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Chained Door

With the consolidation of capitalism, systemic pauperisation becomes inevitable

Is poverty a social construction?

Poverty was turned into a social construction when the way it was viewed started to change regarding its comparison with other societies, consequently changing the way it was managed. Poverty now lives as a social construction because it has been strapped to distinctive social labels and has become a mass global issue. However, the core of poverty when stripped from what it has been socially constructed to exist as, is a real and authentic way of life embraced by a series of unique experiences. Poverty has been socially constructed through the different labels it has been given intended for better social understanding and contrasting methods of management. But first, it must be acknowledged that poverty can be defined in different ways, making it a complex condition to understand. People living in a state of poverty usually live on less than $1 per day and also in “conditions of acute hunger, defined in terms of identifiable nutritional diseases” (Wilson 1953 cited in Escobar 2011, 19). The people of Alto do Cruzeiro, Brazil are a prime example of this. Nancy Scheper-Hughes explains that Alto people believe they suffer from ‘Nervoso’, which can be caused by stress (‘fear nerves’), overworking (‘overwork nerves’) or not sleeping enough.


The belief stands that the ‘disease’ is rarely ever caused by hunger, however the Alto people do demonstrate the psychological symptoms, and they use metaphors such as “weak” or “off-balance” to describe their physical state. In this community, poverty has been medicalised and hunger has been denied. This ‘psychological issue’ requires medication, which is attractive to an illiterate population as it ensures (false) hope. Money is being spent on an illness that doctors in Brazil are still confused about, but the medical knowledge is too lacking to transform this folk syndrome into an understanding of reality. The confusion of the ‘disease’ is highlighted in the case of Celia, the sorceress. Those who liked her would blame her ‘nervos’ on her hardworking nature, however those who feared her “accused her of witchcraft dismissed nervos as secondary to her ‘true' illness: lepra (leprosy) resulting from her ‘sick’ and ‘dirty’ blood… they pointed to Celia’s many moral infractions” (191). This case works to emphasise how deeply embedded the false nature of starvation and poverty has been buried into society and how reality is prominently covered up and replaced by cultural morals. Scheper-Hughes links this to how "a hungry body exists as a potent critique of the society in which it exists, a sick body implicates no one” (1993, 174), which explains how conditions of poverty and the hunger it entails are replaced with metaphors, as it is “too painful to think about” (175). In sickness there is no one to blame and fault is on the individual, however in hunger there is an implication that there are holes in society and there is fault on the community, growing it into a larger issue. This is why they try to brand ‘nervoso’ as an individual based issue. 


Starvation is an enormous part of poverty, however the Alto people are removing their community from accepting this reality and are therefore changing it into something easier to think about with much less implication. This labelling logic transforms poverty into something different and constructs it to exist in different ways. Poverty is such a large scale phenomenon and therefore the ways each culture tackles and understands its mass connotations is going to vary. The managing of poverty is socially constructed to suit each unique culture, only adding to the sheer complexity of poverty as a whole, and therefore, “theorists attempted to explain the poverty construct as an adaptive, self-sustaining system with a unique language and organisation that sustains and perpetuates the condition” (Frerer and Vu 2007, 75). The key word, ‘construct’ furthers the logic of re-labelling poverty to condense it and make it easier to grasp and understand. This ‘culture of poverty’ ideology coined by Oscar Lewis in 1959 implies a subtle universality about poverty and that the experience of it is similar across the globe. By conceptualising this ideology, it universalises poverty turning it into a ‘culture’ of its own with awareness that political and economic structures in impoverished societies have failed and although the Alto people believe in poverty differently, the nature of labelling is the same. In both regards, poverty has been transformed to suit culture and help with understanding by trying to turn large-scale into manageable bite sizes.  



Poverty has also been socially constructed into a global and political problem. Arturo Escobar discusses the history of poverty and the creation of the ‘third world’, with how “one of the many changes that occured in the early post WWII period was the ‘discovery’ of mass poverty in Asia, Africa and Latin America” (2011, 19). Although Escobar describes this historical transition as a ‘discovery’, it was instead a moment of ‘re-identification’. Poverty had already existed and massive amounts of the world were already living in critical conditions. Poverty was not only just being discovered at this point, poverty was being re-identified and this was the methodology to construct and transform it to be a political issue in order to best understand how it was going to be managed. ‘Development’ as a discourse was created out of events such as the American interventional change period (1912-1932) in Latin America or the 1949 World Bank mission to Colombia. During the interventional period "this state of relation revealed an increasing US interest in Latin America, [but] it did not constitute an explicit, overall strategy for dealing with Latin American countries” (Escobar 2011, 76). American intervention is key to the representation of how poverty was being socially constructed and demonstrates the apparent ‘need’ for help. The assistance offered was also not structurally beneficial enough to make consolidated change and begs the new question: what does it mean to label whole populations as ‘poor’? Our understand of these places inevitably changes as the process of ‘othering’ and imposing westernised capitalist ideologies on these ‘othered’ people makes poverty a construction that is understood. America feels like they should help because poverty has been labelled to live as this mass problem and therefore something ‘expected’ to receive aid. Today “with the consolidation of capitalism, systemic pauperisation become inevitable” (Escobar 2011, 20), poverty is being globally and socially systemised, that is how it lives now. 


We see a similar effect of this social construction as a global obstacle in Western Africa with the immuno logics of Ebola and conditions of poverty. The 2014 Ebola outbreak led to major loss of life as well as socioeconomic distress. Doctors from within Africa as well as from abroad came in to treat the fatal disease, however in spite of this intention “white Westerners who come to help - if not always - be the priority” (Benton 2014, 2). A USD$22M military hospital was placed for all ‘white’ doctors in precaution. The irony of this issue lies in its intentions; doctors going in to help but provided with their own backup plan. The ‘racial-immuno logic’ is essentially the logic that ‘white’ people in privilege cannot suffer the same tragedy as black Africans, that they are ‘immune’ from the same disease. The repetition of this social ‘othering’ is all part of the process of turning poverty into a global issue and this is social constructionalism. Poverty is real, but has been designed to fit a new mould, because if it is constructed to be a mass issue, it can be understood that it ‘calls for help’. But what if the focus is too much on poverty as the ‘problem’? Could poverty simply just be the “outcome of specific social relations that require investigation and transformation” (Green 2006, 1124)? Unfortunately, poverty is so socially engrained that even with deeper investigation it would still be transformed from one social construction to another. If poverty had no labels and existed as mass groups of people with different, un-universalised circumstances, society would be lost. People do not know what to do with uncategorised information and so we create social constructions for fundamental social understanding. 


Finally, poverty shall be discussed in naked view when stripped from social constructions, as the core of poverty is an authentic disposition and reality for many. If poverty is looked into more deeply, we see that it is someone’s reality and that “the behaviours of poor people are the result of social class and that their behaviours are adaptions to the environment in which they live, not a set of distinct values and attitudes” (Frerer and Vu 2007, 77). There is a much greater diversity to the nature of ‘poor people’, the experience of poverty is not universal. There are similar experiences as previously explained through the ‘culture of poverty’ ideology, however the ‘class poverty’ theory challenges this by arguing that despite the label, poverty is a real and lived in life. It is important to understand the nuanced differences in the global experience of it. “Being in a state of poverty is manifested in low levels of education, high rates of mortality and poor health… although the diversity of the experiences of poverty is globally reiterated" (World Bank 2001, 31 cited in Green 2006, 1111), to further explain how there is a layer underneath the social construction of poverty that can identify as a real way of life. If it is going to be socially labelled and globally problemised, it must first be recognised as authentic at its core. Many Puerto Rican families have found settlement in New York, one being Soledad and her daughters who lived in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood in the Bronx, 1964. They lived on a “ground floor railroad apartment… the kitchen was clean … [but there were] several cockroaches crawling on the walls and over the sink” (Oscar 1966, 113), an example of a home in poverty conditions. Poverty is not always homelessness, nor does it always mean living in a slum, the complexity of poverty transcends stereotypes because of the series of unique experiences. At the core of poverty is hardship and struggle, which has created much resentment in Soledad, evident in her tone of voice. When talking about her children she says, “just wait till I get shoes on these little bitches” (113), and she then goes on to say how “we are living in a time when nobody cares about anybody… just because you’re poor, the rich think you aren’t worth anything and despise you” (131). The anger and hurt of living in such harsh conditions of poverty in an established city are real and makes this a significant ethnography for anthropologists. Anthropology helps bring the human face to the centre of any major discourse and see each situation as genuine. Even at the end of the day, you can change society, redistribute wealth, give everyone a sense of belonging and perhaps "succeed in abolishing some of the basic characteristics of the culture of poverty even when they do not succeed in abolishing poverty itself” (Oscar 1966, x1viii). With deeply implemented social change, poverty has potential to be ‘resolved’, but this will only ever be apparent at surface level because the deep root of poverty still remains. To what degree can poverty be solved and how will we know when it is? Once poverty is indicated as real, it can be understood why social constructions have reformulated it, because regardless “poverty touches many aspects of human life” (Frerer and Vu 2007, 77). 

Poverty has been socially constructed through both the social labels it has been given and also the transformation into a global issue. These social constructions have been designed for greater social understanding with a conception of what poverty means. However, before poverty can be ‘solved’ at all, it must be understood that it is a real disposition that is uniquely experienced. 


Works Cited 


Benton, Adia. 2014. Race and the Immuno-Logics of Ebola Response in West Africa. Somatosphere September 19


Escobar, Arturo. 2011. “The Problematization of Poverty: The Tale of Three World and Development.” Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of The Third World, pp. 21-54. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 


Frerer, K., & Vu, C. 2007. An Anthropological View of Poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1-2), 73-86


Green, M. 2006. Representing Poverty and Attacking Representations: Perspectives on Poverty from Social Anthropology.” The Journal of Development Studies, 42(7): 1108–29. 


Lewis, O. 1966. La vida: A Puerto Rican family in the culture of poverty, San Juan and New York. London: Secker & Warburg


Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1993. “Nervoso: Medicine, Sickness, and Human Needs” in Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 167-215 

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