Research Activities
On the History of Conceptualization and Politicization of Poverty
First Joint Seminar
■Speaker :Tsuyoshi Kato, Professor, Faculty of Sociology, Ryukoku university
■Place :Meeting Room E2, Shieikan, Fukakusa Campus, Ryukoku University
■Date :10th July 2005 13:30-15:30
■Number :05000102
Discussant: Hisashi Nakamura, Professor, Faculty of Economics, Ryukoku University

1. Abstract of Presentation

Prof. Kato explored the hypothesis that poverty may better be defined in relative terms, both historically and culturally. In judging whether a certain person is poor or not, one must look at that person in comparison with those surrounding him. It is also important to consider the question of how to define what is indispensable for human existence. While livestock is very important to many Africans, it is not for us. In this sense poverty is a relative concept.

Poverty began to be perceived as a social problem in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the industrial revolution took place. The industrial revolution accelerated the process of urbanisation and brought about a sharp increase in urban poverty in Europe. At the same time, a host of new social problems — alcoholism and a growing number of orphans and child labourers — came to the surface. These problems were seen as urgent not only from a humanitarian perspective, but also from the viewpoint of securing the reproduction of the labour force. In other words, social and political needs for securing a “healthy labour force” came to be recognised.

In present-day society, the possibility that poverty may lead to conflicts is larger than in the past. In the pre-modern era when the majority of people were permanently poor, poverty was seen as a problem of individuals. Therefore it was rare for it to be considered as a problem that had to be tackled by society as a whole. By contrast, in dealing with political and economic problems since the modern era, it has become important to identify which political groups were benefiting most from the economic dispensation.

Unless poverty is linked to some political issue, it seems unlikely that it will lead to conflict. The socialist revolutions that began with the Russian Revolution in 1917 aimed to liberate the peasantry and proletariat from exploitation at the hands of the landowners and industrial capitalists. The revolution was seen as a solution to the problem of poverty. Unlike the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution explicitly and politically advocated the liberalization of the people from exploitation and poverty as its ultimate goal. In carrying out political negotiations, there must be someone who represents a particular group of people. This role is usually played by a so-called elite. Therefore it is necessary to discuss who the elite are, and what kind of position they take on the political and economic issues at hand. Although poverty and conflicts are often observed at the same place, it is difficult to link poverty directly with an existing conflict or its resolution.

2. Summary of Discussion

The discussion centred around the role an outsider might be able to play in addressing the issues of poverty and conflict. It seems that there is a certain advantage for an outsider in dealing with issues of conflict and poverty. When we study and examine these problems, it is most important that we recognise ourselves as outsiders. Based on this self-awareness, we need to think about how we should approach the issues of conflict, development, and poverty as outsiders.
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