Stephen Crossley writes on the re-emergence of cultural explanations of poverty
(Slides from Dr Crossley’s recent seminar are available here: The (re)culturalization of poverty policy)
Cultural explanations of poverty have a long (and largely evidence-free) pedigree but the more specific and explicit theory of a ‘culture of poverty’ can be traced back to the work of the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 1950s and 1960s. Lewis’ work was strongly critiqued at the time it was written, but it was also hugely influential but not necessarily in a way which Lewis approved of. Indeed, by the late 1960s, when he was still writing about a ‘(sub)culture of poverty’, he was privately attempting to distance himself from it in correspondence with colleagues. It has been argued that Lewis’ ideas, based on small scale studies with very small numbers of Latin American families in different countries, have remained peripheral to UK policy and political discourse surrounding poverty and disadvantage. In recent times, however, and in line with narratives surrounding other ‘social problems’, UK political rhetoric and government initiatives aimed at tackling poverty and disadvantage have become increasingly concerned with cultural explanations, in a new iteration of what Mamdani has termed ‘Culture Talk’.
UK political rhetoric and government initiatives aimed at tackling poverty and disadvantage have become increasingly concerned with cultural explanations, in a new iteration of what Mamdani has termed ‘Culture Talk’.
For example, in the 1980s ‘politicians of the right condemned the “dependency culture” of welfare benefit recipients, contrasting it with the “enterprise culture” of those who seek to create wealth and opportunity’. In the late 1990s, Tony Blair’s first term in office as Prime Minister was associated with a desire to end this ‘dependency culture’. His first term was also notable for his historic commitment to end child poverty forever by 2020. Throughout their period in power, New Labour attempted to address problematic or ‘destructive’ cultures amongst disadvantaged communities.
Fast forward to the Coalition Government (2010-2015) and at the launch of a flagship social policy aimed at ‘turning around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, the Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that they were characterized by a ‘culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations’. A UK government Social Justice Strategy included a section on ‘Challenging the culture of worklessness’ and, at around the same time, the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the need to end the ‘culture of something for nothing’. David Cameron, during a speech explaining how the government intended to ‘transform the lives of the poorest in Britain’, spoke of ‘the opportunity of culture’ and remarked, that ‘there are too many young people in Britain who are culturally disenfranchised’, who ‘might believe that culture is not for them’. This bears a remarkable similarity to Charles Valentine’s critique, nearly fifty years ago, of Frazier’s portrayal of cultural practices within poor black communities:
“While these constructs are labelled and treated as “cultures”, they are nevertheless presented as so lacking in basic elements of organization universal among human lifeways that they stand quite outside any usual definition of the term culture. Thus, life in the culture of the poor takes on the paradoxical meaning of life without culture, or at least without major elements previously understood as necessary aspects of culture”
Raymond Williams wrote that ‘culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ and it is this complexity that makes its use as an explanation of poverty and disadvantage so enduring and problematic.
…the use of culture in political rhetoric around poverty helps to keep the focus on the behaviours and practices of people on low-incomes rather than the behaviour and practices of people in positions of power
The anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod suggests that ‘culture is the essential tool for making other’ and the use of culture in political rhetoric around poverty helps to keep the focus on the behaviours and practices of people on low-incomes rather than the behaviour and practices of people in positions of power who choose to do nothing about continued existence of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.
Dr Stephen Crossley is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University.