Oscar Lewis

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Oscar Lewis, born Lefkowitz (December 25, 1914 – December 16, 1970)[1] was an American anthropologist. He is best known for his vivid depictions of the lives of slum dwellers and his argument that a cross-generational culture of poverty transcends national boundaries. Lewis contended that the cultural similarities occurred because they were "common adaptations to common problems" and that "the culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor classes to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individualistic, capitalistic society."[2] He won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion for La vida: a Puerto Rican family in the culture of poverty--San Juan and New York.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Lewis was the son of a rabbi, born 1914 in New York City and raised on a small farm in upstate New York.[4] He received a bachelor's degree in history in 1936 from City College of New York, where he met his future wife and research associate, Ruth Maslow.[5] As a graduate student at Columbia University, he became dissatisfied with the History Department at Columbia. At the suggestion of his brother-in-law, Abraham Maslow, Lewis had a conversation with Ruth Benedict of the Anthropology Department.[4] He switched departments and then received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia in 1940.[citation needed] His Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of contact with white people on the Blackfeet Indians was published in 1942.[2]


Lewis taught at Brooklyn College, and Washington University, and helped to found the anthropology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.[2][6] His most controversial book was ‘La Vida’ that chronicled the life of Puerto Rican prostitute, living with her sixth husband, who was raising her children in conditions unimaginable to many middle-class American readers.[7] He died in New York City of heart failure, at age 55 in 1970,[1] and was buried in Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens.[8]


  • High Sierra Country, 1955
  • Five Families; Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, 1959
  • Life in a Mexican Village; Tepoztlán restudied, 1960 [first edition 1951]
  • The Children of Sanchez, Autobiography of a Mexican Family, 1961
  • Pedro Martinez - A Mexican Peasant and His Family, 1964
  • La Vida; A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York, 1966
  • A Death in the Sánchez Family, 1969
  • Village Life in Northern India


  1. ^ a b "Oscar Lewis". NNDB. Soylent Communications. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Whitman, Alden. "Oscar Lewis, Author and Anthropologist, Dead; U. of Illinois Professor, 55, Wrote of Slum Dwellers", The New York Times, December 18, 1970. Retrieved 2009-08-04.
  3. ^ "National Book Awards – 1967". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
  4. ^ a b "Oscar Lewis". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Encyclopedia.com. 2004. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  5. ^ "Oscar and Ruth Lewis Papers, 1944-76". University of Illinois Archives. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  6. ^ Gardner, David. "A short biography". Archived from the original on May 28, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-28., EMuseum at Minnesota State University, Mankato, 2007. Retrieved 2009-08-04. (archived 2010)
  7. ^ Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. pp. 430. ISBN 9780415252256.
  8. ^ Whitman, Alden (December 18, 1970). "Oscar Lewis, Author and Anthropologist, Dead". New York Times. p. 42. Retrieved 23 September 2016.

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