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“Poverty porn” doesn’t raise awareness—it stigmatizes people who deserve better

There’s a dirty secret that all scholars who study poverty know: it’s really hard to get the public interested in poor people. Why? Well, everyone is already aware that there are people who don’t have enough food, or don’t have access to life-saving medicine, or live on less than $1 a day. This is not news. And everybody knows how hard it is to end poverty (or even make a dent in it). It’s depressing.

For these reasons, new research on poverty is rarely “hot”—the kind of research that attracts reporters and makes stories go viral—unless it involves somebody going undercover or a big controversy over scholarly conduct.

There’s one exception to the rule that poverty is boring: poverty porn. What is poverty porn? It’s anything that shows poverty or poor people in ways that are shocking, salacious, or sensational.

Anyone who studies poverty could probably tell a story or two of times when we were profoundly shocked by things we saw. But most of us shy away from putting such stories and images at the center of our work. Why? For one reason, people struggling with poverty are already severely stigmatized. Adding to that stigma—and providing it with the gravitas of scholarly justification—is probably not what most of us are aiming for when we think of having real-world impacts. For another reason, ethnographers and other qualitative researchers usually want to help the people we work portray their life stories in ways that they feel uphold their dignity and sense of worth. Poverty porn does just the opposite.

Therefore, we constantly interrogate ourselves and our work—as we collect data and as we publish it. We ask: Are these the images the people we study would want others to see? Am I portraying people in a way I would want my loved ones shown? Could the people discussed here show this to their children without shame? There are no easy answers here, just a call for constant vigilance.

Luckily, there are some really excellent models out there. We are inspired by the work of Philippe Bourgois, Loïc Wacquant, and other members of the Advanced Urban Marginality Network. We revisit their work whenever we are looking for inspiration and we hope you will too.

Categories: Uncategorized

Amber Wutich