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Poverty measurement blues:
Some reflections on the space for understanding 'chronic' and 'structural' poverty in South Africa

Andries du Toit


Posted with permission of the author.
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Discussions about method and methodology in applied social research are often framed as if the central differences are those between quantitative and qualitative method, and as if the key issue to be decided is the value of one or the other - or the best way of 'integrating' them (see e.g. Kanbur 2002). This paper argues that it is necessary to go further. It considers the difficulties that arise out of the domination of development studies and poverty research by what is here called the `econometric imaginary': an approach that frames questions of social understanding as questions of measurement. But, although the limitations of the econometric imaginary clearly illustrate the need for qualitative modes of research and understanding, I argue here that more is needed than various methods of combining or 'integrating' qualitative and quantitative approaches. What matters are also the larger explanatory metanarratives - the paradigms and theoretical frameworks that guide the process of integration. Meeting this challenge is however impossible without an engagement with the ways in which applied social science research in the 21st century is shaped by the architectures of power and knowledge in modern states and donor institutions. In South Africa these limitations, I argue, are part of a fertile yet hazardous terrain for engagement and contestation by critical scholars and researchers.

These threads of argument are hung from the rather humble edifice of a consideration of some years of 'chronic poverty' research conducted in South Africa (see Aliber 2001, De Swardt 2004a, de Swardt 2004b, du Toit 2004, du Toit 2005a, du Toit Skuse & Cousins 2005, Arnall et al 2004). In the first place, the paper argues that dominant approaches to the conceptualisation of chronic poverty are undermined by their reliance on a mystificatory theoretical metanarrative that tries to imbue poverty judgements with a spurious aura of objectivity, and by the fact that they direct attention away from structural aspects of persistent poverty. Secondly, it argues that if the analysis of structural poverty is to avoid reductionism or a vitiating abstraction we need to come to grips with the extent to which the structural configurations of poverty are socially meaningful; shaped through and through by the complexities of culture, identity and agency. Thirdly, it proposes that this implies that more is needed than the simple addition of qualitative data to existing measurement based accounts: instead, critical theory allows a re imagning and re framing of the way in which inequality and poverty are conceptualised in the first place. The paper closes with a consideration of some of the obstacles and limitations in the way of an attempt to bring these alternative ways of imagining poverty into the mainstream of applied poverty work in South Africa.


  1. This paper is based on research funded by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (see It recapitulates and elaborates on arguments of an earlier, as yet unpublished paper (du Toit 2005b) which was developed while a visiting researcher at the Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR), and which is available on request from the author. Many thanks to those who saw and commented on this early draft, including Philippa Bevan, Colleen Crawford Cousins, Uma Kothari and Jeremy Seekings.

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