In several posts in recent days, I have discussed the work of Oscar Lewis and the concept of a culture of poverty. Here I would like to discuss a change of terminology that I find useful in my own thinking about poverty and practices associated with contexts of poverty, a change from speaking of “cultures of poverty” to a “habitus of poverty,” using the concept of “habitus” from the practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu.
In Outline of a Theory of Practice (p. 72), Bourdieu defined habitus (he defines the concept in slightly different terms in several places in the book, though each time with essentially similar connotations):
“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”
I have several reasons for preferring the term “habitus of poverty.” A first and simple reason for switching terminology is to attempt to avoid some of the problems associated with using the term “culture of poverty.” “Culture of poverty” has negative connotations to many, most commonly of “blaming the victim.” As I discussed in my first post on the topic (“Oscar Lewis and the Culture of Poverty”), I think this has more to do with popular distortions of Lewis’ concept than with Lewis’ anthropological theorizing. In any case, the result is that use of the term “culture of poverty,” because of the reactions it so often elicits, gets in the way of seriously considering patterns of practice associated with poverty that must be considered if we care about alleviating poverty. If a change in terminology could help get around this, so be it. (This is possibly also the least persuasive reason to change to speaking of “habitus of poverty.” Those who see “culture of poverty” as fundamentally flawed will likely see this as simply new clothes for the same bad idea.)
A second reason to speak of “habitus of poverty” is an emphasis on practice – in Lewis’ and Bourdieu’s works. The traits and patterns Lewis associated with the culture of poverty, and which I’ve discussed in three previous posts in recent days, are mainly patterns of behavior or practice, rather than lists of cultural objects produced or settings or contexts for particular rituals or events. Lewis’ descriptions of the culture of poverty are very process oriented and to a large extent congruent with contemporary practice theory, in contrast to much anthropological theory contemporary to him that was more object oriented.
Finally, and I think most importantly, a shift to habitus clarifies the ways in which the patterns of behavior associated with a “culture of poverty” are produced and reproduced. Habitus consists of durably patterned dispositions and practices. These become regular without being the result of a conscious aiming towards producing such regularity. They are also regular without being the result of strict obedience to a set of explicit rules (though I’d argue that obedience to explicit rules does occasionally play a role in structuring practices and habitus) or the action of any sort of “orchestrator.” The patterns of behavior associated by Lewis with a “culture of poverty” and which I would here call the “habitus of poverty” are largely the result of many individuals each individually acting as rationally and/or irrationally as individuals in any other social context to meet their basic needs and interests, with this leading to certain tendencies in patterned practice. Further, once in place, the patterned practices of a habitus of poverty strongly predispose (which does not mean “determine”) towards reproduction of the same or similar tendencies and patterns – Bourdieu’s “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures.” As with Lewis’ work, this does not blame the victim – the “structures predisposed to function as structuring structured” do not exist a priori, nor are they the result of individuals’ choosing or flawed nature, but are instead themselves “structured” through individuals having to act within highly constrained material conditions, with all the factors discussed by Lewis in La Vida contributing to these constrained options and possibilities for action and rational choice.