Public Anthropology: The Example of the Culture of Poverty

Oscar the binman from sesame street by WhatWhat (Flickr)

Guest Author: Daniel Lende

Graffiti and garbage. That phrase in the recent New York Times article, ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback, captured why I had to respond to the renewal of ideas linking culture and pathology.

When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder?

I woke up on Monday October 18th with no intention of writing a post for my blog Neuroanthropology, part of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Blogs. But when I saw this prominent placing of ‘Culture of Poverty’ and the negative examples used, I started writing. To have a public voice, anthropologists must respond to public debates. We have to engage what people are talking about, and make ourselves part of that conversation.

My post The Culture of Poverty Debate proved timely. But its subsequent success depended on other dynamics. The consistent effort my colleague Greg Downey and I have put into our Neuroanthropology blog meant the post got featured high in Google Search results. PLoS also facilitated our blog being listed with Google News. And I reached out to people on Twitter, pointing them towards my post while highlighting other reactions to the NY Times article.

By being timely, building a voice, and taking advantage of online dissemination, anthropologists can engage the public. Those are basic lessons I have learned in the three years I have written on Neuroanthropology. The other is that people want substantive content. The Culture of Poverty Debate post was 1900 words. People had to read quite some way to get to the summary:

So, two lessons: (1) equating culture with individual beliefs is mistaken, both as cultural analysis and as a way to think about policy and about poverty, and (2) the causal idea of culture, that it stamps a belief system onto people, is also mistaken – what we call “culture” works through interactions and through development. That is how we get culture that is shared, public, and meaningful to people.

These two points highlight the complementary roles anthropologists need to play to increase their public impact – critique and alternative visions. Take one mainstay of anthropological critique, saying “It’s complicated.” While often correct, this message is not concrete enough to show and explain how “being complicated” matters.

In my post, pointing out that culture is more complicated than individual beliefs was only a starting point. I then discussed how this equation of culture and individual beliefs reinforced ideas about policy that do little to help people actually living in poverty.

This reduction of culture – shared and meaningful – to individuals and beliefs will do little to change the pernicious social logic that sees the main route out of these types of neighborhoods as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It goes against the dominant narrative of the American dream, where an individual person comes here and does well for him or herself.

If this person can’t “get his head on straight” and know that “hard work pays off,” then he or she is un-American. It just sets up a logic where outside regulation is needed, and where changing beliefs through education or other types of programs will be the main policy initiative that pops up.

I believe anthropologists have the responsibility to offer alternatives and options alongside critique. After a while most people will tune out continued criticism unless there are useful points on how to improve local practices or policy or even just how to understand a problem better.

Describing how culture and poverty work together to limit people’s lives was one main goal of the second half of the post. To accomplish that, I discussed how poverty can poison the brain, pointed out that socialization and institutional rules shape individual beliefs and behavior, and emphasized the need to measure multiple aspects of the environment and not get hung up on a supposed “culture of poverty.”

Those points relied on research in other fields, specifically neuroscience and sociology. Highlighting others’ work can help us demonstrate where anthropology is most relevant. In this case, anthropological insight gave me a more sophisticated understanding of culture and of inequality than presented in the NY Times article.

However, I did not claim that anthropology has some privileged knowledge of culture, accessible only to insiders. Culture, like qualitative methods, has escaped from the anthropologists’ grasp. And that is a good thing. It means our ideas have spread.

Now it is time to move onto other things. In a subsequent post, The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued, I used my own research and the work of anthropologist Philippe Bourgois to examine the idea of “cultural inequality”:

It is in the interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different degrees of power and different understandings of how to act, that problems often emerge. This is not quite the “culture of poverty,” but rather “cultural inequality.” Ways of interpreting and acting in the world clash, and too often the outcome of that clash is determined by who has power – but the fact that clash happens is because culture is deeply meaningful.

Anthropologists are well positioned to do this kind of research. Some already do, examining the frictions of globalization and the violence of structural inequality.

The next step is to increase public impact. To do so, I hope anthropologists will: (1) Recognize that there are many ways for anthropologists to make a difference, (2) Write for a broader public, and (3) Demonstrate that anthropology is relevant, rather than just say that it is.

I want to finish by advocating that anthropologists work as mediators. Given our holistic approach and our ethnographic insight into everyday life, we are well positioned to foster communication between groups and combine different ideas and perspectives. Our historical position as outsiders, which emphasizes our reliance on critique, is just that – historical.

By injecting ourselves into public debate, we can help overturn broadly-held ideas, such as the equation of pathology with a culture of poverty. We can also show ways forward, for example, that human development plays a role in both how culture works and how individuals end up with difficult problems. That people react to structural inequality through culture and that people grow up and sometimes do terrible things when facing structural inequality is better seen as a correlation. Otherwise, each causes the other, culture and pathology in a downward spiral. That is the wrong lesson, both for policy and for the people facing such situations.

As anthropologists, we move between. We can integrate broad sets of ideas, the real-world impact of governments and other organizations, and people’s actual lives. That is mediation. On the ground, with policy, and through communication, we can give voice across boundaries.

Daniel Lende is associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. Here are the links to his pieces The Culture of Poverty Debate and The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued.

UPDATE by Martijn:

The debate continues: In a new entry on his site Daniel Lende adds a new angle to the debate by focusing on the culture of poverty and policy.

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3 Responses to “Public Anthropology: The Example of the Culture of Poverty”
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  1. [...] Lende writes a beautiful “manifesto” for public [...]

  2. [...] resort to the anthropological truism that “things are always more complicated”, to follow up on Daniel Lende’s remarks on this weblog, but show how these complexities challenge our taken-for-granted ideas about [...]

  3. [...] Lende z Neuroanthropology blog. Lende tłumaczy w nim dlaczego na swoim blogu opublikował wpis Antropologia publiczna: przykład kultury ubóstwa, który stanowił odpowiedzieć na ostatni artykuł ‘Kultura ubóstwa’ powraca zamieszczony [...]



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