Acknowledging, unlearning and relearning poverty knowledge

February 5, 2014  • Posted in Uncategorized  •  2 Comments

Elyse Gordon, University of Washington, Department of Geography

In my experience, any process of learning usually begins with actively unlearning. We need to recognize and unlearn before we can re-learn how to do something. Ask anyone trying to practice new habits: we must unlearn our old habits (be that donuts for breakfast, chronic stress, nail biting, multiple drinks at the end of the day to unwind, defensive and passive communication to avoid conflict…) before we can re-learn new habits.

This notion of ‘un-learning’ extends beyond habits. It is a vital part of critical thinking and growing into new epistemologies. Ananya Roy, in her beautiful and eloquent TEDxBerkeley talk, asks, “How can we ‘un-know’ our common assumptions about poverty?” She challenges us to grow into the discomfort of a messier, more complicated and relational understanding of poverty.

So, what might this look like?

First, it would recognize our current worldview about poverty. Unless you already identify as a member of the Relational Poverty Network and have devoted time to this unlearning process, chances are you’ve heard, and maybe even agree with, some of these common assumptions about poverty:

  • poverty is a problem that can be fixed, if we just work hard enough
  • poverty can be measured; it’s a numbers game
  • if you are poor in the US, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough or can’t find a good job
  • the ‘third world’ is poor, and is need of help
  • social innovation can solve poverty
  • people shouldn’t depend on government assistance; these should be temporary measures while they learn the skills to be self-sufficient.

At this point, you might be saying, “wait, if I believe those things, does that mean I’ve done something wrong? I don’t know why I’d have to ‘unlearn’ these things about poverty – aren’t they true?”

There is no wrongdoing in initially taking these to be true; the media, public policy, NGOs and most social science research have reinforced these ideas about poverty and how to ‘fix it’. We recognize. We acknowledge. Now we start the hard work of “un-knowing”.

Un-learning is a painful process. It asks us to dismantle the scaffolding and architecture about how we make sense of the world. And, in the process of unlearning, we are not comforted with a guarantee of what new ways of knowing will emerge. We are left with a messiness that is, immediately, unresolved.

To un-know poverty might begin by negating the statements above.

  • poverty is not a problem that can be fixed by just working hard enough
  • poverty can not be measured; it’s not a numbers game
  • if you are poor in the US, it’s not because you haven’t worked hard enough or can’t find a good job
  • the ‘third world’ is not poor, and is not in need of help
  • social innovation can not solve poverty
  • people shouldn’t need to depend on government assistance; these should not be temporary measures while they learn the skills to be self-sufficient

This is a good starting point, in that it acknowledges and challenges our previously un-questioned beliefs about poverty. But this exercise of negation seems a bit reductive. It is too simplistic.

But, we’ve begun the process of unknowing. We’ve troubled the dominant knowledge, and given ourselves permission to ask something new and see things in a new way.

At this point, we can start to relearn poverty and poverty knowledge. Ananya Roy shares that her experiences in Calcutta highlighted how much poverty is a relational concept. To illustrate this, she shares the story of Ranjin, a slum-dweller, who sees himself as better off than an impoverished homeless person in the US, despite having lived in a slum for 12 years.

There is no uniform experience or definition of poverty.

This is the foundation of relearning poverty knowledge.

Much like Ananya’s own example, though, the process of relearning will be deeply personal. It asks us to look within ourselves and ask how our own identities, privilege and social position are constructed in relation to poverty, “the poor” and poor places.

In my own life, having negated the dominant assumptions, I can revisit the above list a third time, now with relational qualifiers.

  • poverty is not a problem that can be fixed by just working hard enough; poverty is a process that will influence people and places differently at different times.
  • poverty can not be easily measured; it is more than just numbers, because it is based on your context and social and cultural capital.
  • if you are poor in the US, it’s not because you haven’t worked hard enough or can’t find a good job; it is likely a result of an oppressive system of late capitalism that has depleted the social safety net, gutted middle class jobs, and established economic policies that privilege corporate profit at the expense of the poor
  • the ‘third world’ is not poor, and is not in need of help; in fact, the global South is rich with natural and social resources, and the global North are not ‘experts’ in solving poverty “over there”
  • social innovation can not solve poverty; it might be a component in creating conditions for greater equity, but innovation alone cannot “solve” poverty.
  • people shouldn’t need to depend on government assistance; the social safety net should provide for those in need without inflicting shame or conditions. And a healthy economy would provide more middle-wage jobs such that fewer people would need assistance in the first instance.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. It exemplifies my own personal and relational understanding of poverty, based on years of work with youth empowerment nonprofit programs. These experiences made my privilege  quite visible, and challenged my assumptions about poverty and my ideas about expertise, benevolence and innovation.

I am still re-learning poverty through a relational lens. This will be a lifetime effort. Acknowledging that the dominant assumptions about poverty are not true, (and that they are actually detrimental to making a more just world), we make space for new relations, new insights, and new epistemologies.

To un-learn is to ask questions in a new way. To re-learn is to look for answers with new eyes and ears. As Ananya says, to “un-know poverty”, we must ask how poverty is produced and how wealth, power and privilege are maintained. We are asking new questions in the pursuit of new poverty knowledge.


  1. RPN / February 15, 2014 at 8:10 pm / Reply

    Elyse, your step-wise engagement/re-working of that series of statement re: poverty is a really effective strategy in this piece. It makes visible a process of reworking, begins to model the reflexivity that may prompt new insights. As I was reading through the first reworked list, the negated statements, I thought it would be really interesting to ask readers to reflect on their own internal gut reactions to reading these statements that run orthogonal to normative poverty discourse. Both having *and* recognizing these reactions – unease, confusion, sense of wrong-ness, whatever – seem a central dimension in un/re-learning, because it may be what prompts people to ask something new. I wonder whether you have any thoughts on conceptual resources that help us think this latter moment: when/where/why people shift from reflection/the unease of reflection to asking something new. That is, I wonder how we get from the more personal/individual reflexivities that you center here, to a process of re-learning that is social / relational. This has been a sticking point for Vicky and I in our use of the encounter literature and our reading of our recent empirics. When/where/why do individual insights and reflexivities become social / relational in ways that lay the groundwork for alliance and action. That is, what conceptual frameworks help us think the transition from individual asking something new to social beings doing something new? This is a persistent question for us going forward. — Sarah Elwood,

  2. RPN / February 15, 2014 at 8:11 pm / Reply

    Elyse, this is a very effective post because it really engages the reader as a whole person. It engages with knowing as a reflexive process, rather than as a fact. This is vital for moving your readers into self-interrogation. I appreciate the accessibility of your writing and the personal register in which you model the work that you hope can happen.
    In addition to Sarah’s question to you, I wonder if you can also push on the moments or situations that move you, or someone else into new realizations. When, where and how does this process take place? — Vicky Lawson,

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