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The Culture of Poverty

by Nicolas Duvoux , 19 July 2011

In the U.S., in France as well with Hugues Lagrange’s book on “the denial of cultures”, culture has again become the focus of poverty studies. Our dossier on “culture of poverty” reviews this new trend and examines a notion that has paradoxically been given a new lease of life by the economic downturn, half a century after Oscar Lewis controversially introduced it.

2010 has seen the scientific and political return of the “culture of poverty”. Coined by Oscar Lewis at the end of the 1960s, the notion has since served to criticize the American welfare state, and its effects on the African-American minority. It has become synonym with a “blame the victim” interpretation of poverty that has also been accused of undermining welfare policies under the pretense of denunciating poverty traps.

As the crisis has increased the impact and depth of economic anxiety in the western world, researchers on the two sides of the Atlantic have reexamined the possibility that there indeed exist cultures of poverty. Their analyses remain controversial. In the U.S., David J. Harding, Michèle Lamont, Mario Small have shown in a series of empirical studies that it is both possible and necessary to take into account the cultural dimension of poverty, if one is to understand, and respond to it. Other studies looking at the same hypothesis have prompted Patricia Cohen to announce in the New York Times that “’Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback”.

In France, Hugues Lagrange’s take on the problem met with controversy as his Le Déni des cultures shifted the use of the notion of culture from studies of its impact on the job market to an analysis of social vulnerability.

Authors and reviewers have debated those issues in La Vie des idées. This dossier now collects their contributions as well as others published elsewhere, in the hope of fostering discussion of a notion as stimulating as it is problematic.

Content of the Dossier :

  • Jules Naudet , « A Sociologist in the Ghetto », about Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, (Harvard University Press), 11 april 2011.
  • Nicolas Duvoux, « The Precariousness Syndrome », about Jean Furtos, De la précarité à l’auto-exclusion, Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 17 january 2011.
  • Nicolas Duvoux, « The Culture of Poverty Reconsidered », about David J. Harding, Michèle Lamont, Mario Luis Small, dir., « Reconsidering Culture and Poverty », The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 16 October 2010.

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by Nicolas Duvoux, 19 July 2011

To quote this article :

Nicolas Duvoux, « The Culture of Poverty », Books and Ideas , 19 July 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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