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Social science and participation
Social science and participation

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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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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.