This book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, is the latest monograph by William Julius Wilson. I read this several months ago and haven’t reviewed it yet because I have been thinking about its approach and conclusions. Here is my quick take:
I am still not quite sure to make of this book. I ultimately think that it is too short and doesn’t spend upon time seriously doing what Wilson claims he wants to do: explore how structure and culture interact and affect poor inner-city neighborhoods. The book is written in a series that seems to be for a popular audience and it seems that Wilson is just limited in space and perhaps how academic the work can be and the number of studies he can cite. Additionally, although Wilson cites some interesting recent research (including Move To Opportunity research) involving cultural values, Wilson still sides with structure (his primary research focus for years) in the end though he suggests culture plays some role.
I contrast this book with what I heard at a culture and poverty panel at the American Sociological Association meetings in August in Atlanta. I felt that panel took culture much more seriously – indeed, several of the scholars were sociologists of culture who are trying to bring this growing subfield to a point where it can be recognized as having something important to add to discussions about poverty. This discussion featured some research in progress but these scholars seemed to put structure and culture on a more equal footing.
Of course, this is an emerging field of work. After research in the 1960s from people like Daniel Moynihan and Oscar Lewis were said to be “blaming the victim” when discussing culture and the role of values and norms in poor neighborhoods, structure was the primary focus for several decades when studying poverty. Wilson’s book may serve as an entry point or guide to the discussion of culture and poverty but those who seriously want to delve into the issues will need to look into other works.
(I might also quibble with Wilson’s definition of culture, the collection of values, norms, behaviors, traditions, etc. of a group. This leaves culture as a more passive phenomenon. I would prefer to use this definition when thinking about the sociology of culture: “processes of meaning-making.”)