- S. Aminul Islam·
It is the common end of the most diverse destinies, an ocean into which lives derived from the most diverse social strata flow together. No change, no development, no polarization or breakdown of social life occurs without leaving its residuum in the stratum of poverty.
Thus, what makes one poor is not the lack of means. The poor person, sociologically speaking, is the individual who receives assistance because of this lack of means.
One of the key factors that led to
the emergence of sociology was research into poverty. In both Britain and France
the rise of sociology was accompanied by poverty studies. Yet from 1940s
sociologists moved away from poverty studies. One path of exit was a change of
terminology in which the poor was increasingly replaced by the lower class and
from the problems of the poor to the fertile terrain of deviance and crime.
Another was a shift of the sociological interest away from the lower to the
middle class – an area where research funds were abundant and which was more
suitable for survey research that was fast becoming the preferred method in
sociology (Roach and Roach 1972). The sociological interest in poverty rekindled
during the 1960s when poverty was rediscovered in USA. But after the failure of
anti-poverty agenda of 1960s in USA and fall of the modernization paradigm,
sociologists gradually retreated from poverty studies as well as from
development studies. The field was largely taken over by economists (Jordan,
1996). Most of the sociologists engaged in poverty studies mainly focused on
Poverty studies have definitely
been animated by larger and nobler visions like one provided by Sen. In spite of
such efforts, it is apparent that in the absence of a strong tradition of
interdisciplinary research the field has remained fragmented. Poverty studies
have largely been confined to the rites of headcount, if not headhunting. There
does not seem to be an adequate theory of poverty.
The emergence of the perspective of
exclusion offers a broad terrain in which adequate sociological theories of
deprivation and poverty can be constructed. The current discourse of exclusion
represents the social predicament of the North. A great deal of theoretical work
is needed before the perspective can be meaningfully deployed in the south. The
objective of this paper is to undertake a brief analysis of the current theories
of poverty, situate the status of the perspective of exclusion among these
theories and indicate how sociological theories of poverty can be developed
In 1972 the editors of the Penguin
reader on poverty found that sociology of poverty did not exist because there
was very little theoretical or conceptual analysis of the phenomenon (Roach and
Roach, 1972). Recently one author has forcefully pointed out:
“Not only there has there been no theory of poverty and social exclusion that explains the economics of collective action in exclusive groups; there has really been no theory of poverty and exclusion at all” (Jordan, 1996:81).
state of theory in poverty
According to Jordan (1996), there
are two broad traditions of poverty discourse in the West that has taken shape
and crystallized over a period of more than two hundred years. The first is the
Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition and the second is the continental mercantilist
tradition. The Anglo-Saxon - liberal tradition focuses on the ‘competitive
interaction under scarcity’ (Jordan, 1996:4) and the nature of collective
action that it gives rise to. The continental mercantilist tradition has been
preoccupied with harnessing human resources for enrichment of the state. The
poor are like sheep and cattle to be farmed for the glory of the rich.
More generally Kerbo (1996) has
identified four different types of poverty theory.
This is the first theory that
emerged within sociology and it tried to explain poverty in terms of the
behaviour and attitudes of the poor themselves. The poor were poor because they
did not work hard, they squandered money on ‘gambling, drinking and
unnecessary luxuries and they had disorder of family life. They had no ambition,
no inner call for work, were fatalistic, and suffered from “an intractable
ineducability” as the Brock Committee phrased it (cited in Matza, 1966:294).
Even a whole nation was conceived in these terms.
the faculties of his soul that despotism has touched are blighted; the wounds
there are large and deep. All this part of him is vice, whether it be cowardice,
indolence, knavery or cruelty; half of the Irishman is a slave” (Beaumont, a
French observer, cited in Matza, 1966:300).
Everywhere the poor made up the
“dangerous classes” living in “regions of squalid want and wicked
woe”(cited in Matza, 1066:302). Both Malthus and Herbert Spencer thought that
only hunger could teach the poor civility and subjection (Townsend).
A more recent proponent of this
view has been the US new right. George Gilder, Murray and Richard Hernstein have
argued that the poor are genetically blueprinted to be at the bottom of the
social hierarchy. The poor are poor because they have low IQ and low mental
capacity and biologically destined to be poor. The welfare system that
underwrites this human substratum of deviance is a sheer wastage of resources
and should be dismantled (Kerbo, 1996).
The second theory is the theory of
culture of poverty developed by Oscar Lewis, an anthropologist in 1959. Lewis
developed his theory from his experience of Mexico. The culture of poverty is a
specific syndrome that grows up in some situations. It requires an economic
setting of cash economy, a high rate of unemployment and under employment, low
wages and people with low skills. In the absence of voluntary or state support
and stable family, the low-income population tends to develop the culture of
poverty against the dominant ideology of accumulation of the middle class. The
poor realize that they have a marginal position within a highly stratified and
individualistic capitalistic society, which does not offer them any prospect for
upward mobility. In order to survive the poor have to develop their own
institutions and agencies because the larger society tends to ignore and bypass
them. Thus the poor come to embody a common set of values, norms and pattern of
behaviour, which is different from the general culture as such. In short the
poor has a way of life – a specific subculture. Lewis found 70 traits that
underlay this subculture. He classified these traits into four types.
People either disengage or maintain distance from the larger society. They do not belong to labour unions or political parties, go to banks or hospitals or enjoy leisure facilities of the city. They have a high mistrust of the dominant institutions of society.
The slum community is characterized by poor housing and overcrowding and a minimum of organizational structure beyond the space of family. These institutions grow up mainly to meet their minimum needs. The slum economy is inward looking. It is embedded in pawning of personal goods, informal credit and use of second hand goods.
Once the subculture is formed it
tends to be perpetuated. It is transmitted from one generation to another
The theory of culture of poverty has been greatly misunderstood and misused. Lewis saw it as an extreme form of adaptation that the poor are forced to make under certain circumstances and in certain places. The poor rejects the dominant culture and its institutions because they do not serve them. Their own subculture grows out of despair and protest.
The theory has been found
particularly influential in the study of the underclass. In 1962 Gunnar Myrdal
(1962) coined the term underclass to identify the Americans who were at the
bottom of labour market-unemployed or underemployed and were thus excluded from
the mainstream of social life. In recent years the underclass has become an
increasingly important island of humanity in the West living off welfare or
crime. Charles Murray (1984), a New Right theorist has argued that welfare dependency has led to the breakdown
of the nuclear family and formation of a counter culture that encourages
dependency and criminality.
The situational theory of poverty
holds that the poor behave differently because they do not have the resources
and opportunities for adopting the middle class life styles. Young people have
few opportunities to go to college and so they drop out. Women prefer matrifocal
family because it allows them to have greater claim upon their children.
The situational theory gives
importance to the structural conditions that give rise to poverty, but it also
tends to focus upon the individual responses to the objective situation of
poverty. It differs from the culture of poverty theory in a fundamental sense.
It does not assume the pre-existence of a subculture that gives coherence and
solidity to the behaviour of the poor. The situational theory holds that
individuals rationally follow a pattern of behaviour, which is suitable for the
objective situation of their life. It has been argued from this perspective that
the poor do not follow middle class values because they know that they cannot
achieve it. So in practice they tolerate large deviations from middle class
aspirations. This has been described as the lower class ‘value stretch’
(Rodman, 1963;Della Fave, 1974).
Marxism of different varieties has
remained a major theoretical perspective for understanding poverty. Dependency
theory, which emerged in Latin America, has been particularly concerned with
third world poverty. Theory of marginalization again of Latin American vintage
has a rich tradition of exploring the fate of human deprivation and marginality.
Another key phrase that has become immensely popular in recent years is social
exclusion (Friedman, 1996).
The term social exclusion was coined in France by Rene
Lenoir in 1974(Gore, 1995; Silver, 1995; Haan, 1998). But it is to be pointed
out that Georg Simmel (1858-1918), a German sociologist outlined a sociological
perspective on social exclusion and inclusion as early as 1908 that may even be
superior to current discourse on social exclusion. “This perspective is still
topical, and it can be argued that in some respects Simmel's analysis is
superior to later treatments of such processes”(Hvinden,). In Renoir’s view
exclusion referred to people who were excluded from employment-based social
security system. It became a popular term in France in 1980s to express new
forms of poverty associated with technological change and economic
restructuring--unemployment, ghettoisation, disruptions of family. It did not
replace poverty as a concept but referred to the broader process of social
disintegration – an increasing rupture of bond between the individual and
society. In the World Summit held in Copenhagen in 1995 the term was officially
adopted. In this conference social exclusion was seen as a major problem
alongside poverty. The term achieved a conceptual stretch through the research
of International Institute of Labour Studies, which found that the new term was
useful for four reasons (Clert,1999).
First, it allowed broadening the conventional poverty
analysis. It could include civil and political rights.
Gradually the concept was adopted
by other agencies including the World Bank. The popularization of the concept
was also due to the fact that sociologists and anthropologists began to rejoin
the field of poverty studies. This shift of discourse has broadened arena of
poverty studies in some major ways.
The perspective has made clear that
the identities of the poor based on age, sex, ethnicity and disability are
socially constructed. Certain groups within society become vulnerable because of
discrimination. It has led the study of poverty away from a ‘goods-centred’
approach to people-centred approach. The first emphasized upon the command over
commodities that led to greater utility and welfare. The latter view stressed
upon human capabilities and their freedom of choice
The exclusion perspective has
increasingly achieved theoretical clarity and sophistication. Gore (1995) argues
that the process of exclusion that occurs through the institutions of market,
state and civil society can be understood in terms of four determinants.
Silver (1996) has shown that the
perspective can be best understood in terms of three paradigms—solidarity,
specialization and monopoly. The first stems from the philosophy of
republicanism underwritten by Rousseau and Durkheim which stresses upon moral
integration of society and cultural boundary and the lack of which leads to
exclusion. This paradigm has been greatly influenced by sociology, anthropology
and cultural studies. It is dominant in France (Haan, 1998).
The second paradigm is known as
specialization and grounded in liberalism and in the philosophy of Locke and
Madison, which emphasizes interdependence of specialized spheres of society in
terms of exchange of goods and services. One inevitable consequence of
liberalism is discrimination and the creation of the underclass. This paradigm
is associated with neo-classical economics, theories of political pluralism and
mainstream sociology, especially rational/public choice theories. It is
particularly influential in USA.
The monopoly paradigm draws on,
Weber, Marx and Marshal and views the social order as coercive.
The mechanisms of class, status and political power as enunciated by
Weber tend to create inequality and formation of monopoly groups, which
perpetuate their power and privileges through social closure and labour market
segregation. This social closure can be reversed through enlargement of social
democracy and citizenship rights. It is dominant in Britain.
It is to be admitted that the
approach has faced serious criticisms. The term has been viewed as too broad and
vague and thus useless for scientific analysis. More importantly, a key issue
has been its relevance for the study of third world poverty.
Yet the advantages of the social
exclusion approach are obvious. Haan (1998) argues that social exclusion has
many advantages over other related terms. It gives us a broader view of
deprivation focusing upon societal mechanisms, institutions and strategic actors
causing it. Thus it can be used to link up macro and micro processes. Rodgers
(1996) holds that the term social exclusion offers a multi-dimensional and
multi-disciplinary view of poverty. It allows us to view poverty as a process.
The impact of exclusion can be seen at various levels.
It can illuminate the relationship between structure and agency. It has
been held that the perspective of social exclusion can be deployed fruitfully in
the South for a coherent analysis of poverty and blueprinting consistent
anti-poverty policy measures. Most importantly, it allows the scope for a more
relational and comprehensive analysis of poverty.
It can be argued at the same time
that this perspective allows for the development of a sociologically grounded
analysis of poverty. It makes it possible to look into the causes, processes and
consequences of poverty as well as the way the discourse of poverty is
constructed and deprived people react in a variety of ways to the existing
situation of their life. The sociology of poverty by focusing on the
institutional mechanism of inequality provides a deeper analysis of material and
discursive aspects of poverty, the way poor are constructed as a social category
and the way stigma is associated with it. It can powerfully interconnect
structure, discourse and agency and show that poverty is largely a social
construction along with countervailing action. In recent years we have begun to
hear the voices of the poor. But we need to know more about the way the
historical destiny of deprived people are created materially and symbolically
and how they live with and struggle against their socially constructed fate. It
demands the development of a proper sociological perspective on poverty.
Poverty discourse in Bangladesh has
been mainly concerned with income poverty and counting of the poor. It has
looked into poverty trends over time and determinants of poverty. In recent
years there has been some efforts to broaden the discourse in terms of its
interface with human development. The social and cultural aspects of poverty has
received attention in recent studies of
poverty undertaken by PPRC and Proshika. But in many ways the discourse is
limited and constricted. There is a need to further broaden the discourse.
I had conducted a study of two
villages in 2001 through the technique of rapid rural appraisal through the
support of the PPRC research team. It was aimed at exploring the changing
pattern of livelihoods and poverty.
These two villages provided two
different patterns of exclusion. The section below encapsulates some aspects of
exclusion in these villages.
This village was situated in the
haor area of Sunamganj. The geographical exclusion was quite pronounced. The
village could be reached from the Upazila headquarters by crossing a river and
walking about 5 kilometres of dirt road in the dry season. During the monsoon
the boat was the only means of communication. The village had a precarious
agricultural regime –a combination of monocrop and fish subject to the high
vulnerability of flash flood.
The critical area of exclusion was
governance failure. The chairman of the union parishad, a wealthy man who had
returned after years in England had built a huge mansion in the middle of the
haor. He had collected around him a retinue of strong men and had established
his sway completely over the area. He had grabbed the land of the minorities and
driven them away from the village. He had no office. It was wherever he was. He
was successful in establishing a patrimonial rule in miniature and a regime of
This example provides a critical
issue of exclusion vs. inclusion in the context of clientelistic politics, which
needs further elaboration and research.
The second aspect of exclusion was
bureaucratic dysfunction that led to livelihood failure. The flood control
measures of BWDB were often faulty and made the village vulnerable to flash
flood. This was especially true for earthwork, which would be started too late
and left incomplete. This often results in the total loss of crops in the course
of a single day.
Other key areas of exclusion are
health and education and developmental support through NGOs. One NGO had begun
work here and then had withdrawn. Employment opportunities beyond agriculture
are slim. Young people educated from secondary school to college are totally
unemployed. Their only hope is some kind of work outside the country. Poverty is
stark. People pursue two livelihoods strategies -deepening of mutual self-help
mechanism within respective samaj bodies and seasonal labour migration.
Lalmai in Comilla provides an
opposite picture. It is located near a high way in the heart of Green Revolution
belt. Here the traditional samaj has been taken over by a credit society led by
a local business entrepreneur. This CBO has built up social capital and a new
civic community in the village. It has been instrumental in motivating people to
have sanitary latrines in most houses in the village. It has set up a high
school and was trying to bring gas connection in the village. People have
achieved a new sense of dignity and self –help. It was voiced by a widow.
‘No one can be poor if he/she has a pair of hands.’ Remittances from
international migration, intensive agriculture and non-farm work have provided
relative prosperity to the village. There is little income poverty. There is
community support for the less well off. Thus Lalmai provides an example of the
role of agency in creating social capital and community solidarity.
It is a village in Shariatpur that
has almost all the characteristics of an urban agglomeration. Situated on the
bank of mighty Padma, the village has suffered from river erosion and its prime
agricultural land has shrunk over the years. As a monocrop area its agricultural
resources are few. Its critical resource is its location as a river station for
launches and steamers with direct communication links with Dhaka. It has made
migration easy even for poor women. Thus migration provides a major livelihoods
opportunity for people in the village. International migration has been a major
phenomenon for the village. One can even say Ratanpur has a counterpart village
in Italy. A part of agricultural labour force has mainly opted for non-farm
activities around the local area. The extremely deprived people live in slum
like dwellings on the public land. Some of these make shift dwellings sport
teacups, cosmetics and photographs of Bangladeshi and Indian film stars. These
deprived people are becoming increasingly excluded from the safety nets of the
indigenous samaj. The old and infirm are trapped into extreme deprivation. The
able –bodied people have income opportunities. There are, of course, spells of
hunger during monsoon and flood. The routine charity is decreasing, but charity
during ceremonial occasions has increased with increasing wealth of the rich.
The village has a rich heritage of
cultural and religious diversities. It is a major center for syncretistic
religion. Its local theatre group has a long history possibly over a period of
more than 50 years. Its religious shrine is an instance of social capital where
people from several districts give free labour during ceremonial occasions.
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