Mario Small: Defining policy through evidence not preconceptions

mario-small-cropped.249.189.sUniversity of Chicago Sociology Professor Mario Small discusses the changes in attitudes toward poverty in the last thirty years and how important it is to approach the study of culture and poverty through quantitative research as well as getting out into the field. “Once you are on the ground, you realize that your preconceptions are shaping your questions, whereas the reality is telling you something else,” he pointed out in an interview with Stephanie Marudas, discussing the May 210 volume of The Annals, Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.

Stephanie Marudas: Why do this volume? Why does culture matter for poverty?

Mario Small: For a very long time, culture has not really been part of the conversation about poverty in an explicit way. It has been an implicit part of the conversation and it has often been part of the conversation based on very poor or no reading at all sometimes of the evidence—in spite of the fact that quite a bit of work on cultural sociology has been taking place over the last twenty or thirty years, improving on the ideas and refining and building on empirical evidence, and in spite of the fact that when we talk about and think about policy in other realms, economic realms and so on, it is unthinkable to not be pretty heavily informed by the scholarship taking place in the field. I think in the policy world and poverty, the conversation has not been as effective as we think it could have been. I think if you are a scholar, you should care because you want to find out more about why it is that people cope with poverty the way they do. I think that the structural research on poverty has taken us as far as it is going to take us. It does not tell us very much about why different people living in similarly poor conditions cope with it the way they do.

Another reason to worry about it from a scholarly perspective has to do with debunking existing myths. There are lots of myths out there about the conditions of the poor, and particularly the cultural characteristics of poor African-Americans. There is just a lot there. If you think about it as a policymaker, I think an important reason to worry about culture—if you are interested in poverty policy—is that ignoring culture can simply lead to bad policy. There are many cases of this throughout the world, not just in terms of poverty policy in the U.S. But, for example, if you design incentives how you deal with marriage or fatherhood and so on and you are basing yourself on assumptions about why people do or do not get married or why people get or do not get involved in the lives of their children, and those beliefs misconstrue reality, you can spend a lot of money on policy that is really not very effective, and that with a little bit more information actually could have been effective.

And lastly I would say that we should worry about culture as policymakers because we are all policy elites, not merely the people who are creating policy but the people who talk about policy, and journalists, we are all cultural animals as well. We are all bound by our own cultural expectations and our own policies are going to reflect that whether we like it or not. And to the extent that we are more self aware about, for example, stereotypes or preconceptions or assumptions about homogeneity, beliefs that groups of people all tend to think about the same things in the same ways. To the extent that we are aware that these things are influencing policy, I think we would be better able to target and produce policies that are more appropriately targeted at the kinds of problems among the poor that we think are important.

SM: One of the goals of The Annals is to also show this change of attitudes towards poverty over the last thirty years. And if you could walk us through this idea where thirty years ago there was this culture of “blame the victim,” and now we are looking more at meaning making. Can you talk a bit about that?

MS: You are absolutely right. Through the early 1960s , probably the most prominent conception of culture in the context of poverty was the Culture of Poverty thesis of Oscar Lewis. Now Oscar Lewis was pretty clear, at least initially, about what he meant. He meant that people, once they had experienced sustained poverty were likely to develop a set of attitudes, behaviors, expectations – actually he was not particularly clear about that aspect of it – but lifestyles, worldviews. He sort of had an all encompassing conception of culture, and that this culture was detrimental and this was the key part – he argued that it was likely to remain in place even if the structural conditions that gave rise to it were to change. Now as a result of this, there was a lot of outcry. Many people accused him of blaming the victim, as you know, William Ryan wrote that book that was pretty influential in this conversation, and it really shut down a lot of the conversation because it made it difficult for certain people to talk about this without being accused of blaming the victim. In fact, I also want to point out in light of The Annals, that The Moynihan Report, published around the same time which made that the African-American family was in dire straits—at the time I think about a third of all children among African-Americans were born to unmarried mothers, which is a large number—that this was a crisis that needed to be addressed and he made the mistake of using the phrase “tangle of pathology” to describe it. So there was a lot of shutting down of this conversation. Sadly, things changed in pretty important ways. Right now, for example, about seventy percent of all births among African-Americans are to unmarried mothers; it is a complete different state of affairs. But more importantly, even though poverty scholars ignore the culture question, sociologists of culture kept studying culture in other realms consistently over this time period. Several developments emerged, I think you will find disagreement among scholars today about the nature of new culture research, but for sure some aspects of what I want to say are common among people in the literature. For one thing, almost nobody uses the phrase “tangle of pathology” or discusses the poor in that way. The central thesis of the culture of poverty is not really believed in by many people, particularly the notion that culture is likely to remain the same even if the structural conditions that give rise to it were to change. I think many sociologists of culture today would argue actually that culture is pretty dynamic and has been shown to be able to change pretty rapidly as a response to strong enough changes, political changes, economic changes, and so on. I think you would also find that people today are less likely to describe an entire culture as describing an entire community.

So I think that, instead of these aspects of the old literature, there are actually a couple of different kinds of developments. One is the idea that we should think about culture from a cognitive perspective as opposed to a normative one or as opposed to only a normative one. So the idea is—and this is an easy metaphor—that you think of culture almost as a set of glasses that you wear that shape how you see the world. So if you could imagine a world in which everybody needs glasses, you cannot see anything without them, but at the same time all glasses are tinted; some are rose, some are pink, some are yellow, some are blue. Your behavior is going to be shaped by the way you see the world. An easy example I used to describe this is, suppose you have red tinted glasses and I have green tinted ones and we both arrived at a stoplight. The light changes, you are going to do one thing and I am going to do another thing merely in response to how we are seeing the light, regardless of our own values. We may both believe that it is important to follow the rules and we may both believe that it is important to drive safely; but if we are seeing the light differently, we are going to behave differently. That is a conception of culture that is a framed conception of culture, it relies on a cognitive understanding of culture, as opposed to the idea that we differ because we have different values. So that is common to the literature today.

Another perspective that is often used today is the idea of culture as a set of repertoires, and we describe this in the book [The Annals]. So imagine that whether you do something depends on your knowing how to do it. Well, that is obvious, but knowing how to do it is not simply being able to follow instructions but is a set of practices that you may or may not know. So in the case of poverty, for example, either you know or you do not know how to apply to college; either you know or you do not know that you have to fill out these federal forms, the college application. Either you do or you do not know how to use contraception, and so on, you can imagine the list. Some scholars today believe that you can think of culture as almost a list, a set of repertoires of action that are either in your head or not in your head and, further, that among different people there are different repertoires of action. So that is another conception of culture that I think in the conversation today has helped improve the debate in dramatic ways. What we are hoping to do is to push this kind of conversation into the public discourse so that it does not remain in academia.

SM: And you are one of these researchers who is doing work in this area. Can you tell us about some of the case studies you are conducting and what you have found?

MS: So I can tell you about three particular studies that I think would be relevant. One is in earlier book titled Villa Victoria, and it is the study of housing complex in Boston. And what I was studying is how neighborhood poverty affects whether people get involved in their community for the sake of the common good. A lot of people have shown using quantitative evidence, statistical evidence, that in neighborhoods where people are more likely to get involved when there is a problem, crime is lower. Now often these neighborhoods where people are less likely to get involved are high-poverty neighborhoods. One of the things that I found in this study is that even though at one point in time there was very little participation of the kind that we care about, once there was a big threat, which was a threat that the residents were going to be relocated for redevelopment purposes, and a small number of activists got people together, the people’s cultural understanding of the importance of participation changed dramatically. It is a really clear case. And so dramatically that they were actually able to resist some pretty powerful developers’ interests in turning their former poor but valuable real estate, neighborhood, into luxury condominiums. Instead they created a low- and mixed-income housing complex right in the same area built through a combination of funds through multiple sources. This was a community of high-poverty Puerto Ricans, many with not even a sixth grade education, who were able to alter their understanding of their circumstances culturally in response to a threat with the right incentives on the part of political activists. So it can happen. There is already evidence that it can happen.

Second, I have been studying mothers of young children for some time, and I am looking at how mothers of young children develop social networks. You probably are familiar with the phrase “social capital.” Social capital is an extremely useful source of social support. And one of the things that we found was that childcare centers, depending on how they are structured, affect substantially the ability of low-income mothers to get access of resources through their networks. Now how does culture matter here? Well, what we found is that depending on the institutional conditions of the childcare centers, mothers had either many or very few opportunities to network with other mothers. So, equally self-driven mothers who had equally strong interest in forming connections, were more or less successful depending on how the childcare centers structure their organizations. This is an element of culture that is not typically talked about because we typically think about culture as residing in people’s heads, but often it resides in organizations. Well, we have pretty convincing evidence, this is both qualitative and quantitative evidence using nationally representative data, that organizational conditions are associated with the probability of forming friendships and also with later well-being. So, for example, we found that mothers of young children who enroll their children in child care centers and made friends there tended to experience less material hardship and less mental hardship than mothers identical in all ways we could observe with children the same age who had not enrolled their children in childcare centers. That is the second case. This is in the book titled Unanticipated Gains and, of course you can imagine we are calling it that because many of the mothers did not expect this. You enroll your child in the childcare center because you need childcare, not necessarily because you are looking for somebody to help you avoid depression. But it turns out that if you do it the right way that could be a not-too-unexpected consequence.

The third case has to do with some work I am doing right now on violence. I have been studying young children ages ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen in Chicago. And the project really began as a study of the effects of school mobility. As you know in many schools in the inner city, children are moving in and out over the course of the year. It makes it very hard for teachers to maintain consistent instruction. In others, there is not a lot of mobility. Children are stable. They are basically there for the course of the year. What we did we found two schools. Both high-poverty schools. Both almost one hundred percent African-American. In one school, there was a very low mobility rate and in one school there was a very high mobility rate. Our question was about peer networks because peer networks affect, of course, school performance. How do kids form friendships? If you are ten, eleven, twelve years old and you are in a school where everybody is churning in and out, how do you create effective network structures? Well, to our surprise there was no difference between the two schools at all. We interviewed about forty to forty-five students in each school. We interviewed some of the mothers, fathers, teachers, staff; almost no difference. The reason? In both schools, the students did not trust anybody. The students expressed a great deal of reluctance to admitting that they had best friends. Many said, “I don’t have friends, I have associates,” and the reason had to do with the extraordinarily high levels of violence in both neighborhoods .If you look at how sociologists typically study networks, there is no finding more universal than the idea that homophily, similarity determines everything. So people tend to have friends who resemble them. So if I am eleven, you like soccer, I like soccer, we become friends because we both like soccer, this kind of a thing. There was almost none of that. Instead, the children were extremely strategic and instrumental in how they thought about their friendships. One, they thought about friendships who could protect them if there was a problem, and this was the boys and the girls. Second, they were strategic about even forming friends. So one eleven or twelve-year-old boy, for example, said, “You know, before I decide to be friends with somebody, I watch them. I just watch them for months and months and months to see what they are like. Because I want to see if there is a problem if they are going to come in and have my back.” An extremely strategic and really disturbing way of thinking about friendship. Now these are ten, eleven, twelve-year-old children. This is the time in your life when you learn how to form friendships with others. You learn trust, you learn effective social relations.What can we expect of these children when they are twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, forming romantic relationships, trying to form effective relationships in the workplace? It is going to be extremely difficult because, my hypothesis is that the high levels of distrust developed early on in response to violence are going to have an impact in their later lives. Now there is no way to think about this question without thinking about some aspects of what is called culture. Now, again, notice it is not culture about values, I mean that is just the wrong way to think about it. It is really a cultural response to a violent environment. Anybody in that same kind of environment would develop this sort of bunker mentality, that you have to protect yourself first. What we are doing now is we are taking this study and we are testing it on a large population of children in Chicago, in the entire Chicago public school system. We are working on the negotiations to see if we can make this happen. And if we do, we will have the large-scale quantitative evidence to see whether the children who are growing up in violent neighborhoods really are developing these ways of forming friendships that I think we have ignored for too long.

SM: What got you interested in doing this sort of research? What is it that in your background, your life, that led you to be interested in these topics?

MS: That is a great question. I grew up in Panama City, Panama. So I am an immigrant, and I came to the U.S. originally with the idea of being an engineer, not a social scientist. In the country I grew up in, basically if you are good at math you become an engineer, but in college I developed an interest in sociology because I took some phenomenal courses that just blew my mind. I thought, “Oh my goodness, you can think about society in much more subtle and profound ways than I have been doing,” so that is how I started getting into these issues broadly. In terms of the specific projects, I have to tell you I am a strong believer in going out into field yourself. So I work a lot with large-scale datasets, the representative datasets, because I think we absolutely need quantitative research. But I think also we have to be on the ground. What happens is that once you are on the ground, you realize that your preconceptions are shaping your questions, whereas the reality is telling you something else. I think that is actually quite a metaphor for what I think what often happens in policy. We are defining policy in light of our preconceptions without taking seriously into account the evidence. I think I was doing the same thing, even from a scholarly perspective. And so you asked me how I ended up in these particular projects, in all three cases it was a result of letting myself get out of my own way and just paying attention.

SM: Well, on that note, I want to thank you for your time.

MS: Thank you very much, a pleasure.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.

Mario Small: Defining policy through evidence not preconceptions