Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

This story on the comeback of the idea of a "culture of poverty" became one of the most e-mailed on The New York Times.

I think it is striking that the problem with "culture of poverty" concept is depicted primarily as a problem of political correctness - and that all of the contemporary scholars quoted in the story are sociologists!

I think it is critical to recognize the ways in which the concept of "culture" itself had been bowdlerized and essentialized in Daniel Patrick Moynahan's evocation of a "culture of poverty." Oscar Lewis himself, as an anthropologist, espoused a more nuanced understanding of culture, and wrote critically about the structures the produce poverty.

"Culture," which anthropologists use generally to draw attention to the ways in which humans learn / teach the practices and ideas that define us, can be a productive explanation for how practices and ideas become reproduced over generations. Or re-produced: That is, made and remade.

There are "many new and varied definitions of culture," the NYT notes, "but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty."

In fact, anthropologists long have been engaged in articulating a dynamic concept of culture - and even arguing for an abandonment of "culture" b/c of the ways in which it has come to be used commonly as an essentializing explanation for difference: "That's just their culture."

So, this issue is not, for me, political correctness, but "correctness": Moynahan's rendering of a "culture of poverty" simply does not apply the concept of culture in a way that anthropologists understand as "correct."

I am not especially interested in disciplinary policing, but given that culture is a core concept, arguably even the concept (alongside "race") at the foundation of anthropology, it just seems to me that if you want to know what the current state of the art / science on "culture" is, then you ought to talk to anthropologists.

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