My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Elsewhere, U.S.A.” by Dalton Conley = FABULOUS

It is not that often that I find myself cheering “Yes! Yes!” as I read a book, but Dalton Conley’s “Elsewhere U.S.A.: How we got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety” made me do precisely that. As a result, I feel the need to urge you to go and buy this book. He has captured an essence that we all know, but grounded it in a way that really helped me put two and two together at a time when we’re all trying to work out what the hell is happening to our society. He hits a nerve in a way that helps you see what’s right in front of you.

If you don’t know Dalton Conley, he’s a brilliant sociologist at NYU who is mostly known for his work on race (“whiteness” in particular). [If you’re a geek, you’re probably more familiar with his partner Natalie Jeremijenko.]

In Elsewhere, U.S.A, Conley starts by painting two portraits – one of Mr. and Mrs. 1959 and one of Mr. and Mrs. 2009. Using broad strokes, he highlights the differences in lifestyle between the educated, white collar families of those two different eras. From there, he weaves us through a discussion of changes in the economic, social, and corporate levels. Mixing enticingly delicious prose with sociological theory (conveyed in a unbelievably accessible manner), Conley starts mapping out changes that have taken place and how they’ve panned out.

For example, he explains why the upper classes have become so insecure and anxious about their jobs, resulting in the first point in history where the wealthier you are, the more you work. A good quote on that one: “This constant fear of being exposed, cut out, or outsourced, and thereby having one’s ‘capital’ rendered valueless, is the principal pathos of the era.” Conley investigates how two-income households have created new pressures, forcing families to work harder to keep up. He examines how technology has helped us work harder, more often, and everywhere instead of relieving burdens.

Moving from the tax code to the dinner party, he also looks at how “leisure” is being blurred with work in new ways and how people in the upper echelons invest in social activities in an effort to maintain status at work. This gets into a broader notion of networking and how being social is key to having high status. “Whereas in the industrial epoch, the ability to cloister oneself off from the hoi polloi was a mark of power; in the post-industrial, networked economy, being surrounded by as many people as possible, all seeking your attention, is the ultimate manifestation of rank.”

While the focus of the book is on the upper classes, Conley introduces the working class as a backdrop, noting how some of the upper class dynamics have altered working class culture. He examines the shift in power between the employee and the employer, using relations like the nanny and mother as a way of looking at how traditional structures of power and status maintenance have broken down. But he also looks directly at how the structure of poverty has changed. “Poverty in a post-industrial economy is less about the ability to meet basic material needs and more about the lack of control over life choices and the personalized humiliation that the poor experience in their work lives.”

Anyhow, “Elsewhere, U.S.A.” is chock full of good information that’ll make you think about the lifestyle we live and how it shapes and is shaped by modern society. Plus it is written in such a fun way that it’s hard to put it down. For many of those who read this blog, this book is a tremendous social critique of your (and my) lifestyle. I cannot recommend this book enough. (I especially recommend reading it while on a plane or otherwise living the “elsewhere” lifestyle… then it’ll really hit a nerve.)

Note: Neither Conley nor his publisher or agent or anyone else asked me to do this review or know that I’m doing it. I wrote this post purely because I think that this book is a MUST READ.

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17 comments to “Elsewhere, U.S.A.” by Dalton Conley = FABULOUS

  • Andromeda

    Thanks; I’ve requested it from the library (though it looks like everyone else has too, so I may not get it for a while…).

  • Conley investigates how two-income households have created new pressures, forcing families to work harder to keep up. He examines how technology has helped us work harder, more often, and everywhere instead of relieving burdens.

    I wish there was a way to know how many of these changes were really driven by technology, and how many were driven by politics. At least in the US, there was a long conservative backlash, from 1969 to 2008, which undid many of the progressive reforms of the New Deal era (defined here to mean 1932-1968).

    During the conservative backlash, government at all levels pulled back on the amount of money spent on infrastructure and on R&D – the kinds of things that would allow the economy to continue to remain vibrant. Patent law and copyright law were changed in ways that allowed a handful of corporations to milk old creations for additional monopoly rents (the most notorious example was the extension of copyright that allowed Disney to keep the Mickey Mouse cartoons of the 1920s under copyright protection). Regressive consumption taxes, such as the sales tax, were increased. The income tax was reduced for the wealthiest families. The percentage of taxes paid by the middle class increased dramatically. At times, especially during the 1980s, the dollar was deliberately over-valued (nominally to fight inflation), leading to the loss of 2 million industrial jobs and the devastation of once affluent, though still working class, neighborhoods. Bankruptcy law is changed to shift the risk of debt from the lenders to the debtors.

    These were all political changes, and they helped make the citizens of America vastly less secure about their economic prospects. During the same era, there were also dramatic technological changes. But how can you tease apart the technological changes from the political decisions?

    I can imagine an alternate history, one where the same technologies are developed at the same time, but one in which America is governed by a different coalition, one that focuses on investing in the future and investing in the people, and so, in this alternate history, the American people arrive at 2009 with much greater security about their economic prospects.

  • Thanks for the tip! I just picked it up and so far it is a very interesting read. It feels like it may address some deep seated anxieties about always being plugged in and abandoning the 9 to 5 for a life of work family meandering.

    Cheers – Eric

  • Pablo Manriquez

    “Whereas in the industrial epoch, the ability to cloister oneself off from the hoi polloi was a mark of power; in the post-industrial, networked economy, being surrounded by as many people as possible, all seeking your attention, is the ultimate manifestation of rank.”

    By this measure, suburbanites, especially those in the newer, more-sprawling ‘burbs, would be the lowest-ranking members of American society, no?

  • Done. Ordered. Thanks for sharing.

    Your last tip of recommending “Generation Me” was well worth it as it was one of my favorite books of 2008. Keep ’em coming.

  • By this measure, suburbanites, especially those in the newer, more-sprawling ‘burbs, would be the lowest-ranking members of American society, no?

    Such people tend to highly networked – professional organizations, church organizations, non-profit volunteer work, possibly some political involvement. When I think of affluent suburbanites that I know, I think of people who are involved in multiple social networks.

  • Pablo Manriquez

    re: Lawrence Krubner

    Affluent suburbs tend to be closer to their host cities, and cities are where networking thrives. Newer suburbs tend to be further out and with a lesser population density, like the McMansion labyrinths in the Sun Belt and on the outskirts of St. Louis. (See Richard Florida’s “Where the Brains Are“) In these newer suburbs, privacy and ownership are religion. People defend what they buy and hide what they do, and as a result, quarantine themselves off from the benefits of an effective, 21st century networked economy.

  • Thanks for the recommendation. It arrived today. Stoked to read it.

  • Pablo, I’m not clear if you are talking about affluent suburbs or poor suburbs. Of the poor suburbs, you may be roughly correct to say the citizens are “the lowest-ranking members of American society”. They are poor.

    During November and December, I was out in Phoenix, Arizona. In terms of foreclosures, it is currently the 3rd worst hit urban area in America. I recall driving around, and I saw mile after mile of new suburbs, around the fringe of the city. Many of these developments still had many houses that were under active construction when I drove by them. To the extent that a large number of those who bought into these developments are now in foreclosure, you are right to suggest they have a low rank in American society.

  • Steve

    (Having browser issues – please excuse if this comes through more than once)

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I intend to look for it on the shelf the next time I’m at Barnes and Noble and sit with it for a bit. If the quality of the treatment lives up to the promise of the chosen theme, this book could be a worthy sequel to such classics of the fifties (and early sixties?) as White Collar, The Organization Man, and The Status Seekers.

    I’d like to jump off from here to make a couple of general points.

    First. the reference to the social stratum Conley studies as “the upper classes”, while understandable and in accord with common usage, is, IMO, slightly misleading. Conventional usage on this point is informed by the classic sociological work on measures of stratification. However, those measures themselves can be seen as an (unspoken) reaction against the “class” theories of Marx and his school – who emphasized actual social power based on “relation to the means of production”. Without being strictly Marxist on this point, I think it is only fair that measures of actual social power should form an important part of what we speak of when we refer to a class as “upper” or “lower”. And the profound irony, is that implied in the summary given of Conley’s work, is the implication that these folks lack even the elementary power to choose their own circumstances of life and work – much less to shape the structure and direction of the larger society.

    I make that point not to be nit-picky, but to highlight an illusion. (Again, echoes of Marx here, in what he referred to as “false consciousness”). The illusion I mean is that most of the subjects of Conley’s book would probably agree with the characterization of themselves as “upper class”. And they would be wrong. The corporate system gives these folks fantasies and playtoys, to disguise from themselves the actual poverty of their existence. (In Marx’s view, to prevent the rise of proto-revolutionary “class consciousness”). I could do a paragraph or two more, giving particulars of this, but time is short, and I think most here will either recognize my point or not regardless.

    The second point I’d like to take up is a long-standing pet peeve of mine which is noticable in SNS research, as well as studies of cyber-culture and teen culture generally. (Although you, danah, have tried harder than most to be an exception to this.) That is that there is a persistent bias toward the study of white-collar educated “prep” populations at the expense of the substantial numbers of blue collar, no collar and urban poor who are also found in teen culture, online culture (though to a lesser extent, I think), and society generally. Conley’s book, fun and useful though it probably is, also represents a continuation of this bias.

    The only piece of social research I’ve ever read that actually resonated for me as giving a familiar picture of life among the urban poor as I have come to know it is Joseph T. Howell’s book Hard Living on Clay Street (Waveland Press, December 1990. Amazon listing is here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hard-Living-Clay-Street-Portraits/dp/0881335266

    As one reviewer there comments:

    “As others have commented, the methods that Howell uses are extremely effective – he quite literally moves across the street from his stubjects. I get the feeling that to write this book about “blue collar” people (although the first family at least is really quite destitute) Howell does not hesitate to drink a lot of cheap beer, go deer hunting, etc.”

    I was taken by the scene where, as best I recollect, Howell loaned out a car battery to help somebody in the neighborhood get where they needed to go. Extrordinarily true to life. (Can’t count the times I’ve had to borrow a jack from my friend’s neighbors).

    I just wish more social researchers would consider the poorer and less educated segments of the population as equally worthy to be known and have their stories told as the well-educated and (relatively) affluent. Although – given the tyoical backgrounds of social researchers themselves, perhaps the present situation is somewhat understandable.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Pablo Manriquez

    re: Lawrence Krubner

    You hit the nail on the head, but got your thumb too.

    I refer to neither the poor nor the affluent suburbs. Instead, Middle America is what I’m referencing here–the feckless Baby Boomer fantasy that has bludgeoned the world into systemic financial calamity. I’m talking McMansion sprawl done wholesale and recklessly fast.

    You drove around Phoenix. This is a good thing. Had you attempted mobility by public transit, you’d have spent the three-fourths of your visit waiting for a bus and the rest of it riding on one. I spent much of the summer of ’07 selling used cars in North Scottsdale while not owning one myself and so the commute was as socially brutal (rough crowd on those buses) as it was inefficient. Phoenix is Middle America, where having a car to drive is a prerequisite of an efficient lifestyle.

    Unfortunately, if you “network” in a car (ie meet a stranger), it’s called an “accident” and there is usually hell to pay for it. So the Middle American awakens in a place (often a McMansion) that normally houses just one family; drives to work in a car, often alone (and often in an SUV or minvan and by a window for McBreakfast); works at the same desk all day, usually; drives home in a car, often alone; and then, sometimes, spends time with family members they’ve probably known for some time. They might see and interact with their neighbors, but a subdivision not a place designed to allow residents to be “surrounded by as many people as possible, all seeking [their] attention…the ultimate manifestation of rank.” Indeed, it is designed for exactly the opposite–to create and entrench a class of citizens mindlessly defensive about a psuedostatus gleaned through “ownership,” and a staunch rejection of the sharing and risk-taking that effective networking requires.

  • I appreciate Baudrillard’s comment “Disneyland exists to make the rest of America seem real.”

    I lived through the 90s in Germany, got back here in ’03 and I’ll never completely adjust. Don’t wanna. It’s utterly insane here and I take it as part of my civic duty to call that out. It also keeps me sane, so does being outraged and annoyed as well as humorously belligerent.
    Perspective is invaluable. Of course if you’re working 80 hours a week, with your job, the kids, keeping up with the Jones’, you don’t have time for perspective.

    Since living again in the land of choice, my sense of a civic society and solidarity has been in crisis. I basically have none beyond some fundamental lifestyle choices I made 25 years ago that thank god I’m still able to maintain more or less. I guess the verb “to choose” became a helping verb in the 90s; suddenly everyone was using it when I returned.

    So much of the experiences Conley describes are things I’ve noted, questioned and critiqued. He does a fine job of “telling me why.”

    Friends, more left than me, think that by staying off the grid they’re doing something for change. I agree, to a point. But even the radical educator, Paulo Freire said that you cannot effect social change by checking out of the social context. I agree with that too. I’m the consummate intravidual I suppose.

    In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from American Cats in Slovenia. Enjoy!
    Encounter on Radical Education: Cats in Slovenia!
    http://www.pinkyshow.org/archives/episodes/090105_slovenia/

  • Pablo Manriquez, I think I’ll retreat to my earlier comment. Most of the citizens in America’s suburbs are highly active. They participate in a wide range of organizations. They are highly networked. They have school affiliations, church, political groups, and multiple associations created by the friendships that their children develop. I don’t believe the thesis of “Elsewhere, USA” can be disproven by the experience of what I saw in Phoenix, Arizona.

  • The corporate system gives these folks fantasies and playtoys, to disguise from themselves the actual poverty of their existence.

    Steve, who owns IBM or GE? Legally, it is the shareholders. Yet their power is limited, save when a given shareholder owns a substantial share of the company (let’s say, 10% or more, though the law says 20%). Most shareholders of IBM own a tiny fraction of it – and their power is so meager, Marx might have trouble recognizing them as capitalists.

    If we put aside the law, for a moment, and look at actual power, we immediately notice that upper management has some of the wide ranging discretion that once belonged to the capitalists. I mean, these people have real power, not just false consciousness. Especially in those corporations where there is no shareholder who owns a large chunk of the company, upper management has some of the power that Marx would have recognized as belonging to the upper classes.

    Should a mid-level manager, making $250,000 a year, consider herself a member of the middle class, or of the upper class? There is no bright line that separates the middle class from the upper class. I’d say for such managers, one has to take them on a case by case basis, and see how much actual power they have.

  • resulting in the first point in history where the wealthier you are, the more you work.

    It’s odd, but I read this in February and agreed with it, but I just quoted it to a friend and they laughed at me, and I couldn’t think of anyway to defend it. The wealthy work more than the poor? That really can’t true. I’ve friends who are stitching together 3 different jobs to make money. They work perhaps 50 hours a week. A few even work 60 or 70 hours a week. And they make perhaps $600 or $700 or $800 a week. I don’t think many affluent people work much more than this, and when they do, it tends to be a choice.

    Is the comparison to the unemployed? Or to part-time work? The working affluent work more than the unemployed, that is for certain. I think it is hard to get an accurate read of part-time work, because some people, including close friends of mine, stitch together several part time gigs.

    I can think of some very rich individuals who work very hard – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc. I can think of some rich people who don’t work very hard, Paris Hilton, etc.

    Lots of professions have seen increasing workloads, but these are not among the most affluent of professions: teachers, physical therapists, computer programmers.

    Two professions stand out as being affluent and having seen workloads increase: doctors and lawyers. But even there, past a certain point in their careers, these people have a lot of lattitude about how much they work. Someone working their way through medical school has to work very hard, but later on, if they wish, they can establish a private practice and work less, if they wish. So to with being a lawyer. When they are trying to make partner in a firm, they need to work very hard, but they also have the option of having their own private practice and setting a slower pace.

    I think this is a great quote:

    “This constant fear of being exposed, cut out, or outsourced, and thereby having one’s ‘capital’ rendered valueless, is the principal pathos of the era.”

    But surely that applies more to the working class than it does to the affluent classes? The working class has seen hundreds of thousands of jobs lost as factories close down and move overseas. Generally, the affluent professions (doctors, lawyers, stock market traders, etc) have not had to face this concern, certainly not as much as factory workers.

  • Thanks for the pointer to an excellent book I hadn’t otherwise come across. The Kindle edition was a great read and there are some good references to chase up. Lawrence comments on a central point of the book that is described from a few different angles but which cannot be proved quantitatively. A few other lines of argument are also mentioned to support this point, some more convincing than others. One of which was the always on nature of creative work extending to sending off quick emails at midnight, and from kids soccer games, etc. as compared to a more concrete separation in the earlier organizational era and still present in the trade occupations. There are only so many hours you can physically work at many working class jobs in a week, but by blending this line between work and leisure the total weekly time spent working in some capacity can increase dramatically. Depending on the backgrounds and experiences of your friends this may be more convincing the next time you quote it.