Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) SARPN thematic photo
Regional themes > Poverty reduction frameworks and critiques Last update: 2020-11-27  

Global Poverty Research Group

Representing poverty and attacking representations:
Some anthropological perspectives on poverty in development

Maia Green

Global Poverty Research Group

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
[Download complete version - 557Kb ~ 3 min (52 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]

'Bank staff sustain their livelihoods by labelling. By calling Christmas vegetarian, the powerful turkeys survive.'
(Chambers 2001:304)


This article considers different approaches to the constitution of poverty as a research problem, as an analytical category within the social sciences and as a social experience. Approaches to understanding poverty in development disciplines have largely been influenced by economics and sociology. Despite the concentration of much of its disciplinary research for many years in the very communities and countries that are viewed as poor by development practitioners, social anthropology has produced remarkably little about the problem of ‘poverty’ (Booth et al 1999). I argue that the apparent disengagement of anthropology from the problem of poverty should not be read as evidence of that discipline’s irrelevance for poverty research or for development studies more generally, but rather as a necessary caution concerning the study of poverty. An anthropological approach to the study of poverty in development reveals the role of development institutions in constituting poverty as the key development problematic. This focus on poverty, and its representation in development discourse as a general state external to the people affected by it, or as a threshold below which people fall, risks deflecting attention from the social relations which tolerate inequality and human suffering and which play a major role in the production and reproduction of poverty (Green & Hulme 2005).

The article introduces the constitution of poverty as an object of study within international development policy and the academic studies that support it, and considers the potential value of an anthropological approach to understanding poverty. Anthropological approaches to the investigation of human society begin with the social constitution of the categories of the subjects of study and an analysis of the institutions through which such categories become salient. Ethnographic research takes the categories through which people think their worlds and act upon them as the starting point for an analysis of the significance of social practice. Such approaches at their best can challenge the imposition of apparently universal priorities on the social values of others.i Ethnographic accounts of the constitution of social worlds, whether those of laboratory scientists (Latour 1987) or of head hunters (Rosaldo 1980), expose the social processes of categorisation through which such worlds are constructed conceptually through practice (e.g. Douglas 1996; Wenger 1998; Bourdieu 1979).

Anthropological studies have consistently demonstrated the social constitution of categories and the importance of social relations as the bedrock of inequality (Dumont 1970; Douglas 1991; Hart 2001). Such accounts point to the distortions inherent in viewing poverty in absolute and ahistorical terms and, in presenting poverty as a wholly subject position, of denying the agency of those categorised as poor.ii I argue that an anthropological perspective throws considerable light on the constitution of poverty, as both a category of development thinking and as a label applied to particular social categories. The application of such categories and the political implications of such classifications are explored through an analysis of some development representations of poverty and a discussion of the new institutional mechanisms for monitoring poverty. Insights from anthropology concerning the social constitution of categories and the role of institutions in creating authoritative knowledge are examined in the context of the recent institutionalisation of poverty as the tangible target of development initiatives in Zanzibar and as the object of new and highly specialised systems of monitoring and knowledge creation.

  1. For a scathing critique of the limits of relativism see Farmer (1999).
  2. For a discussion of the relation between subjection and agency in academic representations of the `Other’ see Prakash (1994).

Octoplus Information Solutions Top of page | Home | Contact SARPN | Disclaimer