Social science and participation
Social science and participation

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Social science and participation

Expressing an opinion

In the film ‘Social science, poverty and participation’, an important dimension of the tradition of social science research associated with Townsend was the insistence on defining poverty in relation to accepted norms of what was required to take part as a member in society.

Figure 7 Peter Townsend

As you watch the following film, ‘Townsend and definitions of poverty’, try to spot the relationships between how poverty is measured (or described), how it is defined (or understood) and the impact of Townsend’s work (or how it helped to enact the social world in new ways).

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Transcript: Townsend and definitions of poverty


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.
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 three and 3/4 hours, and 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 that people could afford, and 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.
Definitions of poverty matter because they embed in them a notion of what poverty entails. If you think poverty is just the 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.
Townsend's research was controversial, as it was published in 1979 when a new conservative government had just taken office.
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.
Although Townsend's findings were rejected by the government of the day, his research had long lasting effects.
Townsend was an extremely influential and seminal figure in poverty research. He did a number of things, but I think the most important ones what were to do with this widening of the definitions of poverty, to focus more widely on things like participation or being part of the society which you live in. And to do that, he developed a whole range of indicators of deprivation, and these would include not just things like food and clothing, but also leisure activities and social activities.
Peter Townsend's work and the introduction of the relative concept of poverty transformed the way we thought 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, in employment, who were not being part of the post-war Beveridge plan.
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Townsend and definitions of poverty
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Townsend’s definition of relative poverty was radical when he first proposed it, although it has now become more widely accepted. This is how Townsend defined poverty in his 1979 study, Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living (1979):

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong.

(Townsend, 1979, p. 31)

This definition has informed policy making around poverty and social exclusion in a number of national and international contexts. As you saw in the film, it is an example of social science informing and shaping public debate and policy making, or of helping to enact social worlds.

The key point of Townsend’s definition is the emphasis it places on the ‘customary’ and ‘approved’ understandings of diet, amenities and living conditions required to participate. Just what activities this involved, and what resources were required to support participation, were not meant to be arrived at independently by the social scientist, reasoning about these things from a distance. This means that social science research into poverty and social exclusion is not just about investigating the lives of particular groups of poor or excluded people. It is also about developing methods to gauge the views of the population at large about these matters and, specifically, establishing a consensus about what are ‘necessities’ in particular places and times.


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