Can policy-makers move beyond the notion that the poor have wrong values that influence their life choices and be helped to understand how specific policies, whether related to increasing employment opportunities or curbing violence, can be instrumental in helping people escape poverty? Michèle Lamont, professor of sociology and African and African-American Studies and Robert I. Goldman professor of European studies at Harvard University, discusses the May 2010 volume of The Annals “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty” with Stephanie Marudas and describes her own comparative research that led her to question why attitudes toward the poor were so different in France than in the United States.
The following podcast features an interview conducted by Stephanie Marudas with Michele Lamont, co-editor of the May 2010 volume of The Annals, “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty” Lamont is professor of sociology and African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, where she’s also the Robert I. Goldman professor of European studies.
Stephanie Marudas: Why reconsider culture and poverty? How did you come up with choosing these phrases?
Michele Lamont: It seemed very important to us to help policymakers move beyond the notion that the poor have wrong values that influences their life choices, which produce poverty. The notion of can the poor change, is there any way that we can imagine that the poor’s values would change. So in some ways we very much put the volume together to shake things up a little bit, to alert policymakers and the congressional aides that there is really a lot of research that is being done now that first would be very helpful to them as they consider promoting policies that would affect the life of the poor, whether we consider employment or violence or the family policies.
SM: And what important messages do you want policymakers to take away?
ML: So much of my work has been about conceptions of worth and what I saw often was middle-class and working-class people drawing a very strong boundary against the poor, attributing to them laziness, desire to just enjoy the good time, lack of long-term perspective on what would create conditions for getting out of poverty. And I think that what we need to consider is that low-income population are just human beings like everyone else and they also have moral dilemmas and are trying to figure out how to lead good lives within the constraints of their resources, and they also very much draw boundaries against other groups. For instance, looking at middle-class people as self-serving, too instrumental, not educated enough to their children, putting their children in daycare instead of staying at home with them. So really, I think it is so easy as middle-class social science researchers to be very ethnocentric in our world views, to think we have figured it out, we lead good, rational, productive lives, and who are those people who cannot figure it out? And I think the usefulness of the current social science literature on the poor is precisely to try to understand the world as they understand it, and then take this as a point of departure for creating policies that will have more chance of working because they are on more solid ground. The days of social science cultural imperialism, where we as technocrats would have a gaze over other classes in a very normative fashion, I think we know enough now in terms of what makes good social science to understand that you cannot do this anymore. And I think it is still very pervasive in how people go about thinking about policies and the poor.
SM: There are frames to look at culture and poverty. And there are seven, I know, that come up in The Annals, but what are some just to illustrate the point here?
Yes, well one of the papers, for instance, looks at how low-income black men who engage a lot in infidelity justify to themselves doing it. And Nathan Fosse, the author [in “The Repertoire of Infidelity among Low-Income Men: Doubt, Duty, and Destiny
”] shows that destiny weighs very strongly, that is, if you think you are going to die tomorrow you think about your long-term relationship very differently. Also the notion of duty, contrast destiny, duty, and faith, and duty has to do with the competing importance of duty to your friends and your pals, and loyalty, which is a virtue. Loyalty to people who stood up for you when it was time, are you going to drop them because you have a girlfriend? So he really, by contrasting these three frames, he shows clearly the kind of moral dilemma that they engage in. I have a graduate student, an undergrad, who just finished his senior thesis on how hip-hop music helped low-income black men decide to vote, and is also very much about how hip-hop music helped frame, for them, the importance of political participation and the meaning of Obama. So you cannot just presume that hip-hop music is just garbage and violence against women… if you do not look at these young men who are now unemployed and have a lot of time to kill, what do they do? Do music, do hip-hop all day, so hip-hop becomes, for them, a way of engaging the public sphere, and this is something relatively new. This is an example of how we need to mobilize. A third example in the book is the work of Maureen Waller [“Viewing Low-Income Fathers’ Ties to Families through a Cultural Lens
”] in how unmarried men approach fatherhood, the fathers who do not live with their children, the deadbeat dad. The way that the states were trying to correct them was by enforcing child support, which is predicated on the notion that their main contribution is economic contribution. And what Maureen Waller’s paper shows is that they think they contribute in many, many ways and one of the ways is by being present. They put a lot of emphasis on their emotional connection with the child, not only buying diapers but being present in many other ways, instead of just presuming that they are deadbeat dads that are not paying. You have to look at what are the resources that these men have at their disposal, not only economic resources but also symbolic, emotional resources and think about how they mobilize them in the context of their lived experience. So that is another example.
SM: What do you hope that this volume will do for scholars? You have said before that there has traditionally been a thin understanding of culture in the scholarship.
ML: There are different groups of scholars that we try to engage here. On the one hand there is my tribe, the cultural sociologists, we are all very proud of ourselves because cultural sociology has been usually successful over the last thirty years, so we all beat our chests and think how great we are. My line is let us stop being so self-congratulatory, let us take our knowledge and export it and precisely do what we are doing in this volume, trying to speak to policymakers and others. There are other fields of sociology that have been extremely structural, focused on networks without much culture, without much identity, or focus on material resources, or immigration predicated on rational choice to understand how people decide to move. And we would argue, as cultural sociologists, that one needs to factor in the meaning of place. For instance, I have graduate students who defended a dissertation on blacks moving to the south, how do they think about racial relations in the north and the south when they consider moving. How does the south open up for them possibilities of upward mobility, of living more of a middle-class lifestyle? If you live in Chicago, if you live in Charlotte the same money goes very, very differently and you have a different class status if you are lower middle class there than if you are in Chicago. So these are all cultural questions that demographers have totally ignored. People who study life courses are not necessarily looking very closely at the meaning making, how people are making these decisions. People have had the rational choice model as a default as opposed to really interviewing people about how they go about making sense of their lives and the decisions they are going to make. So the plan is not only for sociologists of culture to talk to policymakers, but also for us to engage all these fields of study that have been very structural and to explain to people who work in these fields how the tools, the analytical tools that we present in the book, whether in the concept of frame or repertoire or symbolic boundaries, really raises all kinds of new questions. Residential segregation is a case in point. I mean, how can you understand residential segregation without understanding how us-them boundaries are being created and how the symbolic boundaries feed into the spatial and social boundaries.
SM: What got you interested in culture, poverty? Why do the research? What got you going?
I wrote books. My first book
[Money, Morals & Manners
] was a comparison of the upper middle class in France and the United States based on a study of professionals and managers in Indianapolis, New York, Paris, and Clermont-Ferrand. My second book
[The Dignity of Working Men
] was on the blue and white collar workers in New York and Paris, black and white, and white and North African in France. In both cases, I looked at the boundary work that they produced toward other groups, toward racial groups, toward class groups. And the poor were very, very salient, especially for the working class as the people we do not want to be, we have disciplined selves, they are lazy, we are responsible, we pay our bills. So it is clear that you have very crystallized, firm repertoire about how to talk about the poor. They all thought that they were original, but it was highly consensual in their views of the poor. And when I did the interviews in France the poor were simply viewed as workers who were temporarily displaced from the market, victims of capitalism. So what are the conditions that empowered these kinds of repertoires, ways of talking about the poor in France that are absent in the U.S. Do we allow the poor in the U.S. to not be losers? The answer is, no. If you are poor in the U.S., you are a loser. Well, in other societies it is not the case. If you think about the health cost for those people who are at the bottom of our society, their bad health is caused not only by the difficulties they have to access healthcare but also because it is just terrible to be poor in the U.S. It is one of the worst countries in the world to be poor, there is no break whatsoever. Whereas in France, which is far from being a perfect society, they have buffers, they have a lot of buffers. Same thing in Canada, same thing in most advanced industrial societies. And when we look at the statistics on health outcomes for all these countries, the U.S. is in so much worse shape. So these are the kinds of issues that drove me, I wanted to understand how can we give the poor a better sense of cultural inclusion in our society? How can you be poor and still have a decent life? And how can we engineer our policies so that the poor are not so stigmatized all the time?
SM: Going forward, certainly this volume is a conversation starter for your colleagues in the field. But where do you want to see this going?
Well, this afternoon I was at the World Bank [to launch my latest book
] and we met with the people who are preparing the next World Bank report and the topic is conflict. And we also met with people who are in the social development department. They are working on fragile states, which is very much complementary to another interest I have, which is successful societies. So we were talking about having a dialogue between them and a research group that I am part of to really try to think about how to implement at the ground level. They are working with the most fragile societies over the planet. So my dream, really, as a social scientist is – and we are going to do this – is to comment on their working papers that are feeding into what they are going to be implementing in six of the most fragile societies over the globe. So to me this is just enormously exciting and it is exactly the kind of thing that I would like to do at this point. I am not a policy expert by training, I am a cultural sociologist. But I think a lot of the insights and understanding of how societies work that I have developed over the last twenty-five years as a sociologist should be put to use somehow.
SM: Overall, the research that comes out of The Annals issue, what are some key areas that could possibly affect policy?
Well, one of my favorite papers in the volume is the paper by Joshua Guetzkow
that shows that the policies that Congress voted, policies toward the poor in the 1960s and in the 1990s were very different because of the ways that the poor were construed in both periods. While in the 1960s they were very much viewed again as victims of the market and in the 1990s they were viewed as people who were empowered by our policies to take advantage of the system, with the result that the policies were much more punitive. We were distributing today ninety copies of our volume to congressmen and to congressional aides. So our hope is very much that this will become part of the conversation. Not only through The Annals
issue but hopefully there will be other possibilities to really engage in terms of making more people realize what are the assumptions that we have when we think about what drives the poor, and that this can be informed by social science evidence, that is what we do. We study the world and we draw our conclusions, we have evidence that hopefully can be helpful.
SM: On that note, thank you for your time.
ML: Thank you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.