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The Psychology of poverty

Date Released: Mon, 25 October 2010 11:50 +0200

The Department of Psychology held its Postgraduate Conference last week, with Lou-Marie Kruger, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University, giving the keynote lecture entitled “Keep the lights off. We have company”- a statement she recalls hearing on one of her first visits to the local community in which she carries out much of her work.

Prof Kruger is also Co-ordinator of the Postgraduate Programme in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling at Stellenbosch. She undertook to interrogate her own experiences of working with students in the low income communities in the Western Cape, and to try and understand what she terms psychology's reluctance to engage with the issues of poverty and, more specifically, the psychology of poverty.

She opened her speech by acknowledging the widely held idea that psychology, as a discipline, has a tenuous at best link with poverty. Looking at definitions of poverty, one finds both quantitative and qualitative aspects; on the one hand being 'poor' is seeing as being without means or resources, on the other, it is seen as a state in which one exists as an object of pity.

The term 'poor' therefore always seems to contain both an economic and a moral aspect. In psychological discourse, poverty is almost always identified as pain. Until recently a dearth of research existed, but over the last few years more attempts have been made, says Prof Kruger, to research poverty and mental health.

The results from such research, drawn together by Lund et al in a 2010 review, did indeed back up the ‘poverty is pain’ hypothesis, but were not as unequivocal as might have been expected.

Analysis suggested that women living in poverty are more vulnerable to developing mental health problems, but further research was clearly called for, to analyse which aspects of poverty are contributing to mental health disorders.

So what does it mean to be poor? To be happy? To be healthy? She says that we are nowhere near to establishing the link between poverty and psychological wellbeing.

Quantitative studies have, she says, taken us as far as they are able, and it is now essential for qualitative studies to come to the fore, allowing the voices and the emotional experiences of the poor to be heard. She sounds a note of warning though, for those who undertake this research; the conditions under which research is conducted may unwittingly be corrupted.

With the aid of case studies she gave the audience examples of these 'mechanisms of exclusion' by which the voices of the poor may not be being heard in a psychological context: these included the pathologising of the subject, the romanticising of the circumstances of poverty in which the subject finds themselves, and disengagement on the part of the researcher.

In respect of the latter, Prof Kruger explains that drop out rates among poor patients are high, but also that examination of taped therapy sessions reveals that in many cases the blame for this needs to be shared with the therapists.

Trapped in their own mental constructs, many are left unable to interact with their patients outside of their own subconscious notions and ideas. Experience shows also that those living in poverty tend not to disclose painful feelings to those who wish to help them. The complexity of such a situation, and therefore the difficulty of creating a helpful and secure inter-subjective space, is plain to see.

She concluded by saying that it is easy to carry out research which enforces the mantra of 'poverty is pain'. But, she says, these voices have to be understood and analysed in varying contexts, psychological, economic and political among others, if social transformation is to be attained.

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