Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mark Pittenger


Oscar Lewis was a cultural anthropologist whose work documented the lives of the world‘s poor. He developed a hypothesis called the ―culture of poverty‖ which held that the desperately poor in modern nations live within a distinct subculture that transcends national boundaries and separates the poor from the broader societies in which they live. Lewis also developed a novel ethnographic method that relied on a combination of tape-recorded interviews, material culture analysis and psychological examination. This dissertation traces the development of Lewis‘s theory and method through several of his works, focusing on La Vida, Lewis‘s final major work and most widely read book. La Vida examined an extended Puerto Rican family living in San Juan and New York City. The book was a landmark work in the War on Poverty debates, as well as the debate about the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States. Lewis himself considered the book to be an anti-imperialist tract, though he did not make that clear publicly. The culture of poverty, in vogue in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s, was by 1968 under sustained attack. Scholars and the public retreated from it, and Lewis‘s star went into decline. Although the culture of poverty may be flawed, Lewis‘s work remains vital to understanding poverty in modern societies.