Methods

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Essentially, my research has proceeded according to the grounded theory method of qualitative research. This method "stresses discovery and theory development rather than logical reasoning which relies on prior theoretical frameworks" (Charmaz 1983: 110). I began researching tract-homeownership in Antelope Valley because I wanted to study modern, consumer societies anthropologically and because I found the decorated model homes strange and fascinating. This initial period of field research did not draw directly on any theoretical frame and I eschewed the historical and ethnographic literature on my topic until well into the research process. Yet, in grounded theory, data collection and analysis proceed simultaneously: as my interests developed and specific themes and categories began to take shape, I started to examine the pertinent literature. Ultimately, in "writing up" my research, I worked to situate my own interpretations in relation to this literature.

I have adopted two further aspects of the grounded theory method in my Antelope Valley research. First, I do not "follow the traditional quantitative canons of verification", which, in any case, have held more sway in sociology than in anthropology (Charmaz: 111). Second, in my view, developing theories of social life is a process and thus, I fully expect my analyses to be modified and surpassed by subsequent work. As Kathy Charmaz has written: "In keeping with their foundations in pragmatism. . .grounded theorists aim to develop fresh theoretical interpretations of the data rather than explicitly aim for any final or complete interpretation of it". (1983: 111).

Basically, I collected data on the discourse of supply by examining: advertisements for single-family tract houses; sales brochures; the decor and architecture of model homes; and the statements of sales representatives, particularly those of my informant Debra. I observed and elicited the discourse of demand, primarily, from five informants: Maggie, Vincent, Laura, Betsy and Hope; though in the course of my research I had the opportunity to talk at length with approximately two dozen tract-home owners. My research relationships are described in the analysis of the discourse of demand (pp.XX), which begins with biographical profiles of primary informants. Though I did engage in two brief periods of fieldwork proper, living in an Antelope Valley tract (with Maggie for two weeks, in 1991, and with Vincent and Laura for a week, in 1992), most of my data was collected in audio or videotaped interviews. In addition, I had many casual encounters with my main informants, attending holiday parties at their homes, lunching with them and conversing on the telephone.

An important aspect of my research methods is evident in my choice of the labels: discourse of supply and discourse of demand. As this terminology indicates, I focus on the articulations and claims, whether verbal or symbolic, made by the buyers and sellers of tract-housing. I seek first to discern the content and internal logic of these discourses, rather than submit them from the start to a search for underlying structure. This method may be characterized as intensely empirical, attentive to the concrete particularities of everyday life. To a certain extent, as my analysis of the discourse of demand will show, this involves taking people "at their word". Which is not to say I credulously accept their statements as representing "the whole picture", but rather, that I begin with the recognition that they are purposeful human beings; and seek some understanding of their understandings, some sense of the cultural logic by which they operate. This manner of inquiry is, of course, the hallmark of anthropology which has, at least since Boas and Malinowski, sought to comprehend something of "the native's point of view". Such an approach stands in contrast to Bourdieu's method in Distinction which, as I have argued, suffers from its overestimation of abstract rationality and reliance on questionnaire surveys.

At the logistical level, my selection of research subjects reflects the ad hoc nature of fieldwork and the grounded theory method. I began with Maggie who was, at the time I met her, my new sister-in-law. Maggie put me in contact with Vincent and Laura, and other residents of her neighborhood. I knew Betsy from her workplace and one day, she mentioned she lived in an Antelope Valley tract. So, I began working with her and, later, with her daughter, Hope. Betsy put me in touch with Mr. Dobbs, a member of the Lancaster Planning Commission, whose specialized knowledge of housing developments has supplied me a great deal of contextual information.

In spite of its relative informality, my selection of informants was guided by two key factors. First, informants had to live in a new tract house, preferably as first-time homeowners (only Maggie had owned previously). Second, I sought informants who were either at the upper end of the working classes, or were lower middle-class. While I do not wish to become embroiled in categorizing and defining the class hierarchy in contemporary America, I feel a brief explanation is warranted.

Recognizing in my initial fieldwork that homeownership was entwined with upward social mobility, I sought informants likely to be in the process of such transition. First-time homeownership and lack of a college degree--a conventional marker of middle-class status (Ehrenreich 1989)--were two rules of thumb used to select informants. While my informants may be considered working class in that they are not bourgeoisie, they are not working class in the narrow definition of that class as including only blue-collar workers. As their biographical profiles detail, my informants are from the growing class, often called "pink-collar", which includes clerical and service workers, low level supervisors, medical and dental assistants and computer operators, for example. These workers, while being drawn into middle-class culture, remain decidedly below professionals in status and power. As Richard Walker explains in his theory of suburbanization in the United States:

Conventional sociologists have. . .underplayed the impact of suburbanization on the working class by defining the latter narrowly as blue-collar workers. In fact, the largest impacted group has been the 'rising' strata of white-collar workers, tied to a changing social division of labor between production and circulation, mental and manual labor and private/public sectors, whose personal life-experience and, indeed, class-experience has been intensely colored by developing within a 'middle class' mode of living. This, in addition to differing situations within the workplace, has served to divide the working class and rupture its class traditions, and class struggle in this country. (1981:398)

As my analysis will show, my informants' class-experience has clearly developed within a middle-class mode of living and their experience of homeownership is integrally related to their aspirations and strategies of upward social mobility.

Another issue raised by my choice of subjects, by my decision to study in Antelope Valley, is that of conducting anthropological research on one's own society. While I will not explore the issue in any depth, I would like to make one reflexive point in closing this discussion of methods. While I identify myself as an American, my informants are not entirely "my people". First, as I come from an upper-middle class family, (footnote 14) there are class barriers between us which I wrote about in describing the background of my project. Second, though my father is American, my mother is an Australian born in the Crown Colony of Malaya. From the time of their marriage, in 1952, until their "retirement", in 1991, they lived and worked in Samoa, Laos, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines. Like my mother, whose father worked as a surveyor for the British colony of Malaya, I grew up "over seas". I moved to Massachusetts to attend college in 1983 and have lived in the United States ever since. Though it affords no claim to greater objectivity, I feel this ex-patriot background gives me a useful insider/outsider perspective on American culture. Further, the fact I have never lived in a house owned by my family may be one reason I found homeownership--and the ideological constellation that surrounds it in American culture--so intriguing. Before presenting the findings of my inquiry, I must turn for a moment to more mundane matters.

Transcription Notation

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As I have explained, my study may be seen as a sort of discourse analysis and thus, in my findings and analysis, I have quoted extensively from advertising literature and interview transcripts. Below, I present a few notes on transcription, a legend, if you will, to guide the reader through the excerpted data.

Quotations from interviews and sales brochures are presented in the same format as those from academic literature. For rendering tape-recorded interviews in writing, I have loosely adopted the transcription notation set forth by Elliot Mishler in The Discourse of Medicine: The Dialectics of Medical Interviews (1984: 91-3). Therefore, my transcriptions are a bit more detailed than is customary, but this reflects my focus on discourse.

  1. I have made an effort to transcribe both non-lexical utterances ("hmmm", "uh" etc.) and lexical ones; and to record hesitations, repetitions and the like.

  2. Words which were spoken with particular emphasis (more clearly or loudly) have been transcribed in bold type. Where the bolded emphasis is my own and not in the original, this has been noted: "(emphasis added)".

  3. Pauses in an informant's speech are denoted by unspaced dots (.....), while ellipses are marked by the conventional spaced dots (. . .).used when quoting written sources.

  4. If I have transcribed something of which I am still unsure, I have put a question mark after it like this: (?).

  5. Finally, my own comments, e.g. [she laughs], are enclosed in brackets.

Though some might find this notation cumbersome, I have found it of aid in the analytic process. Detailed transcriptions, because they represent more elements of a communication, provide a fuller sense of oral discourse. They have enabled me to "re-play" interviews as I studied them, and thereby comprehend their wider contexts and implicit references. Such comprehension has been the basis of the analysis put forth in the following sections in which I present: first, my findings on the discourse of supply; and, then, those on the discourse of demand.

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