Conference Report: Between Declension and Nostalgia: Bringing a Comparative Historical Gaze to the Logics and Lived Experiences of the American Rust Belt

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 3.

Between Declension and Nostalgia: Bringing a Comparative Historical Gaze to the Logics and Lived Experiences of the American Rust Belt

 

Amanda McMillan Lequieu,
Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison

Screenshot from 2018-11-15 10-23-05.pngIn the wake of the 2016 election, sociologists faced an “acute existential crisis,” according to then-ASA president Michele Lamont. Somehow, a group of people committed to tracing and defining the social problems of inequality, human capital, and economic transformation underestimated the systemic frustration, dislocation, and consequential political foment of working-class America. Lamont (2016) suggested that the results of the presidential election might “be interpreted as an expression of the white working class’s parallel move to assert its worth as a group that perceives itself as playing by the rules while others “cut in line”” (citing Hochschild 2016)), and evidence of a growing “recognition gap” between liberal, coastal elites and the once-middle-class residents of marginalized America. Any existential crisis wasn’t for lack of existing scholarly research on the repercussions of the ‘rusting’ of America’s industrial corridors in the late 20th century. Rather, it was the persistence, prevalence, and political implications of emotions linked with economic loss, disenfranchisement, racial anxieties, and/or cultural alienation in certain segments of working-class America that gave sociologists pause.

An invited session at ASA 2018 aimed to address the cultures and emotions in contemporary industrial and post-industrial America. The Special Session, entitled “Between Declension and Nostalgia: The Logics and Lived Experiences of Politics, Culture, and Economics in the American Rust Belt,” moderated by Michael M. Bell (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) brought into conversation four contemporary cases of post-industrial and re-industrializing extractive and manufacturing communities. These papers probed the complexities of individual and corporate experiences of how past and current economic relationships shape political engagement, cultural expectations, and narratives of blame. Shannon Elizabeth Bell (Virginia Tech) explained how certain historical events and processes have kept many Central Appalachian coalfield residents quiescent in the face of increasing environmental and public health threats posed by mountaintop removal mining and other coal industry practices. Colin Jerolmack (New York Univ.) offered a contemporary case of community acceptance of natural resource extraction in the case of fracking in northern Pennsylvania. Amanda McMillan Lequieu (Univ. of Wisconsin) analyzed the long-term consequences of the evaporation of the steel commodity chain from both extractive and manufacturing communities in the upper Midwest. And Josh Pacewicz (Brown) traced the process of political reorganization required by manufacturing decline in two small cities in Iowa. Individually, and then in an extended period of moderated discussion, these studies explored the synergies and differences between recognition gaps among former workers, property owners, and community members in cases across rural and urban contexts and extractive or manufacturing industries.

From these four distinct studies emerged several themes of interest to cultural sociologists. First, we discuss the interactions between economic and cultural processes. To understand emotions of marginalization, mobilization, or lack of recognition in the American Rust Belt, we argued for a historical analysis of how actors and processes shape specific communities in the image of capitalism. Understanding the history of economics sheds light on the persistence of certain cultural expectations. Second, we concurred that much can be gained from cross-case comparisons across time and space, rural and urban contexts, and theoretical and methodological frameworks. Bell and Jerolmack looked at patterns of contemporary quiescence and nonmobilization in contemporary, rural extractive locations, while Pacewicz centered on urban post-manufacturing communities, and McMillan Lequieu considered deindustrialization across both rural and urban nodes of a commodity chain. All four scholars engaged some ethnography and interview-based research; Pacewicz used network analysis and McMillan Lequieu leaned more heavily into comparative historical research. Yet all four studies shed light on the complexities of individual and collective experiences of political engagement, cultural marginalization, and the emotions of economic gain and loss.

By grappling with how economic processes shape non-economic, social relations and thus, how long-term residents of both past and current industrial communities need to reconceptualize blame and responsibility, sociologists can trace the cultures and structures of recognition gaps in contemporary political economies of the American Rust Belt.

References

Hochschild, A.R., 2016. Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York, N.Y: The New Press.

Lamont, M., 2016. Trump’s Triumph and Social science adrift… What is to be done? ASAnet. Available at: http://www.asanet.org/trumps-triumph-and-social-science-adrift-what-be-done [Accessed November 16, 2016].

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