A New Look into Peter Townsend’s Holy Grail: The Theory and Measure of Poverty as Relative Deprivation

Dissertation, Federal University of Minas Gerais (2024)
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Abstract

The development of the science of poverty has largely been driven by the need to define more precisely what poverty is, as well as to provide theoretical and empirical criteria for identifying those who suffer from it. This thesis focuses on a notable response to these and related questions: the conception and measure of poverty by the British sociologist Peter Townsend. Townsend defines poverty as relative deprivation caused by lack of resources. This conception, along with his corresponding cut-off measure, constitutes some of the key components of his theory of poverty. The theory discusses what poverty is, its causes, and how it can be eradicated, and is detailed in Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living (1979), his magnum opus. The primary aim of this thesis is to interpret the theory from Townsend’s adherence to the value-free ideal. He pursued this ideal in response to what he perceived as the pervasive and deleterious influence of moral and political values on measures, theories, and policies on poverty throughout its scientific and political history. I argue that to be free from such influence, Townsend aimed to be as guided by epistemic values as possible, which resulted in a systematic theory of poverty. The thesis is structured as follows: In Chapter 1, I situate Townsend’s conception and measurement of poverty within the context of both the recent history of scientific poverty lines and the most important approaches to measuring the phenomenon. Chapter 2 discusses the systematic nature of the theory, including its role as a middle-range theory that bridges broad-range theories with empirical data. This connection is achieved through several elements: a conception of poverty; hypotheses and anthropological observations related to the elements of the conception; measures to test these hypotheses; an explanation of poverty; and reports on how the research was conducted. Furthermore, Townsend’s theory aligns with Bradburn et al.’s (2017) measurement theory, which asserts that a good measure must include a conception of the relevant phenomenon, a representation, and procedures to gather data. Additionally, all three components must be supported by arguments showing that they fit together properly. In the remaining chapters, I present and discuss the main elements of the theory: his conception of poverty as relative deprivation caused by lack of resources, along with the related hypotheses and observations (Chapter 3); the representations of this conception and the procedures for data collection, processing, as well as ensuring their reliability (Chapter 4); and the explanation of poverty (Chapter 5). I conclude by presenting what Townsend considered the “policy prescriptions” of his theory. Despite its potential shortcomings, I also argue that Townsend’s theory fulfills an important epistemic value: fruitfulness.

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Samuel Maia
Federal University of Minas Gerais

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