Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Metaphors of Poverty

Metaphors of Poverty

Miriam Jacobs

This paper explores the conceptual metaphors associated with poverty to discover if different categories of discourses use significantly different kinds of metaphors. Though the condition of poverty is ubiquitous, the way people define and conceptualize this situation can vary considerably. Metaphors are a pervasive and critical component in the construction of our ordinary conceptual systems and, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) argue, frame our understanding by either highlighting or hiding certain aspects. Three different kinds of discourses are analyzed. This paper first examines the poverty metaphors in two seminal speeches on the subject, namely the “War on Poverty” speech by President Johnson and the “Make Poverty History” speech by President Mandela. Then the language used on the websites of various NGO’s is mined for metaphors. Finally, the metaphors used in published papers in the field of economics, specifically those that use the terminology BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) to refer those living in poverty, are examined. Metaphors using POVERTY AS ENEMY, POVERTY AS OBSTACLE, and POVERTY AS DISTANCE/LOCATION are present in these various discourses, but each one of them favors a different set of metaphors. Further study might uncover what metaphors about poverty are used in other sorts of discourses and what influence these choices of metaphor have in persuading an audience to agreement and action.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. I think it would be really interesting to include a discourse from Eastern Culture. I would like to see a comparison of how both sides of the world are talking about poverty which is a global problem.

    Comment by Katie Gerstner | April 11, 2017 | Reply

    • I agree with you Katie, and one way or the other I will end up doing that with my 5thvillage project.

      Comment by Miriam Jacobs | April 25, 2017 | Reply

  2. This topic is really interesting. Ever since you told me about it, I have been paying particularly close attention to how media outlets and politicians talk about poverty. Did you find any similarities between the discourse on poverty and Oscar Louis’s notion of the culture of poverty?

    Comment by lynncharara | April 18, 2017 | Reply

    • There is so much to study on this subject, and I chose not to look at the work done on poverty (by anthropologists or anybody else) What is currently holding my interest is the work done on stress and poverty and how that is influencing everything from ability to focus, to make good decisions, and health/life expectancy.

      Comment by Miriam Jacobs | April 25, 2017 | Reply

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