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Compare and contrast poverty from historical and contemporary perspectives

This report is one of four reviews looking at poverty from different perspectives. Key points Sociological thinking focuses on the structure and organisation of society and how this relates to social problems and individual lives.

Sociologists are interested in how resources in society are distributed. Others have argued that poverty can be better understood as a result of the ways in which resources and opportunities are unequally distributed across society. Some sociologists have pointed to the declining influence of social class in the UK. Yet research has shown that social class and processes of class reproduction remain important, particularly for the continuity of poverty over time and across generations.

On a related topic, sociologists have pointed to the importance of stigma and shame in understanding the experience of poverty. A particular concern is with how the spending patterns of those in the greatest poverty are often subject to stigmatisation.

The ways in which institutions such as public or welfare delivery services can negatively stereotype those experiencing poverty has also been shown to be important in stigmatising and disadvantaging those experiencing poverty.

Starting out life in poverty means a greater risk of poverty in later life. Background Much sociological theory is directed at understanding social change. Social theorists throughout history have rarely talked about poverty as such, but nonetheless their insights into the economic ordering and structure of society offer valuable ideas for understanding poverty. Marx and Engels, writing in Victorian Britain, pointed to the stark divide between the impoverished working classes who had nothing to sell but their labour and the capitalist classes who, by virtue of owning the means of production, were able to exploit this labour to their profit.

Sociologist Max Weber, writing around the turn of the 20th century, pointed to the importance not just of economic factors in producing and sustaining inequality, but also the influence of power, status and prestige in perpetuating dominant relations.

  1. Echoes of these early theoretical ideas can be seen in sociological thinking, to a greater or lesser degree, right up to the present day. No less misguided are restrictions on migration and urban policies that under-supply services to poor urban residents, including rural migrants.
  2. Much of the sociological evidence reviewed in this study has been concerned with the reproduction of social class inequalities over time.
  3. Capitalism and the changing labour market For a long time, successive governments have lauded work as the best route out of poverty.
  4. There will be concerns about moral hazard, which have to be taken seriously, but wealthier countries should be called upon to help poor countries deal with agro-climatic and other shocks. Those who view inequality as absolute and value it independently of poverty will see a trade-off between poverty and inequality.

Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, emphasised the functional necessity of social inequality for the well-being of society.

Echoes of these early theoretical ideas can be seen in sociological thinking, to a greater or lesser degree, right up to the present day. This review analysed sociological theories and concepts on the causes of poverty, focusing on how to understand poverty from a sociological perspective. The social and political propensity to mark out some people as being somehow responsible for their own hardship has a long history.

Poverty: the past, present and future

More recently, it has been argued that the welfare system is responsible for encouraging and supporting claimants into welfare dependency. Sociologists have been keen to use empirical evidence to challenge these dominant, individual and often psychological explanations for poverty.

They point to the importance of the broader context and the kinds of opportunities open to people as being more important than individual behaviours and choices in explaining and understanding poverty. The close association made between poverty and individual behaviours means that it can sometimes be difficult to disentangle poverty from related issues such as unemployment or receipt of welfare.

This is especially the case in some current popular and political discourse, which ignores the fact that not all unemployed people are poor and nor are all of those experiencing poverty out of work.

The tendency to conflate poverty with other social issues such as unemployment, welfare receipt or substance abuse, or to uncritically cite these conditions as explanations of poverty, is tied up with the tendency to portray poverty as a problem created by those experiencing it.

It is also indicative of a more general tendency to downplay the significance of poverty altogether. In recent years, some have argued that social class distinctions have become more complex and fuzzy and less significant for lifestyles and life experiences. It has been suggested that opportunities for identity formation have opened up and become more reflective of individual choice than they were in the past.

It is argued that individuals now have greater control over their own destinies. Consumption practices what people buy and consume are often cited as a key mechanism by which people can demonstrate their individuality and create their own individual identities.

  • Relative poverty The other side of the coin to falling absolute poverty is rising relative poverty;
  • That will probably still entail an urbanisation of poverty, but that should not be a cause for alarm as long as poverty is falling overall;
  • This review asks why addressing caste-based inequality and discrimination does not feature in intergovernmental commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and whether it should;
  • In looking at poverty, myths and misconceptions dominate both popular and political discussions.

Consumption, however, has also become an increasingly important element of distinction and stratification. Those experiencing poverty often find it difficult to partake in expected consumption behaviours. Furthermore, wider society often subjects the spending habits and patterns of those in the greatest poverty to stigmatisation. So, while access to consumption might seem to open up opportunities for people to construct their lifestyles and identities in ways reflecting their own individual preferences and choices, it can also reinforce and support social class divisions and distinctions.

Poverty, stigma and shame Poverty and material deprivation are important drivers of stigma and shame.

Sociological perspectives on poverty

These processes take place at different levels and in different sections of society. Those working in welfare sectors, for example, might negatively — and mostly mistakenly — point to individual character traits and behaviour when explaining the key reasons for unemployment. This is a process of negatively stereotyping those who are disadvantaged. While these labels are often applied from the top down, towards those experiencing poverty by those who are not, people in poverty can also buy into and perpetuate such stereotypes and stigmatisation.

This is the consequence of the pressure those in poverty face to disassociate themselves from the stigma and shame associated with poverty. Capitalism and the changing labour market For a long time, successive governments have lauded work as the best route out of poverty.

Yet the changing face of the labour market and work itself means that employment is no longer a guaranteed passport away from poverty, if indeed it ever was.

In the current context, working conditions for many have worsened, public sector jobs have rapidly declined, unemployment and underemployment have been increasing, and low-paid and part-time work have proliferated. It is a particular problem for those countries which have followed an economy based on aggressive free-market principles.

  • The evidence points to the need for policy innovation to address market and non-market discrimination and to remove barriers, especially in the informal and private sector; and to ensure caste has its proper place in the global development policy debate;
  • For example, a common view among aid donors is that they need to incentivise better policies—to use a carrot and stick approach, rewarding good efforts and punishing bad ones.

As a result, in-work poverty is an increasingly important explanation for contemporary poverty. Conclusion Sociology provides a powerful tool for thinking about poverty.

  • Inequality can also undermine the potential for making such policies happen;
  • About the project This review analysed sociological theories and concepts on the causes of poverty and ways to understand poverty from a sociological perspective;
  • Background Much sociological theory is directed at understanding social change;
  • Improving tax systems in poor countries to expand the revenue for domestic antipoverty policies must also be a high priority.

It allows us to understand personal troubles as part of the economic and political institutions of society, and permits us to cast a critical eye over issues that may otherwise be interpreted simplistically or misinterpreted. In looking at poverty, myths and misconceptions dominate both popular and political discussions. Sociological thinking can be helpful in trying to disentangle poverty from a range of related concepts and largely pejorative discussions about a variety of social problems.

Some attention has recently been devoted to the discussion of rising inequality.

The Historical Origins of Poverty in Developing Countries

In the current context, economic inequality is getting more extreme, with those at the very top growing ever richer while the majority are finding life increasingly harsh and poverty rates are increasing. Much of the sociological evidence reviewed in this study has been concerned with the reproduction of social class inequalities over time.

Research has shown that the majority of the British public accept that wealth can buy opportunities, but conversely most also believe in the notion of a meritocracy and that hard work is the best way to get on in life. Yet evidence shows that true equality of opportunity simply does not exist. Using a framework of inequality and equality allows scope to think more closely about issues of class perpetuation and their relationship with poverty. It is not happenchance that countries with low rates of relative income poverty tend to have a strong focus on equality.

Sociological theory can alert people to how a growing emphasis on individual responsibility and behaviour might make class inequality and the importance of opportunity structures less obvious.

  1. The ways in which institutions such as public or welfare delivery services can negatively stereotype those experiencing poverty has also been shown to be important in stigmatising and disadvantaging those experiencing poverty. Poor people are often trapped as the victims of policies that simultaneously repress agriculture while making life difficult for rural migrants.
  2. Inequality can also undermine the potential for making such policies happen. We do not want to reach the poverty-reduction target only to fall back in subsequent years.
  3. A good example is the reaction that some people understandably have to rising absolute inequality.
  4. A transition in thinking In reviewing the history of thought on poverty, I was struck by how much mainstream thinking has changed over the last 200 years.

Despite this, it remains the case that where people start out in life continues to have a significant influence on where they are likely to end up. Starting out life in poverty means a greater risk of poverty later on in life.

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives of Media and Citizenship

About the project This review analysed sociological theories and concepts on the causes of poverty and ways to understand poverty from a sociological perspective.

The review was necessarily only partial, as the size of the field under consideration did not allow for a systematic review of all relevant literature. Hence, the review concentrated on what the authors deemed to be the most relevant debates for understanding poverty sociologically. Downloads Summary Sociological perspectives on poverty 81.