"Our culture depends on yours": Poor families and the social construction of class and gender ideologies in Cuenca, Ecuador

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Hans C. Buechler


Rural-to-urban migration, Cuenca (Ecuador), Poverty, Social constructs, Class, Gender

Subject Categories



Rural migrants living in the city of Cuenca are faced with accommodating to a city in which a firmly established and rigid class hierarchy relegates them to a position of social inferiority. Taking a systems approach to the study of the family, this dissertation considers the ways in which the dominant ideologies are played out in the lives of men and women and boys and girls. Studies of ideology in anthropology have noted the potential for dissonance between ideology and action, while recent concerns for resistance have contributed to our understanding of how individuals manipulate structural categories. Using a macro and micro approach to migration theory I demonstrate how the decision to engage in migration, and the process of adaptation to it, are a result of the complex interplay between structural and individual variables. The class system of Cuenca is nested in the Colonial order in which ranking is based on surname and the density of patron-client relationships. The ideology of class and class difference provides a basic organizing principle for Cuencan society, determining the levels of opportunity and establishing behavioral expectations. This work focusses on families at the lowest level of the social hierarchy and examines the ways in which the social system and social ideologies influence how individuals in families view their lives and their futures. The social constructs of class and gender provide ways in which individuals can orient themselves to their society, yet each person fashions their own response to the system, based on personal and historical variables.

Using interviews and participant observation, I consider both rural to urban migrants in the city, and those families with husbands who have illegally immigrated to the United States. These families reveal a continuum of decisions that the poor make in response to social impediments to upward mobility. Through case study descriptions of daily routines and everyday lives of three families I have outlined the ways in which they respond to, resist, or incorporate the class and gender ideologies of the dominant society.


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