Lewis, Oscar

views updated May 18 2018

Lewis, Oscar 1914-1970


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



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.


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

Lewis, Oscar

views updated May 29 2018

LEWIS, Oscar

(b. 25 December 1914 in New York City; d. 16 December 1970 in New York City), gifted anthropologist, educator, and author and an inspired innovator in anthropological methods whose controversial work on the "culture of poverty" theory greatly influenced political policy makers in the United States during the 1960s.

Lewis was born Yehezkiel Lefkowitz, the youngest of five children born to Polish émigrés Chaim Leb ("Herman") Lefkowitz, a rabbi and cantor, and Broche ("Bertha") Biblowitz Lefkowitz, a homemaker. During the early 1920s Lewis's family moved to a small farm in Liberty, New York. Lewis spent much of his early childhood in the countryside. He enjoyed sports and music. Lewis had a rich, opera-quality voice and took music lessons until late in his life. He entered City College of New York in 1930 and earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1936. He enrolled at Columbia University that same year for doctoral studies and met the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Under her tutelage, Lewis developed into an outstanding anthropologist. Other noted anthropologists who influenced Lewis were Franz Boas, Ralph Linton, and Margaret Mead. Lewis legally changed his surname during graduate school.

In 1937 Lewis married Ruth Maslow, who became his lifetime research partner and the mother of their two children. In 1939 Lewis and his wife went on their first field investigation, among the Blackfoot tribe in Alberta, Canada. In 1940 Lewis's dissertation, The Effects of White Contact upon Blackfoot Culture, with Special Reference to the Role of the Fur Trade, won an American Philosophical Society award and was published by the American Ethnological Society. Lewis joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1948, where he was instrumental in establishing the anthropology department, which he headed until his death in 1970. Lewis conducted field research in Spain, Mexico, India, Puerto Rico, New York City, and Cuba, broadening his cross-cultural knowledge.

In 1943 Lewis visited Mexico as a representative of the Inter-American Indian Institute to study the peasant village of Tepoztlán, first analyzed by Robert Redfield in 1926. The resulting book, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied (1951), presented different conclusions from Redfield's. It brought Lewis considerable attention and generated long-lasting controversy among many critics. Despite the controversy, this book is considered his most important contribution to anthropology. Lewis soared into greater prominence in the politically volatile 1960s particularly because of his writings on the "culture of poverty" theory and his innovative methods of research. It was during the time of his Tepoztlán project that Lewis began to develop his field method for doing family case studies through tape-recorded interviews and household observation, as opposed to documenting "traditional" obscure tribal life.

Lewis was concerned about peasant communities in relation to cultural and social change and family life. Much of his work describes the lives of poor Hispanics in Latin America and the United States. He also became involved in urban studies, as he noted that the Tepoztecans who migrated to the city lived in culturally similar slum neighborhoods. This prompted him to advance his controversial "culture of poverty" theory. This theory, as Lewis initially expressed it, views the poor as living in a separate subculture within the national culture. Lewis maintained that the characteristics of this subculture as a way of life are perpetuated through the family from generation to generation and transcend national differences.

In 1959 and into the 1960s Lewis published many works of family case studies. Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959) showed the variation of family life resulting from differences in socioeconomic status. The Children of Sánchez (1961) provided an inside view of one poor family living in a slum neighborhood of a rapidly changing city. These and subsequent books were based on extensive tape-recorded interviews in which his subjects spoke for themselves. The popularity of his books, though heavily criticized, brought the reality of poverty to countless readers. Lewis, having known poverty himself, viewed his work among the poor of Latin America and elsewhere as both anthropological and supportive of social change.

Other books published during the 1960s were Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and His Family (1964), La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of PovertySan Juan and New York (1966), A Study of Slum Culture: Background for La Vida (1968), and A Death in the Sánchez Family ( 1969). Perhaps Lewis's best-known and most controversial book was La Vida, which is a case study of poverty in four generations of the Rios family living in Puerto Rican ghettos and in New York; it won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Two of Lewis's books, however, came under serious attack. Charges that The Children of Sánchez slandered the Mexican nation soured into a national scandal, which subsided only after an investigation conducted by the attorney general of Mexico led to dismissal of all charges. The second book, La Vida, was criticized by Puerto Rican civic leaders for misrepresenting their way of life.

Lewis's "culture of poverty" theory was given widespread exposure in the United States by Michael Harrington in The Other America (1962) as well as by a series of other studies leading the drive against squalor. A compelling objective of Lewis's work was to provide a better understanding of the plight of the poor and their lifestyles to those entrusted with major responsibility for forming antipoverty programs. Lewis's work profoundly influenced Democratic policy makers as they launched the War on Poverty as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society reforms. Lewis became a consultant to Project Head Start and engaged in a public dialogue with Senator Robert Kennedy about the causes of poverty in America.

In 1969 and 1970 Lewis went to Cuba, having received permission from the Cuban leader Fidel Castro to study cultural change in a revolutionary system. The project was aborted midway when Cuban State Security accused Lewis of espionage. After leaving Cuba, Lewis died in New York City at the Polyclinic Hospital of a heart attack and was buried in Montefiore Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York. Following his death, Lewis's wife, Ruth, and the political scientist Susan Rigdon used his oral history data from Cuba to publish his last work, Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba (1977).

Lewis is best remembered in anthropology as a compassionate, innovative, and impressive field worker with a great gift for establishing rapport. His books, produced from tape-recorded biographies and many years of research, provide rich documentation of family life and are notable for their innovative presentations in anthropological method. Although Lewis left much unfinished work when he died, as an important social scientist of his generation, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing widespread public attention to the plight of the rural and urban poor as he strove to expose the roots of poverty. On the other hand, his work became the focus of ongoing political controversy and critical debates in academic circles throughout the last decade of his life.

There is no book-length biography of Lewis. A major collection of Lewis's papers, tapes, and field data is in the Archives of the University of Illinois Graduate Library. Lewis's book Anthropological Essays (1970) contains reprints of his doctoral thesis and most of his major articles. Lewis's "Culture of Poverty" thesis is in Scientific American 215 (1966): 19–25. Susan M. Rigdon, The Culture Facade: Art, Science, and Politics in the Work of Oscar Lewis (1988), provides biographical information that includes correspondence. There are numerous other useful biographical pieces on Lewis, including the entry in Current Biography Yearbook (1968); Douglas Butterworth's obituary essay "Oscar Lewis, 1914–1970," American Anthropologist 74 (1972): 747–757; Sol Tax's essay in David L. Sills, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 18 (1979): 446–450; and Rigdon's essay in American National Biography 13 (1999). Additional information on Lewis can be found in Charles Valentine, Culture and Poverty: Critique and Counter-Proposals (1968), and E. B. Leacock, ed., The Culture of Poverty: A Critique (1971). Extensive reviews of three of Lewis's books are in Current Anthropology 8 (1967): 480–501. An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Dec. 1970).

Hope E. Young

Oscar Lewis

views updated May 21 2018

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 PovertySan 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). □

Lewis, Oscar

views updated May 14 2018


LEWIS, OSCAR (1914–1970), U.S. anthropologist. Born in New York City, Lewis was a research associate at Yale (1942–43), a propaganda analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice (1943), and a social scientist in the Department of Agriculture (1944–45). He also taught at various institutions, and, from 1948, at the University of Illinois. Lewis' chief interests were in the fields of cultural change and applied anthropology. His particular contribution was the application of the anthropological method to the study of the urban family unit, especially among poverty-stricken Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. In this connection he originated the idea of the "culture of poverty," a concept that achieved wide currency in the 1960s, a decade of profound social and racial turmoil when the problem of the urban poor became a primary governmental concern. In his research, Lewis made wide use of tape recordings to take down the case histories and reactions of his subjects. His study of a poor family in Mexico City, published as The Children of Sanchez (1961), achieved wide popularity both among sociologists and the general reading public. His other books include Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959); Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and his Family (1964); and La Vida: A Puerto-Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, San Juan and New York (1966).

[Ephraim Fischoff]

Lewis, Oscar

views updated May 23 2018

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.