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Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP)

The polyscopic landscape of poverty research

Report prepared for the Research Council of Norway

Else Øyen

in collaboration with
Bård Anders Andreassen, Asbjørn Eide, Anete Brito Leal Ivo, Nanna Kildal, Kassim Kulindwa, Enrique Valencia Lomelí, Jarichje Moeshart, Carlos Barba Solano, Kirsti Thesen Sælen, Lucy Williams, Francis Wilson, Alicia Ziccardi


Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP)

April 2005

SARPN acknowledges the CROP website as the source of this document -
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Else Øyen

The challenge of this Report is to point to some of the major trends in poverty research and to identify promising research results that might form a useful base for further research on causes, processes and formations of poverty in the South. Such an overview is one of several tools needed to improve poverty research.

The Report has not been easy to write. It would be easier to write a report on the-stateof-the-art in non-poverty research. The non-poor are fewer in number, more visible, better and more adequately researched, and as a group likely to be more homogenous than the poor. Still, nobody would ever expect such a report to be complete and satisfactory.

One of the problems with a report on the-state-of-the-art in poverty research lies with the concept of poverty. Poverty is an umbrella concept embracing the future, past and present lives of millions and millions of people. It is a concept developed by the non-poor. Its generality serves to create distance and avoid individualising. As a specific research tool it is of little use. However, it is being used in research and political action, and somehow or other we therefore have to relate to it.

Some of the major factors that have an impact on a report on the-state-of-the-art on poverty research can be listed as follows:
  • Poverty is an extremely complex phenomenon that can not be described or understood through a limited set of variables or a fixed context.
  • Causes and manifestations of poverty are found on the micro, meso and macro level in a huge diversity of cultural settings.
  • The present overall picture of poverty research is a conglomerate of basic and applied research of varying quality, political statements and moral beliefs that at times are used interchangeably.
  • Research has tried to find its way through this mass of complexity by sorting out certain variables for inspection, follow a limited set of causal factors and concentrate on certain strategies for poverty reduction. As a result research reports, however scientific and thorough their approaches, can only present a limited and skewed picture of reality. These factors influence a presentation of the state of the art.
  • During the last decade or so research on poverty and research induced poverty papers and reports on poverty issues that present partial research results have increased at such a rate that it is not possible to give a full overview.1 The picture is such that the frontiers of all this activity stretch out in many different and incoherent directions. While this can be considered a bonus for a blossoming field of research that has not yet found its foci, it is a drawback for those who expect a well drawn up frontier of research.
  • There is no logical guide through this mass of information and what should be given priority in a limited report on the state-of-the-art in poverty research.
  • Poverty reduction covers a very large arsenal of strategies directed at poverty phenomena, based on verified and assumed causes. Research on poverty reduction has become such a vital part of poverty research that it is at times difficult to distinguish analytically between the two.
The Report consists of four parts. The first is a layout of what can be called the polyscopic landscape of poverty research. It outlines the directions that some of the major actors in poverty research have taken and points to some of the current trends in poverty research. The second part is a discussion of methodological issues involved in poverty research that need to be clarified if poverty research is to move ahead. In themselves these issues are important researchable topics. The third part consists of a set of 6 in-depth studies where the more precise frontiers of research are elucidated in relation to specific arenas where poverty formation plays an important role. The studies purport to show 6 different approaches to poverty. Two of the studies are regional, and a third is narrowed down topically. A fourth study is set within one of the disciplines; the following study is based on an international move to eradicate poverty, and the last concerns poverty as seen from a Scandinavian angle. Six different approaches with six very different theoretical frameworks and analytical tools have as their common denominator a scientific approach to poverty that can provide new understanding.

The first study is on poverty research in Latin America which is distinctly different from poverty research elsewhere. Latin America has the largest economic disparities between people anywhere in the world and a framework of inequality dominates poverty understanding. Studies are abundant and the literature is rich. The chapter describes dominant themes of social policy and poverty studies during the 1980’s, and characterizes the hegemonic regional welfare paradigms developed during the 1990’s. At the end the authors present the emergence of new perspectives that point toward the construction of an alternative paradigm. Theoretical and methodological questions are raised, and research tendencies related to the understanding of poverty in a Latin American context receive particular attention. This is the first attempt to write a comprehensive state-of–the-art paper on the frontiers of poverty research in Latin America.

The second study sets poverty research in a historical context and shows how the special political regime of apartheid in South Africa impacted on poverty research. The early ties between bureaucracy and the academic community marked by control have continued but now as fruitful co-operation producers and users of poverty research.

The third study moves straight into one of the current and well researched discussions on the relationship between water for productive and reproductive purposes and poverty. This is one of the areas where frontiers of poverty research can be identified clearly.

The fourth study is set within a non-poor country (although a large part of its population live in poverty). The examples used are national but some of the principles used in the legal language are universal and have an impact on poverty formation wherever they are put to use. Legal discourses define people in and out of categories, seemingly neutral but often without the necessary understanding of the more subtle discriminatory consequences of these actions.

The fifth study looks at the conceptual and operational linkage between human rights and poverty reduction world wide. The different rights and their roots, intentions, interrelationships and likely future development are discussed.

The sixth study examines different social policy principles and programmes that have shown to be effective in reducing inequality and poverty in mature welfare states. By focusing on Scandinavian experiences and the non-contributory, universal transfer systems, the question is raised as to whether the success of these principles for poverty reduction can be effective and feasible also in countries in the South. Various contextual preconditions for universal social policies are considered within this framework.

The last part of the Report discusses poverty reduction as a goal for poverty research and provides inputs to a future agenda for poverty research. Included is a discussion on the potential for the involvement of Norwegian expertise in further research on poverty in the South. Appendix A provides an overview of institutions working with poverty research and related research.

CROP chose a different focus for its first project on the state-of-the-art in poverty research (Øyen, Miller and Samad 1996). In the first half of the 90’s groups of social scientists from different regions world-wide were invited to write on where the frontiers of poverty were at the time. They were asked what kinds of research questions were raised, what kind of methodologies, concepts and theories were used in their regions, and where the likely trends in poverty research was headed. In spite of communication difficulties it was still possible to make a reasonably fair presentation of poverty research. In spite of the proliferation of poverty studies since then it is still possible to use the same procedure. This is made possible by increased facilitation of communication and an increasing number of experts who know the field well. Within the present Report certain choices had to be made and a lower level of ambition instilled. If every one of the actors mentioned in the following chapter on the polyscopic landscape of poverty research were to be treated fairly in a state-ofthe-art publication, the character of this Report would have been quite different.

Else Øyen, S.M.Miller and Syed Abdus Samad (eds.) (1996) Poverty: A Global Review. Handbook in International Poverty Research, Oslo and Paris: Scandinavian University Press and UNESCO.

  1. A search in Questia Online Library gave 74561 hits on poverty, out of which 37890 were books and 16187 were journal articles.

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