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Book Chapter

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Routledge Handbook of Poverty



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This chapter explores the contributions that the Frankfurt School of critical theory has made to philosophical discussions about the meaning and injustice of poverty. Critical theorists interpret poverty to mean more than material deprivation, and they see its injustice as 2 extending beyond wrongful suffering and the threat to a human right to life to encompass psychological impoverishment and dehumanization. The chapter begins by examining critical theory’s historical roots in the Marxist critique of capitalism. The next section discusses early efforts by critical theorists to extend this critique to state-administered economies (capitalist and socialist) that have succeeded in sharply reducing absolute poverty at the cost of increasing relative poverty and domination. Later efforts by critical theorists focus on the social pathologies (or impoverishment of agency) caused by bureaucratic social welfare interventions aimed at controlling poverty and underdevelopment in developed capitalist societies. In North America, critical theorists expand this analysis to include intersectional categories of gender and racial oppression and emphasize the persistence of relative poverty within the Global North. The third section examines recent efforts by critical theorists to conceptualize global capitalism in its relationship to colonialism and as a crisis-ridden, impoverished form of life that portends unsustainable and uneven development. This is followed by an examination of one critical theory approach that has proven to be especially useful for illuminating the various forms of psychological harm attendant on capitalist poverty: recognition theory. The chapter concludes with a critical look at critical theory’s sociology of poverty as a theory of progressive enlightenment and emancipation.


This is an original manuscript of a forthcoming article published by Taylor & Francis in the Routledge Handbook of Poverty in 2023.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Available for download on Wednesday, January 01, 2025