Lewis Oscar

Lewis Oscar

(1914-71) US anthropologist who is best known for his concept of the CULTURE OF POVERTY which arose from his study of Mexican and Puerto Rican families. Lewis's books were highly popular, reaching an audience well beyond the usual academic boundaries.

Lewis's work was couched as a debate with the earlier work of Robert REDFIELD on Mexico. Whereas Redfield had described the peasants in his studies as a ‘little community’ and a ‘folk society’, Lewis, in contrast, found abject poverty and destitution among its inhabitants. Lewis's subsequent research included such notable LIFE HISTORY based studies as Five Families, 1959, The Children of Sanchez, 1961, Pedro Martinez, 1964, and La Vida, 1968. These studies firmly established the ‘culture of poverty’ concept, which implies that poverty is transmitted intergenerationally, encoded in the behavioural and cultural arrangements of family life. From this point of view, poverty's cultural dimension is deemed to be self-perpetuating. The culture of poverty’ manifests itself in apparent social ‘disorganization’ and a personal sense of hopelessness and the perceived inability of the people involved to transform their lives.

In invoking ‘culture’ in an explanation of the behaviour of the poor in a manner which in part implied some criticism of them, it was inevitable that Lewis's claims would receive criticism. Integral to his work was the suggestion that life history research could stand on behalf of an entire culture. At the methodological level this turned out to be his Achilles heel and his work was subject to sweeping criticism by Valentine (1968) and Leacock (1971), who argued the inadequacy of life history at the family or individual level when what was required was wider ethnographic evidence based on field work at the community level.

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