Fratricidal community and the use value of the ‘culture of poverty’

‘An ‘inclusive community’ would be a contradiction in terms. Communal fraternity would be incomplete, perhaps unthinkable but certainly unviable, without that inborn fratricidal inclination.’ (Bauman 2000: 172)

The ‘culture of poverty’ thesis is used in the practice orientated training program of Bridges out of poverty and is taken as a starting point for some work in consumer culture (Hill and Gains 2007). While both the Bridges out of poverty work and Hill and Gaines article emphasise that the ‘culture of poverty’ is an active and adaptive approach (see also Harvey and Reed 1996), there is something that I find ideologically repulsive about the idea. Lewis (1963) does go to some effort to point out that not all people who could be considered poor can be seen as inhabiting a ‘culture of poverty’, and I wonder if this part of the argument is what makes it so ideologically charged.

A catchy named article by Orton and Rowlingson (2007) is ‘A problem of riches:…’. They call for research into economic distribution. I agree that broader understandings are more interesting and have greater utility. Now do not take my rather crass summary to be a highly accurate reading of Bourdieu’s work, but (I think) Bourdieu’s notion of social and symbolic capital includes an argument that the ‘elites’ do not only exist within their own habitus, but rather are able to mark as inferior the symbolic capital of less elite groups.

While the ‘culture of poverty’ can be seen as describing what workers encounter when working with the “poor people”*, I think it is a difficult concept to think with. To work within such a model in practice seems particularly offensive because it seems to rule out the fact that cultures/ societies/ relationships change. Instead individuals have to change and move out of their ascribed ‘culture of poverty’. My argument is not so much about insider VS outsider models for understanding, but rather that if we think and work with the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis then we are ignoring the downfall of functionalism. We may be able to write rather emotive descriptions about the function of the ‘culture of poverty’ within the capitalist order, but any resulting call-to-arms is going to have great difficulty in imagining change and so is likely to rely on some vague call to revolution.

My question is whether or not I can seek such a ‘broader understanding’ without assuming the starting point of ‘class’. While I am sure many experiences of inclusion and exclusion are experienced along lines that could be seen as ‘class’, I wonder what such a representation of communities could miss.

*I like referring to “poor [white] people” in scare quotes because I think that poverty is a notion that is something of an every day description but also a highly politicised concept.

Harvey, D. L., and M. H. Reed. 1996. The culture of poverty: An ideological analysis. Sociological Perspectives 39:465-495.

Hill, R. P., and J. Gaines. 2007. The Consumer Culture of Poverty: Behavioral Research Findings and Their Implications in an Ethnographic Context. The Journal of American Culture 30:81-95.

Lewis, O. 1963. The culture of poverty. Society 1:17-19.

Orton, M., and K. Rowlingson. 2007. A Problem of Riches: Towards a new Social Policy Research Agenda on the Distribution of Economic Resources. Journal of Social Policy 36:59-77.


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