Structure and/or Culture

Last fall, the New York Times reported that in the halls of academia, studying culture was no longer, like Lord Voldemort, “that which must not be named.” Culture was officially back on the poverty research agenda. According to the story, much of this newfound respectability had come courtesy of William Julius Wilson, the Harvard scholar who has long argued on both culture and structure fronts. In 2009, Wilson published a book, More Than Just Race, in which he marshaled the best of sociological research to argue that both structural barriers and cultural impediments keep poor people of color trapped in poverty. In the end, Wilson concluded that the structures of racism and the globalizing economy matter far more than the cultural behavior that conservatives love to blame. But in the essay that this review focuses on, Wilson focuses less on which trumps which. Instead, he makes a strong case for a “unified framework” to integrate both structure and culture.

If I might put the argument in a stylized form, Wilson shows in essence that structure and culture are related to each other in a positive feedback loop, in which structure shapes culture, and culture in turn shapes and contributes to structure. So for example, Wilson points out the way in which segregation and a globalizing economy produce informal illegal economies, in which the “code of the street” and distrust of the police become commonplace cultural norms as rational responses to illegality and isolation.  These codes of the street and their accompanying frameworks of meaning—distrust of the police, for example–contribute in turn to the perpetuation of segregation and diminished access to jobs. And the cycle goes round and round. In integrating structure and culture into one analytical framework, Wilson continues to make a strong case (as he has for twenty years) that the study of culture should enjoy full respectability in the academy. It seems left academics are finally listening.

But it wasn’t always so. Until recently, in the long-running and often tedious debate about the causes of persistent inequality, people who did work on persistent inequality fell into two camps, largely defined by political ideology. The structuralists, or those on the left, emphasized structural causes, like residential segregation but didn’t say much about culture. The culturalists, or those on the right, focused on cultural traits like teen pregnancy and the propensity to work in unskilled jobs that don’t require English. The structuralists on the left accused anyone in their ranks who was working on culture of “blaming the victim.” The culturalists on the right focused on issues of personal responsibility and cultural deficit, and said next to nothing about structural issues like job access.

But why choose sides in that endeavor, asks Wilson? In both the book and the essay, Wilson points out that focusing on either structure or culture to the exclusion of the other offers an analysis that is incomplete. For Wilson, social structure refers to the social positions, social roles, and networks of social relations that configure people into particular positions and relationships. Structure is made up of two more specific categories of behavior: social acts, like stereotyping, discrimination and exclusion (of the individualist sort), and institutional social processes, like racial profiling, racial tracking in schools and Jim Crow laws of segregation. With regard to social processes, Wilson includes not just the obvious but also processes that are more indirectly connected to race–like the globalized and technology-driven economic displacement that disproportionately affects people of color because they lack skills and spatial access to jobs, owing to past discrimination.

In Wilson’s view, culture includes two categories of collective behavior—first, national beliefs and viewpoints on race shared by society at large, and second, intra-group beliefs, habits, modes of behaviors. This latter category includes (most importantly for Wilson) cultural frameworks of meaning—shared visions of human behavior and of the rules of meaning connected to that behavior. In social capital terms, for example, beliefs about who is trustworthy might be a cultural framework connected to decisions about whether a person ought to refer a friend or family member to one’s own employer for a job if she thinks her reputation might be on the line.

In this essay, Wilson explains that structure—e.g., segregation and poverty—produces particular cultural practices and frameworks of meaning that in turn shape the response to, and indeed cause, poverty. Referring to Elijah Anderson’s work, for example, Wilson notes that the “code of the street” maxim to “keep to yourself,” can be understood as both an adaptive trait that promotes safety in unsafe Philadelphia neighborhoods where people feel unable to rely on the police and an impediment to forming resource networks that deliver material and informational support.  Likewise, from Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, Wilson points out that the “code of shady dealings” that emerges to mediate disputes in a city’s underground economy both adaptively facilitates relationships in that economy and impedes integration into a broader society. Thus, cultural modes of behavior both reflect and create structure, in a positive feedback loop that defies dissection. And such behavior is not just rational, but also cultural, in that it reproduces itself through social learning, from parents and from peers.

In my enthusiasm for the argument, I am happy to be critical at the same time. I want Wilson to be even more explicit about the crucial theoretical move from culture back to structure in the feedback loop. I know the standard conservative arguments about the way in which teen-age pregnancy and lawlessness cause racial poverty. Are Wilson, Anderson and Venkatesh making the same cause-and-effect kinds of arguments for this part of the feedback loop? Does their “culture causes (or shapes or contributes to) poverty” half of the loop look the same, or differ in any theoretical way from conservative claims, beyond adding the other half of the “poverty causes culture” leg of the feedback loop? Hard to say from the essay, though Wilson says more in the book. And certainly this is a question that dances close to the perennial “blame the victim” controversy.

I also wonder whether the argument to pay attention to “culture causes structure” might be badly timed, post-economic crash, when structure seems to dominate the landscape. Recent research documents that the recent economic crash rolled back wealth gains for a large section of the US populace. To be sure, wealth for black and brown plummeted far more so than for whites.  But many middle-class whites have now felt the pinch if not the pain of displacement and job loss, more than ever before, and even the country’s biggest banks have become beneficiaries of affirmative action of a sort, as they struggled with the fallout of a major “structural adjustment.” Maybe this is the time where scholars should be hammering home arguments about structure, with less reference to the link to culture and more reference to experiences like straight-up access to jobs. Focusing on culture might divide where references to common experience might unite.

These are all minor quibbles, of course. Wilson ends his essay by joining Orlando Patterson to argue against political correctness–studying culture does not require that we ignore or downplay structure. I heartily agree. If the New York Times report is any indication, young scholars on the left are also now listening. Perhaps, post-economic crash, conservatives will now be willing to listen to arguments about structure as well.

Cite as: Daria Roithmayr, Structure and/or Culture, JOTWELL (October 14, 2011) (reviewing William Julius Wilson, Toward a Framework for Understanding Forces that Contribute to or Reinforce Racial Inequality, 1 Race and Soc. Probs. 3 (2009)),

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    I’m glad race theory is finally catching up to what other people have known for hundreds of years: formal categories don’t mean much in the real world. It seems a truism that “structure” (formalism) doesn’t work without people to run the machine (substance / culture).

    So let me make a suggestion: why doesn’t Wilson treat poverty as a TRAIT of a “particular” culture and not as something outside a culture? There are cultures of poverty. There are races and religions that are, at root, poor, and always will be poor. Looking at the evil of the big banks, we can see that being poor is not a sign of inferiority, nor is it something to be afraid of.

    Perhaps we can learn from the financial crisis. Poverty is a blessing. It sets us apart from and above the bankers. It provides us with a moral superiority, and an ability to know and to vote in a more just manner.

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    On October 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm, Daria Roithmayr said:

    Hi Andy:

    As I mentioned in the piece, Wilson is writing against the backdrop of a huge debate over whether there exists something called the “culture of poverty.” The conservative position, as you likely are aware, was something akin to what you are articulating here–that some races will “always be poor” because culturally, they have adopted social practices (have children without being married or having a source of income) that they will reproduce over time. To get the full flavor of the debate, with its various refinements and discussions of your point, try googling Oscar Lewis, the Moynihan Report and the scholarly response.

    Having done a little googling myself, I suspect that your last paragraph about moral superiority is wholly tongue in cheek. But in the event that it is not, and even if it is, have a look at Mari Matsuda’s work on Looking to the Bottom, Lani Guinier’s work on Miner’s Canary and Ashwin Desai’s ‘We Are the Poors.” These folks argue that poverty does have a particular link to social justice, as a kind of window into the kinds of class-based processes that affect the 99%, and not just the “underclass.” ;-)

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    On October 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm, AndyK said:

    I’m absolutely not being tongue-in-cheek, in the sense that I find discussions of “solving” poverty or inequality to be giving the game away. Inequality and poverty are the catalysts for moral self-awareness, and solving them is a huge step backward.

    Thus I suppose I take issue with it being a “conservative” position. The conservative position is to say that there is a culture OF poverty, yes. A second conservative position is to say that poverty is imposed on cultures. Both positions take culture to be a “thing” out there, and poverty as an adjective, a predicate.

    My position is that in trying to cure poverty we are in fact disfavoring certain cultures. Why not allow rampant out-of-wedlock births? Why not permit a drug culture? I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here. Our distaste for these things is tied up with discussions of poverty, but poverty itself (lack of money) is not what we’re after.

    A student new to Marx might think he’s trying to deal with universal prosperity, but his main concern is freedom, and destroying the institutional church. Likewise those that talk of curing income inequalities are less concerned with poverty qua poverty (which, as I see it, isn’t a real problem anyways), and are more concerned with remaking society in their own idiosyncratic ways.

    A world of ghettos might be a more humane world. Out-of-wedlock births, a gang culture, and a drug culture might be the real engine of cultural growth in the United States. After all, it is the consumer class that is stagnant, and that OWS is attacking. It is the upper-crust that seek to “cure” poverty, those that can afford idiosyncratic sexualities and gated communities.

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    On October 17, 2011 at 5:58 pm, Daria Roithmayr said:

    One might read your point to be that the “war on poverty” disguises the middle-class cultural demand that everyone perform middle-class (and usually white and straight) culture, and that cultural practices of the working class and the poor ought to be protected from such attacks. Many on the left make this point, particularly as it relates to the culture of the K-12 classroom.

    But something about your post makes me think that you equate the conditions of material deprivation–infant mortality rates twice the national average, hyperincarceration, unsafe housing, crumbling schools–with those cultural practices, and you think that those conditions might produce something worth preserving, for purposes of developing the morality of those who suffer or those who observe suffering. It might be this sentence that threw me: “Inequality and poverty are the catalysts for moral self-awareness, and solving them is a huge step backward.”

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    On October 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm, AndyK said:

    My point is simply that myopic attempts to redistribute wealth and/or “cure” poverty are ill-disguised attempts to perpetuate a certain comprehensive picture of the good. More to the point: thinking “we” can solve them is not only hubris, but cultural imperialism of the first order.

    Even the term “middle class” is fraught with these difficulties.

    Why is infant mortality a bad thing? Well, because I want to live longer, and I impose my views on the dead child. But perhaps it’s more merciful for the child to die. In fact, perhaps my empathy with the dead child increases my welfare. Who knows?

    This probably isn’t going to go anywhere because it flies in the face of our consumer culture, but I’m reminded of the statistic that 99% of those with Down’s Syndrome poll happy with their lives. Likewise we look at the quality of life of large Mormon or Muslim families. Likewise the narrowly-focused lives of politically apathetic rural Chinese.

    Then look at the black family unit in the segregated South, and the black family today. The positive (and perhaps inevitable) impact of the Nation of Islam in response to white social engineering programs of the 60s. Here we have blacks who actively choose poverty and segregation over affluence and integration.

    **My original post was trying to divorce the implicit argument of conservative “blacks have a culture of poverty” accounts. The REAL argument, and the reason that liberals reject it, is this: “blacks have a culture of poverty, and they are therefore inferior.”

    As an aside, I take a bit of issue with the classification of “white and straight” and the middle class. Our identification of “straight” and “gay” classes is itself a consumer, middle-class concept. And of course it is well-documented that self-identifying homosexuals comprise the more affluent tiers of society. This is another thing we haven’t seen until recently in the black community, and it’s probably DUE TO the black community’s poverty. Now with IPhones and YouTube we have the correlative rise of the lower-class black gay, but this is a recent phenomenon.