Book Review O’Connor, A. (2001). Poverty knowledge: Social science, social policy, and the poor in twentieth-century U. S. history. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kindle, Peter A.
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In less than 300 pages of text, Alice O’Connor, currently associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, unveils how knowledge is constructed and how, once constructed, knowledge can become fodder for ideology and political manipulation. Thus used (or abused), knowledge shapes both the institutions (i.e., policies, procedures, eligibility standards) and the broader cultural meanings associated with the concept of poverty. Her central premise, written self-consciously in the frustrating (to liberals) period following the end of welfare promised in the 1994 Clinton welfare reform, is that future solutions to the problem of poverty are contingent upon “a redirection in contemporary social scientific poverty knowledge” (p. 4). Yet this volume does not contain a detailed blueprint for a future research agenda. In fact, she claims that “reconstructing poverty knowledge is more than simply a matter of generating new research questions for social scientists to pursue” (p. 8). What O’Connor is attempting to do is to awaken in her readers a deeper understanding of how knowledge is socially constructed. Her history of poverty knowledge becomes, then, a kind of case study or primer on how social scientists who desire to make a contemporary impact on social policy need to reflectively process the institutional, societal, and cultural import of their work.
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