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Ah, that ol’Designing For Debate

Monday, February 28th, 2011 | Posted by Kat Davis

Throughout the year, various classmates and I have had discussions around imposing our own middle class values on other people through our designs.  First, this came up when deciding what our main project for this year would be.  If we were to work with those experiencing homelessness, would our perspective be one of rescuing/saving/helping the people we were working with?  Inherent in that view is a value judgment that my way of life is better, and in turn, it’s easy to think “I am better.”  Besides this debate, several times we have discussed designing abroad and the value and/or detriment of these design solutions.  Is it imperialistic?

While this debate is not new to the design community, it is also important to remember that this is not a new debate in general, and many, many people have weighed in with their opinions.  During my two years living in Ecuador, and the past semester trying to grasp what it’s like to experience homelessness, I’ve struggled to withhold judgment of people and situations that I don’t truly understand.   The best I can do is continually remind myself to try and see the world from other people’s perspective.  While this often comes from spending time with other people, it also frequently comes from tapping into historical perspectives and readings.

I ’d like to share two readings that have affected and shaped my own opinions on debate, and have allowed me to see doing good and poverty from a differently.

  1. To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich.  Illich warns of volunteers in Mexico, but most interesting, I find his view of the American spirit.

  1. La Vida by Oscar Lewis.  Lewis was an anthropologist who studied families living in poverty in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. He developed a controversial theory called “cultural poverty,” which he distinguishes from material poverty.  The theory sees the positive, rather than negative in in the value system of those living in poverty.  Below, you’ll find excerpts from the introduction to the book La Vida where he intensely studies one family living in poverty.

My hope is that these readings also help reframe how you, the reader, thinks about the “we are imposing our values” debate.

Excerpts from the introduction of La Vida:

The people in this book, like most of the other Puerto Rican slum dwellers I have studied, show a great zest for life, especially for sex, and a need for excitement, new experiences and adventures.  Theirs is an expressive style of life.  They value acting out more than thinking out, self-expression more than self-constraint, pleasure more than productivity, spending more than saving, personal loyalty more than impersonal justice.  They are fun-loving and enjoy parties, dancing and music. They cannot be alone; they have an almost insatiable need for sociability and interaction.  They are not apathetic, isolated, withdrawn or melancholy.  Compared with the low-income Mexicans I have studied, they seem less reserved, less depressive, less controlled and less stable.

The Rios family is closer to the expression of an unbridled id than any other people I have studied. They have an almost complete absence of internal conflict and of a sense of guilt.  They tend to accept themselves as they are, and do not indulge in soul-searching or introspection.  The leading characters in The Children of Sanchez seem mild, repressed and almost middle-class by comparison.

In writing about multi-problem families like the Rios family, social scientists often stress the instability, the lack of organization, lack of direction and lack of order.  Certainly there are many contradictory attitudes and inconsistencies expressed in these autobiographies.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that their behavior is clearly patterned and reasonably predictable.  Indeed, one is often struck by the inexorable repetitiousness and the iron entrenchment of their behavior patterns.

It has been my experience over many years that the psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers who have read the autobiographies and psychological tests of the people I have studied, have often found more negative elements and pathology than I am willing to grant.  This has also been the case with the present volume.  Their findings may reflect some bias inherent in the test themselves, but perhaps more important, it seems to me, is the failure to see these people within the context of the culture of poverty…

In spite of the presence of considerable pathology, I am impressed by the strengths in this family.  I am impressed by their fortitude, vitality, resilience and ability to cope with problems which would paralyze many middle-class individuals.  It takes a great deal of staying power to live in their harsh and brutalizing environment.  They are a tough people, but they have their own sense of dignity and morality and they are capable of kindness, generosity and compassion.  They share food and clothing, help each other in misfortune, take in the homeless and cure the ill.  Money and material possessions, although important, do not motivate their major decisions.  Their deepest need is for love, and their life is a relentless search for it.

Unfortunately, because of their own negative self-images, the Rios family do not always present themselves in the best light.  Even in the recorded days, their particular style of communication and the crudeness of their language make them appear less attractive than they really are.  When Cruz screams at her three-year-old daughter, “I’ll pull your lungs through your mouth!”  and the child continues to disobey without apparent fear, it suggests that perhaps the child is quite secure in her mother’s love.  When Felicita sings a “dirty” song to her children instead of a traditional lullaby, the reader may be so disconcerted by the sexual imagery that he forgets the healthier aspects of the scene, children dancing and clapping happily to their mother’s music.  And if the children’s hurts go unattended, it is equally true that in the long run their mother’s lack of concern is not entirely inappropriate in an environment where toughness is necessary for survival.  Soledad may seem like a harsh, cruel, inconsistent mother by middle-class standards, but one should also note how much time, energy and attention she gives to her children and how hard she tries to live up to her own ideal of a good mother.  With much effort she has managed to provide them with a home, food and clothing, even with toys.  She has not abandoned them, nor permitted anyone to abuse them, and she is devoted to them when they are ill.

In the traditional view, anthropologists have said that culture provides human begins with a design for living, with a ready-made set of solutions for human problems so that individuals don’t have to begin all over again each generation.  That is, the core of culture is its positive adaptive function.  I, too, have called attention to some of the adaptive mechanisms in the culture of poverty – for example, the low aspiration level helps to reduce frustration, the legitimization of short-range hedonism makes possible spontaneity and enjoyment.  However, on the whole it seems to me that it is a relatively thin culture.  There is a great deal of pathos, suffering and emptiness among those who live in the culture of poverty.  It does not provide much support of long-range satisfaction and its encouragement of mistrust tends to magnify helplessness and isolation.  Indeed, the poverty of culture is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty.

The concept of the culture of poverty provides a high level of generalization which, hopefully, will unify and explain a number of phenomena viewed as distinctive characteristics of racial, national or regional groups.  For example, matrifocality, a high incidence of consensual unions and a high percentage of households headed by women, which have been thought to be distinctive of Caribbean family organization or of Negro family life in the U.S.A., turn out to be traits of the culture of poverty and are found among diverse peoples in many parts of the world and among peoples who have had no history of slavery.

The concept of a cross-societal subculture of poverty enables us to see that many of the problems we think of as distinctively our own or distinctively Negro problems (or that of any other special racial or ethnic group), also exist in countries where there are no distinct ethic minority groups.  This suggests that the elimination of physical poverty per se may not be enough to eliminate the culture of poverty which is a whole way of life.

“Throughout recorded history, in literature, in proverbs and in popular sayings, we find two opposite evaluations of the nature of the poor.  Some characterize the poor as blessed, virtuous, upright, serene, independent, honest, kind, and happy.  Others characterize them as evil, mean violent, sordid and criminal.  These contradictory and confusing evaluations are also reflected in the in-fighting that is going on in the current war against poverty.  Some stress the great potential of the poor for self-help, leadership and community organization, while others point to the sometimes irreversible, destructive effect of poverty upon individual character, and therefore emphasize the need for guidance and control to remain in the hands of the middle class, which presumably has better mental health.

These opposing views reflect a political power struggle between competing groups.  However, some of the confusion results from the failure to distinguish between poverty per se and the culture of poverty and the tendency to focus upon the individual personality rather than upon the group – that is, the family and the slum community.

As an anthropologist I have tried to understand poverty and its associated traits as a culture or, more accurately, as a subculture with its own structure and rationale, as a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation along family lines.  This view directs attention to the fact that the culture of poverty in modern nations is not only a matter of economic deprivation, of disorganization or of the absence of something.  It is also something positive and provides some rewards without which the poor could hardly carry on.

The culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society.  It represents an effort to cope with feelings of hopelessness and despair, which develop from the rationalization of the improbability of achieving success in terms of the values and goals of the larger society.  Indeed, many of the traits of the culture of poverty can be viewed as attempts at local solutions for problems not met by existing institutions and agencies because the people are not eligible for them, cannot afford them, or are ignorant or suspicious of them.  For example, unable to obtain credit from banks, they are thrown upon their own resources and organize informal credit devices without interest.

The culture of poverty, however, is not only an adaptation to set a set of objective conditions of the larger society.  Once it comes into existence it tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effect on the children.  By the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime.

People with a culture of poverty are aware of middle-class values, talk about them and even claim some of them as their own, but on the whole they do not live by them.  Thus it is important to distinguish between what they say and what they do.  For example, many will tell you that marriage by law, by the church, or by both, is the ideal form of marriage, but few will marry.  To men who have no steady jobs or other sources of income, who do not own property and have no wealth to pass on to their children, who are present-time oriented and who want to avoid the expense and legal difficulties involved in formal marriage and divorce, free unions or consensual marriage makes a lot of sense.  Women will often turn down offers of marriage because they feel it ties them down to men who are immature, punishing and generally unreliable.  Women feel that consensual union gives them a better break; it gives them some of the freedom and flexibility that men have.  By not giving the fathers of their children legal status as husbands, the women have a stronger claim on their children if they decide to leave their men.  It also gives women exclusive rights to a house or any other property they may own.

When we look at the culture of poverty on the local community level, we find poor housing conditions, crowding, gregariousness, but above all a minimum of organization beyond the level of the nuclear and extended family.  Occasionally there are informal, temporary groupings or voluntary associations within slums.  The existence of neighborhood gangs which cut across slum settlements represents a considerable advance beyond the zero point of the continuum that I have in mind.  Indeed, it is the low level of organization which gives the culture of poverty its marginal and anachronistic quality in our highly complex, specialized, organized society.  Most primitive peoples have achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers.

On the level of the individual the major characteristics are a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, fo dependence and of inferiority.  I found this to be true of slum dwellers in Mexico City and San Juan among families who do not constitute a distinct ethic or racial group and who do not suffer from racial discrimination.

When the poor become class-conscious or active members of trade-union organizations or when they adopt an internationalistic outlook on the world they are no longer part of the culture of poverty, although they may still be desperately poor.  Any movement, be it religious, pacifist or revolutionary which organizes and gives hope to the poor and effectively promotes solidarity and a sense of identification with larger groups, destroys the psychological and social core of the culture of poverty.  In this connection, I suspect that the civil rights movement among the Negroes in the United States has done more to improve their self-image and self-respect than have their economic advances, although, without a doubt, the two are mutually reinforcing.

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