poverty theories in sociology


Poverty Theories in Sociology: The Concept of Poverty from a Sociological Perspective doesn’t limit only to the availability of money to a person but rather a broader phenomenon. From Sociological Perspective Poverty is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that is created and affected by a multitude of factors. Poverty, according to Sociology, is created, propagated, and maintained by Social Forces.

Generally speaking,  Poverty can be defined as an economic condition in which an individual fails to procure the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, clothes, education healthcare, etc. In other words, poverty can be defined as a state of economic exclusion in which an individual or a family is excluded from complete economic participation in society. It is a universal definition of poverty.

Theories of Poverty in Sociology have a wider scope and do not limit themselves to the mere income of individuals. In Sociology, theories of Poverty take into consideration the Socio-Cultural, Religious, Geographical, Political, and many other factors.

Concept of poverty in Sociology

Poverty can be broadly classified into 3 types:

  1. Absolute poverty
  2. Relative poverty
  3. Subjective poverty

                     Under the concept of absolute poverty, a fixed benchmark is set and all the individuals below that benchmark are considered in Absolute Poverty. It was created by Drewnoski and Scott as ‘Level of Living Index‘.

According to World Bank, if the income of an individual per day is less than $1.9, then it will be termed an individual living below the poverty line. It is also the basis of absolute poverty. This mechanism of calculation of poverty has discrepancies. The same benchmark cannot be used in different societies for different people.

The critiques of the concept of absolute poverty such as Peter Townsend advocated the concept of Relative Poverty. According to the concept of relative poverty, the basis of poverty should vary on the basis of time and place. For example, the basic necessities of society continuously keep changing. A thing that may be seen as a luxury today can become a necessity in the future. Similarly, the same income may be enough in a society like India but it may not be enough in a society like America. Hence, one single benchmark for calculating poverty cannot be there.

Sometimes, Subjective Poverty is considered a type of relative poverty. But a number of sociologists consider it to be different. It tries to look at poverty from an individual perspective. it means whether an individual considers himself or others as being poor or not.

Theories of Poverty in Sociology

There are many Theories of Poverty in Sociology. Marxists, and Functionalists have their unique views regarding the phenomenon of poverty.

Marxist View

A Marxist sociologist Oscar Lewis gave the concept of ‘Culture of Poverty or Cultural Poverty‘. According to Oscar Lewis, the culture of poor in the society is different from the culture of the Middle Class as well as the Upper Class. The poor normally believes in instant gratification. That means he is concerned about his present rather than his future. If there is a sudden increase in the income of the poor, he will use it for consumption. Different from this, the Middle Class believe in differed gratification. The Middle Class tries to improve its future at the cost of the present.

According to Marx, the only basis of poverty is the unequal distribution of wealth. This unequal distribution of wealth is based on ownership and non-ownership of the forces of production. Those who control the forces of production accumulate more wealth whereas those who do not control the force of production lag behind economically.

Max Weber elaborated on the Marxian view of poverty and said that an individual’s class situation can be termed as his market situation. This class situation and the market situation determine his Life Chances. Life Chances refer to the ability of an individual to procure all the basic necessities of life that are considered to be essential. 

Functionalist View

Functionalists such as Herbert Gans believe that poverty is also useful in society. According to him, poverty is beneficial for the rich in society. It provides cheap labor because of which the cost of production remains low.

Another sociologist Berstein Henery identified 4 dimensions of poverty-

  1. Lack of livelihood.
  2. Lack of resources such as money, and assets.
  3. Feeling of insecurity and frustration.
  4. Failure to develop a social relationship because of lack of resources.

Calculation of Poverty in India

In each society, in order to calculate poverty different organizations use different methodologies.

According to World Bank, income has been kept as the basis for calculating people living below the poverty line. Here the benchmark of the income per day per individual is $1.9 (Earlier it was $1.25 per day). Hence, according to World Bank, an individual with an income of less than $1.9 per day will be considered poor. With a less than $1.9 daily income, about 700 million people throughout the world suffer from acute poverty. India’s share of all poor people is maximum.

In India, the Planning Commission has constituted various committees from time to time for determining the Poverty Benchmark.

Y.K Alagh committee (1977)

C. Rangarajan Committee (2012)

Lakadwala Committee– suggested that calorie consumption should be made the basis of calculating the poverty line.

Suresh Tendulkar Committee- created a basket including calories, fat, protein, etc. for consumption and provided a monetary form to it.

Multi-dimensional Poverty Index- Developed by United Nations Development Programme in 2010. This index determines poverty on the basis of three bases and 10 indicators-

  • Education 
  • Health
  • Living standard


1- School enrollment

2- years of schooling


3- Malnutrition

4- Child mortality

Standard of Living

5- electricity supply

6- Water supply

7- Floor

8- Toilet

9- Cooking fuel

10- Asset (Telephone, radio, television, fridge, cycle, motorcycle, car, truck, etc.)

Factors responsible for Poverty in India

The factors giving rise to poverty in India can be broadly classified into four parts.

  1. Economic factors.
  2. Socio-cultural factors.
  3. Political factors.
  4. Geographical factors.

Economic Factors

Economic factors play an important role in the creation of poverty. Indian society is an agrarian society and dependency on agriculture has remained very high since time immemorial. In India, agriculture contributes only 14% of the GDP whereas more than 50% of the population depends upon agriculture and allied activities for livelihood. Agriculture suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Hence, it fails to provide additional employment opportunities.

In each society, economic activities evolve from agriculture to industry, and industry is replaced by services. Since, industrial economy is labour intensive, It provides maximum employment opportunities. However, in India, the economy switched over to the service sector before reaching the peak of industrial activity.

Services cannot provide increased employment opportunities. Hence, in India employment opportunities were not created in the service sector at the same rate at which the contribution in service increased in GDP.

In Indian society, the beliefs that may give rise to capitalism have also remained absent (Protestant Ethics, Max Weber). According to Weber, although India had material resources which were essential for capitalism even then India failed to flourish in India due to the lack of social elements in the Indian Society responsible for the growth of Capitalism.

Socio-Cultural Factors

Social and Cultural factors are very important reasons behind destitution and poverty.

Caste System and Poverty

In India caste system is the main basis of stratification. Caste is a closed system of stratification in which social mobility is not possible*.

In the caste system, different castes have remained divided into a number of sub-castes. These sub-castes have also remained associated with a particular occupation. Some are associated with extremely defiling activities with which the economic reward associated has remained low. Since, just like caste, the occupations associated are transferred from one generation to another, caste becomes a basis of impoverishment.

The Marxist thinkers have stressed the relationship between caste and class. According to Marxists, in Indian society, the upper castes had control over resources, whereas the so-called lower castes were deprived of resources.

Andre Beteille tried to explain the relationship between caste, class, and power. According to him, prior to independence, the upper castes were economically strong and politically empowered. Relationships started changing Post-independence because of democracy and land reforms.

Gender Disparity

Gender disparity is another social factor that gives rise to poverty. Sex-based division of labor confines women to domestic responsibilities. Thus, they become economically dependent. It leads to the feminization of poverty.

According to Marxist and feminist thinkers, this social arrangement has been created in order to secure free labor from women. Religious beliefs may become a useful handle in economic activities. Religious education may not make the people employable. At the same time in a religious society, religious conflicts may become a reason behind the impoverishment of the minority communities.

According to Weber, in Indian society, the other-worldly religious attitude affected economic activities. In any society, education plays an important role in eradicating poverty. If education is not modern and scientific, it may not make people employable.

Rapid Population Growth

Rapid population growth is another important basis for poverty. If population growth surpasses the carrying capacity of a geographical area, the members of the society may remain deprived of essential resources.

Political Factors

In order to break the vicious cycle of poverty, the role of the government becomes important. However, in India due to a lack of political and bureaucratic will as well as widespread corruption, most of the programmers related to poverty eradication fail miserably. Also, the failure of the Panchayati Raj Institutions as an instrument of democratic decentralization is a major reason behind poverty

Geographical Factors

India is a diverse country in terms of geography. In some regions, natural resources are limited or absent and even agriculture is not possible in some places. High dependency on monsoon has made agriculture highly uncertain.

More Topics from Sociology

Definition of SociologyNature of Sociology
Power and Authority: Max WeberGeorge Herbert Mead: Symbolic Interactionism
Marriage in Tribal SocietiesVerstehen: Max Weber
Important Sociology Topics

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