored government policies to ameliorate the lot of the poor and challenge colonialism” (Briggs 78) — Oscar Lewis’ theories and work have given rise to some of the most egregious attitudes of blaming the poor for their own poverty that the 20th century saw. Thus, to hear that his work is returning in the 21st fills me with horror.

I certainly don’t mean that behavior has nothing to do with poverty. And frankly, I’m neither an anthropologist nor a sociologist and have done no fieldwork on the issue. But this: “behavior affects poverty” is not Lewis’ thesis. His thesis was closer to, “sexual immorality and licentiousness, as well as a willful disregard of the excellent advice of their betters causes poverty.” I should think that any cursory glance through the celebrity tabloids would remind us that lots and lots of really wealthy people lead dissipated and licentious lives. And Lewis’ work, among others, helps obscure the fact that lots and lots of grindingly poor people lead lives of scrupulous sexual morality–many of them, I’d wager, just in order not to be branded with Lewis’ iron.

The problem with Lewis’ thesis was not that he was looking for connections between behavior and poverty–it’s that all of his answers were presupposed in his questions.

The good news

The good news is that this article finally got me around to posting a dissertation chapter, which I’d been meaning to do for a while. It’s not perfectly digitized (I was just reminded that links back from the footnotes would be nice), but it’s a start. This is my chapter on Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets which I read alongside Oscar Lewis (among others). I welcome comments, critiques, and other types of thoughts. This New York Times article tells me that I really do have to get that chapter ready to publish somewhere, because we need to remember that the “Culture of Poverty” was debunked almost the moment it was first theorized by people in Lewis’ own field. Unfortunately, it was picked up mainly by politicians to promote the agenda they had in mind already: demonizing the poor.

So, yes, please study poverty! Examine it closely, and leave no stone unturned. But let that study not be a return to Oscar Lewis, except as a useful example of how scholarship can go painfully awry.