Poor Talk: Surveying Social Science Discourse on Urban Poverty



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Understanding the dynamic relationship between culture and structure is a fundamental sociological question. Since the founding of the social sciences -- when Marx explored the connection between the 'macrostructure' and popular culture or Weber studied the development of the 'protestant ethic' -- to the present, the structure-culture dynamic has motivated and puzzled researchers. This thesis joins this longstanding conversation by focusing on social science research on poverty, or what is also called poverty knowledge.

Despite the tremendous size and breadth of poverty research, historians of poverty suggest that poverty knowledge demonstrates a frame. That is, a coherent, consistent understanding (and thereby study) of poverty. Building on prior research, the thesis seeks to: (1) verify whether poverty knowledge indeed does demonstrate a frame; (2) and if a frame is present, map the contours and shape of a poverty frame. I do so by focusing on social science research focused on urban poverty published from 1960 to 2010.

Conducting a content-frame analysis of 50 journal articles randomly sampled from a universe of 781 eligible articles reveals that poverty knowledge does demonstrate elements of a frame. In particular, the sampled articles understand urban poverty as primarily an individual issue, and moreover, demonstrate an ambivalent evaluation of the urban poor's behavior and culture. The pressing question that arises from this research, and which has continued to drive research on the structure-culture dynamic, is: how do existing social practices ('society') - especially systems of inequality such as racism and patriarchy -- influence our cultural understanding of urban poverty specifically and inequality generally. This is an important question for the social sciences in general, but especially for the areas of critical theory, framing research, poststructuralist discourse studies, the sociology of knowledge, and status construction theory.