Social science and participation
Social science and participation

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Social science and participation

Poverty and participation

The following film, ‘Social science, poverty and participation’ looks in some detail at the history of social scientific definitions of poverty. It addresses how social scientific ideas about participation in social worlds have impacted on public debates and policies about poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

You should now watch the film. You will need to spend some time engaging with its themes and issues, and we recommend that you watch it at least twice.

As you watch, consider the questions below:

  • How have definitions of poverty, and of how to measure poverty, changed over time?
  • According to the film, what have been the key contributions of social scientists to the redefinition of poverty?
  • Has social science made any difference to how poverty is understood?
Download this video clip.Video player: Social science, poverty and participation
Skip transcript: Social science, poverty and participation

Transcript: Social science, poverty and participation

NARRATOR
Social scientists have played a major role in measuring, documenting, and defining poverty. And this work has had a significant effect on public debate and policy. A key aspect of this influence has been the emphasis placed on the importance of participation in defining poverty, and the fact that poor people cannot fully participate in society.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
If poverty means anything, it means separation from society. And you can't just represent separation of society by thinking about food and shelter and clothing, physiological things, because society is more than that. It's relationships, access to services. And participation is a general term for describing the ability to do things that normal people do in a society, and not just to have what normal people have.
NARRATOR
Charles Booth was the first social scientist to look at poverty. He used observers to classify the lives of households living in London in the 1880's. Booth defined the poor as those whose means were insufficient according to the normal standards of life in this country.
JOHN VEIT-WILSON
In Britain in the late nineteenth century, there had been an economic decline. There have been more people coming to the cities. And this was seen as a large social problem by the middle classes, ruling classes. And there was a great interest in knowing what was the scale of the problem.
Charles Booth was interested in the question of how many of this increasing number of poor people were there. This wasn't about causes. Poverty was taken very much for granted as part of the natural order. But how large was the problem?
And so the significance of his using an army of observers and reporters to go around the working class areas of London was to be able to put numbers on, and to begin to grasp some kind of classification of the different depths of poverty which were seen.
JOANNA MACK
I think Booth has a twofold significance. First and most obviously, perhaps, is his impact on the way we see poverty and poverty measurement. But equally significant, I think is his impact on the social sciences, more generally. And what Booth saw was the importance of actually going out on the fields, and actually finding out things on the ground, of measuring them, of recording the data, of, in his case, mapping the data. So you actually began to see patterns and causes of poverty.
NARRATOR
Booth colour- coded his maps of London, marking the poor areas in blue, and those he called vicious, semi-criminal, in black.
JOANNA MACK
Here we have a map Stepney in East London. You can certainly see on this map that whole streets get that classified as vicious semi-criminal. There's no wealthy at all in Stepney. If you chanced to look at some like the Kensington or Westminster maps, you'd certainly find the wealthy. But here you have large chunks, which are poor, very poor. And you have some which are middle mixed, as well, nearby. But I think it's the significance of the kind of concentrations of the poor that began to make people think about policies and interventions that could be done to change the situation.
NARRATOR
The other major social science study of poverty in the Victorian era was by Seebohm Rowntree in 1899. He took a more systematic approach than Booth, and looked at people in York who were living below what he considered to be a poverty threshold. Rowntree defined poverty as an income insufficient to obtain the minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
This is Rowntree's first study of poverty in York, published in 1901. And it's remarkable work. He interviewed every working class household in York, 33,000 households.
We can see on this map where the poor were concentrated. And he was very preoccupied with the relationship between poverty and drinking. And so he has marked on the map with red dots all the pubs in York.
Charles Booth, in his studies of poverty in London, had attempted to count the poor, using one of the rough methods. But Rowntree established a new poverty threshold. And he was the first person to really count the numbers of people who fell below that threshold and to identify what kinds of people they were, and to establish that the causes of poverty were structural. They were principally low wages at the time. This led to a complete transformation in thinking about the causes of poverty. No longer could be seen as the fault of the poor. But it was due to problems in society.
And this led to research, perhaps for the first time, having a profound influence on policy. And Rowntree's findings were taken up by the liberal government and led to the initial legislation that established our welfare state in Britain.
NARRATOR
After the Second World War, social scientists began to look more closely at defining poverty. In the 1960s, Peter Townsend conducted the first national survey of poverty in the UK. His view was that poverty was relative, not absolute.
JOHN VEIT-WILSON
The idea was to find out what were the points at which deprivation pressures started. So that one could get an idea of what people expected and what they suffered deprivation from. This was qualitative. I tell you that the median length of my interviews was 3 and 3/4 hours. I conducted often over more than one day. You can understand we were really very intensively asking about these things. This was not tick box stuff.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
Well in the immediate post-war period, I think everybody thought with the establishment of the welfare state, that poverty had more or less been abolished. And using the definitions that Seebohm Rowntree had used, which were based on the nutritional adequacy of the diet the people could afford. And they had more or less, poverty had more or less been abolished.
But Townsend's contribution was to dismiss the methods of Rowntree and to argue that you could only understand poverty as relative. He was a sociologist. And he argued that poverty should be understood as not just the lack of basic necessities for survival, but the inability to participate in society, and to enjoy the normal things that people at the time we're enjoying.
RUTH LEVITAS
Definitions of poverty matter because they embed in them a notion of what poverty entails. If you think poverty is just a lack of income, you do not get at what the fabric of that experience actually is. You do not get at what the impact of that is on people's lives. Concepts and theories of poverty are about deepening our understanding. Both of the experience and of the causal processes that produce it.
NARRATOR
Townsend's research was controversial, as it was published in 1979, when a new conservative government had just taken office.
DAVID GORDON
You have to understand at the time, the government was trying to eradicate poverty by removing the word from the dictionaries. That they denied that poverty existed. That poverty was something that occurred in Africa or had occurred in Victorian Britain, but didn't exist in modern day Britain.
NARRATOR
Although Townsend's findings were rejected by the government of the day, his research had long lasting effects.
JOANNA MACK
Townsend was an extremely influential and seminal figure in poverty research. He did a number of things. But I think the most important ones were to do with these widening of the definitions of poverty. To focus more widely on things like participation and being part of the society in which you live in. And to do that, he developed a whole range of indicators of deprivation. These would include not just things like food and clothing, but also leisure activities and social activities.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
Peter Townsend's work and the introduction of the relative concept of poverty transformed the way we talked about poverty in the post-war period, introduced new ways of measuring it, and led to a whole raft of new policies for the civilian disabled, for families with children, unemployment, who had not been part of the post war beverage plan.
SPEAKER 1
This series is about the poor in Britain today.
NARRATOR
In the 1980s, television entered the debate. Breadline Britain, a landmark TV series worked with social scientists to introduce a new element to the study of poverty. The participation of the general public in defining what poverty is.
JOANNA MACK
When you're looking at poverty, you're making a value judgement about what's necessary to live in the society which you're doing. Now to make that value judgement , you want to try to lift it away from yourself. What I think of it doesn't matter one way or another. What matters much more is what other people think.
And we felt like looking at the public's view was actually a very good way of doing it because what we're essentially looking at is what we, as a collective, as a society as a whole, think is necessary. And that is defined socially, and is defined by the public.
NARRATOR
The programme makers drop a long list of items, and ask the public which they consider to be necessities.
SPEAKER 2
Heating is top of the list of necessities. Yet around 3 million people in Britain today cannot afford this obvious necessity.
JOANNA MACK
When we first asked this question about what items people think are necessary for living in Britain today, no one had ever asked it before. So we didn't actually know whether there was going to be a consensus.
What we actually found was that people's views about this were very, very similar across social class, across age, across genders, across ethnicity. Whatever dimension we took, people had a very consistent view about what was necessary for living in that society. Now that was extremely important to us because it actually meant that we could begin to move towards a minimum standard, which was perceived by people as a whole, not just by one particular group. But by society, generally.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
Poverty has always been a highly contested concept, with people taking different positions on the basis of their ideological position. Indeed they're judgments about human nature. And ...the benefit one gets from involving the public in making these judgments, rather than academics, just drawing lines and income distribution, or drawing a list of items, is that it gives a democratic legitimacy to the thresholds that you're using. And therefore, really more bite in discussions about policy.
The Breadline Britain survey was really responsible for introducing deprivation measures into the way government measures poverty now. And also they used extensively in the European Union surveys on poverty. So they were very influential in developing deprivation as a way of measuring poverty.
JOANNA MACK
I think what's been really interesting about this work is the way that it has been has been taken up internationally. Because what we now get an idea of is what people see as to be necessities in a wide range of countries, not just rich western countries. But also, for example, there's been worked on in South Africa, which is how South Africans- what they feel to be necessities for living today in South Africa. It comes up, of course, with a different sort of list. I mean, for example, a wheelbarrow is seen as a necessity in South Africa. You can understand why. Because you need it to cart-- to bring your water around.
But a lot of it is very similar. it touches the same sort of bases. It touches the bases of housing, of food, of social participation, of some kind of leisure activities. Equally what's interesting if you go to places like South Africa is that their standard set are a above those in the majority of people in the population. So this kind of approach enables you to look at very diverse types of countries.
NARRATOR
In the '80s and '90s, researchers documented the growing inequality that was taking place in the UK.
JONATHAN BRADSHAW
I think that Tony Blair's commitment to eradicate child poverty in 1999 was driven by the research that had been done in the 1990s, showing that family policy was still a serious problem, and that Britain, during the Thatcher period, had moved down the international elite table. By 1997, we had the highest child poverty rates in the European Union. And that was really quite a shock to New Labour when they came to Parliament. And the Blair strategy for eradicating child poverty was really driven by these research findings.
NARRATOR
In the late 1990s, researchers at Bristol, working on the poverty and social exclusion project, were influential in drawing attention, not just to poverty, but to the broader issue of social exclusion. They looked closely at participation.
RUTH LEVITAS
In relation to participation, we're trying to look at economic, social, cultural and political participation. And of course, we asked people questions about whether they voted in the last general election. But actually, that's an incredibly thin measure of political participation.
So we have got some questions which attempt to push a little further at people's sense of being able to influence the circumstances of their own lives. I would say I think there's a very tricky issue here because if you ask people directly about political participation, a lot of people will immediately switch off and say they're not interested in politics. And they may, nevertheless, be involved in forms of community participation and organisation, which might be deemed to have at least a political aspect to them. So I think the question of establishing what constitutes political participation is actually very, very tricky indeed.
NARRATOR
The Labour government of 1997 saw social exclusion as a key issue and set up a unit specifically to address this.
DAVID GORDON
Social exclusion is sometimes difficult to define. It means different things to different people. The way we have tended to use it in the poetry and social exclusion survey is that there are people who are unable to participate in the normal activities that most people take for granted, and also have the normal possessions that most people take for granted. They are not able to do things that you or I would just assume everyone should do. Go have some leisure activity, help their children to have friends and have parties and give presents on Christmas or other occasions, visit friends and family in hospital.
Now poverty often stops people doing that because they have a lack of money. Social exclusion is about people who not only can't do that because they have a lack of money, but can't do that for other reasons. They're excluded because they may be disabled or discriminated against or because there's no transport to get them to social activities.
So social exclusion as-- we see it as a wider concept that poverty. It's about why people are prevented from doing the things they want to do, not just because of lack of money, but because of all the other constraints that are often placed upon them.
NARRATOR
Researchers have also sought the participation of people from poor communities in documenting and defining poverty. The charity, Children Northeast, recently distributed hundreds of disposable cameras to children and young people in and around Newcastle.
SARA BRYSON
We asked children and young people to document and record what their life was like where they lived. We felt that there's a lot of academic research about poverty. And we've got a lot of facts and figures. But what that doesn't tell us is how that impacts on a child's life or what's most important to them. And we just wanted to get a better understanding of that. But also bring children's voices to the debate, the regional debate about poverty, because so far, they've been completely absent.
The biggest single theme that emerged was housing. There were more photographs of housing taken than anything else. And what the children told us was that they were concerned around overcrowding. There were a lot of pictures of shed bedrooms. They were concerned about damp. They were concerned about things being in a state of disrepair that took a long time to be fixed.
They were embarrassed to bring friends home after school. So they tended not to. They were embarrassed about where they lived. And they didn't want people to know where they lived because they felt like they would be judged if people could see the conditions that they were living in.
NARRATOR
The research was powerful, not just in what the photos captured, but also in what was missed out. There was little evidence that children were participating in activities which cost money, such as school trips, going to the swimming pool, or the cinema.
SARA BRYSON
We found that children were really excluded from opportunities, in some of the most basic opportunities. So from the 11,000 images that we had returned, one image of a cinema was returned. And that was the only thing that was photographed that had an entrance fee.
JOANNA MACK
All of the research that's been done on poverty which has looked at people's participations found that poor people can't participate fully in society in which they're living. The supplies to both adults, to pensioners, to children, across the spectrum, one of the key things that they can't do is become a full and active members of their society.
NARRATOR
Social scientists, since the days of Booth and Rowntree, have played an important role in measuring and documenting poverty. And over time, this has shifted people's understandings of poverty. The aim has been to inform and shape public debate and policy making so that the lives of the poorest members of society might be improved.
DAVID GORDON
Every 10 years, or so, since Peter Townsend's original survey in the late 1960s, we have tried to do independent surveys of the government to advance the state of the art in poverty measurement, and to provide high quality scientific evidence to policy makers that they can use to better target and have more effective and efficient anti-poverty policies.
JOANNA MACK
I think that approach we've taken to identify a consensual message of defining poverty has had quite a substantial impact on both the policy debate and indeed on policies that have been implemented.
When I first worked in this area back now in 1983, the result of dispute about what was poverty, in particular it was a strong body of opinion that felt that poverty could be defined absolutely. But it was to do with starvation. It was to do with health.
What I think we found since then is the debate has begun to shift so that this kind of more relative view of poverty, the one that accepts that participation is an important part of poverty that it is set according the standards of the society you're living in, has become to be much more widely accepted.
End transcript: Social science, poverty and participation
Social science, poverty and participation
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

As you continue through this course, you should keep in mind the issues addressed in this film, and in particular the questions it raises about what shapes different people’s participation in social activities.

DD206_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371