Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Donald Robotham

Committee Members

David Harvey

Jeff Maskovsky

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Urban Anthropology, Class, Race, Evangelicalism, Faith-Based Organizations, Informal Economy


In the context of the hegemonic neoliberalism of recent decades, faith-based organizations (FBOs) have flourished as mechanisms for addressing poverty and other varieties of social need. For all of the contributions of contemporary anthropological research to the study of FBOs, however, most analyses have stressed the potency of FBOs and elided the agency of recipients. The present dissertation aims, through a multisited study of Evangelical FBOs in the postindustrial American city of Plainfield, to focus on the latter theme. Owing to the traditional behaviorism of American culture and also its Evangelical reproduction in FBO settings, the pursuit of charity thrusts a dilemma onto recipients: Risk accepting the stigma and shame typically associated with poverty or contest those meanings and risk alienating oneself from a valuable source of much-needed household assistance. Rather than accepting the terms of this invidious dilemma, however, charitable subjects in Plainfield transcend them with performances of worthiness—that is, demonstrations of respectfulness, a work ethic, and more that mark them as, despite their poverty, people who qualify as worthy according to the standards of liberal society. By interpreting these dynamics through the lens of Marxian praxis theory, however, it is apparent that, despite their status as acts of contestation, these performances and related recipient behaviors have the contradictory consequence of facilitating the reproduction of capitalist social relations, particularly the relationship of working-class dependence. The data also demonstrate that the faith-based sphere of Plainfield has developed in a geographically uneven fashion, such that some working-class neighborhoods are far better served by the local groundswell of charitable flows than others. As a consequence of this unevenness, faith-based redistributive flows in Plainfield actually exacerbate racial inequality and constitute a form of eleemosynary white privilege among the city’s working class. In addition to supporting these political economic conclusions, the ethnographic evidence from Plainfield also exposes the disjuncture between behaviorist interpretations of poverty and its experience as lived in the context of postindustrial austerity.