On culture and poverty
An article in the Boston Review comments on the recent volume of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences that calls for rethinking culture in the context of poverty research. The article distorts the argument of the volume. Below is the unedited text of a response I posted in the Community and Urban Sociology listserv.
Considering the visibility of the Boston Review piece---and given its numerous distortions and misrepresentations---I think it's important for people to read the original paper themselves and arrive at their own conclusions. The Boston Review piece is threatening to set the discussion back 30 years. The Introduction to the issue (Small, Harding, and Lamont 2010) is available for free here: http://ann.sagepub.com/content/629/1/6.full.pdf+html. I believe the full issue is available for free, too: http://ann.sagepub.com/content/629/1.toc. Inspired by Wikileaks, I believe people should have the opportunity to read the sources.
There might be a place at some point for a full rebuttal of the Boston Review piece, but a few especially pernicious misrepresentations are worth noting.
1. On the claim that the Annals piece is trying to resurrect "the culture of poverty." This is completely untrue. The Introduction explicitly rejects the Lewis "culture of poverty" model for its theoretical inconsistencies and its failure to stand up to empirical scrutiny. A NYT reporter may have titled her column, "Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback," but journalism is not scholarship, that column largely cites scholars who were not part of the Annals volume, and the Annals piece makes no such claim. For what it's worth, the title of our piece is "Reconsidering [that is, *rethinking*] Culture and Poverty."
2. On the claim that the Annals piece is arguing that we should favor cultural explanations over structural ones. This is untrue (and rather ridiculous, for anyone familiar with Harding's or Small's work on neighborhood effects, organizational conditions, etc.). Instead, the Introduction explicitly argues that (a) decades of research have made clear the significance of structural conditions, and (b) we should evaluate cultural explanations *empirically*, not *politically*. If such explanations find no support, they should be dropped, which is the way scientific knowledge grows.
3. On the implication that the Annals piece is arguing (as represented in the A&L Daily's lead to the Boston Review piece) that "black culture causes black poverty." This is not only untrue (and, again, preposterous to anyone familiar with our empirical research); it is precisely the opposite of our argument. We specifically reject the idea that there is a homogeneous black culture and, separately, report and cite the dozens of studies that have debunked the notion that the values of the poor are the cause of their poverty. Only Steinberg---and others in the media---seem to believe that anyone is still having that debate, which has been settled by the scholarship long ago. (I also find it disturbing that the Boston Review piece seems to use "black" and "poor" interchangeably when discussing cultural models, another tendency of 1960s research. Our review is not about African Americans, most of whom [as I have also argued elsewhere] are not poor, even in metropolitan areas.)
There are many other distortions, but I should at least point out what we do argue. First, our core argument is that scholarship in poverty has been stuck in old models of culture (including the ideas that culture=values and that culture causes poverty) that have long been abandoned by sociologists of culture. The sociology of culture over the last 30 years has developed a long literature---on cultural capital, scripts, frames, institutions, and other models of culture---that have been fruitful in education, social movements, and other fields, and---we argue---would be useful in poverty research as well. This argument seems so elementary and non-controversial that one would have to be either blinded by an agenda or fully unaware of the recent sociological literature to find much to disagree with. Still, we argue that this task is important for three reasons (pg 9-11): (a) to understand why people, e.g., in the same poor neighborhoods, differ in their ability to cope with poverty; (b) to debunk the existing popular myths about the culture of the poor (yes, this is *our* argument, not Steinberg's); and (c) to clarify a rather messy literature on the definition of "culture." (We also show that ignoring culture can lead to bad policy.) Again, I urge you to read the works on your own, rather than rely on the representations of others.
For what it's worth, readers will notice that Steinberg uses the Annals piece as a foil to have a one-on-one debate with Wilson that he's been having for decades. I'll let the principals speak to that. However, the fact that most of Steinberg's citations are dated before 1980 provides a hint that the review, superficial representations aside, is really not about our Annals piece.
Steinberg's piece is devoted to angrily denouncing that cultural values among blacks are not the cause of their poverty. No kidding. We have known that for years, and no one was arguing otherwise. What we do not yet know, for example, is why poor children who equally value education differ in their possession of the cultural knowledge required to apply to college. Or how the cultural assumptions of policy makers and legislators are affecting anti-poverty policy. Both of these issues, among many others, are the subject of our volume, not the rehashed material that the Boston Review piece misleadingly implies. Steinberg's rhetorical trick is to resurrect a debate that no one was having and to declare himself the winner by adopting a long-settled position. Unfortunately, anger is no excuse to not keep up with the literature.