Economic Insecurity and American Political Culture: A Study of Middle-Class Americans Going Through Personal Bankruptcy
Wise, Tess Elizabeth
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CitationWise, Tess Elizabeth. 2019. Economic Insecurity and American Political Culture: A Study of Middle-Class Americans Going Through Personal Bankruptcy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe dissertation starts by developing a semiotic theory of culture that conceptualizes political culture as a process of meaning making. Semiotic practices have three components—everyday actions, symbols such as language, and an explanation of how these fit together. In this conceptualization, political culture can be seen as roles in a social play. The roles constitute cultural narratives that people adopt to help solve problems, communicate their perspectives to others, or pursue strategies of action. Culture in this framework is flexible and strategic, not necessarily deeply engrained.
The first empirical chapter draws on a broad middle-class sample and describes the everyday activities participants engage in related to their economic insecurity such as relying on family, supporting adult children, coping with health crises, or working in particular jobs. I identify 51 categories of socioeconomic practice across five social domains: Health, Housing, Family, Cost of Living, and Livelihood. I also find three macro-level patterns of economic insecurity---cascades, staircases, and spirals---corresponding to combinations of causal complexity (low, medium, and high) and length of insecurity prior to filing (short, medium, and long). Using examples from my participants’ bankruptcy trajectories, I describe the broad patterns of economic insecurity in this population.
The second empirical chapter focuses on a smaller sample of white Americans and explores how the everyday activities discussed in the first empirical chapter relate to these individuals’ political perspectives through cultural narratives. I find three groups that can be conceptualized as archetypes from the 1970s American sitcom All in The Family. “Archies” are heads of households under siege and experience spiral bankruptcies commonly marked by supporting adult children and employment in jobs strongly tied to economic conditions (e.g., construction). “Ediths” are mourners at the American funeral and experience cascade or staircase bankruptcies commonly marked by health crises that leave them economically dependent on family. “Mikes and Glorias” are young liberal professionals and are a small group that have bankruptcies marked by student loan debt.
Overall, the dissertation allows us to see economic insecurity as a complex social and political phenomenon. For some Americans economic insecurity is associated with conservative populist narratives (Archies), others are disenchanted centrists (Ediths), and a small group are social democrats (Mikes and Glorias). For each of these groups there is an interplay between everyday economic experiences and their political perspectives that creates a distinct political culture.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42029701
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