I recently read Mical Raz’s excellent new book, What’s Wrong with the Poor?, which Trevor Burrows reviewed at this blog a few months ago. One of the many aspects of Raz’s book that strikes me as especially impressive is the way she meticulously details what Daniel Rodgers refers to as a “contagion of metaphors.” In nearly every field that touched on poverty – from linguists to social work to psychology – the trope of “deprivation” structured how experts understood the poor. Thus, social scientists and policy makers viewed poverty in terms of what the poor lacked, focusing their energies on treating the individuals suffering from this “condition” rather than attacking the structural inequalities that produced poverty in the first place. The experts working on poverty, moreover, imported this model of deprivation with almost no critical examination of the model itself, or whether it always applied to their particular research concern. Consequently, the framework of deprivation spread from field to field with seemingly no exception, only receiving serious pushback by the 1970s.
I found Raz’s account of the promiscuity of the meme of deprivation particularly useful because it seemed clearly anchored, in her narrative, to the political goals and agendas of those who embraced it. It makes sense, in other words, that the concept of deprivation proved so virulent – it offered the perfect solution to post-war liberals concerned about poverty but either unable or unwilling to look its roots in the face. Such a grounding pushes Raz’s book past a nearly documentary project – a report of her findings – and towards at least the start of an explanatory answer, or an argument about those findings. A former professor in my department once made this distinction in a conference, and I’ve never stopped appreciating how he gave me a clear way of articulating my discontent with historical studies that seem to conflate the two.