Poverty and the Imposition of Agency: Examining Constructions of Self Through the Lens of Invisiblized Self-Creation | Evan Kiely

Poverty results from an inherent loss of means, in the economic sense, but it goes far beyond that as well. This lack of means is coupled with a loss of access, the obvious being reduced access to healthcare, food, water, shelter, and/or any of the many areas recognized as fundamental human needs. The lack of these basic necessities leaves no room to maneuver outside of seeking out those things, typically via economic means. It also results in a disappearance of opportunities for serious upward mobility due to the unlikely nature of being able to access either skilled labor positions or the education required for them.

Furthermore, these exclusions constitute a process of “marking”, in which the individual in poverty is easily recognizable as existing outside of what is considered normative. Being marked in this sense allows for the unmarked to, in a socially accepted manner, look down on or, as mentioned earlier, otherwise make impositions upon, those that occupy the marked category. Such impositions include attributing secondhand citizen status, if recognizing them at all, which comes along with many forms of discrimination, further segregating and marking them.

In situations of poverty there is not only reduced economic capital, but reduced cultural and social capital (such as voice) as well (Dong & Dong 2013). Interactions are limited to small communities and family groups, otherwise they are one-sided, with employers dictating requirements for an infusion of necessary economic capital, or those not marked making impositions. If a job is not done to satisfaction, the resulting conversation, again, is one sided, with the employer chastising and rebuking, along  with potentially withholding the expressly needed funds, as unskilled labor is often plentiful, making it disposable(1). All of this often culminates in serious existential crises of self, as the individual(s) expressing deficits of agency often internalize their marked or other status (the foundational tenet of labeling theory) (Raybeck 1988). The imposed identity that results from such internalizations, combined with lack of capitals, leaves little leeway for self construction of identity, and results in negative outlooks on self and situation. Comorbid with this loss of agency, however, is often an imposition of agency as well.

Before discussing imposed agency, it is important to first be clear here about what is meant by identity. When this paper uses the term “identity”, it is meant in the context of Stuart Hall’s exploration of the concept. That is to say that “identities are constructed through, not outside, difference” (Hall 1996:4). Thus, the identity of one who lives in poverty is, generally, of being impoverished as that is the most apparent difference that exists between them and the societal norm of being un-impoverished. But how can one construct a favorable identity in a situation of impoverishment? How can one maintain their agency in a situation where they lack, what many people would consider, things that are necessary to survive? These questions are especially interesting when placed in the context of globalization.

Returning to the imposition of agency, it should be noted that it is not overt, not exactly intentional, but rather a consequence of the loss of certain kinds of agency. The imposed agency often takes the forms of “weak” globalization (the global being assimilated by the local “into its own realm of practiced meaning” (Friedman 1995:78 via Foster 2008:6)) or “glocalization” (“…the interpenetration of the global and the local, resulting in unique outcomes in different geographic areas” (Ritzer 2003:194)). This is because the afflicted individual typically, mainly, has access to globalized goods, by sheer virtue of their affordability as a result of mass production, relative to those that are locally produced and/or unable to be produced industrially. These patterns of consumption, in turn, further serve as marks, since only those in certain social, cultural, economic, etc. brackets rely heavily, even exclusively, on such items.

In the inherent struggle of the impoverished individual to fill in the gaps of what they require, they often modify the things they have access to such that they fit multiple roles(2). What’s more, the good then serves (a) purpose(s) beyond that which was imagined when it was created. These attempts to gain access and/or means result in the creation of “something” from “nothing” (Ritzer 2003:195). That is, the modification of a “centrally conceived [and] controlled” good that is “comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content” to something “indigenously conceived, controlled, and comparatively rich in distinct substantive content” (Rizter 2003:195). Typically, these “nonthings”, as Ritzer calls them, are mass produced, often globalized, trinkets, food items, and personalities (celebrities with a global presence) that generally fit the profile of strong globalization (“the production of similar kinds of goods on a global scale”) (Friedman 1995:78 via Foster 2008:6). However, these things do not exist in a vacuum and, when they enter a local of impoverishment, may take on many roles; the   aforementioned glocalization or weak globalization. This is the result of imposed agency as a consequence of their current economic standings.

While, eventually through entrepreneurial or other means this innovation may serve to elevate them from that marked category, it may also further mark them. For example, using a garbage bag as a rain coat may be an extremely affordable and viable alternative to a rain jacket, it may even be a way to earn money (by selling to others in the same situation) which, in turn may be a way to “cash-out” of the mark but, in the interim, it actually further marks that individual. In fact, it may mark them more than before, as, in some cases, such workarounds may be seen as subverting norms rather than attempting to work in parallel with them.

Such creation born from necessity, while being an imposition of their economic standings, also serves, when the point of view is shifted, as a method to create a community based on mutual need, and/or to gain cultural capital within a preestablished community (again in the sense of Stuart Hall(3) ). Those that participate in these invented traditions (of the types described by Eric Hobsbawm(4)), gain a sort of insider, or normative, status within certain arenas. This allows for the creation of group cohesion and, as a result, potential acceptance of outsider status. This acceptance is not outright, but occurs with the eventual invention of a new way of self identifying. Rather than allowing oneself to be marked in relation to a societally deemed normative, the individual may create identity as a result of that marking. That is to say, the tables are turned and the marked become unmarked. Of course, in the larger arena of society as a whole, this does not hold up but, in the microcosm that individual has had a hand in creating, the marked becomes the normative, and the normative, the marked.

This exhibition of an identity that has been cobbled together piecemeal does not have to appear this way. In fact, it is more readily approachable when considered as a form of ownership or authorship of ones own situation. This allows, even if it is only symbolic, a measure of power(5) in a life that, previously had little or none, through the invention of a social identity that the individual feels comfortable with (Hall 1996). In doing so, one is able to further their hope for future control(6) by exerting control over the previously imagined uncontrollable, even if it is only on a small scale.

In addition, it is interesting to note that such creation, according to Ritzer’s definitions, also distinguishes a person from a nonperson, as nonpersons are typically “highly programmed and scripted individuals”, while, in this case, the act of creating, recycling, or otherwise repurposing within limited means, requires thinking outside of socially programmed actions (2003:196). Yet, in distinguishing that individual as a person, it also marks them as an other that operates outside of societally conceived regulations, indeed creating an entire identity that exists outside of societal norms. In a way, the person acting out of necessity becomes more deviant when attempting to improve their situation. Though let’s not forget that these identities originate from imposition, not choice.

Imposed agency strengthens, rather than weakens, identity and community because it is invisible. It is not seen as another burden, but as a normal aspect of their life, or even an opportunity, because of the impoverished individual’s location. This location is constituted in part by cultural, social, economic, and physical aspects, all of which serve to obscure the imposition and, thus, deviation from norms. This is because the impoverished individual occupies those arenas well outside the normative and, as such, is likely not to have been exposed to that which is deemed appropriate. Additionally, they may not be equipped with the tools to question the origins of the problems they are facing and may simply see the act of creating, modifying, inventing, as a solution to a problem without considering the context of the issue.

In this sense, those in poverty often participate in a form of niche construction, in that they modify an environment (even just components of that environment) to better suit their set of needs(7). However, in doing so, they transcend the construction of just  niche and participate in construction of self, as well as practices of ownership and authorship that allow for individuation in tandem with, to borrow from Marx, the formation of a foundational community Base, on which to construct their Superstructural self-identity(8).

I posit that these forms of imposed agency and creativity serve to highlight underlying issues(9) , while remaining mostly invisible to those participating in them, thus giving the feeling of regained control(10) as well as helping to create and strengthen positive community and individual identities. This assertion is explored via the authors fieldwork in an impoverished Nicaraguan immigrant community, known as La Carpio, in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Peering Through the Lens

La Carpio is a slum composed around 34,000 people, most of whom are Nicaraguans that fled to Costa Rica as a result of war earthquakes, and/or preexisting poverty. These immigrants occupy 5,000 homes, all built from scratch within a space of roughly 25 km2. The community is bordered on either side by rivers (the Virilla and Torres) which our guide, and founder of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, Gail Nystrom, told us were approximately 80% sewage. But how did it get to this? How did a few squatters turn into a community of tens of thousands, with the collective ability to resist removal for so long (remember, they are not only technically illegal immigrants, but also illegally occupying land)? These questions are examined through the above lens, synthesized from various theoretical perspectives.

The individuals of interest in this investigation are known as the “Abuelas” (grandmothers) of the community. These are women who left Nicaragua as a result of the Nicaraguan Revolution, natural disasters, and/or abusive relationships (generally husbands and/or fathers). They came to Costa Rica with literally nothing except the clothing they were wearing, often with small children (leaving the older ones with grandparents), and the hope of getting a job (or many) in order to send money back home. What they got instead was, in many cases, both better and worse.

They faced extreme poverty and discrimination, as well as isolation and loneliness (Sandoval-Garcia 2004). This, coupled with (often illegal) immigrant status, resulted in the removal of many forms of agency, as well as an imposed identity that was internalized due to repeated labeling (Raybeck 1988). However, eventually a sort of camaraderie emerged as those in poverty were grouped together and had agency imposed upon them. In being so grouped, a sense of “we” emerged in the face of ostracization. This group identity allowed for the eventual formation and reformation of individual identities. Rather than being quintessentially disparate impoverished individuals, they became a cohesive social group in which there is a hierarchy and distinct social delineations of status.


(1) “Greater international mobility of capital relative to labor puts workers from a given location at 1 an immediate disadvantage … with the owners of capital (whose threats to move gain greater credibility)” (Padmanabhan 2012:972).

(2) “Instead of accepting their environment as a given, [they] improved their microenvironments by 2 isolating qualities to change” (Alter 1999:s51 via Snell-Rood 2013:283).

(3) “…identification is constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared 3 characteristic with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation … they emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are more the product of the marking of difference and exclusion, than they are the sign of an identical, naturally-constituted unity…” (Hall 1996:2&4)

(4) The invented traditions here fitting into all three overlapping categories described by 4 Hobsbawm: “a) those establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities, b) those establishing or legitimizing institutions, status or relations of authority, and c) those whose main purpose was socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behavior” (Hobsbawm 1983:9).

(5) “the constitution of a social identity is an act of power” (Laclau 1990 via Hall 1996:5).

(6) As in the sense of Frese and Mohr: “…one is able to with-stand temporary loss of control as 6 long as one is confident of achieving control in the future” (1987:174).

(7) “India is replete with examples of urban pioneering that has transformed landscapes in Delhi, 7 Mumbai, and Kolkata. Driven by lack of housing, urban migrants turned wetlands and jungles into habitable regions” (Snell-Rood 2013:274).

(8) “…humans are composites: ‘they act with environments and others, creating themselves, others, and environments in a series of dialectics’” (West 2005:640 via Snell-Rood 2013:275)

(9) “Like the generative transactions through which human-environment interactions can produce identity (West 2005) … changing their environment produced changes in their self.” (Snell-Rood 2013:285).

(10) Indeed, as Hobsbawm declares about invented traditions, “…it may be suggested that they are important symptoms and therefore indicators of problems which might not otherwise be recognized, and developments which are otherwise difficult to identify and date. They are evidence” (1983:12). “…efforts to make a home in the slum created microenvironments that allowed them to 10 ideologically and physically separate themselves from the slum around them … they manipulated aspects of the wider slum environment to diminish its overall disadvantages and to delineate a separate home” (Snell-Rood 2013:277&282)


Cited Dong, Jie, and Yan Dong 2013 Voicing as an Essential Problem of Communication: Language and Education of Chinese Immigrant Children in Globalization. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 44(2):161-176

Frese, Michael and Gisela Mohr 1987 Prolonged Unemployment and Depression in Older Workers: A Longitudinal Study of Intervening Variables. Social Science and Medicine 25(2): 173-178

Foster, Robert J. 2008 Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea. London: Palgrave Macmillan Hall, Stuart and Paul Du Gay 1996 Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage Publications.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger 1983 The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Padmanabhan, Neethi 2012 Globalisation Lived Locally: A Labour Geography Perspective on Control, Conflict and Response among Workers in Kerala. Antipode 44(3): 971-992

Raybeck, Douglas 1988 Anthropology and Labeling Theory: A Constructive Critique. ETHOS 16(4): 371-397

Ritzer, George  2003 Rethinking Globalization: Glocalization/Grobalization and Something/ Nothing. Sociological Theory 21(3): 193-209

Sandoval-Garcia 2004 Threatening Others: Nicaraguans and the Formation of National Identities in Costa Rica

Snell-Rood, Claire 2013 To Know the Field: Shaping the Slum Environment and Cultivating the Self. ETHOS 41(3): 271-291

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