On anthropological impotence

Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016)

The American culture of the “culture of poverty” is alive and well. New York Times journalists still quote approvingly professors who tell them: “The poor lack two things: money and cognitive freedom.” And it appears that a major State actor, “the Obama administration,” relies on such experts for designing policies aimed at changing the behavior of those who do not act according to economic rationalism (e.g. do not save more for old age).

We, anthropologists in my network, know all this.  We see “governmentality” at its most hegemonic (though not necessarily unchallenged as the current presidential campaign suggests) when networked media, academia, and State reinforce each other’s common sense, make alternatives disappear, and more importantly, transform “understandings,” “representations,” (“ontologies”?) into action with massive consequences. “Poverty is a sickness” is not only a metaphor we live by (Basso 1980). It is also a conceit endlessly developed in discourse, policies, debates within the conceit, new discourses, regulations, requests for action by others subjected to them, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the journalist develop the report by saying that Shafir’s understanding

shifts the onus onto those with power over poor Americans — employers, government — not just to design their application forms, their business hours, their policies in a way that takes into account the restrictions poverty imposes, but also to shift real resources to where they would make the biggest difference.

If poverty is a sickness then … and then … so that… The progression to action is inexorable.  I’ll pick up just one issue and note the last phrase “make the biggest difference”: “those with power” can do things to the poor that will make a difference among the poor.

Cause -> intervention -> effect.


They did, we do, and then they will.

In this perspective, “poverty is a sickness” is also the first statement in a most powerful speech act that limit dissenting responses to “poverty is NOT a sickness” thereby maintaining “sickness” as the issue.

I point out this process of development of an idea into a conceit because of an apparent paradox in the New York Times story.  The paragraph quoting Shafir is followed by another that goes:

That understanding might act as a corrective for the belief that poor people are mostly to blame for their poverty.

I am not sure that talking about “lacking cognitive freedom” is not “blaming the victim.” But it remains a form of classification and identification of an individual shortcoming. Poverty remains what it has been: something to cure individuals from through targeted programs.  Michael Harrington said much the same thing in 1962. He may then have been optimistic that his pleas would find an echo in the Federal Government, as they did. He might now be depressed that half-a-century of targeted programs do not appear to have much of a dent.

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.

Fifty years of anthropological (and broader) critique has had not visible impact either on the media or the State—except perhaps to require a statement that “this” (e.g. saying that a poor person is “lacking in cognitive freedom”) is not blaming the victim. From their academic niches, anthropologists can lob complaints. But they clearly have been neatly surrounded by friendly walls that make what they have been saying inaudible.

One of the many challenges for my network of anthropologists is not to collapse the American processes that link State, media and academia (not to mention Benevolent Billionaires) into any type of habitus or other cognitive processes among the affected ones.  We do not want to cure them.  To argue “méconnaissance” is to collapse in the culture of (the poverty of) power and to take us back where we do not want to be.

What are we to do? I wonder whether we could investigate the American culture of the “culture of poverty” (that is the process that appear to make it “immortal”) as
1) a conversational entanglement as metaphors transform into conceits transform into acts that make things that catch more and more people;
2) the working of what Garfinkel called the “etc.” principle that stops questioning what makes sense in some here and now.  Once having started with a concern for a suffering individual, and continued with a proposal for acts that might alleviate the suffering, then questioning the helper about the act, or about positioning oneself as a concerned citizen coming to help is to be annoying and will produce resistance.  Offering a cure for an illness is self-justifying and the principle need not be further discussed.

We would, of course, have to say all this without the jargon. We need to find the place where we might shift the very grounds of the conversation.

We need a catchy metaphor.

In the mean time, we may wonder: McDermott played with labeling what we do not as quite “applied anthropology” but as “reply anthropology.” We might also say that we are doing … “annoy anthropology”! (and we should not be overly surprised if annoyed Benevolent Billionaires do not fund out work…)


Basso, Keith   1980     Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harrington, Michael   1962     The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Print This Post Print This Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *