How to Study Culture without Blaming the Victim

American liberals don’t like talking about the “culture of poverty.” The very term evokes some of the most distorted and racist images of the ghetto and its stock characters — the deadbeat dad, the welfare queen, and the criminal youth. But as a recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science argues (see also accompanying coverage in the New York Times), it is both theoretically and politically imperative for scholars to engage with notions of culture. Indeed, the review article goes on to describe numerous examples of important studies in the decade that have enlarged our understanding of how poverty is transmitted, and sometimes reinforced, through shared understandings and beliefs, social networks, frames, and values.

Three quick examples…

-Alford Young’s research (2004): “The young men who were most isolated from
whites and had experienced the least involvement in the labor market were the
most optimistic about equality of opportunity and the least likely to believe that
racism affected their life chances. Only those who had considerable experience
with whites cited prejudice as an important barrier to economic advancement.”

Edin and Kefalas’ research (2005): “interviewed more than a hundred low-income mothers and found that, on the contrary, many of them prized marriage—in fact, they held marriage in such high esteem that they were reluctant to marry until they believed that both they and their partners were emotionally and financially prepared.”

Sandra Smith’s (2007) study of job seeking among poor black women and men, “found that some people failed to use their networks because of (among other things) a strong sense of
individualism, which dictated that people ought to succeed based primarily on their own efforts. Among Smith’s respondents, the decision to not use their available social connections to get a job was not the result of “bad” values, even if it was, in part, culturally determined.”

As these examples make clear, the very conceptualization of culture has become more nuanced, and also more problematic for contemporary scholars. Clearly, the return to the study of culture should be welcomed among all scholars (especially inequality and poverty quants that tend to hole themselves up with their data).

So what is the issue? Talking about culture is often a stealthy way of defining people as “others”, and characterizing their problems as being rooted in pathologies of poverty. It’s a short step from there to blaming the victim. The historical context is important in the United States, but often forgotten. A good illustration in our times is the heightened rhetoric about the pathologies of single motherhood and chronic dependency that emerged during welfare reform. But critically, this narrative was most resonant, both among conservatives elites and voters, because America was then (and is now, again) engaged in a culture war over the meaning of family.

So here’s a couple suggestions for how to study culture without blaming the victim:

-Don’t restrict the study of culture to the poor — the recent economic downturn in the United States has shown that many behaviors thought to be confined to low-income families, such as poor financial literacy and risk-taking are much more widespread and deeply rooted. Families in the American middle class make mistakes too, and so do very high income individuals (often with disastrous consequences). The conclusion is not that all people are irresponsible, but that counter-productive behaviors emerge in response to particular contexts and incentives.

-Work in solidarity with the poor. The best research described in the annals article truly engaged poor families as valued informants and attempted to understand how individuals cope under very difficult circumstances. Research that begins with naive economic models of rationality, and then attempts to show how people deviate from rationality, often miss the contextual element to individual behavior. For example, why do parents not enroll their children in programs that would help them? Why do kids drop out of high school to engage in crime? There are answers to these questions, but they aren’t going to be found entirely in economic models nor are they going to be found in the “bad old” culture of poverty explanations.

4 responses to “How to Study Culture without Blaming the Victim”

  1. I apologize for taking this out on a bit of a tangent but this issue sounds similar to the debate rolling around development circles trying to explain how some countries get rich and why others remain very poor. With one group preferring to look at government policies and/or economic indicators and another group choosing to look at cultural factors to explain a lack of growth (often in the form of institutions). I am of humble opinion that cultural factors are just as an important factor in terms of economic growth as public policy, but I hardly think that that is a ground breaking conclusion.

    It is interesting to note that unlike the study of culture to blame inequality in the US, in the international context a number of the advocates for looking at culture as a factor of developmental inequality are relatively conservative.

  2. Brendan,

    This is how I have come to think about culture and the impact of one’s beliefs about the world more generally. Culture can be understood 1) as a frame through which certain options about how to act make more sense than others: as a French person, it is pretty much unlikely that I will feel comfortable with using ethnic or racial adjectives when coming up with an equal opportunity policy, just not part of my “culture” to think about these things in that way! 2) On the other hand there is culture as defined by rational choice political scientists (see Bob Bates in our dept at Harvard) : the “equilibrium approach” to culture ( . In this approach, cultural norms are a “rational” response to the incentives provided by the environment. This means that if these incentives change, these cultural norms that shape individual behavior can also change, and rapidly (unlike my first definition of culture as a frame). Thus, the culture of poverty might exist as such but it is open to rapid change, far from the deterministic bend often implicit in the use of the concept.
    what do you think?

    • Hi Charlotte,

      It’s a very interesting comment. I have to approach this topic with a heap of humility, because I don’t study culture and I don’t know much about cultural theory. I would recommend the article in Annals, which I think touches on your two alternatives, and provides some additional theoretical frameworks. Of course, it’s open to any scholar to investigate the motivations and behaviors of different groups, but investigating the poor (if such a monolothic group could be constructed) takes a certain sensitivity both to the political context in which such research is consumed, and to the imbalances in power that often emerge between researchers and subjects. But, that’s like a “caution” not a “stop” sign.

      I am attracted to a conceptualization of culture that allows for its contingency (that is, that under a different set of institutions and norms, people would behave differently), although I think there are some obvious limitations to the rational choice framework.



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