Deprivation, distribution and the political economy of poverty: Is poverty research about the non-poor as much as the poor?

8 May 2012

Current research on poverty needs to be based on mixed methods and an inter-disciplinary awareness of the relationship between poverty, politics and distribution. This is one of the key points of a new paper that synthesises key lessons, challenges and frontiers for poverty research. The paper was based on a consultation of UK-based researchers, sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID). Andy Norton at ODI and David Hulme at Manchester are also reflecting on the paper.

Mixed methods research on poverty has mushroomed over the last decade due in part to the q-squared initiative and journals such as the Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

While there are numerous ways to mix methods, the rationale for combining qualitative and quantitative approaches to data collection or techniques of data analysis is commonly put as mixed methods provide a better understanding of an issue by looking at the issue in a variety of ways that either corroborating findings, complementing or inform the design of methods.

However, in the case of poverty such ways of researching have quite often thrown up the contradictions rather than neat answers to the questions posed of 'who is poor?' and 'why are they poor?', suggesting poverty research needs to ask different questions which might include such as 'who are the non-poor?' and 'why aren't they poor?' or 'who does what?' and 'who gets what?'.

Take for example, three areas of global poverty research in the last decade in particular that have utilized mixed methods research: research on the dimensions of poverty and multi-dimensional poverty, research on the dynamics of poverty and chronic and transient poverty and research on context-specific perceptions of poverty and social differentiation.

These have shown that different approaches to poverty - be they income/consumption or multi-dimensional - may differ in who is identified as “poor” (and who gets identified as poor - usually by national poverty lines - matters materially and politically as it may determine who can access state entitlements).

Poverty can be chronic and transient

Research in the last decade has even placed a question mark over the very concept of “the poor” in the way the term is conventionally used. In fact, poverty is a condition, not a characteristic and a substantial number of the “poor” move in and out of poverty over time because poverty can be chronic and transient. Further, when people leave poverty they do so in a set of steps rather than one big leap meaning poverty doesn’t end at $1.25/day or $2/day or other ‘minimums'. It may perhaps continue to about $10/day.

Research has also shown how perceptions of poverty and social differentiation held by those living in poverty may or may not differ to "universal" understandings and reflect dimensions of life (even) harder to assess over time and across countries and may be highly context specific in meaning and manifestation such as status, dignity and discrimination or exclusion and the social relationships that reproduce these.

What the above contradictions point to is that poverty research needs to go beyond the studying the “poor”: as both Andy Norton and David Hulme note, inequality is moving up the agenda.

This would suggest rather than study individuals or households deprivations as poverty research as done, more focus should be on the socio-economic groups and inter- and intra- group distribution and social differentiation.

This means less focus on studying the “poor” and greater focus on studying the “non-poor”, meaning not only those groups vulnerable to poverty but the secure middle class and elites too and their social relationships with the “poor”.

This would mean more focus on reconnecting poverty research with the broader processes of economic development and implies a shift from researching the 'traditional' area of mainstream poverty research - meaning deprivation - to researching something different and far more political – that is distribution.

Of course many have been doing this already but some argue that poverty research in the mainstream has been depoliticized by the “measurement obsession”. Measurement isn't the problem though. The problem is embedding poverty research within an analysis that includes distribution, social differentiation and the process of economic development – in short the political economy of poverty.

Poverty research has under emphasised questions of inequality under the assumption that poor people always live in poor countries so inequality doesn't matter if everyone is poor. That's no longer so certain if most of the world's poor live in middle income countries.

Mainstream poverty research has also tended to present poverty as 'residual' at higher levels of average per capita income rather than a structural outcome of specific patterns of economic development and social structures and relationships. Again, poverty in middle-income countries raises a question mark over this. 

In sum, in the future might the questions for radical poverty research be reframed from 'who is poor' and 'why are they poor' to 'who does what?' and 'who gets what?' and 'who are the rich' and 'why are they rich'.

Join the discussion on the state of poverty research on ODI Blogs.

Image credit: Fredrik Naumann / Panos