How Culture Matters for Poverty: Thickening our Understanding

June 2006

Michèle Lamont, Harvard University; Mario Luis Small, Princeton University

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The term “culture” figures prominently in the poverty literature, though rarely with much theoretical or empirical sophistication. For some, it is a residual category to explain why statistical models do not account for all the variance in poverty-related outcomes. For others, it is an intermediary mechanism—an endogenous variable that helps explain why structural conditions such as neighborhood poverty lead to unwanted outcomes—but not an independent causal force. Still others reject cultural explanations altogether, arguing that these inevitably “blame the victims” for their problems. In this literature, “culture” is rarely defined explicitly. Conceived at times as a group’s norms and values, at other times as its attitudes toward work and family, and on yet other occasions as patterns of behavior, culture in the poverty literature has been studied with neither the depth nor the precision that characterize analyses of such matters as demographic trends, selection bias, and the impact of public policies on work and family structure. This chapter aims to remedy the situation while examining whether and how culture helps explain the causes and consequences of racial disparities in poverty. While poverty scholars provide a rather thin understanding of culture, over the last two decades cultural sociologists have produced theoretical and empirical research that has yielded a subtle, heterogeneous, and sophisticated picture of how cultural factors shape and are shaped by poverty and inequality. They have used concepts such as “frames,” “cultural repertoires,” “narrative,” “collective identity,” “symbolic boundaries,” “cultural capital,” and “institutions” to study how poor individuals interpret and respond to their circumstances. By no means has this literature coalesced into a coherent perspective on culture. Also, search for subtlety has often come at the cost of lost parsimony. Nevertheless, social scientists are in the process of filling gaps in what is known about the causes and consequences of poverty.

Race and Ethnicity, Research Methods