Kathleen Martin

Senior Lecturer of Social Sciences


AB Sociology, Dickinson College
MA Sociology), Ohio State University
PhD Comparative History, Brandeis University

Research interests: The social science of poverty, the relationship between religion and other social factors, and comparative study of European and East Asian culture.

My academic career began with a double-major in Soviet-area studies and sociology. Not surprisingly, I developed a strong interest in the influence of ideology on our thought processes and behavior; this in turn led to my current research interest in the social science of poverty. The dominant approach to the study of poverty in our culture is strangely at odds with the social facts of poverty. Critics of current U.S. and British poverty policy attribute this to social control of the masses. But these policies are in complete agreement with what “everyone knows” about the poor. Why assume that these widely held beliefs are insincere?

The English-speaking world has long held a distinctive set of assumptions about the causes of poverty and the behavior of poor people. These assumptions determine how our social scientists study poverty and how our governments draw up poverty policy. In the modern era, governments turn to experts for guidance in dealing with social problems. But experts are people; like everyone else they are shaped by culture. They view the world not exactly as it is, but as they have learned to see it.

My research looks into how and why poverty experts in the English-speaking world have developed a social science of poverty that differs so markedly from the approach to poverty common in other developed nations. Not coincidentally, this view mirrors (and reinforces) the “common sense” view of the average citizen. But does it match the facts about poverty? And if not, why not?

My book, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May of 2008, examines the expert testimony that fostered the Victorian Poor Law of 1834 and the social science tradition of the nineteenth century. Hard and Unreal Advice: Mothers, Social Science and the Victorian Poverty Experts concentrates on comparing what Victorian poverty experts wrote about public assistance to mothers with dependent children to what we know independently about these women and their children. Then, as now, “welfare mothers” were the hot-button topic that elicited the most passionate denunciations of the poor. This makes it easier to see what the experts really thought about the people they studied. Among my experts are the founders of British social science: T. R. Malthus, Edwin Chadwick, Charles Booth, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

My study traces the influence of religious ideas, classical economics, the statistical movement, and Social Darwinism on the social science of poverty. My technical critique of the flaws of Victorian social science explains how the experts were able to find what they found. It also explains how the continued practice of Victorian social science over the course of the twentieth century has allowed subsequent poverty experts to continue to find the same things, whether or not they are true.