Precis on Oscar Lewis’ Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty

Posted on May 22, 2012 by


Lewis, Oscar (1959)  Five Families:  Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty.  Basic Books 350 pages + (351 total) by Brian J. Delas Armas

Oscar Lewis’ Five Families is a six-chapter book about field research conducted in different parts of Mexico with five families in five different living conditions.   He proposes that his data illustrates the “lower-class family life” (Lewis 1959: p. 3).  In my estimation, he had two generalizable findings:  1) the culture of machismo being reflected in four of the families, and 2)  that children had more emotional ties with their mothers (p.17), the first of which was illustrated by activities in each of the cases.  The second finding may be true, but was difficult to locate within the cases presented.

The book is organized by a beginning chapter of “setting”, and a different chapter for each family.  In “the setting” chapter, he accomplishes several tasks:  1)  he outlines his methods  2) he gives a brief history of Mexico since the Revolution from 1910  3)  gives an overview of the standards of living  4)  sketching a background of each family.  Lewis then delves into a day in the life of each of the five different families.

The families are meant to represent Mexican families in different situations of poverty.  He begins with the Martinez Family, a family who lives in a Mexican highland village sixty miles south of Mexico city in a population of 3,5000 where villagers are bilingual in Spanish and ancient Nahuatl (p. 11).  The second family under observation is a family transitioning from village to city life in a crowded one-room apartment, the Gomez Family (pp. 12-13)  The most impoverished family is the Gutierrez Family, a family who lives in the poorest slum tenements in the city (pp. 14-15).   The Sanchez Family marks the fourth case study, an urbanized lower-class family in which the father works as a restaurant worker and giving to his various wives and children (p.15).  Finally, he ends with the  Castro Family, a nouveau riche family, in which the father David Castro is “a self-made post-Revolutionary millionaire” (p.16).

In each of the cases, he offers a third-person perspective outlining their settings, noting the routines of the day within the family units, and their interactions, leaving it up entirely to the reader to make interpretations.  He uses statistics to outline the social conditions of the surrounding neighborhood.  The family life described consists of waking up, preparing breakfasts, lunches, dinners, interactions, making purchases leading him to collect mostly qualitative data.  Background information from autobiographies had been added to the observations for more context (p. 6)

His method is dependent on direct observations of an “ordinary” day in the life of the family, a technique he derives from novelists (p. 4).  While it is unclear the extent of his fluency in Spanish, in four of the cases, he had a trained stenographer taking note of conversations acting to give a “camera-like view of movements, conversations, and interactions” (p. 6).  He notes that “over 15 years of experience”, living with each of the families, interviews, extended observation, autobiographies collected, and the help of assistants who were relatives of the families helped build sufficient rapport to the point where “daily routines were not affected” (pp.3-4).

Lewis’ case studies presented appears to adequately support his main finding that there is a culture or code of machisimo upheld by the patriarchs of each of the families.  The code of machisimo can be observed in the public ways the patriarchs would act and the subservient manner in which women and children reacted.   Pedro Martinez, showed his dominance and authority when he went to the boys’ room and singing ceased (p.55).  In the second family, Ester, the daughter of Agustin Gomez decided that she would not ask permission to go to a dance until her father was not at home (p.122). In the Sanchez family, Lewis noted the power of the father figure,  “no one spoke because they knew [Jesus] wanted them to be silent (p.271).  In the nouveau riche family, the Castros, there was an episode from the autobiography in which David pushed his wife Isabel and his only daughter Lourdes off the bed (p.318).

The work’s findings suffer mainly in its lack of transparency in methods.  He does not reveal the specific ways he gathered his data.  For one the reader does not know where exactly the “camera” was positioned.  We do not know whom he followed, why he chose to follow certain family members, and what role he, his stenographer, and other assistants were occupying during direct observations.

In my opinion, overall, however Lewis’ work as applied to Anthropology does succeed in illustrating the descriptive potential of 1-day case study observations in illustrating complicated relations in which the families were embedded.  The appearance of conversations recorded gave the informants voice, which helped illustrate not just what they told Lewis in interviews, but also what they talked about with each other.