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Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Operationalising poverty

Poverty has been a major concern of social scientists, and research into poverty dates back more than a century to the early days of sociology. As a concept, poverty means that some people are considerably disadvantaged compared to others and that poor people do not have enough to maintain a decent standard of living. However, this ‘theoretical’ notion is rather vague. What do we mean by a ‘decent standard of living’? What don’t poor people have enough of? In short what precisely do we mean by poverty?

To do research on poverty the notion we have in our head must be defined more clearly. The first problem, then, is to find some agreement about what is meant by poverty in theory before trying to measure it in practice.

Defining poverty

The meaning of the notion of poverty is constantly under debate. Different definitions of poverty reflect different ideologies. Peter Townsend (1979), in his major study of poverty in Britain, discussed at length the concepts of poverty and deprivation. He concluded that different definitions of poverty are used for different purposes and that the most commonly discussed difference is that of absolute and relative poverty.

Absolute poverty

Early research into poverty, for example the work done by Booth (1889–97) and Rowntree (1901), used an absolute definition of poverty based on subsistence, that is, the things people need in order to keep alive.

This definition is problematic because the definition of human needs is solely based on food, shelter and clothing. No account is taken of social needs, that is, the funds required to go out and mix with others. Similarly, an absolute measure does not account for different dietary needs of people working in different occupations and so on.

Relative poverty

Social scientists have discussed means of overcoming the inflexibility of the absolute measure of poverty and the changing expectations of minimum standards. As a result, the concept of relative poverty was devised.

It defines people as being ‘in poverty’ if they are unable to meet the standard of living of their particular society. People in Britain would thus be in poverty if they were unable to heat their home adequately in winter, or were unable to afford items such as a washing machine, refrigerator or television that are taken for granted by most of the population.

Thus the relative concept of poverty differs from the absolute because the standards used to measure poverty are not taken from a calculation of minimum needs but from comparisons with the acceptable levels of affluence of a particular society.

Measuring poverty

Using the relative concept of poverty it then becomes important to decide how to measure it. One way to do this is to measure the level of assistance benefits provided by the state (Abel-Smith and Townsend, 1965). This shows that, in comparison to nationally fixed standards, many people still live in poverty despite increasing levels of affluence in society.

Mack and Lansley (1985) revealed that 7.5 million people were living in relative poverty. Their study involved asking respondents what they consider necessary items of expenditure to maintain a minimum standard of life. The authors defined respondents who could not afford these necessary items as living in poverty.

The notion of a poverty line is often used as a base measure of poverty. Some poverty-line measures are based on absolute measures of poverty, such as the poverty index used officially by the United States government (US DHEW, 1976). It was based on the minimum cost of an adequate diet multiplied by three, as it is estimated that a typical poor family spends about one third of its income on food. In Britain, there is no official poverty line but various measures have been adopted as indicators of the extent of poverty.

The term was first used by Rowntree (1901) in an absolute sense and was based on the cost of bare essentials. More recently (since 1987) the government has defined the poverty line by reference to supplementary benefit or income support. Groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group use average income as a basis for determing poverty. Anyone living on or below 50% of average income is regarded as in poverty (Pilkington, 1991). Using income support and average income provide approximations to a relative measure of poverty.

The use of a ‘poverty line’ is clearly open to political manipulation, as the government will tend to want the number of people below the poverty line as low as possible because the number of people defined as impoverished is an indicator of the effectiveness and fairness of government policy to alleviate economic hardship. They will then attempt to make the poverty line low to disguise the extent o poverty.


Townsend (1974, 1979) used the concept of relative deprivation to define poverty. He felt that it was not enough just to use monetary wealth because this excluded such additional things as perks at work, (for example, company cars, cheap holidays), ownership of capital assets such as houses that not only increase wealth but also give power to control one’s own life.

Further, not all social groups had equal access to services and benefits due to racist divisions in Britain that resulted in black people being relatively further deprived of state support. This made full participation in British society more difficult.

Thus, for Townsend, people are relatively deprived if they are unable to obtain the diets, amenities, standards and services that allow them to play the roles, and follow customary behaviour, that are expected of them by their membership of society (Townsend et al., 1987).

Thus, it is not enough simply to see poverty as one of simple needs or even the relative levels of cash income but as also to do with the structure and distribution of society’s resources and of the power to control and use these, that is, it is also to do with inequality and power in British society.

Operationalising deprivation

Townsend et al. (1987) developed this idea of deprivation and used the term rather than poverty in their study of Poverty and Labour in London. They argued that deprivation has several dimensions, and thus used the concept of multiple deprivation as the basis for measuring poverty. They identified 13 dimensions, which they grouped into two broad areas, material and social deprivation.

For each of the dimensions they drew up a list of indicators. For example, they suggested five indicators of dietary deprivation:

Dietary deprivation

1. At least one day in the last fortnight with insufficient to eat.

2. No fresh meat or fish most days of the week (alternative formulation for vegetarians).

3. No special meat or roast most weeks.

4. No fresh fruit most days.

5. Short of food on at least one occasion in last 12 months to meet needs of family.

They then designed questions for each indicator, for example:

Do you eat a piece of fresh fruit every day as part of your normal diet?

The same process was done with all indicators for all the 13 dimensions. In all, Townsend constructed 94 questions or variables for deprivation covering the different dimensions.


Return to Operationalisation (Section 8.3.5)