Jonathan GuevaraURBS 420: Perspectives on Urban Poverty Final Exam Part I: TheCultural Turn in Poverty Knowledge: 1930-50 (Section A and B)Alice O’Connor claims that the GreatDepression spawned a “cultural turn” in poverty knowledge.
During the 1930’sand 40’s, we see an obsession with culture emerge through which reformers madea case for social engineering on the basis that if these cultural lags were notfixed, it would create a threat to democracy. Why was this era so important?Research during this era changed racial theory and had long lasting implicationson the poverty debate. The shattering of once-dominant theories of racialinferiority and the uplifting of the theory that a cultural lag exists as a reflectionof social, environmental, and historical experience shook race theory research Thisprovided liberals with a justification for racial assimilation. Unlike biology,culture can change.
Therefore, when closing the gaps on this cultural lag, apoor person was fully capable of assimilating into the modern lifestyle.In this essay, I will discuss threetexts that O’Connor refers to in Chapter 3 in her book Poverty Knowledge. These three texts are Frazier’s “The NegroFamily in Chicago,” (1922) Drake and Clayton’s “Black Metropolis” (1945), andMyrdal’s “American Dilemma” (1944)and they represent the outpouring of research, led by black sociologists thatcontributed to the cultural turn, hoping that it would drive the argument toreduce inequality. The turn from biological to the cultural debate opens up thedoors for assimilation as the solution where a person has the possibility ofbecoming a “middle class person.” The say that there is a lag means that thereis a way to bridge that lag. However, as O’Connor discusses, this has stakes ora “legacy” that becomes evident in poverty knowledge later in the centurythrough topics of white pathology, the cultural lag (and how to reverse it),and the liberal orthodoxy. Social scientists saw black poverty as a culturalpathology meaning that “black culture” was undesirable or the wrong side of thebridge. “White pathology,” or the cycle of white people systematically cyclingtheir power, existed as much as “black pathology” but was seen as the norm andmainstream or the “better” side of the bridge.
E. Franklin Frazier’s “the NegroFamily in Chicago” analyzed “Negro matriarchy” as a response to slavery and discriminationagainst black men in the labor market and a feature of the black lower-classculture of poverty. Frazier then saw “black culture” as different from Africancultural inheritance because “family disorganization” playing an independentrole in perpetuating poverty.
He then then called for assimilation into “whiteAmerican culture” as the solution. He uses the assimilation narrative as a wayof achieving social mobility. In his study he gives an example of blacks payingdues to become “civilized.” This ignores structural factors such as racism andmakes the solution assimilating into a white society. Research by St.
Clair Drake and HoraceR. Clayton in “Black Metropolis” (1945) shifts from the “immigrant line” to the”color line.” It emphasizes that the ghetto is not natural but comes fromdiscriminatory policies. They acknowledge the various factors that produce povertysuch as structural factors but also behaviors. However, Drake and Caytonultimately call for the transformation of the political economy as a solution. In “An American Dilemma” (1944),Gunmar Myrdal linked black lower-class pathology to the pathology of whiteracism. He used a “vicious circle” theory stating that oppression had left blackpeople to low educational standards which white people benefitted off. Povertybred poverty.
Myrdal argued that change in any one of three causals would bringchange in the other two. However, this reinforced the norm and mainstream whiteculture, making the solution assimilation.The cultural turn left a legacy forfuture poverty debate. Oscar Lewis’ “Culture of Poverty” (1966) came soonafterward. Research methods started tracing all social issues to individualbehavior which only pathologized the poor and the ones being studied. Researchin it of itself created a lens which represented the norm, mainstream culture,that the poor were expected to assimilate into. Soon after, the turn forneoliberalism shrunk the welfare state to the point where poverty knowledge wasagainst food stamps. The emphasis on culture also made issues so based onindividual behavior that the structural foundation to these inequalities werebeing ignored.
The political right benefited off the cultural pathologizationof the black and poor. The war on poverty emerged and continues to pathologizethe poor until this day. The cultural turn only created a norm, the liberalorthodoxy, the parent figure, that was supposed to help those who weren’t the”norm” yet. Along with the war on poverty came stigma and the failure to trulyreduce structural inequality because of the emphasis that the market can getalleviate poverty within itself. Economics became the warrior against povertyand liberals jumped into the bandwagon of neoliberalism.
They believed that byinvesting in human capital and using markets as the solution, everyone wouldbenefit. This opened the opportunity for corporate structures to get tax cutsto “drive social investment.”The cultural turn led to a series ofevents that eventually only hurt the poor and made their state of poverty aresult of their own actions. By making it an argument of culture, sociologistscreated a bridge where one side represented the poor and the other siderepresented the mainstream white family. By doing this, and focusing onindividual behavior, researchers made the well-off lifestyle a norm andsucceeding a matter of assimilating. This reduced the emphasis on structuralinequality and true poverty alleviation. This legacy lives today as researchstill pathologizes the poor and can’t seem to focus on poverty instead of thepoor.
ReferencesO’Connor,Alice. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science,Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth- CenturyU.S. History. Princeton University Press, 2009. Part II – Ethnographic strategies for thecrisis in representation Ethnographic work’s purpose is to allow a researcher to live what his orher subjects are living.
It is the way being able to understand somethingbecause one lives it. In theory, a researcher’s bias is reduced when usingethnographic work because his judgements are not based on his experiences butwhat he sees, hears, smells, etc. Its purpose is to include subjects andrepresent them in research. Its purpose is to shed light on poverty and open upopportunities for better welfare policies that can help the poor. The issues atstake are well mapped out by the culture-of-poverty debates stemming from the1960’s, the structure/agency debates in anthropology across the 1980’s, and themore recent polemics concerning the complicity of urban ethnography with thepolicies of neoliberal state-building across the “regressive 1990’s.” There areserious issues of power related to the task of rendering and enumerating theurban poor as legible, visible, knowable. The stakes involved with this taskhave led many ethnographers to think carefully about how to outmaneuver thetrappings of questions related to stigma, race, agency, and structure whendealing with poverty and poor people as ethnographic objects.
However, ethnographic work has its traps. Although it attempts to avoidtraps of misrepresentation, it can’t. A researcher has a different pair of lensthrough which he or she looks through and thinks about different experiences. Aresearcher has to be qualified to be a researcher, putting them in a powerposition compared to the subjects being studied as poor people are not capableof conducting this research.This paper will analyze three books usingethnographic research: Philippe Bourgois’ book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Matthew Desmond’sEvicted, and Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams. It will analyze howeach author explains, strategizes, and methodically and theoretically works tocontent with structure and agency. We will be able to see how each authorjuggles the task of not falling into the research traps but still persuadingits audience of the argument that structural forces drive these poorcommunities.
Bourgois starts off his book by saying thathe never expected to do crack in his life. He goes on to say that this,however, that doing crack is a symptom of a structural problem where the poorare forced to work in the uncensored underground to survive. They arediscriminated against in the workforce and this drives them to finding othersources of work, many times illegal. Although, Bourgois agrees that muchresearch has pathologized the poor throughout time, he justifies his researchby saying that not representing the poor will make him complicit withoppression (Bourgois 12). According to him, ethnographic work is the only wayto get true and thoughtful answers from poor people. Accordingly, Bourgoisspent hundreds of nights in crack houses making friends with drug dealers and watchingthem get high all the time. He acknowledges that although his work isethnographic, the interpretations are a result of how he analyzes theirstatements and he has the complete power to manipulate this. He decides whatgoes in his book and what does not.
As a result of the social scientists whofear patholgizing the poor, Bourgois argues that research has not trulyrepresented the poor because of this fear of making them look bad. He, however,argues that he is just trying to convey the individual experiences of socialstructural oppression. Although he claims to not know how to resolve thestructure vs agency debate he believes it is only right to document the truehorrors of poverty. In his book, Bourgois documents horribleinstances of rape, violence, and unfortunate events that occur as a result ofliving in poverty. He focuses on showing that although most characters are drugaddicts, it is a symptom of poverty.
However, Bourgois fails to acknowledge theway in which his description of the characters may hurt them. How will someoneget a job if all they do is crack all day? The traps of the structure vs agencydebate always prevail.InEvicted, Matt Desmond focuses less on the violence that occurs amongstmembers he interacts with but instead focuses on the experiences of theeviction process of families and the relationships that exist between thelandlord and the evicted. He sheds light on the housing market and thepotential changes that could be made to help tenants.
He sheds light on howmiscommunication leads to eviction even when families are doing all they can doto survive. Matt Desmond really focuses on documenting the pre and post evictionprocess itself instead of the people being evicted. However, his policyproposals ignore the structural forces that cycle poverty in the first placesuch as low homeownership tracing back to racist housing bills in the mid1900s. In his book, Matt Desmond talks about hischildhood. His family was not wealthy but they weren’t very poor either. Whenhe got to college, he realized that the poor were always looked at in two ways:the structural way and the individual way. Liberals preferred the first, whileconservatives the second. Matt Desmond’s purpose was to research poverty byobserving the relationship between the rich and the poor.
This methodacknowledges the structural forces that play into the oppressive cycle presentin cities and processes such as eviction while not blaming the poor. However,what still occurs is that this relationship still assumes that the better offpeople are the ones benefitting off the cycle and if one wants to be on thebetter side, they must become the better off. Even when research focuses onpoverty, instead of the poor, the lens by which the research is being createdare still biased and privileged.
The research ties poverty, the rich, and thepoor to capitalism and survival in the United States. Laurence Ralph takes a very different pathwayin his book Renegade Dreams byfocusing on ways that his characters in Chicago deal with pain or injury anduse it to survive. It is a sad account, watching characters try to achievetheir dreams but going to prison instead. His book also shines light on the”white” savior that comes to save people in poverty.
It is a book focused onthe people and their suffering and showing that it’s not really their fault. Ethnographic work can take many differentroutes. Bourgois’s book shines light on the structural forces affecting PuertoRicans in Harlem.
However, it’s hard to persuade people of these forces whenthe violence that occurs prevents people from siding with the poor. InDesmond’s book, he does a good job at studying poverty and not the poor. Ralphdoes a great job at getting into the lives of individuals and showing us howmuch they struggle through and how hard they may work to get out just to end upin prison. These different angles of poverty knowledge are all necessary to understandthe complexities of poverty. The research method has it traps but it also achievesthe goal of representing the poor by giving them a voice. Unfortunately, thatvoice depends of the researchers themselves and what they decide to publish.
The poor are voiceless and their representation is just a privilege of thosewho can represent them. The purpose of research may be to simply observe andrecord all that is occurring in our world. However, it is driven by money thatclaims to be unbiased but that’s not a reality. Researchers, with goodintentions, fall into traps and their work is manipulated. Their work ispraised anyway and they go on and live their lives.
However, the poor continuestuck.