Is Shame Universally Associated with Poverty? An In-Depth Analysis on the Last Empirical Insight

P
overty alleviation has implied an important goal for developing countries and policy-makers in the last century. Recently, organisations such as the United Nations or the World Bank have reported a paramount, increasing necessity for exerting efforts on reducing poverty in such countries.

Moreover, in 2016, the Organisation for the Economic Co-Operation and Development stressed the role of economic growth as a powerful factor in reducing poverty in developing countries. Incidentally, this positive effect can be drawn from empirical evidence such as the unprecedented poverty reduction associated with economic growth in the India since 1980, the poverty reduction—69% to 54%—in Mozambique caused by a 62% economic growth between 1996 and 2002, and the Chinese economic growth which have lifted 450 million of people out of poverty since 1979.

In parallel with this data, there has been empirically observed a potential link between poverty and shame that might imply a new avenue in research. Indeed, a team of researchers at University of Oxford (UK), Makerere University (Uganda), Oslo & Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (Norway), Institute of Rural Management (India) and Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Scienes (China), has uncovered a new dimension of such linkage. The study (‘Poverty in Global Perspective: Is Shame a Common Denominator?’), which can be found at the Journal of Social Policy, starts wondering whether shame is universally associated with poverty—either in collectivistic or individualistic societies and cultures.

With the purpose of addressing their research question, they conduct a qualitative inquiry in diverse cultural settings, framing the concept of poverty according to local definitions for facilitating cross-country comparisons. Firstly, they investigate the poverty-shame nexus in each country by analysing cultures’ dominant values through a qualitative interpretation of their literature, film and proverbs. Secondly, after finding a linkage between poverty and shame, they conduct in-depth interviews with individuals experiencing poverty with the aim of applying a maximum difference technique that addresses their research question. Data analysed in the qualitative inquiry are in-depth interviews of adults and children—a total of 317 participants. Sample size involves seven countries with different culture—China, India, Korea, Norway, Pakistan, Uganda and the UK. Additionally, a total of 30 pieces of literature, film and proverbs is analysed in each country, covering a period of 150 years.

Cumulative evidence reveals that shame is universally associated with poverty, regardless the social and cultural nuance. In addition, they also find that poverty-related shame is internally felt but externally imposed by (1) the attitudes of those not in poverty, (2) anti-poverty policies and (3) the public discourse, causing individuals pretence, withdrawal, depression and despise, among other consequences.

In addition, the study does not only reveal innovative insights but also is quality research on the field—let us briefly analyse the substance of its methodological background.

The most remarkable weakness of qualitative inquiries is that researchers´ personal biases and idiosyncrasies can more easily exert an influence on respondents, making them to be less suitable for testing theories in comparison with quantitative inquiries approaches. However, the research team of this study fights against such weakness by avoiding to include the words ‘poverty’ or ‘shame’ neither in the in-depth interviews nor in the selection process of the respondents, with the aim of decreasing the chance for potential biases and hence balancing that weakness.

Moreover, they construct themselves the nexus that addresses their research question by induction, as they assert that there is not much known about this phenomenon. In light of the essence of this study, that poverty-related shame can be externalised but also internally felt, the chosen methodology is the most suitable to access to this dimension, as a quantitative inquiry could not reach to lived experiences that are not much known about.

Furthermore, the study also investigates the ‘universality’ of that nexus, something that might seem debatable under the traditional ontological position of qualitative inquiries. This position states that there exist ‘multiple realities’ and ‘truths’, which could lead advocates of the ‘incompatibility thesis’—thesis that confines the choice of the methodology to the paradigm, implying the impossibility of a combination—to argue against the fact of studying the ‘universality’ of a phenomenon through a qualitative inquiry. However, as an attempt to avoid such confrontation, the study uses of a maximum difference design—under the rationale that if the nexus holds across extremely different cultural settings, it might imply its ‘universality’—as it inherently recognises the existence of those multiple realities, with the only aim of observing whether those realities are linked under a common pattern, something that is totally consistent with the ontological position of the qualitative paradigm, leading to stifle the aforesaid potential critiques.

Another important feature of this study is that its purposive/qualitative sampling lies in line with the purpose of its inquiry, as it is achieved a selection of cases for an in-depth focus of study at the same time that transferability is allowed for generalising the findings and hence achieving the universality of the nexus—despite cultural nuances.

Concluding, the explicit appropriateness of the chosen methodology with the research question implies a causal, irreducible factor for fully addressing the phenomenon that the research question arises and hence for achieving an ‘excellent’ research that implies one of the most important empirical insights on social and cultural anthropology of this decade.

Enrique Muñoz-Salido

MSc Candidate in Economics and Finance, University of Brighton. Master's Specialisation Student in Mixed Methods Research, OUDCE, University of Oxford. University of Brighton Santander Scholar. Co-Founder and Secretary of the Brighton University Economics Society.

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