Epistemological Perspective

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The publication of George Marcus and Michael Fischer's Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986) brought to the fore, not only anthropology's role in cultural criticism; but also postmodernist challenges to the discipline's traditional epistemology. According to Marcus and Fischer, the diverse and fragmented state of anthropology, and the turn to experimental ethnography it inspired, reflect a wider "crisis of representation in the human sciences"(1986: 7-8). They argue that the existence of "many anthropologies"--of symbolic and psychological anthropologists working down the hall from Marxist semioticians and socio-biologists--betokens an "absence of paradigmatic authority"(1986:16). This absence, they observe, follows in the wake of pervasive challenges to the grand, system-building traditions of social thought which arose in the nineteenth century West. Though Marcus and Fischer's main concern is to discuss contemporary experimental ethnographies as positive, constructive responses to the crisis of representation, not all anthropologists have looked so favorably on this turn to textuality. Many have expressed concern that this focus on issues of representation reduces ethnography to "a mere game of words" and threatens anthropology with "a corrosive relativism in which everything is a more or less clever expression of opinion" (Geertz 1988:2). My work takes a position somewhere between those postmodernists whose focus is textuality and those who criticize this focus. (footnote 2) On the one hand, I accept much of the postmodernist critique and, on the other, I take seriously the concern that attention to textuality and difference not thwart anthropology's ability to make claims about the world. In particular, I am concerned that the postmodern critique not be seen as requiring an abandonment of social theory and, therefore, an abandonment of large scale social critique. Because my response to the postmodernist challenge is hybrid (footnote 3), and because this response defines the epistemological perspective of my research, it seems prudent to explicate it at the outset. I will make this explication by way of arguing that new conceptions of social theory are vital to guard postmodernism's insights from dissipation in textualism and the endless play of difference.

Over the last twenty years, critiques of the Enlightenment project of knowledge have coalesced into a discourse identified as "postmodernist". While this discourse is highly heterogeneous and is said to reflect phenomenal changes in the social and economic spheres that are also described as "postmodern" (Jameson 1984, Best and Kellner 1991, inter alia), I employ the terms "postmodern/ist/ism" here in a more limited sense. Specifically, I speak of postmodernism as an epistemological stance made possible by critiques of Enlightenment philosophy launched by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein and carried through by such scholars as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Franois Lyotard. This postmodernist stance poses significant challenges to traditional social theory because it undermines the Enlightenment epistemology on which such theory is based. In this section, I will: first, outline the Enlightenment view of knowledge; second, sketch the postmodern critique of this view; and third, describe some of the problems postmodernism poses for our received forms of social theory. I will then move to consider some possible responses, some ways in which a "postmodernist" social theory might evolve given the epistemological challenge.

Basically, I wish to argue that though some may see postmodernism as "inviting the abandonment of theory" (Nicholson 1990:9), scholars who value postmodernism's insights, but would preserve the role of social science in cultural criticism, must not accept the invitation. These scholars must work towards new conceptions of theory and new theorizing practices. Such work has already been undertaken by feminists like Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1990); by Marxists like Henri Lefebvre (1991); and by social theorists who appreciate the inadequacy of using the natural science model for social inquiry (e.g. Taylor 1985, Craib 1992). These scholars point the way toward a mode of theorizing in step with the postmodernist critique, yet engaged in the practico-sensory realm (i.e. it is empirical). By describing the Enlightenment mode of theorizing and the postmodern critique, I set the stage for my argument about the need for a new way of "doing theory". Theorizing, I propose, must move closer to model-making, to hypothesizing (footnote 4)--it is not about rigid, timeless truth, it is a technique, a tool, an imagined device.

The Enlightenment project of knowledge, which grounds traditional social theory, rests on the assumption that there is an underlying order to the physical and social world and that the human subject can come to know the truth of this order through the exercise of reason. Reason, according to Kant, can be the arbiter of objective truth because "it operates identically in each subject and it can grasp laws...that are equally knowable and binding on every person" (Flax 1990:2). Knowledge in this scheme is thus neutral and universal. The knowing subject can seize reality via sense evidence, reason from this evidence and discover reality's laws. Reality is posited as having an underlying unitary structure, or order, which belies the particulate multiplicity of ordinary sense experience, of everyday life. Further, in this Enlightenment 'metanarrative', as Flax (1990) following Lyotard (1984) has called it, there is believed to be "an inner connection between reason and freedom, which holds that increased rationality [will] produce increased freedom" (Best and Kellner 1991: 8).

The social science that evolved within the Enlightenment project built on the assumptions that: 1) society is governed by law-like regularities; 2) the monadic, rational subject is the basic unit of society; and 3) knowledge of society's laws will bring about greater freedom and progress. These were the grounding assumptions of anthropology's traditional quest to become "a natural science of human society" (Radcliffe-Brown 1940: xi). Since the aim was to discover the general laws of society, theory held a preeminent position in this social science which engaged in what Stephen Toulmin has called "a 'theory centered' style of philosophizing" (1990:11). That is, it posed questions and sought answers "stated in timeless, universal terms" (Toulmin 1990: 11).

Drawing on the critiques of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, postmodernists have worked to undermine the founding assumptions of the Enlightenment project of knowledge, described above. As Best and Kellner note, Nietzsche's assault on the fundamental categories of Western philosophy "provided the theoretical premises of many poststructuralist and postmodern critiques":

He [Nietzsche] attacked philosophical conceptions of the subject, representation, causality, truth, value, and system, replacing Western philosophy with a perspectivist orientation for which there are no facts, only interpretations, and no objective truths, only the constructs of various individuals or groups. (Best and Kellner 1991:22)

Further, postmodernists have taken up a critique of rationality itself, a critique of the notion that a homogenous, universal Reason, operates identically in every human subject (Toulmin 1990:12). They argue, instead, that there are a plurality of rationalities because rationality is constructed (not given) in culturally, historically and locally specific contexts. Postmodern critiques also "reject the concept of the spontaneous, rational, autonomous subject developed by Enlightenment thinkers," which has been so basic to the development of social theory (Best and Kellner 1991:24). For postmodernists, the subject is not a given category; subjectivities are constructed situationally through language, cultural codes and systems of power. Together these attacks have cast serious doubt on the claim that knowledge is neutral and necessarily leads to freedom from domination. Instead, postmodernists argue, knowledge is always partial and interested. Further, following Foucault, they "read" the Enlightenment as a process of rationalization which set in motion, not liberating forces, but ever more subtle and incorporated "microtechniques" of domination.

This epistemological critique presents serious challenges to the traditional business of social theory. A feature common to works identified as postmodern is a rejection, indeed an excoriation, of grand synthetic theories. Postmodernists argue that there can be no grounds for general theories of society and that those who would advance such theories reduce human difference in pursuit of their own interests. This climate of relativism, fragmentation, multiplicity and uncertainty is inhospitable to modern social theory (e.g. Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Parsons); and since "social theory is by definition general" (Craib 1992:4), it might appear that postmodernism is incompatible with theory altogether. Further, postmodernism's epistemological stance severely limits the possibility of social criticism. As Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson explain:

...postmodernists orient their reflections on the character of postmodern social criticism by the falling star of foundationalist philosophy. They posit that, with philosophy no longer able credibly to ground social criticism, criticism itself must be local, ad hoc, and untheoretical. Thus, from the critique of foundationalism, they infer the illegitimacy of several genres of social criticism. . .the illegitimate genres include large-scale historical narrative and social-theoretical analyses of pervasive relations of dominance and subordination. (1990:25, emphasis added)

This postmodern refusal of the type of large theoretical tools necessary to analyze and critique macrostructures of domination has, predictably, come under attack from post-colonialist, Marxist and feminist scholars. Because I value postmodernism's insights, yet take these attacks seriously, let me briefly characterize their substance.

In "Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocutors" (1989), post-colonialist scholar Edward Said, levels harsh criticism against the entire discipline of anthropology, including the reflexive "new ethnography" championed by Marcus and Fischer (1986). The crux of Said's argument is that the project of anthropology is, and has always been, inextricably linked to colonialism and "the process of empire" (1989:214). Said touches on the current paradigm-exhaustion in anthropology and mentions ethnographic attempts to grapple with the problematic of representing another culture. Yet, he expresses profound disappointment in the fact "that in so many of the various writings on anthropology, epistemology, textualization and otherness that [he has] read. . .there is an almost total absence of any reference to American imperial intervention as a factor affecting the theoretical discussion" (1989:214). Said supports his assertion of the intimate relationship between politics and studies of "the Other" with examples of the way recent scholarly publications on the Middle East and Latin America have reinforced a public policy of "brutality against native societies" and, via mass media, have shaped public opinion in support of such policies (1989:218-9). Further, he argues that textuality-oriented ethnography and such hermeneutic approaches as Geertz's, by not appreciating sufficiently their imperial legacies, "act to shut and block out the clamor of voices on the outside asking for their claims about empire and domination to be considered" (Said 1989:219).

In the final section of his essay, Said attributes anthropology's fondness for borrowing from literary theory and history to the field's avoidance of its political roots and shoots. He writes that "much of this has skirted over the political issues for understandable reasons, poetics being a good deal easier to talk about than politics" (1989: 221). Said criticizes Lyotard's postmodernism for failing to appreciate the role played by the colonized in rendering impotent the central European narratives of emancipation and enlightenment. He argues that the voices of the colonized, in such counternarratives as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1963), played a vital role in disrupting the West's two grand narratives. Finally, Said states that arguments like Lyotard's, which ignore this fact, situate postmodernism "free of its own history, which is to say that the division of intellectual labor, the circumspection of praxes within clear disciplinary boundaries, and the depoliticization of knowledge can proceed more or less at will" (1989:224). Said's suspicion of the postmodern retreat to aesthetics and textuality is shared by Marxist scholars, such as Perry Anderson (1977, 1984) and Christopher Norris (1990), and by numerous feminist scholars from Sandra Harding to Andreas Huyssen (Mascia-Lees et al., 1989).

Basically, Marxist scholars have objected to the way poststructuralism and postmodernism collapse social reality into "the text". That is, Marxists contest the postmodern claim that there can be no correspondence between our knowledge of the world as encoded in language and any extra-linguistic referent, as the would-be object of this knowledge. They refuse the postmodernist view of truth as merely a 'rhetorical effect' because this largely incapacitates any project of social critique. In the following passage, Christopher Norris sums up the main postmodern views of knowledge and the Marxist objection to them. Asking what response there can be to the "widespread disillusionment on the left", Norris writes:

One response is the retreat to a 'postmodern' stance of all-out indifference, a stance that involves (as in Baudrillard's case) the willingness to jettison every last notion of truth, justice, or critical understanding. Another--exemplified by Lyotard--is the more refined version of postmodernist thinking that preserves those ideas but only on condition of driving a wedge between judgments of a speculative (ethical) order and cognitive truth claims of whatever kind. Then again, there is the turn toward that thoroughly depoliticised version of deconstructionist thought that reduces all concepts to metaphors, all philosophy to an undifferentiated 'kind of writing', and hence all history to a play of ungrounded figural representations. In each case. . .theory has served as an escape-route from pressing political questions and a pretext for avoiding any serious engagement with real-world historical events. Worst of all, these ideas deprive critical thought of the one resource most needful at present, i.e. the competence to judge between good and bad arguments, reason and rhetoric, truth-seeking discourse and the 'postmodern' discourse of mass-induced media simulation. (Norris 1990:44)

Like Norris, Perry Anderson has criticized poststructuralists and postmodernists for their dismissal of "the exploration of social reality or the defense of a particular political point of view" (1984:4).

In In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Anderson undertakes a sustained argument against postmodernist thought which, following Structuralism, centers knowledge on discourse. He argues that these 'poststructuralisms' depend first of all upon "the exhorbitation of language"--the indiscriminate application of the linguistic model to "all the major structures of society", and even to the unconscious (1984: 40-1). As Anderson observes, Saussure himself, the apical ancestor of the postmodern turn to textuality, insisted on the singularity of language and its incommensurablity to precisely those human institutions--kinship and marriage--which Levi-Strauss called "a kind of language". Though Anderson's argument is directed against Levi-Strauss, his most penetrating criticism applies as well to many of the varieties of postmodernist thinking which have their roots in Structuralism. Anderson assails this thought on its own ground by showing its deviation from Saussure's linguistic model. Saussure conceived of the sign as arbitrary, and language as not simply a matter of assigning things a name. Linguistic value is determined concurrently along two axes, that is, the generation of communication (linguistic value) depends on the possibility of substituting idea for word, of exchanging essentially dissimilar entities. This understanding of the sign results in "a precarious balance between signifier and signified"--a balance that Anderson argues is destroyed when "language is taken as an all-purpose model outside the domain of verbal communication itself (1984:45). Structuralism and poststructuralism collapse the two axes into one, transforming the linguistic model "into a self-sufficient system", thereby "sever[ing] any possibility of truth as a correspondence of propositions to reality" (Anderson 1984:45-6).

Feminist scholars share the Marxist criticism of postmodernism as a depoliticizing strategy that thwarts the possibility of social critique and buttresses the status quo. As Nancy Hartsock observes, "the postmodern claim that verbal constructs do not correspond in a direct way to reality has arisen precisely when women and non-Western peoples have begun to speak for themselves and, indeed, to speak about global systems of power differentials" (in Mascia-Lees et al. 1989:15). Echoing Hartsock, anthropologist Sarah Lennox, argues: "When Western white males--who traditionally have controlled the production of knowledge--can no longer define the truth,. . .their response is to conclude that there is not a truth to be discovered" (in Mascia-Lees et al. 1989:15). Further, like Said, feminists object to the postmodernist failure to acknowledge the contribution of 'others'. As Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen have argued in reference to the postmodernist turn in anthropology:

what appear to be new and exciting insights to these new postmodernist anthropologists--that culture is composed of seriously contested codes of meaning, that language and politics are inseparable, and that constructing the "other" entails relations of domination--are insights that have received repeated and rich exploration in feminist theory for the past forty years. (Mascia-Lees et al. 1989: 11)

It is because I share these post-colonialist, Marxist and feminist objections to radical epistemological skepticism, yet value many postmodernist insights, that I seek a 'postmodernist' social theory. While many postmodernists see theory as incompatible with their epistemological position, I believe that the abandonment of theory threatens to undermine the value of postmodernism, and lends force to those voices calling for a return to traditional scholarship grounded in Enlightenment foundationalism.

For many of us, the appeal of the postmodern critique relies (implicitly or explicitly) on notions of the good (footnote 5). We are drawn by the democratic (perhaps humanist) sensibility that the postmodern position enables a less exclusive kind of scholarship--a less one-sided view of what counts as knowledge. Postmodernism's perspectivist, relativist approach is seen as more egalitarian because it: does not assume an identity among human subjects; allows that rationality is culturally constructed; and acknowledges the partiality of all knowledge. For us, this is the value of postmodernism. However, these democratic sensibilities and notions of 'the good' rest on--are received from--Enlightenment philosophy and the humanist project (e.g. Kant, Locke). If we accept the postmodern critique of this philosophy, yet wish to preserve our ideals, we must redefine their basis, we must theorize them. The lack of such theorizing threatens to thwart the value of the postmodern critique and leaves much postmodernist scholarship open to charges of inconsistency and self-contradiction (footnote 6).

Theorizing is also essential to preserving the insights of postmodernism amid the current debates in academia. By calling the Enlightenment scheme into question, postmodernism has contributed to what Jurgen Habermas calls the "legitimation crisis" of contemporary society (1976). "In such a situation", Steven Connor observes:

questions of value and legitimacy do not disappear, but gain a new intensity; and the struggle to generate and ground legitimacy in the contemporary academy is nowhere more intense than in the debates produced by and around postmodernism. (1989:8)

Many of those hostile to postmodernism rally for a return to traditional, "objective" scholarship on the grounds that postmodernism is a nihilistic abdication of knowledge, an undisciplined "flight from fact" into chaos (Himmelfarb 1992:12a). Ironically, these traditionalists share with those postmodernists who would abandon theory the assumption that "if one gives up the goal of telling one true story about reality, one must also give up trying to tell less false stories" (Harding 1990:100). That is, they both see postmodernism as reducing all knowledge to rhetoric, interested fiction. Both camps effectively silence academic social criticism: one claims that knowledge is neutral and "politics" corrupts it; while the other radically limits the grounds from which to advance such criticism (and refuses theory as a means of establishing new grounds).

Those who value postmodernism's insights, but uphold the academic commitment to "telling less false stories", and to cultural critique, must use theory to chart a course between these two positions. They must work to think a "postmodern" theory. They must read in the postmodernist rejection of theory a misconception that all theory is of the Enlightenment, natural science variety: timeless, universal and foundationalist. They must show this to be a misconception by taking on the task of generating new ways of "doing theory". Their theorizing must be situated in relation to time, space and society, but avoid charges of nihilist skepticism by enabling distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate truth claims and by being possible to validate, or falsify. What might such postmodern theorizing "look" like?

Many scholars, notably feminists and those on the left, have worked to answer this question in recent years. Before describing what I see as the most salient features of this new way of theorizing, I must acknowledge the existence and scope of this work. In their book Postmodern Theory (1991), Steven Best and Douglas Kellner explicitly seek a critical theory for a radical politics. Feminists Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson argue that "[T]here is nothing contradictory in the idea of a postmodern theory" and proceed to furnish a description of what such a theory might be like (1990: 34-5). Ian Craib, in Modern Social Theory (1992), argues that theory had been misunderstood and that we must change our view of it. "The change", he says, "consists in being able to entertain a range of possibilities and tolerate their differences--even, perhaps, their mutual opposition" (1992: 257). Similarly, political philosopher Charles Taylor proposes that social theory has erroneously followed the natural science model and must now be reconceived as practice (1985). One can even read Stephen Toulmin's call for a "recovery of practical philosophy" as a call for a new kind of theory, though Toulmin is cursory in his characterization of this new way of thinking concerned with "the oral, the particular, the local and the timely" (1990: 186-92). The description I give below of a postmodern way of theorizing draws on the work of all these scholars, without representing the full argument of any one.

In my view, a postmodern way of theorizing possesses three vital features:

  1. It sees/uses theory as a tool, rather than as Truth. That is, it understands theorizing as the practice of fashioning conceptual tools which need not be true in some universal sense, but which must be validated in the realm of practice. Here theorizing takes on the practical cast of model-making and all techniques that take up the generative power of the "as if", from hexadecimal coding to language itself.

  2. It situates itself with respect to the "ontological nexus of space-time-being"(Soja 1990:25). That is, it is spatially, historically, and culturally contextualized.

  3. It conceives of subjectivities as constructed, not natural or given. It speaks of agencies and over-lapping identities, not of some unitary human subject. This alternate conception of subjectivity recognizes the intimate connections of subject and object. It works against the subject/object dichotomy entrenched by and in the Enlightenment project of knowledge. In particular, it recognizes that social theory is always part of the object it seeks to understand.

In the following section, let me explicate these three features, situating them in relation to some of the recent literature on contemporary social theory.

First, this 'postmodernist' social theory would perceive, conceive and live theory as a tool. The validity of theories, in this approach, must be sought in the practices they enable. Thus, theories are less a matter of truth than a matter of use. This is precisely the image of social theory Charles Taylor presents in his argument about the possibility and importance of validating social theories in their "self-defining uses" (1985:107). In Philosophy and the Human Sciences (1985), Taylor compares theories to maps, writing: "[T]he proof of a map is how well you can get around using it" (111). He argues that, unlike natural science, social science is not external to its object, it is part of the processes it aims to understand. Taylor emphasizes this connection, writing: "social theory can affect practice just because it can alter our self-descriptions, and our self-descriptions can be constitutive of our practices" (1985:104). Thus, the proof, truth and validity of theories in this approach is intimately bound up with practice:

Put tersely, our social theories can be validated, because they can be tested in practice. If theory can transform practice, then it can be tested in the quality of the practice it informs. What makes a theory right is that it brings practice out in the clear; its adoption makes possible what is in some sense a more effective practice. (Taylor 1985: 104)

As Taylor's work suggests, a postmodern social theory could proceed, not by seeking independent verities and facts (as in the Enlightenment scheme), but by examining the theories which inform our practices and by directing its own production to the shaping of those practices. Theory in this sense is indeed related to map-making in that what you choose to look at and chart depends on where you aim to go. This approach to theorizing is in step with postmodernist insight into the partial and constructed nature of knowledge. However, it avoids nihilistic relativism by seeking validation in the practico-sensory realm.

The second feature of the postmodernist theory I describe is perhaps most succinctly outlined in Fraser and Nicholson's "Social Criticism without Philosophy" (1990). These two scholars explicitly seek a way of theorizing consistent with the postmodern epistemological critique. Such theorizing, they propose, "would be explicitly historical, attuned to the cultural specificity of different societies and periods and to that of different groups within societies and periods" (Fraser and Nicholson 1990:34). In other words, it would be contextualized in relation to space-time-being, the "ontological nexus" within which social theory must inscribe its meanings (Soja 1989:25). This approach allows and enables large theoretical tools, but requires those who make use of them to do so in specific and explicit contexts (Fraser and Nicholson 1990: 34-5). This manner of theorizing is thus consistent with postmodernist relativism.

Finally, a postmodernist social theory would employ a conception of subjectivity drawn from the deconstruction of the Enlightenment's abstract, universal subject. In recognizing that subjectivity is constructed situationally through culture and practice, this mode of social theory commits itself to rethinking, to renegotiating, the gulf created by our traditional opposition of subject and object. As my discussion of Taylor's work indicates, recognition of the mutual constitution of social theory and its object leads to a reconception of the relation between theory and practice. Indeed, all three of the features I have outlined as vital to social theorizing in a postmodern climate work towards an interpolation of theory and practice. They re-chart our sense of the relation between theory's generalities and the particularities of everyday life. The social theory circumscribed by these features, to use the words of Henri Lefebvre:

...straddles the breach between science and utopia, reality and ideality, conceived and lived. It aspires to surmount these oppositions by exploring the dialectical relationship between 'possible' and 'impossible', and this both objectively and subjectively. (1991: 60)

I mention Lefebvre because, though my vision of a postmodernist theory draws on a number of sources, it owes its main contours to the mode of theorizing he undertakes in The Production of Space (1991). Here Lefebvre works towards a unitary theory of space--towards a system of knowledge that: (1) recognizes the temporary, tool-like nature of theorizing (e.g. his use of a "strategic hypothesis"); (2) works to bridge the rift between theory and practice; and (3), situates itself temporally, spatially, and culturally (1991: 60-5). Lefebvre describes this "system of knowledge", writing:

It brings an alphabet, a lexicon, and a grammar together within an overall framework; and it situates itself--though not in such a way as to exclude it--vis vis non-knowledge (ignorance or misunderstanding); in other words, vis vis the lived and the perceived. Such knowledge is conscious of its own approximativeness: it is at once certain and uncertain. It announces its own relativity at each step, undertaking (or at least seeking to undertake) self-criticism, yet never allowing itself to become dissipated in apologias for non-knowledge, absolute spontaneity or 'pure' violence. This knowledge must find a middle path between dogmatism on the one hand and the abdication of knowledge on the other. (Lefebvre 1991: 65)

Moving to the current academic scene, I see the traditionalist call for a return to 'objective' scholarship as dogmatism; and the call of some postmodernists to abandon theory to infinite difference as an abdication of knowledge. Hence, in my research I have labored to find Lefebvre's middle path. This labor has constrained me to advance, not one, but two distinct arguments: one about the need for theory in contemporary social criticism, which I have presented above and to which I return in my conclusion; and the other a critique of dominant cultural self-understandings. To this second critique and the qualitative research on which it is based, I now turn.

The Research Project

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In the spring of 1991, I began my second round of research into the norms of participating in modern consumer society. Specifically, I set out to examine the consumer choices, discernments and cultural logic(s) deployed by home owners as they made "homes" out of their new tract houses in Antelope Valley. When a person buys a house, he or she is faced with the cultural task of transforming the purchase into the specific kind of habitable space called "home". My aim was to investigate this process of transformation in the context of mass consumer society where market forces present standard notions of what a home should be. Do the consumers of tract houses passively adopt the notion of what a home is from the norms offered by the sales side? Are the norms presented by the developers and their marketing strategists representative of those held by home buyers? Or, do these "marketed norms" reflect a cultural and positional logic alien to tract home buyers? These were the questions with which I began.

I chose to take my research questions to Antelope Valley, not only because I had already established research relationships there, but also because this region has been the site of tremendous home building and buying activity over the past decade. Further, this field site was attractive for its proximity: the Valley's two cities, Lancaster and Palmdale, lie about 50 miles north of my home in Los Angeles.

According to the 1990 Gobar Report, prepared for the Lancaster Economic Development Corporation, 57 people a day moved to the Antelope Valley between 1986 and 1990. In this period, 33,989 new houses were built, an average of 23.3 houses per day. Antelope Valley's estimated 1990 population of 250,000 represents a 168.4 percent increase for the City of Palmdale and an 80.2 percent increase for the City of Lancaster, since 1980. The overwhelming majority of these new residents have come because the purchase price of a house in the Valley is significantly lower than in surrounding areas, such as Los Angeles, or the San Fernando Valley. Thus, this region was an ideal site for my research. In Antelope Valley, I found, (1) not only a large number of new home owners, but also, (2) an abundance of sell-side articulations (billboards, decorated model homes, sales pamphlets, etc.) that present a standard, or ideal, for the home. These two elements define the shores of the communication my study has explored--the shores I call: "the discourse of supply" and "the discourse of demand". (Gobar Report 1990)

The Antelope Valley's rapid growth results from a coincidence of supply and demand: developers have built a large supply of new homes (most ranging in price from about $90,000 to $180,000) and Southern Californians continue to demand "homes of their own". The tract homes built to meet this demand epitomize the standardized commodity. They are uniform in design, produced in quantity and marketed through advertising and display. The making and marketing of these houses produces a "discourse of supply" that articulates a standard for the home: a standard notion of what a home represents, or ought to be. Such articulations appear in the architecture of tract homes; in the freeway billboards and sales brochures that advertise them; and most concretely in the fully furnished "model" homes that prospective buyers are invited to tour. My project has entailed: (1) analyzing these articulations for the standard notion of home they present; and (2) investigating the way consumers engage "the standard", how they "read" it and whether they "rewrite" it.

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