Anthropological Theory and Urban Poverty Ways of Representing the Urban Poor

Paradigmatic shifts in urban anthropology have influenced representations of the urban poor. Urban anthropology is considered to have its early roots in the Chicago school in the 1920s and 1930s (Merry, 1996). Elijah Anderson's work typifies research done from an urban ecological perspective (Low, 1999). During the 1950s, research on slum clearance was conducted in London and Laos through the Institute of Community Studies (Low, 1999). Drawing on theories of kinship and social networks, Stack's US-based research among urban African Americans demonstrates that extended kinship networks and social reciprocity are practical adaptations to scarcity of resources, high unemployment rates, and overall poverty (Stack, 1974). Social networks can be viewed as a form of social capital for the urban poor. Stack is careful to point out that the African American community was fully aware of middle-class values and aspirations, but congruent lifestyles were unattainable to them. Their poverty was not a chosen, self-perpetuating state, but a result of real social economic constraints

The concept of the "culture of poverty" is worth noting here because of the impact it has had on discussions of urban poverty in the 1970s and 1980s, and because of its enormous influence on social policy. Oscar Lewis concentrated his ethnographic work on Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Latin American populations in the 1950s and 1960s toward understanding how poverty is perpetuated within certain communities. This question was most concretely addressed in his 1968 work, La Vida, a richly detailed description of Puerto Rican Barrios in New York and San Juan after World War II. Lewis contended that, in populations such as Puerto Ricans and urban Mexicans, exposure to poverty and oppression inevitably resulted in the acquisition of largely self-destructive learned behaviors that perpetuate impoverishment. Waterston (1993) contends that the notion of a "culture of poverty" was an idea that first surfaced around the time of the Irish immigration of the 1840s and 1850s, as speculation was made about the cultural origins of "deviant" behavior among immigrants. Nonetheless, Lewis, who is most closely associated with the culture of poverty construct, theorized that poverty is a cultural trait developed over time in response to oppressive life circumstances. Although Lewis theorized that the culture of poverty also had some protective aspects to it, such as creating a greater sense of inter-connectedness among those joined in poverty, his construct has been widely criticized for its reductionism and the negative impact it has had on public policy to this day (Goode & Eames, 1996). The theory of the culture of poverty assumes a middle-class notion of deviant culture, and conflates class with ethnicity (Goode & Eames, 1996). Later historians have suggested that the notion of the culture of poverty later resurfaced as Wilson's "underclass" (Marks, 1991). Countering criticism, Wilson later re-termed the underclass the "urban poor" (Susser, 1999).

In the 1980s, urban anthropology gradually oriented itself less toward micro-level analyses, and away from Lewis's psychologically grounded theory of poverty, and more toward research exploring political, economic, and historical structures of urban living (Low, 1999; Sanjak, 1990). Examples include Hannerz's (1969) ethnography of an African American ghetto in Washington, DC, illustrating intra-group variation and offering an alternative view to the relatively monolithic culture of poverty (Good & Eames, 1996). Similarly, Susser's detailed ethnographic account shows how working class families in a Brooklyn neighborhood actively respond to the limited economic possibilities available to them (Susser, 1982). At the same time, reflecting a broader trend in anthropology overall, medical anthropologists writing about health and the urban poor began to offer alternatives to primarily relativistic, ahistorical, and apolitical traditions (Morsy, 1990). Schensul and Borerro (1982), for example, describe the death of a Puerto Rican infant in an urban U.S. hospital because of language and cultural differences, the critical event determining the formation of a health organization devoted to advocating for the health of the city's urban Latinos. Urban ethnographies focusing on poverty in the 1990s represent the urban poor as inhabiting discretely bounded areas of cities, where commonalities of class, ethnicity, and the absence of political voice form a unified spatial identity (Low, 1999). In these ethnographies, the urban poor take on a distinct social identity through their locale in the city. In Brazil, Hecht (1998) and Scheper-Hughes (1992) also describe similarly youth and communities effectively segregated through poverty and violence. In the United States considerable anthropological attention has also been devoted to the societal marginalization of drug users (Baer et al., 1997; Singer, 1996; Waterston, 1993). For example, crack-cocaine dealers occupy a marginal and deteriorated area of Harlem, with few or no avenues for supporting themselves in the mainstream economy (Bourgois, 1995, 1996).

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