SEATTLE—Global poverty has constituted an important part of sociology since the area of academia began in the 19th century. However, today’s theories have come a long way from their Western-biased, racist origins.
Listed below are six key evolutions of global poverty theory, from Thomas Malthus’ “Principle of Population” to Oscar Lewis’ “culture of poverty” to the discovery of “fourth world” societies.
1. Malthus’ Principle of Population
One of the earliest social theories on poverty is Thomas Robert Malthus’ systematic theory of population.
In his “Essay on the Principle of Population“, he predicted that the increase of food production would not be able to sustain the exponential growth of the human population. As a result, this would lead to a catastrophic lack of resources.
Rapid population growth remains a major present-day concern, but Malthus’ suggestion for mandatory population control has not gained support.
2. First, Second and Third World Countries
The once-popular classification system dividing the world into first, second and third world countries came about during the Cold War. This system established a hierarchy among economies according to the extent of their capitalist production.
First world referred to the United States and its allies, while second world referred to the Soviet Union.
Economists like Walt Rustow viewed global poverty as a stage of lacking economic development. Consequently, these third world nations would naturally progress towards capitalism and democracy when given sufficient resources.
3. Lewis’ “Culture of Poverty”
Some social scientists falsely believed poverty to be a result of specific cultures. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis called this concept the “culture of poverty.”
Inspired by Lewis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan attributed in his controversial research study “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” the comparative poverty of African American communities in the U.S. to their norms and values.
Soon, the others applied the same logic to explaining economic differences between nations. International organizations now study how different cultures react differently to poverty. They also work directly with the communities they are studying.
Consequently, poverty solutions are more culturally specific. The “culture of poverty” theory dangerously justifies stereotypes on non-Western cultures and is no longer widely used.
4. Wallerstein’s More Complex Interpretation
Later scholars like Immanuel Wallerstein claimed that global poverty is not an isolated economic phenomenon caused by one factor (like culture), but is instead a result of complex historical and political backgrounds involving the power relationships between specific nations.
5. Bordieu’s Economic “Big-Hands”
French Sociologist Pierre Bordieu’s critique of globalization questioned whether increased trade and alliances between developed and developing nations were beneficial to the latter.
He explained that companies’ desire to find cheap labor and minimize competition sustained the polarization between global businessmen and the poverty of lower-tier workers.
Bourdieu also pointed out the danger of these economic “big-hands” influencing the media portrayal of their decisions.
6. The Rising “Fourth World”
Recently, sociologists are shedding light on the existence of a “fourth world.” This fourth world exists in neglected niches of almost every country, from ghettos in American cities to immigrant communities in France.
Because the fourth world is comprised of diverse minorities who each have little political influence on their respective governments, the issue of their poverty rarely surfaces to the public.
– Haena Chu