Doctoral student Chris Grove (The Graduate Center, City University of New York), with the guidance of Dr. Donald Robotham, will undertake ethnographic research on community-level social realignments in a context of national economic and political shifts. This micro-level perspective will allow the researcher to investigage the question of whether contemporary changes evident in national-level statistics actually comprise a departure from historical cultural frameworks and taken-for-granted understandings in ordinary people's lives.

The research will be conducted in Elkhart, Indiana, which was chosen for two reasons. The first is that the city has witnessed significant economic change in recent years. The second, is that Elkhart residents can be expected to be particularly conscious of these changes because in 2009, their city was used as the site to announce a new national economic improvement program and thereby was the focus of considerable media attention. Thus if there are true cultural and social changes in the wake of economic transformation, they should be discernible in this "bellweather" city. Grove will conduct 15 months of on-site research. He will gather data with a combination of social science methods, including semi-structured and oral history interviews, participant observation, and archival research. He will locate and explore new formations across the political spectrum, while documenting life histories of participants to understand the appeal, demands, strategies and organization of these formations.

This research is important because it will be one of the first social scientific studies to specify the social and cultural prameters of the much used concept of "crisis." Situated in what is often described as the United States heartland, findings from the research will contribute to understanding the complex interests, norms, and histories through which local people, in the United States and elsewhere, engage critical national change. Funding for this research also supports the education of a social scientist.

Project Report

"Crisis" has been widely used to describe the past five years. However, for many poorer US residents, "economic crisis"—tied to job insecurity, growing indebtedness, and diminished safety nets—predates 2008, even while the impacts of the current downturn have been uneven. Similarly, in surveying the past century, it seems clear that there have been recurring, if historically distinct economic crises. Looking foremost at Indiana and particularly Elkhart, where President Obama launched his $787 billion stimulus plan—citing its rise in unemployment from four to twenty percent and initiating ongoing attention from national media and politicians—this project explored understandings and uses of ‘crisis’. Foremost, it examined whether a deeper crisis, affecting existing political and economic systems, was emerging. While attentive to growing division at the leadership and policy level, the emergence of more general or systemic critiques, and the political involvement of new layers of society, this project’s concern with ‘crisis’ ultimately led to a focus on ‘common sense.’ Drawing on Antonio Gramsci, common sense might be defined as the collective but fragmentary "conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed" by each of us in a particular time and place, via popular media, religion, education, and our membership in multiple social groups (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers 1971:419,323-333). Common sense contains traces or layers of earlier historical moments that tend to shape our stories and relationships. Certain understandings—for instance, of the individual, freedom, and rights—are very widely shared and seldom questioned across the US. Yet these long-held understandings can periodically fail to fully explain or address current circumstances, leading to critical questions and openings. In examining "Middle America," where popular commentators often elide a small town background with either conservative political views or authentic folk wisdom, this project strove for a deeper understanding of the historical trajectories and norms, complex interests and identities, and wider social processes, which drive and constrain the political engagement of specific individuals and groups. Indiana was central to the Grange, Greenback and other agrarian populist movements; the origin of the automotive industry and site of multiple labor battles; and the birthplace of the Socialist Party of America, as well as Robert Owen’s earlier utopian New Harmony experiment. Indiana also led the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920’s and hosted the founding conference of the John Birch Society. Far from passive in the face of shifting national and global conditions, Hoosiers have politically engaged and shaped the changes facings their families and the wider country, giving birth to new political possibilities but perhaps also helping to maintain limits on the possibilities of change. At turns inspiring or troubling depending on the observer, new forces—emerging across the political spectrum—have explicitly looked to history, "reclaimed" lost or threatened traditions, and in doing so, have often reinforced certain values, conceptions, or "common sense." During the course of research, apparent distinctions between Right and Left periodically faltered on the ground, even while the language of religion and morality infused diverse political projects. In many substantial and clearly evident ways, there are distinct groupings on the Right and Left, yet in taking up questions around common sense, I began to observe significant points of connection in analysis, discourse, and actions. For instance, where libertarianism and anarchism initially seemed to be distant extremes, a shared suspicion of government and bailouts, as well as a commitment to DIY self-sufficiency, formed repeated areas of overlap. Similarly, both ends of the political spectrum often valorized ideal pasts, whether of locally-oriented agrarian community or national greatness based on small businesses and Christian morality. Both ends of the political spectrum tend to promote concern for one's neighbor and voluntary projects of mutual support. New groups have become politically active over the past few years, at points generating innovative community-level projects that unite people across historic divisions while addressing material needs and, in the case of a coalition of Indiana Tea Party organizations, impacting national-level elections. These new formations are neither pure grassroots uprisings nor top-down creations. Despite moments of upheaval and repression, a deeper crisis—causing widespread disruption of "common sense" and profound social change at the local- or national-level—does not seem imminent. However, relationships and political connections across the country and between generations of activists, whether made at the US Social Forum in Detroit or Tea Party rallies in Washington, DC, continue to reinforce critical analysis and engagement, while underlying disillusionment persists with diminished and precarious (if temporarily stabilized) conditions and growing inequality.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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CUNY Graduate School University Center
New York
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