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Lewis, Oscar

Lewis, Oscar 1914-1970

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The anthropologist Oscar Lewis is best known for devising the culture of poverty theory and applying the life history and family studies approach to studies of urban poverty. The concept of the culture of poverty is cited often, especially in the popular press, and at times it is misapplied as an argument that supports the idea of blaming the victim. Not surprisingly, given the continuing salience of debates about the causes of poverty, Oscar Lewiss legacy within anthropology and the social sciences is still very much debated. Indeed, the notion of a culture of poverty has since reemerged in discussions of the urban underclass. While most researchers view the causes of poverty in terms of economic and political factors, there is still a strain of thinking that blames poverty on the behavior of the poor.

Oscar Lewis was born on December 25, 1914, in New York City, and he was raised in upstate New York. He received a BA in history from the City College of New York While in college he met his future wife, the former Ruth Maslow, who would also become his co-collaborator in many of his research projects. He enrolled in graduate school in history at Columbia University, but under Ruth Benedicts guidance he switched to anthropology. Partially due to a lack of funding, his PhD dissertation on the impact of white contact on Blackfoot culture was library based. After graduating he took on several jobs, including United States representative to the Inter-American Indian Institute in Mexico, which led him to begin conducting research on the peasant community of Tepoztlán. Lewiss critique of Robert Redfields 1930 study of the same village is considered a classic in Mexican anthropology. Lewiss research shows, in contrast to Redfields, that peasant culture in Tepoztlán is not based on folk solidarity but is rather highly conflictual, driven by struggles over land and power. In 1948 Lewis joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was one of the founders of the anthropology department.

During his tenure at Illinois, Lewis produced his best-known works including Five Families (1959), The Children of Sánchez (1961), and Anthropological Essays (1970). In both Five Families and The Children of Sánchez, Lewis describes the culture of poverty theory and provides rich insights on urban poverty in Mexico through the narratives of his informants. In Anthropological Essays, Lewis reiterates the culture of poverty theory, which at its most basic level is an adaptation to economic circumstances: The culture of poverty is a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society (Lewis 1970, p. 69). Included in Lewiss trait list of the culture of poverty are feelings of inferiority and aggressiveness, fatalism, sexism, and a low level of aspiration. Lewis saw the culture of poverty as resulting from class divisions, and therefore present not only in Mexico but throughout the world.

Because Lewiss description of the poor went against the clean-cut image presented by the Mexican media, there was, within Mexico, harsh criticism of the notion of a culture of poverty. This response, as Miguel Díaz-Barriga (1997) points out, obfuscates the overlap between Lewiss representations of the urban poor and Mexican social thinkers such as Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz. Díaz-Barriga shows that in their interviews, many of Lewiss informants ironically played off of well-known stereotypes of the urban poor, and that Lewis took their statements literally.

In the United States, the culture of poverty theory became well known through its application in Daniel Moynihans 1965 report for the Department of Labor, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which informed national policymaking, including Lyndon B. Johnsons War on Poverty. By focusing on the pathologies that emerged from slavery, discrimination, and the breakdown of the nuclear family, Moynihan saw the emergence of a culture of poverty among the African American poor. This emphasis on the pathologies of poverty has since been reframed in terms of theories of the urban underclass that seek to understand the urban poor as being both economically and culturally isolated from the middle-class. While sociologists such as William Julius Wilson (1980) have devised sophisticated understandings of the urban underclass, this concept, especially in the popular press, has become a stand-in for arguments that see the causes of poverty in terms of cultural pathologies.

In their well-known 1973 refutation of the application of the culture of poverty theory, Edwin Eames and Judith Goode argued that many of the characteristics associated with poverty, including matrifocal families and mutual aid, are rational adaptations. The continuing prevalence of poverty, they stated, must be understood in terms of restricted access to and attainment of job skills. Studies that pathologize the poor have received justified criticism for privileging middle-class values, being vague about the overall characteristics of poverty and their interrelations, and viewing matrifocal households as being a cause rather than a result of poverty. The historian Michael Katz argues that, when given educational and employment opportunities (instead of dead-end service sector jobs), the urban poor aspire to succeed as much as their middle-class counterparts. Katz convincingly calls for a historical understanding of the educational, housing, and economic policies that have generated urban poverty.

As evidenced by essays marking the fortieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report in the popular press, many continue to believe that the culture of the poor must be understood as a cycle of broken households and disruptive behavior. This renewed cycle of applying the culture of poverty theory represents the pathological ways that American society has sought to overcome class-based and racial inequalities. Indeed, it is easier to blame the poor for their poverty than to do the hard work of understanding the historical and economic factors that have generated poverty and the policy options that can transform cities.

When Oscar Lewis died, on December 16, 1970, social scientists were beginning to forcefully criticize his work for blaming the victim. Lewiss death at fifty-five years old was particularly untimely because he was not able to respond to these critiques. Indeed, the social sciences lost an opportunity to engage Lewiss responses and, perhaps, reach agreement on more fruitful ways to explore urban poverty.

SEE ALSO Culture of Poverty; Moynihan Report; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Poor, The; Poverty

BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY WORKS

Lewis, Oscar. 1951. Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lewis, Oscar. 1959. Five Families, Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. New York: Basic Books.

Lewis, Oscar. 1961. The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.

Lewis, Oscar. 1970. Anthropological Essays. New York: Random House.

SECONDARY WORKS

Díaz-Barriga, Miguel. 1997. The Culture of Poverty as Relajo. Aztlan, A Journal of Chicano Studies 22 (2): 4365.

Eames, Edwin, and Judith Granich Goode. 1973. Urban Poverty in a Cross-Cultural Context. New York: Free Press.

Katz, Michael. 1986. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books.

Katz, Michael. 1989. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke, ed. 1971. The Culture of Poverty: A Critique. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Moynihan, Daniel P. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. U.S. Department of Labor. http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webidmeynihan.htm.

Redfield, Robert. 1930. Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rigdon, Susan M. 1988. The Culture Facade, Art, Science, and Politics in the Work of Oscar Lewis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wilson, William Julius. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miguel Díaz-Barriga

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Oscar Lewis

Oscar Lewis

The American anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1914-1970) was concerned with the study of culture change and was the originator of the "culture of poverty" concept.

Oscar Lewis was born in New York City in 1914. The son of a rabbi, he was raised in upstate New York and majored in history at the City College of New York. After receiving his B.A. in history in 1936 he matriculated as a history student at Columbia University. Becoming somewhat disaffected from the history then taught at Columbia, he followed the advice of his wife's brother, Abraham Maslow, and had a long talk with Ruth Benedict of the Anthropology Department. Attracted by the field and by Benedict, he switched departments. Among those at Columbia who influenced him, in addition to Ruth Benedict, were Ralph Linton and Margaret Mead.

Lewis was poor, and there was little financial aid available at the time. Therefore, his dissertation research was done in the library, rather than in the field, and combined history and anthropology. Receiving his degree in 1940, his dissertation on the effects of white contact on the Blackfeet Indians was published in 1942. That year Lewis worked for the Human Relations Area Files in New Haven, and in 1943 he went to Mexico as a U.S. representative of the Interamerican Indian Institute to work with Manuel Gamio and Juan Comas. Lewis conducted his first field work in Tepoztlan during these years, thereby beginning a life-long association with Latin America.

Upon his return to the United States Lewis worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a social scientist. Briefly on the faculties of Brooklyn College and Washington University, Lewis was appointed to the faculty at the university of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana in 1948, starting the anthropology program there. Lewis served briefly as a consultant to the Ford Foundation in India, and while in this post he recruited a number of Indian students and directed an ethnographic study of a village in India.

Lewis's research in Tepoztlan was in a village made famous earlier by the pioneering work of Robert Redfield. When Lewis published a book on Tepoztlan, it roused a considerable controversy for it was critical of Robert Redfield's findings. Redfield was not disturbed by this, but many other people were. Lewis had paid a great deal of attention in this study to economics and factional politics. An offshoot from this research developed into the major thrust of the rest of his career—the study of poor people by means of a detailed investigation of a small number of individuals in the family setting.

The first major publication with this focus was Five Families, about families who lived in Mexico City. This was followed by The Children of Sanchez and later by several other books on various members of and events in the Sanchez family. He also published a lengthy study of Pedro Martinez, a resident of Tepoztlan. Subsequently he added an interest in Puerto Rican poor people, both in Puerto Rico and in New York, and he was working on a study of Cuba when he died without warning at age 56.

Lewis is probably best known for his "culture of poverty" concept, which evolved from his work on poor families in Mexico. The basic idea was that the poor had a culture of poverty which in effect kept them poor. Thus a culture of poverty would be reproduced by generations of the poor and would last for some time even if the individuals or families were able to work themselves out of economic poverty. The concept of culture of poverty has been strongly attacked on conceptual grounds by Anthony Leeds in 1971 and earlier on other grounds as well by Charles Valentine (1968).

While Oscar Lewis is most well known for the culture of poverty concept, several of his other accomplishments were much more lasting. A major contribution was his study of variation in a peasant village. Much of anthropology had been presented as if a village, culture, or tribe were homogeneous and the important variation was that found between villages, tribes, etc. Redfield's account of Tepoztlan presented the village as essentially homogeneous. Lewis protested that there were wealth differences within the village, that there were profound political disputes and differences, and that these differences were important for an understanding of Tepoztlan, and by extension of any peasant village. Many subsequent accounts of peasant villages have described such differences or at least taken them into account.

Oscar Lewis's works include "The Effects of White Contact upon the Blackfoot Indians," in Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, Vol. 6, edited by J. J. Augustin (1942); Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied (1951); Village Life in Northern India (1958); Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959); The Children of Sanchez (1961); Pedro Martinez, A Mexican Peasant and His Family (1964); La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York (1966); A Death in the Sanchez Family (1969); and Anthropological Essays (1970).

Further Reading

Additional information on Lewis can be found in Anthony Leeds "The concept of the 'culture of poverty': conceptual, logical, and empirical problems, with perspectives from Brazil and Peru," in E. B. Leacock, editor, The Culture of Poverty: A Critique (1971), and Charles Valentine, Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals (1968). □

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Lewis, Oscar

Oscar Lewis, 1914–70, American anthropologist, b. New York City, grad. City College of New York (B.S.S., 1936) and Columbia (Ph.D., 1940). He was a professor of anthropology at Washington Univ. (St. Louis) from 1946 to 1948 and after that at the Univ. of Illinois. His theory of the culture of poverty holds that the poor in modern capitalist societies represent an identifiable culture that transcends national differences, and that the social and psychological consequences of poverty are severe and difficult to overcome. Much of his work describes the lives of poor Hispanics in the United States and Latin America. Among his works are Five Families (1959), The Children of Sánchez (1961), La Vida (1966), and Anthropological Essays (1970).

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Lewis, Oscar

Lewis, Oscar (1914–71) An American anthropologist, who vividly and sympathetically documented the experiences of Mexican and Puerto Rican families, and of what he termed the ‘culture of poverty’. His best-known (and best-selling) books, such as The Children of Sanchez (1961) and La Vida (1966), draw on lengthy interviews and recount in the words of his informants–with whom he became close friends–the life-stories of individual families. See also POVERTY.

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