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or doing (functionings) takes us into the sphere of

relativities because commodities vary according

to cultural and historical context. A heated debate

with Townsend ensued in the early 1980s, which

was confused because of a failure to clarify different

interpretations of absolute and relative. More

recently, Townsend and colleagues have promulgated

a two-part definition of poverty – absolute

and overall – which emerged from the 1995

United Nations (UN) Copenhagen summit. This, it

is argued, can be applied to both industrialized

and poorer countries.

The capabilities approach has been developed

by Sen and Martha Nussbaum (1947– ) in numerous

books and papers, most recently, Development

as Freedom, 1999. Their approach has been particularly

influential in development circles, providing

the framework for the annual UN Development

Program Human Development Report. The essence of

Sen’s thesis is that what matters is not income

or living standards as such but the kind of life

that a person is able to lead (functionings) and

the choices and opportunities open to people in

poverty poverty


leading their lives (capabilities). Money, Sen

argues, is just a means to an end and the goods

and services (commodities) it buys are simply particular

ways of achieving functionings. Thus, poverty

should be defined in terms of failure to

achieve minimally acceptable capabilities.

In order to identify and count those defined as

poor, measures are needed. These too generate

controversy, involving choice of indicators and

the standard, often called the poverty line, against

which indicators are assessed. Questions include

whether poverty should be measured in terms

of income, living standards / consumption, or

expenditure; increasingly the view is that a combination

of approaches is needed to improve

the accuracy of measures. Official measures tend

to use income levels to establish a poverty line.

Examples are 60 percent of median national income,

as used within the European Union, and the

World Bank’s (much-criticized) $1, $2, or $4 a day.

In addition to headcount measures, poverty-gap

measures have been devised to gauge the extent

to which people fall below the poverty line,

although these are used less frequently. A focus

on the numbers below the poverty line or on

the poverty gap can point to different policy


This is one of the criticisms made by those who

query the very construction of poverty lines. At

the heart of such criticisms is the question as to

whether there exists a clear threshold which

neatly divides the poor from the nonpoor or

whether the relationship between the two is

better understood as a continuum, with gradations

among both groups. The idea of a simple

dichotomy between poor and nonpoor has also

been questioned in the light of the growing use

of longitudinal datasets to measure the dynamics

of poverty. These show considerable movement in

and out of poverty (although not usually very far),

which is obscured by traditional snapshot measures.

The length of time in poverty also affects the

degree of deprivation of necessities experienced.

An alternative approach to drawing a poverty

line is based on estimates of the income levels at

which people are unable to afford items specified

as essentials by either experts or the population at

large. Typically, budget standards are calculated,

based on the cost of a basket of goods and services.

In the United Kingdom, a number of poverty studies

have used a list of necessities agreed by a

survey of the general population. Yet another

device is to ask a sample of the population directly

a question aimed at gauging what they think the

poverty line should be for their household.

Although poverty estimates generally refer to

individuals, they are typically based on measures

of combined household/family resources. This is

problematic where resources are not shared fairly

within households, as research indicates can be

the case. The result can be hidden poverty experienced

primarily by women. It is one example of

the ways in which poverty is gendered, although

this was largely ignored prior to the intervention

of feminist scholars. Even on conventional measures,

women are more likely than men to be in

poverty. They also tend to take the main responsibility

for managing poverty and often go without

to protect other family members, especially children,

from its full impact. The stress involved can

damage both physical and mental health.

Poverty is also racialized in termsof its incidence,

racialized stereotyping, and the effects of discrimination

and racism. This dimension is most marked

in the United States where race and ethnicity

and urban segregation figure prominently in the

sociological poverty literature. Segregation is one

aspect of the geography of poverty, which is a

manifestation of wider spatial inequalities.

Explanations of poverty can broadly be understood

as behavioral or structural. Behavior-based

explanations attribute poverty to the values, attitudes,

and behavior of the poor. An example is

Charles Murray’s writings on the underclass (including

The Emerging British Underclass, 1990). In the

United States, the earlier notion of a culture of

poverty drew attention to the ways in which a

subculture, marked by fatalism, an inability to

defer gratification, and pathological behavior, was

passed down through the generations. Although

Oscar Lewis, who coined the term in the 1960s,

emphasized that the culture of poverty represented

an adaptation to rather than cause of poverty, it

was used to argue with the latter meaning by

others who blamed the poor for their poverty, as

both supporters and critics of Lewis have observed.

A related notion in the United Kingdom, in the

1970s, was that of the cycle of deprivation.

In The Other America (1967), a pivotal intervention

in the United States, Michael Harrington linked

the culture of poverty to a structural analysis.

Structural explanations of poverty focus on economic,

social, and political structures and processes

– from the global to the local/familial.

Examples are unemployment, low pay, and

women’s position in the family. Another perspective

is institutional, which points to the failure of

government policies. For example, the term poverty

trap was coined in Britain to highlight the

way in which means-tested benefits can trap the

poverty poverty


working poor: the interaction of the withdrawal of

means-tested supplements with taxation and insurance

contributions meant that a pay rise could

leave a low-paid worker worse off. Although the

system has since been reformed to avoid this extreme

situation, large numbers of lower-paid

workers can still lose a significant proportion of

a pay increase because of the poverty trap. An

example of an explanation that combines the behavioral

and institutional is that which locates

the cause of poverty in a dependency culture

said to be created by welfare benefits.

Recently, some poverty analysts who subscribe

to a structural explanation have married this approach

with a sociological account of agency in

order to understand better the ways in which

people cope with poverty. One formulation, taken

from the development literature, is of people

deploying a range of resources (personal, social,

cultural, and material) to compose their livelihoods.

Structure and agency also combine in

some sociological accounts of the concept of social

exclusion, which emphasize the agency of the

more powerful in excluding the less powerful.

Labels such as “socially excluded,” “poor,” and

“underclass” are examples of how the more powerful

name those without power. They are not labels

with which those experiencing poverty necessarily

want to identify. Organizations of people in poverty

are, however, developing alternative discourses

that have also been promulgated by some

more powerful bodies such as the United Nations.

This is a discourse of human rights, citizenship,

voice, and power. Two key principles underpin

the conceptualization of poverty in terms of

human rights and citizenship: recognition of the

dignity of all humans and the interdependence of

civil, political, social, and cultural rights. In addition,

this perspective emphasizes participation in

society and the polity and the right to be heard in

decisionmaking. In both North and South, people

in poverty identify lack of voice and associated

powerlessness as critical to understanding their

situation. Calls for their voices to be heard in policymaking

and campaigning are becoming more

emphatic. In the South and, to a lesser extent, the

North, the case is being made for participatory

research that involves people in poverty as experts

in their own lives. The argument is that sociological

accounts will provide a better understanding

of poverty if they reflect the analyses of those

with experience of poverty. RUTH L I STER

poverty line

– see poverty.

poverty trap

– see poverty.


In a discipline such as sociology, notorious for the

difficulty it experiences in establishing widely and

durably agreed definitions of its concepts, that of

power (at any rate social power, which is our only

concern here) stands out as one whose definition

is particularly contentious and unstable. This in

spite (or perhaps on account) of the fact that,

however understood, this concept signals a particularly

significant social phenomenon, arguably

entitled to a central position in the discipline’s

vocabulary and discourse.

The most significant of the controversies taking

place among sociologists and political scientists

in the twentieth century around the concept-ofpower

concern, expressly or otherwise, concerns

the definition of power (Macht) offered at the beginning

of the century by Max Weber. In Economy

and Society (1922 [trans. 1968]), that definition characterizes

power as “the chance of a man or a group

of men to realize their own will in a communal

action even against the resistance of others who

are participating in the action.”

In fact, some expressed or implied elements of

this definition were not widely considered as controversial.

In particular, it was generally agreed

that one should think of (social) power not as a

substance but as a relationship – a point implied

in Weber’s reference to both parties’ “participation”

in “communal action.” In other terms,

power is not something to be held, so to speak,

in one’s hand or pocket, but as something

obtaining between two parties, such that A may

hold it vis-a`-vis B, but not vis-a`-vis C.

Weber’s expression “chance” entails two further

plausible, closely related characteristics of power.

First, power refers to a probability, not so to speak

to a “dead cert,” to the complete assurance of a

given party’s success. Second, power is always potential

because it refers not so much to the doing

of something (to the actual “production of

effects,” proposed by others as an alternative definition

of power) but to the capacity of doing

something, of producing effects if and when one


In other words, power does not need to be exercised

(by overcoming opposition or otherwise) in

order to exist. Paradoxically, the exercise of power

may consume it and/or expose it, when actually

brought to bear, to the risk of being found

wanting, of failing to do its number as it were.

Rather, power is at its most powerful when those

poverty line power


subject to it practice their subjection to it without

its being actually exercised, when it operates

through the power subjects’ memory of past exercises

of it or their imagination of future ones,

when it needs to be at most symbolically represented

rather than actually put into action. (One

may connect to this intuition a number of enlightening

discourses by political scientists, historians,

and sociologists, on the symbolism of power – and

of related phenomena.)

Other aspects of Weber’s definition became controversial

in a wide ranging post-World War II

discussion of the power concept, involving both

political scientists – for instance Robert Dahl,

Modern Political Analysis (1963) – and sociologists

such as Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View

(1974) and Dennis Wrong in Power: Its Forms, Bases,

and Uses (1979). In particular, Weber’s reference to

the “will” of the party in power became an issue. It

was questioned whether that reference implied

intentionality. Does the existence of a power relationship

depend on the powerful party’s awareness

of its own preference for a given, existent,

or future state of things and its conscious commitment

to obtaining it? Does it depend on its ability

to superimpose its own over the other party’s will?

Is the overcoming or the potential overcoming of

actual or virtual resistance an essential component

of the relationship? What of situations where

the asymmetry between the parties is so great that

the inferior party is not even aware of having

interests contrary to those of the superior party,

but routinely cooperates in the attainment of the

latter, or at any rate does not seek to hinder that

attainment? Is not the superior party’s ability to

keep certain present or future states of things

from becoming an issue between itself and the

other party – its ability to control the agenda, it

was said – a particularly privileged condition?

Some contributors to the debate, while assuming

that Weber’s conceptual construct was essentially

acceptable – whatever the qualifications

and modifications to it suggested by the answers to

some questions we have mentioned – labored to

establish its boundaries by comparing and contrasting

it with cognate concepts, such as authority

(or domination), influence, force, or manipulation.

In the second half of the twentieth century the

concept of power, with reference to the Weberian

definition or otherwise, was also the object of

methodological arguments concerning the possibility

of grounding it empirically. The discussion

involved both sociologists and political scientists,

especially those associated with the behaviorist

approach, itself much inspired by sociology. It

often concerned, besides the power concept itself

and its elaboration in the notion of “power structure,”

the analysis of elites. Attempts to put such

concepts to use in empirical research, through

varying methodological approaches, were conducted

both at the local level – for instance by

Floyd Hunter, Community Power Structure: A Study

of Decision Makers (1953), and Robert Dahl, Who

Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City

(1961) – and at the national level – for example

by C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956). This led to

interesting developments, for instance the study

of “interlocking directorates,” carried out with

reference to numerous corporations or other economic

units, such as banks and firms, or the study

of decisionmaking within political bodies.

Some scholars went further in the attempt to

operationalize the power concept and indeed to

measure various parameters of a power relationship.

Some aspects of these are in principle amenable

to quantitative assessment. For instance,

over how many subjects can the holder of power

exercise that power? Over how many aspects of

their existence? How significant are those aspects?

Also, assuming that power entails the ability to

inflict negative sanctions on those subject to it,

one can put those sanctions in some kind of ordinal

sequence. The power over life and death

which Roman law attributed to the paterfamilias

can plausibly be assumed to stand at the high end

of that sequence, although there are variations in

the manner in which a subject can be put to

death. This side of killing lies, for example, banishment

from the polity, often accompanied by

the confiscation of the patrimony of the banished.

The sequence goes down to a rich variety of less

and less blatantly damaging sanctions, such as the

dismissal from employment of a worker, the

blackballing of someone seeking admission to a

club, or the exposure to gossip of a member of a

social circle. But it is a demanding task to subsume

this ordinal arrangement of sanctions into

a more sophisticated metric, comprising other

aspects of the power relations, and allowing their

comparison – the comparison, say, between the

threat of a lockout and the threat of a strike. In

fact, some scholars adopting high standards of

methodological rigor were led by the difficulty of

measuring power to the conclusion that one

might as well dispense with the concept itself!

Fortunately, few scholars took that suggestion

seriously. The rest continued, more or less explicitly

and consistently, to abide by the notion that

power was an indispensable concept, pointing to a

most significant social experience or indeed a

power power


critical dimension, overt or covert, of all social

structures. From the late 1950s through the mid

1970s, in the protracted sociological argument

over a theoretical perspective focused on order

versus one focused on conflict, the power concept

was often invoked by students associated with the

latter perspective. However, it could be employed

also to challenge that alternative, arguing that

order need not be grounded on normative consensus

among all involved in systematic interaction,

but rather on the pressure which one part of

society, the powerful part, imposed upon the other,

powerless part. Even those situations where significant

structures were in fact underwritten by some

kind of normative consensus valid across society

could be interpreted as outcomes of particularly

protracted, routinized, long-unchallenged power


Another advantage of the emphasis on these

was that it gave some conceptual purchase even

on social change, on situations where existent

arrangements were called into question and order

broke down. In its Weberian framework, the concept

of power implied the possibility of resistance.

It thus allowed that sometimes the power-less but

resistant part of society could gain the upper hand

and succeed in restructuring society to suit its

own interests. Or, a group not favored by the

existent power structure could challenge it by

developing alternative power sources. Finally,

even within a stable power structure, its very existence

gave rise to contentions over the occupancy

of the favored positions within it, and

thus to further occasions for change.

Arguments of this kind, as we have seen, often

appealed to Weber’s intellectual authority. The

debate became more intense, and more significant,

when the central imagery of the Weberian

construction was called into question. To simplify

matters, an intrinsically tough-minded view of

power was challenged by a tender-minded one.

The Weberian imagery, we have suggested, emphasized

the asymmetry between individuals or

between groups acting in the presence of one

another, and the advantages enjoyed by those

located at the upper end of the asymmetry. It

implied that, at any rate in a stable and consistent

power relationship, whatever its sources

and scope, all the power there was lay at that

end – in other words, the relationship was a

zero-sum one.

Yet Weber himself had connected that relation

with the involvement of both parties in “communal

action.” Whether Weber meant this or

not, this consideration suggested to some authors

that one could view the power relation, in spite of

its intrinsic asymmetry, as a functional feature of

that communal action, a fixture, as it were, of a

shared social space, rather than something appropriated

by one party and by the same token denied

the other party and used to keep it at bay. A given

party’s power over the other could be viewed also

as something both parties benefited from, as a

component of their power to attain some shared

end, as a collective facility.

This bold reconceptualization of power was put

forward in the late 1950s by Talcott Parsons, in a

belated but impressive rebuttal of a criticism

often made of his theories, to the effect that these

ignored the phenomenon of power and the related

reasons for conflict and change. It was taken

further by Niklas Luhmann, who expressly reproached

Parsons’s critics, and his own, for their

bloody-minded insistence on the asymmetry of

power, on the distribution of power within a

group. The time had come to consider the extent

to which the institutionalization of power relations

empowered the group as a whole, made it

more capable of pursuing collective goals.

Power should be considered as a medium

through which selections made in one part of

society could be transmitted to others, and thus

as analogous to money. In the same way that

money allows and fosters the rationalization of

economic activities in a society where it has been

invented or adopted, the development within it of

power relations could strongly assist a society’s

pursuit of non-economic goals.

The gain a group or society derives from being

the locus of a power relationship deserves serious

consideration, irrespective of the way in which or

the extent to which such a relationship favors in

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