Structuralists vs. culturalists in explaining poverty

Sociologists may not have the public profile they desire but the discussion about it may have helped. The New Yorker looks at two sociological approaches to poverty and attempts to sum up the culturalist approach:

There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects’ autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent—their cultural traditions just don’t seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know.

Do we have to have an either/or answer? Situations like these are complex and involve a multitude of factors. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to quick policy making or answers the media can grab and run with. Yet, even sociologists of culture would highlight other structural factors including economics and race in addition to the power of patterns of meaning-making.

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