Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development

By Neil J. Smelser; Seymour Martin Lipset | Go to book overview

11
THE DISREPUTABLE POOR

DAVID MATZA, University of California, Berkeley

SHIFTING TERMS to designate the same entity is a familiar practice in social science. The terms used to refer to backward nations are a notorious example. What used to be called savage societies came to be called primitive, then backward, then preliterate, then non-literate, then undeveloped or "so-called underdeveloped" and now, in an optimistic reversion to evolutionary theory, the emerging and even expectant nations. A similar process of word-substitution has occurred with reference to backward and immobilized enclaves within advanced and mobilized societies. I refer to the portion of society currently termed "hard-to-reach."

Though there is no great harm in such an exercise, the names we apply to things do, after all, matter. To say that a rose by any other name is just as sweet is to reckon without the findings of modern social psychology. Calling a rose an onion would under certain very special conditions provoke tears instead of delight. But this startling reversal does not mean that a rose is an onion; it only means that the perceiver can be deceived. Accordingly, word-substitution is consequential, not because the referents of concepts are thereby transformed, but because it is a deception of self and others.

The intellectual price we pay for this deception is more apparent perhaps than the social harm. When terms referring to essentially the same entity shift rapidly, and with so great a sense of orthodoxy, intellectuals and researchers, and the practitioners who depend on them for ideas, remain largely unaware of the historical continuity of the referent to which these shifty concepts apply. Moreover, word-substitution obscures and ultimately suppresses the underlying theories, especially in value-laden or offensive names.

The historical continuity of disreputable poverty has been obscured by the obsessive shifting of terms. One predictable consequence has

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