Around the Web

I’ve fallen behind in my blogging lately, so apologies if you sent me a link that is not published in this post. There’s some on for-profit higher ed and AAA ethics that I’m not getting to this week, but still have on the back burner for the next post. If I forgot yours don’t be shy about resending it. Thanks to everyone for supplying so much good stuff!

The People of Wal-Mart

  • Usually content with tabloid coverage of celebrity scandals and news of the weird type pieces, Gawker ran an illuminating one, two, three part series on working at Wal-Mart. However the best part of these articles is not their stand-alone content, but the comments section where readers tell their own stories. I know there are plenty of books out there about the nation’s largest private employer, I just don’t know of any using ethnographic methodology or engaging current theoretical debates. (I take that back, wasn’t there a chapter in Nickle and Dimed about it? Somebody must have done this at length, right?) By itself this series makes the case for the ubiquity the retailer in the everyday lives of a great diversity of Americans.

Culture of Poverty, Again

  • This should follow Wal-Mart nicely: “cultural” studies of the causes of poverty are in vogue again. The NYT starts it off, finger wagging at the “overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology” for long ignoring that “attitudes and behavior patterns” keep people poor, as if this were merely a case of political correctness run amuck. Then noting that this “surge” of research comes as the percentage of Americans living in poverty reaches a 15-year high. So that must be because peoples’ attitudes and behavior patterns have changed all of a sudden, right? *note: this is sarcasm -ed.
  • Neuroanthropology jumped on it ahead of the MSM (this is why blogging is cool, you get to scoop the big boys). Daniel Lende takes the time to read the scholarship behind the NYT piece and provide the link. He reserves his criticism for the popular understanding of the culture of poverty where the “wrong ideas about ‘culture’ are used to heap blame and twist policy.” He observes, “Culture has been turned into beliefs and perceptions, which Americans view as something highly individual.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic followed up with a introspective piece about nearly coming to blows when confronted by the target of one his journalistic critiques. Coates blames his willingness to participate in such a display of machismo on lessons he learned as a youth on the streets of Baltimore. After all, “It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position.” The problem, as Coates sees it, is the willingness for many Americans to read those values or their embrace as uniquely Black without examining why anyone would adopt such values as a matter of survival.
  • Salon brought the most critical look at the “culture of poverty” calling it a “myth” and arguing that it is not that “we shouldn’t talk about the interplay of class and culture, but… the culture of poverty framework limits our ability to do it.” Poverty needs to be understood primarily as the result of structural forces. The poor serve an important function in a capitalist economy as their labor produces wealth for others.

The Africa Desk

  • Here’s an interesting cut and paste project filling in Africa’s geography with world economic powers. Kinda puts things in perspective.
  • Archaeologists uncover a 15th Century Chinese coin in Kenya, marked as belonging to an envoy of the emperor, almost 100 years earlier than Europeans reached east Africa.
  • With the very rich and the very poor of Africa capturing the Western imagination, the African middle class can easily slip from view for a mainstream American audience. Classes Moyennes Afrique seeks to correct that image.

Kashmir Resources

  • Kashmir Lit is a clearinghouse of interviews, book reviews, poetry, and news by Kashmiri and Kashmir diaspora writers.
  • Kashmir Solidarity Network is a blog that collects news and opinion about Kashmir from the western media, international sources, and blogs.

The Profoundly Superficial in Japan

  • Cosmetic Cosmologies, a full length essay at Open Anthropology Collective, where our intrepid anthropologist, with the aid of James Bond and Roland Barthes, struggles to find a surface to stand on. But the signifiers without signifieds just keep slipping. “If the Japanese practices we have been considering here appear to be much less cosmic than cosmetic – if, that is, they strike us as superficial – then, I suggest, that is because the cosmological in Japan is so often constituted at the cosmetic level.” Here’s a separate introduction to the same piece. It’s a very good read, highly recommended

Viva OA

NAGPRA turns 20

  • The legislation creating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act begins its third decade on November 16. The journal Museum Anthropology marks the anniversary by collecting all its previously published articles on repatriation in an virtual issue as a prelude to this current themed issue which explores the topic in depth.
  • Museum Anthropology’s blog has a collection of links for more perspectives on observing NAGRPA’s anniversary.
  • Coverage in the journal Science was not only solid, but is being made available for free to non-subscribers.

Tis the Season for Political Ads

  • Sociological Images ran this digest of political ads that, in the vein of G.H.W. Bush’s notorious Willie Horton ad, seek political gain by stoking racial fears.
  • Unmentioned by SI (at least in the link above) is the irony of two different candidates, in different parts of the country using the same image of “scary” Mexicans. Or are they “Asians”? I can’t tell.
  • Here in Hampton Roads there’s a candidate running for Congress in Virginia Beach who has been painting his opponent as a sniveling politician, making himself out to be wholesome and good, promising this and that. Fairly typical commercial fodder and, so far, nothing to write home about. Only I’ve been wanting to blog about one of his ads where he claims to be an upstanding citizen by virtue of owning a car dealership, which, you know, employees people with jobs and stuff. But this one where he conflates the nation and the (male) bodies of himself, his father, and his son is even better. Because, you see, Scott Rigell has Patriotic DNA (apparently carried on the Y-chromosome).

Have you seen something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community? Do you want to know how to measure patriotism through genetics? Email me at mdthomps AT odu.edu and all your questions will be answered.

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

20 thoughts on “Around the Web

  1. On Oscar Lewis and the culture of poverty: Oscar Lewis has been one of my anthropological heroes since graduate school, when I had the opportunity at the Univ. of Illinois to rummage around his archives for data on Tepoztlan (for my dissertation). I always felt he got a bum rap about his “culture of poverty” thesis. He was a Marxist whose ethnographic fieldwork was strongly materialist in orientation. His economic analysis of landholding and wealth differences in Tepoztlan is still among the best economic studies of a Mesoamerican peasant village.

    In some articles for the public Lewis overstated the influence of ideas and behavior on the perpetuation of poverty. For this, he became the whipping boy for decades of castigation about “blaming poverty on the poor.” The NY Times story reminded me of all this, wondering what cultural anthropologists though about Lewis these days (or maybe they don’t think about him at all). I was very pleased to find recently, by accident, a detailed historiographic treatment of the “culture of poverty” concept by some sociologists, who show how the views of Lewis were systematically misrepresented by others, who attributed to him ideas that were the opposite of what he actually believed (and published). Perhaps if Lewis had not died so young he would have fought back. But this is well worth reading for anyone interested in the culture of poverty concept, in both its contemporary and its mid-twentieth century manifestations (its also worth reading for those interested in materialist approaches in anthropology).

    Harvey, David L. and Michael H. Reed (1996) The Culture of Poverty: An Ideological Analysis. Sociological Perspectives 39:465-495.

  2. Once I tried to teach Lewis’ culture of poverty alongside its critique to a very talented group of undergrads. It was very frustrating for me because almost the entire class went for Lewis hook-line-and-sinker and just would not engage its critique. I think part of the reason for this is because the culture of poverty thesis strongly resonates with American culture, which makes it very appealing because it seems like “common sense”.

    I think this is what the Salon piece was getting at when the author said that the culture of poverty framework actually closes off discussion about the interplay of collective behavior and belief with economic structure. And as was pointed out by Neuroanthropology, Americans already strongly prefer to view behavior as individual and not-collective, while one’s socio-economic station is seen as the result of individual merit and not influenced by social structure.

    So yeah, maybe Lewis did get a bum rap because the culture of poverty came at the end of his career. Given his Marxist and materialist credentials its downright ironic that he would get branded with this one bad idea. But it is still a bad idea.

  3. I also agree that Lewis is one of, in a good sized group, the most misrepresented anthropologists out there. I think that this comes largely from a couple of things. First, much of what people learn about the source work of many researchers is from things written about that source work, not the work itself. It’s been documented, for example, that there have even been times when something written about a book or article was based, not on the book or article, but on a negative review of that work. I’ve found that going back to see many of the black-and-white debates taught in the history of anthropology weren’t actually so black-and-white. Lewis is just one of them.
    What this does is help exploit the common phenomenon of politicizing social science theory. Too often, people are paranoid that a complex theory will be misapplied, so they follow the “slippery slope” line of argument as an excuse for masking various theories in order making them taboo to explore. I understand this, but it’s bad science and I think it does more harm than good. We end up chasing our tails for about 20 years or so trying to fill in the gaps for theory that can already adequately explain data. The purpose of theory is to explain more with less, but a lot of anthros prefer reversing this.

  4. The effect you’re talking about, Rick, may be most prevalent in the popular press than in professional anthropology, I do think that anthropologists read the source material for culture of poverty. I got it in my undergrad theory class.

    It’s not a matter of bad science either because research on “culture” and “poverty” is not taboo as such, rather “the culture of poverty” is not a productive way to go about it. Especially when, as the NYT piece shows, your idea of culture amounts to graffiti and broken windows.

    I agree that there is at least *some* political component to Lewis’ blasting within the discipline, but mostly it comes down to this particular idea being flawed. Perhaps its unfair that an author be remembered primarily for his/her one bad idea (that remembering is the political end of it, I think) but as Michael has shown he still has considerable influence in Mexico studies.

  5. Matt, would you care to elucidate what, precisely, is the conceptual flaw in “culture of poverty”? Bracketing for the moment the pejorative uses of the phrase, don’t cultures usually involve customs and habits passed down from one generation to the next, said customs and habits being adaptations to the material circumstances in which people find themselves? From this perspective, what is wrong with speculating that a population in which generation after generation lives in poverty would have developed a culture of poverty?

    P.S. I am aware that, depending on starting conditions cultures of poverty may vary.

  6. “don’t cultures usually involve customs and habits passed down from one generation to the next, said customs and habits being adaptations to the material circumstances in which people find themselves? From this perspective, what is wrong with speculating that a population in which generation after generation lives in poverty would have developed a culture of poverty?”

    The common understanding of the term “culture of poverty”, however, goes beyond this, suggesting not only that people have practices and customs relating to their status of being poor, but that these customs and practices keep them poor, and furthermore that they outweigh the influence of any structural factors in keeping people poor. Ie, not only are some of these customs and practices harmful — which I’m open to believing — but that this harm is much greater than the harm done by any economic policy or government power, such that the latter fade to insignificance in any “clear-headed” analysis.

  7. OK, everybody. Good job pushing back.

    Here’s Lewis’ thesis, from La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty (1966), “As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.”

    Lewis states the CoP tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following: cash economy, wage labor; high un/under employment; low wages; failure to provide for the poor; bilateral kinship patterns; “and finally, the existence of a set of values in the dominant class that stresses the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility and thrift, and explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.”

    So far, so good. Right?

    Here are some distinguishing features of CoP:
    -lack of participation in the greater society
    -lack of property ownership
    -lack of literacy/ education
    -lack of membership in unions, political parties
    -lack of stable marriages
    -lack of organization beyond the family
    -lack of a protected childhood
    -lack of male centered households
    -lack of impulse control and ability to defer gratification

    Notice the pattern? The CoP is defined as absence. This is very different from the way most anthropologists are trained to conduct ethnography: focusing of what people do, what they say and what is observable. With CoP Lewis’ turns it around and says look at what people don’t do, don’t say, and what you don’t observe.

    Ultimately we are a left with a culture bound theory. CoP is itself an expression of the culture of the anthropologist as a member of a industrial capitalist society. The political end of it is unfortunate in that legitimated as scientific an assumption held very deeply by some Americans: that there is something pathological about being poor.

    Much like “race,” CoP is an idea that many people want to believe.

  8. @Andrew, “The current understanding of the term ‘culture of poverty’ …” I agree that this is the current view by many today, but please don’t confuse that with the concepts of Oscar Lewis. Here is the abstract from the Harvey and Reed paper I cited in a comment above:

    For three decades Oscar Lewis’s subculture of poverty concept has been misinterpreted as a theory bent on blaming the victims of poverty for their poverty. This essay corrects this misunderstanding. Using a sociology of knowledge approach, it explores the historical origins of this misreading and shows how current poverty scholarship replicates this erroneous interpretation of Lewis’s work. An attempt is made to remedy this situation by arguing that Lewis’s subculture of poverty idea, far from being a poor-bashing, ideological ploy, is firmly grounded in a Marxist critique of capital and its productive contradictions. As such, Lewis’s work is a celebration of the resilience and resourcefulness of the poor, not a denigration of the lower class and the cultural defenses they erect against poverty’s everyday uncertainty.

  9. Very much enjoying this conversation, btw. Thanks.

    And to get back to Michael’s first point, Lewis really is good reading.

  10. I know almost nothing of Lewis’s work except that he called La Perla by the not-so-pseudonym of La Esmeralda, so I can only comment on the comments.

    Here are some distinguishing features of CoP:
    -lack of participation in the greater society
    -lack of property ownership
    -lack of literacy/ education
    -lack of membership in unions, political parties
    -lack of stable marriages
    -lack of organization beyond the family
    -lack of a protected childhood
    -lack of male centered households
    -lack of impulse control and ability to defer gratification

    Notice the pattern? The CoP is defined as absence. This is very different from the way most anthropologists are trained to conduct ethnography: focusing of what people do, what they say and what is observable. With CoP Lewis’ turns it around and says look at what people don’t do, don’t say, and what you don’t observe.

    I do think several of the items in the list might be posited as privative features, but that may be neither here nor there. At first blush, again, without having read Lewis’s stuff, the list feels like it was created for cross-cultural research (as in doing cross-tabs with data drawn from the HRAF). I also feel that the cargo concept has to be part of the genealogy of Lewis’s thesis—can you confirm or deny, Michael?

    Is it a good or bad thing to say that I feel like the representation of La Perla in the Calle 13 video isn’t all that out of sync with Lewis’s list?

  11. What I notice myself is the way in which Matt construes traits described only one paragraph earlier in positive terms as lacks, creating a straw man that becomes the focus of his critique. Matt writes,

    Lewis states the CoP tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following: cash economy, wage labor; high un/under employment; low wages; failure to provide for the poor; bilateral kinship patterns; “and finally, the existence of a set of values in the dominant class that stresses the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility and thrift, and explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.”

    There are only two “lack”-related words in this list, i.e., in “failure to provide for the poor” and “explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority” and both are descriptions of the dominant society within which a stratum living in a culture of poverty emerges. Lewis is plainly writing to the more well-off members of society (who are, after all, the primary audience for his book) and telling them, in effect, “If you don’t like these customs and habits, look at your own contributions to creating the situation in which they flourish.

    Do we teach close reading anymore?

  12. “I agree that there is at least *some* political component to Lewis’ blasting within the discipline, but mostly it comes down to this particular idea being flawed.”

    Also, what I mean is that each prof. has a particular outline of the history of their sub-discipline which is good to think for them. When they go through these historical and theoretical outlines, especially in undergrad courses, they almost always incorporate their opinions in the lectures, and many students often do not ever question what they were first taught. There have been a lot of psych studies that show that the first thing you are taught on a subject tends to stick, and people usually reject other views, even when they were told the original view was made up.

    I’ll give an example. I have a lot of eviro. anthro. in my education, and when we get to the debates between say White and Steward, many profs. will let you know which one they feel was right. It’s pretty standard, as far as I know, to teach Oscar Lewis with an immediate critique, basically designed to show the student why Lewis is wrong. This is often not questioned, I guess other than your class, and what the students are left with is the critique. In all of my courses the reaction was the opposite. Then as they go off into their careers they always know that Lewis is wrong, and never really think about it beyond that. I’ve even met one full prof who was Stanford educated that never actually read the “Culture of Poverty” essay, because I asked her, because it didn’t sound like she had. She just knew it was wrong. I admit that I don’t have any data on these processes directly, so this is no more than an assumption on my part from limited experience.

    I think the gist of the theory is simply that poverty is something which can be measured (although I don’t think he ever operationalized it), and that material/environmental reality shapes culture in ways that can also be observed and patterned. I don’t have a dog in the fight. If I see studies done which show me one way or the other, then I’ll be more sure, but when something is just made bad to think in a social science, those studies won’t even be done. All the critiques I’ve seen are basically just personal arguments, which would be fine if we were philosophers. Until I see a bunch of studies showing that there are not patterned correlations between poverty and culture, then I’m suspending judgment. From my personal experience living and working in poor places, I have some anecdotal experience that shows Lewis may have been more correct than his critics give him credit for.

  13. John, if by straw man you mean that I’ve misrepresented Lewis, I disagree. The quote that you borrow from my previous comment is a synopsis of how Lewis describes the structural conditions necessary for CoP to emerge, whereas the list of lacks that I provided come from how Lewis’ describes the qualities of CoP as a lived reality — its symptoms, if you will. I think you’re comparing apples to oranges.

    But you’re right that one could just as easily reframe those lacks as a presence, a criticism led me to try another approach. CoP is like a sociology of deviance in that it approaches its subject population with this driving question: “What is wrong with these people?”

    This can be a legitimate framework if the people you are dealing with are actually pathological, such as the mentally ill or drug addicts. Although since Foucault anthropology is more interested in problematizing those discourse of deviance than in applying them. (Note to Rick, if you can do Foucaultian applied anthropology you’ll be famous.)

    Here’s a little thought experiment. Let’s flip the script and take the *form* of Lewis’ argument and study up with a “culture of opulence.” Given the rising gap between the wealthy and the poor and the fact that its increasingly clear that the complex financial mechanisms of the elite are to blame for our current economic crisis, I propose that we study the elite under the framework of “What’s wrong with these people?”

    Here are some distinguishing features of the CoO:
    -dominance within mainstream society
    -lack of systems of informal credit
    -over education with lack of practical knowledge
    -monopolizes control of unions, political parties
    -over-reliance on nuclear families
    -regimented organization outside the family
    -delayed onset of adult responsibilities
    -lack of female centered households
    -lack of ability to live for today

    I have some anecdotal experience that shows that the above might be true.

    With this little jape I hope to show how the CoP (and maybe even the sociology of deviance) is, at its base, ethnocentric because it starts from assumptions inherent in the culture of the anthropologist. Unfortunately the criticism of CoP constantly has to defend itself from charges of being nothing more that political correctness gone awry. This could not be further from the case. Ethnocentric anthropology stems from the difficulty of field work, the difficulty of writing, and poorly framed research questions.

  14. With this little jape I hope to show how the CoP (and maybe even the sociology of deviance) is, at its base, ethnocentric because it starts from assumptions inherent in the culture of the anthropologist.

    I had a sociology student in 101 remark to me once that he found it interesting that anthropologists didn’t seem to talk about deviance very much. Tony Wallace has done interesting work looking at just how individuals displaying statistically deviant attitudes and behaviors are handled cross-culturally.

  15. Great rebuttal Matt, but I think anyone could contest that people with mental illnesses or drug addictions are “pathological”. My god.

  16. Matt, let’s agree off the bat that when people misuse “culture of poverty” in a blame-the-victim manner we both think that’s a bad thing. A case can be made that the phrase is so tainted that it ought to be replaced.

    At the same time, however, let’s not mistake rhetorical games for serious thinking. You are the one who wrote,

    Lewis states the CoP tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following: cash economy, wage labor; high un/under employment; low wages; failure to provide for the poor; bilateral kinship patterns; “and finally, the existence of a set of values in the dominant class that stresses the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility and thrift, and explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.

    Replace the phrase “culture of poverty” with another expression, let’s say a permanent underclass. What would you expect its attributes to be, given that the society as a whole combines a cash economy, wage labor, and high un/under employment? Add failure to provide for the poor, and bilateral kinship, what is that all about?

    Would you expect a high degree of participation in a society in which cash is king by people who don’t have much cash?

    Would you expect people without cash who are likely to be unemployed to own property?

    Would you expect them to be highly educated or actively involved in unions or political parties?

    Would you expect stable marriages or children who grow up in protected and nurturing environments?

    I readily concede that talk about “male-centered families” and lack of impulse control is problematic. But if we don’t insist on portraying Lewis’ arguments in the worst possible light, can we say that they are entirely wrong?

    I don’t assume that Lewis’ is right. I know for a fact that adaptations to poverty are various. I’ve not only read Lewis, I’ve also read Maxine Hong Kingston (Warrior Woman and China men) and James Webb’s Born to Fight. I do think that, as someone whose intellectual life is shot full of ideas my predecessors came up with, I ought to take them seriously, starting with the same assumptions I bring to fieldwork, that I need to read and listen carefully and withhold judgment while trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. I don’t see that happening here. I see an all too familiar combination of moral panic and rush to judgment. Sorry, that turns my stomach.

  17. John, you’ve identified the part of Lewis’ theory that makes the most sense — the materialist part of his argument. In an earlier comment Rick figured it as a kind of ecology where there’s this clear relationship between how a people put food on the table and particular qualities inherent in their culture. I think these materialist explanations are really compelling. Economic conditions sculpt cultural adaptations.

    Where Lewis gets himself into trouble is that he argues that the opposite is also true. That people’s cultural adaptations shape their economic conditions.

    I think it becomes very tricky to disentangle that from the blame-the-victim discourses that you say you want to distance yourself from. And given the importance of structural economics, institutional racism, and sheer luck in determining any given person’s socio-economic status how ought we weigh the importance of CoP given the apparent power of all these other forces?

    It is legitimate to claim that CoP plays some role, I acknowledge that. Perhaps CoP is not negligible. However the importance that has been given to it is disproportional and in the discourses we seek to critique it ranks as an outright obsession. In sum I think it is substantially less important than these other structural forces that I identified.

  18. Where Lewis gets himself into trouble is that he argues that the opposite is also true. That people’s cultural adaptations shape their economic conditions.

    Do you seriously believe that they don’t? Consider Malaysia, for example. The top item returned by a Google search for “income distribution Malay Chinese Indian Malaysia” is a paper whose abstract reads as follows:

    A new social accounting matrix (SAM) for Malaysia in 2000 is constructed and applied to analyse income inequality. Income per capita was unevenly distributed across ethnic groups. The differences can be explained by the interplay of three factors: unequal income per hour worked, unequal numbers of working hours per week, and unequal numbers of household members that depend on a worker’s income. The unequal hourly wage rates appear to be mainly due to differences in industrial occupation of employees: a large fraction of the ethnic Malay work in low-wage industries, while the ethnic Chinese and Indians often work in high-wage industries.

    This is no surprise to anyone who knows a bit about Southeast Asia, since the greater economic success of overseas Chinese minorities vis-a-vis indigenous populations is an old, old story.

    The same is true of Indians (the ones from India) all over East Africa.

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