The culture of poverty, again…

Listening to ‘heterodox’ black American intellectuals such as Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes talk on various podcasts[1] about the current state of race politics in the US has got me thinking once again about what we mean by ‘culture’.   These thinkers are inclined to draw a line between ‘structure’ and ‘culture’ as explanatory lenses for understanding enduring poverty in black communities, and the overall wealth gap between blacks and whites in the US (black families have on average a 10th of the wealth of white families).  In a tradition of argument that traces back to earlier ‘conservative’ black intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, they are inclined to argue that too much emphasis is placed on economic and legal structures as barriers to greater racial equality, and not enough on culture, meaning values, behaviours, and such things as educational aspiration and two parent families, which are seen as weakly present in the cultures of the communities in question.  The basic message from them is that blacks need to take responsibility for their own culture to improve their circumstances and not lose their agency by relying on state assistance.

The immediate question arises, in what sense are we talking about ‘black’ culture?  These various speakers don’t seem to identify with it, and seem to associate more with a kind of generic middle-class culture, which has supported their paths into careers as academics and public intellectuals.  There is a substantial black middle class that is not really the object of these complaints about black culture.  The object of discussion here is really impoverished urban communities in which the black population is overrepresented, rather than ‘black culture’.  While almost all blacks seem to encounter racism, the social tensions and sense of racial oppression seems to be concentrated in these low-income areas. 

This brings to mind the idea articulated long ago by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, the ‘culture of poverty’[2].  This idea went on to influence the controversial Moynihan Report of 1965 on problems of black poverty, which was widely seen as pathologising and essentialising black culture and family structures.[3]  But it always has seemed to me (and others[4]) that whatever charges might be laid at Moynihan’s door, Lewis was misunderstood, and shouldn’t be held responsible for distortions of his argument.  His point was not that particular races have cultures that are pathological, but rather that there is a broad type of culture associated with structures of urban poverty that characteristically brings with it patterns of fatalism, unstable family structures, and so on.  He studies this in various locales including Mexico City, Puerto Rico and New York City. 

A basic problem of interpretation here is the tendency in recent decades to define culture in opposition structure (especially economic and political structures).  Culture is treated a realm of symbols, values and agency, and structure one of institutional domination and constraint.  But the more interesting research questions lie in how these interact.  Lewis’s ‘culture of poverty’ concept was a product of its intellectual period when anthropologists thought more in these terms.  The paradigm of ‘cultural ecology’, formulated especially by the anthropologist Julian Steward[5], sought to place cultures in their environmental, historical and evolutionary contexts, explaining such things as subsistence technologies and patterns of kinship reckoning in terms of the ecological context in which they operated.  Culture, as a body of knowledge, technologies and practices, was seen as a means of collective social adaptation to particular environments. Lewis (who taught in the same anthropology department as Steward at the University of Illinois) was simply applying this perspective, rather intuitively, to a particular context: urban poverty.

One of the challenges for this approach is that as human society, with the growth of capitalism and the modern state, has spread chock-a-block across the world, it becomes much more difficult to isolate for analysis specific human adaptations to specific environments.  Every society is entangled with and impacted by others, and internally divided by complex hierarchies of domination.  However, one way to continue to apply this approach is to think not so much in terms of relatively autonomous societies (distributing basic food and resources, managing their own power relations) and more in terms of how cultures, as patterns of adaptation, form around particular organisations and institutions, which are nonetheless embedded within large complex societies.  Two examples are pertinent to the enduring relevance of the culture of poverty.  One is prison systems.  When certain populations get caught up in cyclical patterns of incarceration, then those populations will develop cultural patterns of adaptation to that institution, as part of a way of life.  Another is police forces, which develop intense patterns of group solidarity around shared risks.  In both cases, but for different reasons, characteristic adaptive patterns of toughness, social ranking, codes of honour and silence, help individuals survive, and cohere into cultural patterns that are reproduced. 

These are not autonomous ways of life, far from it.  In the modern world people live in the dense interference pattern of multiple organisationally and institutionally generated cultures, that interpenetrate and interact.  In this view, the culture of poverty is a syndrome of various more specific cultural patterns associated with adaptive contexts.  Adaptation here is a descriptive and analytic concept, not a normative one.  Whether we consider certain patterns of adaptation positive or negative depends on what perspective we are evaluating them from.  But ‘culture’ needs to be understood as patterns and strategies of adaptation to structural conditions (organisations, institutions) not as a relatively detached ideational layer where agency happens.  Anyone who wants to argue, in light of current debates revolving around the BLM movement, that structures of poverty and culture need to be understood in relation to one another, might benefit from revisiting the earlier, and eerily familiar debate around the ‘culture of poverty’. 


[1] See e.g.’The Glenn Show’ at bloggingheads.tv, Bret Weinstein’s DarkHorse podcast, Conversations with Coleman (https://colemanhughes.org/)

[2] Lewis, O. (1966) ‘The Culture of Poverty’, Scientific American 215(4): 19-25.  William Julius Wilson, Prof. of Sociology at Harvard, can be seen as developing the same line of thinking.

[3] E.g. Leacock, E. B. (ed.) (1971) The Culture of Poverty: A Critique, New York: Simon and Schuster.

[4] Butterworth, D. (1972) ‘Obituary: Oscar Lewis’, American Anthropologist 74(3): 747-757; Harvey, D. L. and M. H. Reed (1996) ‘The Culture of Poverty: An Ideological Analysis’, Sociological Perspectives 39(4): 465-495.

[1] Steward, J. H. (1977) Evolution and Ecology: Essays on Social Transformation, J. C. Steward and R. F. Murphy (eds), Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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