pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty

The shanty is black within and without … A black woman sits on a log, with half-a-dozen small specimens of humanity about her, and of all shades of black, brown, and yellow… ‘Where is your husband?’ … ‘Dunno, missis, don’t care, he may go to de debbil for I know and cares.’” (E. B. Emery Letters from the South, on the Social Intellectual and Moral Condition of the Colored People (Boston, 1880: 9-10) – as quoted by E. F. Frazier 1966 [1939]: 256)

Thus opens Chapter XVII of one of the most powerful book of the 20th century—as far as family and poverty policy is concerned at least..  Frazier uses here a classic anthropological rhetorical trick many anthropologists continue to use (and which I try to discourage among my students): He quotes a long extract from some text to introduce (illustrate? prove? enlighten?) some analytic statement.  At the end of the paragraph following the quote, Frazier tells us “of course, such cases … are not typical” (1966 [1939]: 257).  So why start in this manner a chapter discussing uncertain statistics about “illegitimacy among Negroes”?  And why should it appear directly after the statement possibly most quoted by people like Moynihan who, twenty years later, expanded on Frazier to make a “Case for National Action’ “to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it ro raise and support is members as do other families” (Moynihan 1967 [1965]: 93)? Frazier had written: “Family desertion among Negroes in cities appears, then, to be one of the inevitable consequences of the impact of urban life on the simple family organization and folk culture which the Negro has evolved in the rural South”  (1966 [1939]: 255)I went back to Frazier and then Moynihan as Ray McDermott and I have been discussing the roots of the “culture of poverty” argument and the failure of the anthropological critique of this argument to have the long term impact we were sure, when we were in graduate school in the early 70s, it would have.  In the late 70s and 80s, it was almost too easy to teach the critique.  To students, it was simple, Frazier and Moynihan were “racist” and that settled that.  Students were often surprised to learn that Frazier was one of the first PhD’s granted by the University of Chicago to Blacks.  But learning this did not change much.

What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters from the South) whose book must have moved Frazier.  Like her, they sought and brought out the most pathetic of experiences to justify any analysis of the “roots of the problem” (as Moynihan calls them).  It made sense because, as I imagine their political contexts, Emery’s letters, like Frazier’s book (and the dissertation on which it was based), like Moynihan’s Report, are attempts to convince policy makers (from activist women in Boston, to the Congress in Washington) that “we must do something.”

This missionary urge still moves students, like it moves policy makers, and blinds them to the dangers of unanalyzed pathos—particularly when it becomes the opening statement in a long chain of “if/then” argumentation: if the women had seven husbands (“small speciments … of all shades”) then there is something wrong with her; if there is something wrong with her it is because of her social conditions (cue here any version of socialization theory you prefer); given that there is something wrong with her, simply changing social conditions will not be enough to prevent her children from being wrong in the same way as she is wrong; thus, “we” must create programs to help her; but first we must diagnose what exactly is wrong with her… [TO MY READERS: if someone would try their hand at transforming this progression into the kind of cartoon Latour drew for the double helix, I would be most thankful!)

This argumentation can produce volumes of “research,” both fundamental and applied, and policies upon reformed policies along with endless “empirical research” providing “evidence based” suggestions about what “really works.”  But what if there is nothing wrong with the woman Emery met?  What if her very survival through many men, pregnancies, labors and deliveries, childhood diseases and death, etc., suggest complex strategies involving many people and many modes of acting?  I am thinking here of Scheper-Hughes’s portrayal of Brazilian women (1992) and of her acknowledgment of the process that led them her pathos (leading to the urge to help) to understanding.  The women were suffering but there is nothing wrong with them and we should not burden them with our pathos.  We do not need to develop complex diagnostic tools, and the accompanying enormous bureaucracy, to help the women.  As far as the kind of diseases that afflicted many of the children of the Brazilian women, clean water was all that was needed.

The best anthropological response to the culture of poverty argumentation was the accumulation of stories of survival, including the production of local patterns.  I am thinking here of Carol Stack’s justly famous All our kin.  But, as we found out, these stories are not enough.  They get dismissed as “anecdotes,” “just so stories,” and altogether irrelevant to “the problem.”  At worst, anthropologists can be accused to undermine policies.  One of our student, Karen Velasquez, told me of her dismay when she was accuse of insensitivity to the plight of Mexican migrants in New York City, when she told the wonderful story of a mono-lingual Mexican man learning how to read bar codes in order to stock shelves in a Korean grocery.

In other words, it is not enough to publish alternate “letters from the South” (like Gundaker has done, 1998).  We must also justify again why tales of “suitable” adaptation to difficult ecological conditions (to expand on Boas as Michael Scroggins and I have done recently) are necessary for interventions that are sensitive to local conditions unimaginable in their detail.  The point of careful ethnography is not only to tell “what other shepherds have said” (Geertz 1973) but, more importantly, when the work is conducted in our own valleys, to help those who would help so that they do not make things even more difficult.

2 thoughts on “pathos, policy, and the culture of poverty”

  1. At a recent conference I talked about the experiences of one Mexican immigrant worker who, as you mentioned above, had learned to organize, stock, and keep inventory of food products at a Korean grocery using product bar codes. Upon arriving to the Korean grocery (where an employment agency for undocumented immigrants in New York had sent him to work) he was faced with the challenge of trying to decipher dozens of different kinds of Korean foods that he had never encountered in his life. Speaking Spanish, and no English or Korean (yet), he was put to work without formal job training or instructions from his Korean employers on what to do. Since most of the signs on the packages are in Hangul script, the Korean alphabet, the bar code numbers were the key. He created a system to distinguish all the products efficiently and then taught his system to his coworkers who praise him for his ingenuity. He told me he can recite, from memory, over 100 bar code combinations for different Korean foods which I thought was pretty fascinating.
    I have received some interesting responses in regards to these grocery store experiences. While I perceived his bar code system as an example of creativity and adaptability to solve a very immediate and important problem at the work place, others have viewed it as quaint or just another example of labor exploitation of “uneducated” immigrants who can’t really fend for themselves. On my way out, one conference attendee said with a courteous smile, “nice story,” which admittedly left me somewhat deflated. Perhaps for some my story lacks immediate relevance for developing the “complex diagnostic tools” to cure society of it’s so-called Immigrant Problem.
    By refusing to place my story within the oppressor-oppressed context, I think it becomes more difficult for others to engage and enact their “pathos.” Mexican immigrants, like many other immigrants, can in fact cope with difficult situations, and I am discovering just how interesting and extensive their “systems” are, beyond bar codes. But I wonder when (or if) it will become easier to talk about my stories and stories like mine, not just as anecdotes or dismissals. I think there is much to learn when we observe what people do to manage situations on their own terms.

  2. You can push the “poverty as pathos” genre back to London Labour and the London Poor (1861). Mayhew’s book is filled with ethnographic vignettes and suspect statistics linked to area maps aimed at showing the intensity of crime, ignorance (illiteracy) and illegitimacy among the working poor of mid 19th century London.

    But, the larger intellectual formulation which allows poverty to be read as either an exercise in moral failure or an exercise in producing pathos (the other side of the same claim) can be found in the argument between Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Smith argued that the spread of capitalism would lead to a direct correlation between national wealth and the condition of the lower classes. Malthus countered that the population principle would prevent a direct correlation between rising national wealth and the lower classes, leaving the poor to be mired in “misery and vice.”

    It is the work of Malthus that allowed Mayhew to explore the speciation of the poor in London as it was the work of Malthus that allowed Darwin to explore the speciation of finches and develop natural selection. There is a much richer history here involving debates over and changes to he Poor Laws around the time of Malthus. There are some threads in those old arguments worth weaving into current arguments, but for the most part we live under the assumptions of Malthus and poverty is seen in Malthusian terms.

    To quote Himmelfarb: “It is one of the many ironies of the period that just at the time the poor were finally relieved of the stigma of pauperism, when they seemed to be following the model laid down by Adam Smith rather than that of Malthus. Mayhew came along and, with the most laudable intentions and the most generous of sympathies, inflicted upon the poor a new stigma and saddled society with a new problem, the “culture of poverty.” (Himmelfarb 1984:370)

    Himmelfarb, G.
    1984 The Idea of Poverty. Random House.
    Mayhew, Henry
    1986[1861]. London Labour and the London Poor (Penguin Classics). Penguin Classics.

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