Intersubjective Views of Origins of the Concept of Poverty

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This essay proposes an original account of poverty, which tries to think about poverty as a context, without disregarding poverty as such. As ‘context’ in its language use refers to the relevant referentials of the communicative situation that influence and give a meaning to the ‘text’ itself, a poverty context determines a certain perception of reality which is experienced through the lens of a poor person. The lens of poverty has no interest in defining poverty as an object, nor a condition, but rather insists on the study of signs, codes and their meanings (semiotic) in order to shed light upon behaviours (the text) through an exploration of the poverty lens (the context). Using the literature regarding phenomenology, I argue that the complexities of social diversity can be accounted for by using different perceptions (for instance, gender, age, disability, ethnicity- based perceptions) as an appropriate way of defining the various facets of poverty.

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However, this exploration requires a pre-understanding of poverty as a condition (not as a context) and its conceptual bases, which is presented here, followed by a discussion around the phenomenology of perception as encompassing the actor’s own interpretation of reality. Finally, a rapid presentation of the case of urban slums as a context is discussed.

Defining poverty from various standpoints

Emergence and re-emergence of the concept of poverty

Interestingly, poverty became a subject of debate on several occasions in economic history, though views differed on causes and effects. As early as 1776, Adam Smith described the concept of deprivation through a definition of the necessaries of daily life. The late 1890s came under the influence of social Darwinism which stated that poverty is a phenomenon responding to scientific rules that needs to be measured and documented. At that time, Charles Booth (1901), SeebohmRowntree (1902) and Robert Hunter (1904) approached poverty through social survey analysis. These pioneers of modern poverty research studied poverty in London and York (UK), identifying the poor through monetary and sociological aspects such as the nature and regularity of employment. Following a different methodology, SeebohmRowntree (1902) estimated adequate monetary resources for nutritional, clothing and housing requirements. These pioneer works on poverty had more to do with documenting an objective and quantitative poverty condition than actually expressing a definition of the phenomenon. In the early 20th century, the rise of Chicago School sociology redefined poverty studies by providing a scientific explanation to urban poverty through topics such as delinquency, deviance and neighbourhood and family disorganization. Poverty as cultural pathology emerged as an alternative explanation to the persistence of poverty, which Richard Hoggart studied in the late 1950s. Booth and Rowntree’s works were later challenged by Peter Townsend’s relativist approach to poverty (1979), stating that “individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the type of diet, participation in the activities and have the living conditions and the amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved in the societies to which they belong”. What is new is the reference to a standard defined in terms of the society in which an individual lives. Hence, academic circles commonly refer to the rediscovery of poverty as a phenomenon that took place in the early 1960s with writers such as Townsend and Herman Phillip Miller (1964). As it turned out, poverty began to be scrutinized in terms of its causes and effects, which would dispel the fuzziness that had been associated with the concept. Miller (1964) compiled useful statistics on poverty characteristics, influence of education on income and relationship between working wives and household income. In the late 1950s, Richard Hoggart (1957) appealed to non structural causes of poverty and wrote his own characterisation of poverty as emerging from the working class, its customs, relations and attitudes. Starting from the 1970s, research on development economics issues was influenced by various factors. Townsend (1979) and his emphasis on relative poverty represented a notable shift. Secondly, the notion of income poverty enlarged to a wider definition including a set of basic needs such as education and health. This enriched conceptual approach of poverty grew more complex with Robert Chambers’ emphasis on powerlessness and participation in the 1980s. Vulnerability to poverty also became a subject of matter which stressed on the importance of assets and social capital. Gender relations studies and emphasis on the utility of income regarding one’s health and education were part of a rapid increase in poverty concerns. Further developments regarding a poverty concept happened along with the emergence of the idea of well-being, as self-esteem and the ability to make choices completed the list of concepts used to describe poverty.

Poverty as an ambiguous construction of reality

It is somehow difficult to identify individual needs irrespective of societal standards. When literacy is nowadays an absolute requirement, it was not considered as relevant two centuries ago. In his measurement of poverty, Rowntree (1902) actually included tea among the list of necessities, which has more of a social importance in Britain than a relevant nutritional value. As a result, poverty may not only be seen as a concept itself but as a social construction that cannot be divorced from social, political and economic dispositions of society. What is ambiguous about poverty defined as a social construction is the fact that a construction of reality rarely remains free of judgments or subjectivity and usually carries different understandings of humanity and human needs. A collective state of mind is shaped by customs, historical and social contexts, and would therefore involve non universal arguments and reasoning in its definition of poverty.

Poverty through the lens of poverty contexts

As the definition of ‘context’ goes, focusing on poverty contexts rather than poverty itself (the text) allows to explore the parts of a discourse surrounding an object of interest (poverty) which are able to throw light on its meaning. The language use of ‘context’ is therefore not far away from its use related to poverty – the relevant referentials of the communicative situation influence the meaning given to the object of interest, making poverty contexts a different perception of reality.

Construction and counsciousness of poverty contexts

The constructivist approach uses a deliberate dichotomy between the poor and society to build the category of individuals in poverty. This construction, by definition social, approaches the idea of a relationship – at the level of representations, collective patterns of thought – between poverty and the society in which it appears. Poverty may be reduced to a behavior of the rest of society towards it.A constructivist approach to poverty can be dated back to Simmel, in the early twentieth century. It expressed the idea that the only way to objectively identify a category that has no objective existence (individuals in poverty) is to build genuine a poverty group, by formalizing its relationship with society through a situation of assistance. Somehow, the approach between society and its poor is close to simmelian constructivism, and underlies the idea that individuals in a society are interdependent and interact with one another, and likewise, a social group with another. Forms of social ties can take different aspects in different societies in which they are studied; according to Paugam (2001), poverty is described as well integrated in societies where the condition of the poor is a condition common to many, and little stigmatized; poverty can be marginal if it appears in a prosperous society and only affects a small segment of the population, the social bond demonstrating a strong stigmatization of the poor by the whole society. Finally, disqualifying poverty, according to Paugam, concerns modern societies affected by economic hardship and dissension of the social bond, with poverty in the form of individual falls and a variety of conditions and status of poor people (unemployed, working poor, people with disabilities, etc..). This idea of a social bond, which is present in the constructivist approach, make stronger the idea of a responsibility of society towards its poor, along with a relativity of needs which is expressed through several observable phenomena such as collective representations, or some attributes or standards. Poverty is seen, objectified as such by the rest of society from the representations that it is actually. It exists through the representations that people have of it – a social construction – and according to the norms, values, situations described as situations of indignity, poverty will be greater or less, regardless of its own existence terms of objective criteria (number of calories consumed per day, access to potable water, sanitary conditions, etc..). The relationship between a society and poverty – studied through collective representations – is determining when defining and designating poverty. For example, Messu (2009) wrote: “arguably, whatever the society in which it is considered, the “poor” remains primarily an ideological figure, only in the sense that its image needs to exist to stimulate action and social reaction. Admittedly, the latter is embodied in individuals, but it is the representation in the traits of the “poor” that matters, with, should we add, the representation of the “social” on which it stands. The figure of the “poor” helps us to believe in the social order and the relationships between those who materialize it”. Collective representations are thus at the boundary between perception and imagination, and are, therefore, forming an interesting analysis of situations of poverty. Representations and behaviors influence each other, and are the basis of conceptualizations that have been made of the figure of the poor (including Simmel). Collective representation is the key agency and production of knowledge in society, produced by society itself and especially by the agglomeration of individuals who compose it, as Durkheim (1898) explains it: “If it were, in some ways, that collective representations are external to individual consciousness, it is that they are not derived from isolated individuals, but from their combination, which is very different. In the making of a common result, each probably brings its share, but the private sentiments become social only by combining the action of forces sui generis that develops the association; and as a result of these combinations and mutual alterations that result, they become something else. Chemical synthesis occurs that concentrates and unifies the elements synthesized and, by that very process, transforms them. Since this synthesis is the work of all, it’s the all it has for a theater. The result that emerges therefore goes beyond each individual mind, as the all overflows the part. It is within the whole, just as it is created by the all” . This “knowledge beyond that of the average person” (Durkheim, 1912) is a tool for understanding the social, this cluster of perceptions and values that allows individuals to live together, to see and understand the world in a certain manner, common to a certain extent. This beyond-the-individual perception is an ideal measurement of what is produced socially, by the juxtaposition of individuals. The link between poverty and society in terms of representation can also be formulated in Moscovici’s words (1961): “dynamic sets, theory or science for the collective interpretation and shaping of reality. They identify possible fields of communication, values, ideas present in the visions shared by groups and subsequently regulate desirable or acceptable conducts”.

Poverty and the phenomenology of perception

Poverty as a different perception of reality, as a social lens through which life is lived, is tempting notion to use. It relates to the views of phenomenology, which consist in describing the difference between what is described as objectivism and the study of phenomena. Husserl (1970) notably argued, “what characterises objectivism is that it moves upon the ground of the world which is pregiven, taken for granted through experience, seeks the ‘objective truth’ of this world, seeks what, in this world, is unconditionally valid for every rational being, what it is in itself”. Husserl’s explanation of phenomenology therefore starts by opposing it to objectivism, in the sense that thinking and knowledge are rationalized from experience, and that by exploring an objective truth of the world, individuals step beyond what Husserl refers to as ‘what is’ (the existing). A more accurate meaning of ‘what is’ is more determined by an individual experience of this world, rather than an objective account of it. Meanings are therefore coming from the individual experiencer, who, by believing in his/her experience, builds up a validated reality of the world. The phenomenological world, as stated by Merleau-Ponty (1945), is “not pure being, but the sense which is revealed where the paths of my various experiences intersect, and also where my own and other people’s intersect and engage each other like gears. It is thus inseparable from subjectivity and intersubjectivity, which find their unity when I either take up my past experiences in those of the present, or other people’s in my own”.

By providing an understanding of perception, phenomenology, applied to a poverty context, is a powerful instrument in order to “open a window on to things” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). A truth in itself can be found in occulting the reasons and objective existence of the context; so that the reason underlying all appearances is to be found perceived things, and not from “the sequel or amplification of the process which constitutes perceived things” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). The lens of poverty is therefore an inquiry of poverty within its perception of itself, and resembles a sociological inquiry in many ways. It is equally important to experience reality for the sociologist himself/herself, but also to perceive the behaviours, attitudes, gestures of other individuals. Merleau-Ponty (1969) states that “for the sociologist’s equations begin to represent something social only at the moment when the correlations they express are connected to one another and enveloped in a certain unique view of the social and of nature which is characteristic of the society under consideration and has come to be institutionalised in it as the hidden principle of all its overt functioning – even though this view may be rather different than the official conceptions which are current in that society”. Methodologically speaking, activities of phenomenological investigation involve identifying a phenomenon clearly interrelated to reality, exploring the lived (and not conceptualised) experience of it, and investigating an accurate description of the phenomenon, here poverty thought of as a context, a scenery.

Through the lens of urban slums

What is understood as a poverty context can be illustrated through the example of urban slums. As poverty studies in urban slums have given a geographically bounded account of poverty, they have entailed a representation of poverty reductible to its context. This essay therefore takes the standpoint of questioning perceptions as contextualised and framed in poverty contexts, the aim being to off-center our external perception of poverty contexts by seeing phenomena through the lens of urban slum dwellers.

The “slum community” to which Lewis (1969) refers during his investigations of urban areas opens the field of urban research on poverty, which is a decisive aspect of poverty studies in the 1950s and 1960s. After the individualist approaches to the city of the Chicago School, the anthropology of urban poverty is one of the first to produce knowledge of the city as a human assemblage, sharing standards, culture and traditions. Agier (1995) adds, “by reifying the paradigm of the ghetto to account for situations of poverty, we recreated, in a new environment for the discipline, a distance between the anthropologist and his subject. If this distance could no longer be geographical, linguistic or ethnic, it would be social, even if it exaggerated the traits of certainly dramatic urban social situations, but more marked by domination rather than by exclusion (…). Intellectual discovery of the poor has therefore enabled anthropology to reproduce in the city a relatively remote object and, somehow, a romantic, exotic and marginal object – as was the image of anthropology itself in social sciences. But this approach also embodied, in the same time, the impossibility of an anthropology of the city, allowing only a series of monographic surveys and issues closed in on themselves”. The human groups in the city therefore present pitfalls to avoid while studying them. Despite the apparent interest of concentrating research in a closed environment (the slum), the sociological study of urban poverty has to guard decoys facing the urban anthropology of the 1950s – pitfalls highlighted by Richard Fox (1977) according to who anthropology locked itself in a study focusing on the inner circles of poverty, placing itself within the confines of the borders of exclusion, rather than thinking of poverty as an entry point for understanding the whole of society.

Here, the urban dimension is expressed primarily in the entity ‘slum’. The slum can be thought of as “a densely populated urban area, characterized by substandard and miserable housing” (UN Habitat) – entity that has its own dynamic and changing facets. The restrictive view of the slum by the criterion of ruined habitat is not the one used here, although it is actually a precise and effective designation of an urban cluster where conditions of poverty are expressed visibly. The slum is, however, an entity that should be studied beyond the designation criteria, particularly because of its logical space enclosed on itself and the apparent homogeneity of the conditions of existence within the slum. As Lacoste (1980) pointed out in the 1980s, “we had to react against the more and more frequent use of the term “slum”, used in a more extensive and confused way to refer to forms of urban housing as dissimilar as slumed and overcrowded old multi-storey buildings, or the huts built on the outskirts of cities by immigrants using construction practices which they were familiar with in their home villages”.

This principle of localized approaches is particularly popular in urban studies (Lautman, 1981), since different scales of observation of urban complexity can be identified in the city, therefore implying a systematic comparison between different research themes in selected local contexts. Among those, the study of different types of perceptions, through the eyes of gender, disability, age or ethnicity could benefit from this account of reality, in which poverty is constrained to its specific environment, geographically and mentally. However, practical approaches to poverty perceptions, ie their measurement and analysis, are likely to remain the highest barrier to the use of such an approach to describe poverty.

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