Poverty Measurement Blues: Some Reflections on the Space for Understanding 'Chronic' and 'Structural' Poverty in South Africa

"This paper explores the challenge of understanding chronic and structural poverty in South Africa, and questions the dominance of the econometric imaginary in present-day development and poverty studies. It argues that measurement-based, econometric approaches to chronic poverty are dependent upon mystifying narratives about the nature of poverty and how it can be known, that they direct attention away from the underlying structural dimensions of persistent poverty and that understanding structural poverty in turn requires a theorised engagement with the complexities of social relations, agency, culture and subjectivity. Valuable as the recent re-recognition of the need to connect qualitative and quantitative research has been, attempts at ‘qual-quant’ integration often remain tied to positivist assumptions – bringing the risk of a new ‘ordering’ of methodological dissent that leaves problematic aspects of the econometric imaginary unchanged. Underlying this process is the entanglement of poverty research with the ‘government of poverty’: the attempt to constitute poverty as something objectively measurable and scientifically manageable. The paper closes with a consideration of the ethical and political challenges this poses for critical researchers and intellectuals in post-colonial contexts."