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Leonard Nevarez Vassar College
Eastern Sociological Society meetings Thematic Session: The Role of Places in the Quality of our Lives February 25, 2006
As this rather awkward title indicates, with this paper I hope to reverse the causal arrow that has been asserted in so much recent thinking and policy on the relationship between place and quality of life. In particular, the term I want to put the skeptical quotation marks around is quality of life. The thrust of recent debates among public intellectuals and policy-makers have narrowed our understanding of this idea (hereafter, QOL) around two poles: first, a limited set of geographical and social features that are some times evoked with a related term, quality of place, and second, a culturally relativistic set of individual aspirations for the “good life.” I want to look at these debates ethnographically, as signs of a growing crackpot realism in regards to the role of places in the quality of our lives. My choice of phrase there is not accidental; it’s one of the more potent insights associated with C. Wright Mills (e.g., 2000: 313). And as sociologists come to take seriously the role of place in society—a development I wholeheartedly endorse—I hope we can inject a bit of critical sociological imagination into the idea of quality of life.
What is QOL? Can we really know?
Ubiquitous in contemporary discourse, “quality of life” warrants a definition that remains slippery on further look. Quality denotes a variable degree of excellence, and thus highlights the evaluative basis of this idea, while life points to the various physical, social, and symbolic aspects of human existence, in either the singular or collective sense. A concrete sense of the term comes from the contrast to its semantic opposite: quantity of life, or more commonly “standard of living,” which simply assesses the amount of human existence and resources for life. As illustrated by modern medicine’s extension of human lifespan or economists’ concern for national GDP, is not innately inadequate as an idea or a practice except insofar as quality of life makes it come up short. Indeed, this is the point made urgent by QOL’s rhetorical use by environmentalists, urban planners, and patient’s rights advocates: QOL highlights the one-dimensionality of technocratic approaches to the enhancement of human existence versus the individual’s right to selfdetermination. In regards to its social context, QOL generally refers to activities and goals in the spheres of health, consumption, and social reproduction, much like “standard of living,” that term which QOL extends and critiques. Beyond this, it’s worth nothing that some researchers have proposed concrete “domains” for QOL. Notably, in a meta-analysis of QOL studies that used scales containing a number of life domains, Cummins (1996) identified seven overarching domains: material well-being, health, productivity, intimacy, safety, community, and emotional well-being (see Figure 1).
FIGURE 1 HERE: CUMMINS’ QOL DOMAINS AND INDICES
Even though we have agreed to set aside scholarly conceptualizations, this understanding is, among other reasons, for its conceptual loading; in this case, the idea’s individualized orientation is apparent. As this variety might suggest, QOL is essentially, for some almost hopelessly, subjective in the particular domains of human existence that it can evaluate and that the beholder of QOL may select to emphasize. Frequently, QOL is operationally defined as “well-being,” e.g.:
Quality of life is defined as an overall general well-being which comprises objective descriptors and subjective evaluations of physical, material, social and emotional well-being together with the extent of personal development and purposeful activity all weighted by a personal set of values (Felce and Perry 1993: 13).
Although this definition (like most from the overlapping arenas of medicine, psychology, and social health) narrows the idea around an individual concern, it nevertheless illustrates how QOL entails a set of values on the part of its beholder, be this the researcher or the lay person, about how to live that makes any positivistic study of QOL rather difficult. Consequently, discussions of QOL tend to engender a cultural relativism that, for policy makers, can really only be reconciled through a utilitarian orientation toward the greatest good for the greatest number (Scanlon 1993: 195).
Rather than run away from the conceptual instabilities associated with QOL, let’s accept those and explore this idea ethnographically as a lay discourse, a multivalent and often contradictory idea that (as with so many other scholarly concepts) bears only passing resemblances to its uses in academia. What are the discursive parameters of this lay concept? QOL articulates for its beholders the subjective dimensions of “the good life,” as diverse, ephemeral, or transitory as these may be. At least implicitly, the idea evaluates its current attainment and compares this to others QOLs achieved in other settings and periods. QOL thus has an aspirational quality, regardless of whether the beholder pursues this aspiration or not. Furthermore, across its many and sometimes contradictory lay uses QOL embodies four conceptual tensions. As in scholarly discussions, QOL connotes both an objective condition (i.e., a material level of welfare provision) and a subjective belief (an evaluation that draws on observations and expectations of well-being). QOL can be attributed to both a collective—a society, a region, a group—and distinct individuals. Relatedly, QOL refers to a societal accomplishment (the collective development of technology and economy), e.g., but it can also highlight the uneven distribution of those benefits (the lifestyle enjoyed by exclusive groups and localities). Finally, QOL connotes both a universal indicator to compare different groups, often to assert one group’s superiority, and a culturally relative idea that can only be properly understood in a group’s meaning system.
“Places as contexts for QOL”
Moving from this semantic discussion, I now take up the question of place and QOL as raised in recent debates on these topics. Having urged us to hold off on scholarly definitions, I want to conduct a sociology of knowledge upon this heated discussion among public intellectuals and examine it as ethnographic discourse. Below, I demonstrate how their arguments resonate with and shed light on common-sense understandings of place’s role in facilitating QOL. While my sources narrow the debate around a handful of emblematic examples and does not do justice to the rich empirical detail could illuminate this subject, for the purposes of this paper I think these sources usefully sketch the discursive contours of popular thinking about the relationship of QOL and place. In the subsequent section, I call attention to the particular social contexts that make these common-sense understandings typical and meaningful to the members of our contemporary society.
The creative city argument QOL has long been deployed as an idea guiding the understanding, experience, and preservation of place. To name some obvious precedents: From Jane Jacobs, the planning principles and moral advocacy of urban vitality have informed the design and preservation of various urban amenities and features—pedestrian-based downtowns, safe and popular parks, and thoroughly local business districts, for instance—that can enhance the city’s economic viability and spontaneous forces of regeneration and social integration. From the Community Indicators movements, citizens have enumerated
particular trends that mark the health and sustainability of communities and natural environments, from parent participation in schools to open space preservation. New Urbanist planners and concerned mothers alike have proposed heartfelt critiques and alternative designs to the suburban landscapes that compel automobile travel and discourage the unmonitored play of children on streets and sidewalks. Whether QOL is explicitly invoked in these writings and traditions (no, in the case of Jacobs’ manifesto The Death and Life of Great American Cities), their concerns can be easily associated with the idea (cf. the “community” domain of Cummins 1996). Perhaps less obviously, these precedents illustrate an environmentally determinist orientation toward QOL of planners and urban activists; through the design and preservation of features and amenities that enhance a place’s utility, attractiveness, and benefits for people, QOL can be built into physical environments and inhere to this distinct, non-cognitive sphere of social action. But it is with the new-economy focus on economic competitiveness that these precedents have taken on a new urgency and, along the way, coalesced into a new discourse of place and QOL. A fair number of planners, policy-makers and scholars have driven this focus, but for many it is epitomized by the recent writings of regional development professor Richard Florida. In The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) and again in Cities and the Creative Class (2005), he attributes a new economic importance to cities in sustaining and organizing the “creative economy.” In Florida’s perspective, the creative economy gravitates around thick labor markets, not corporate relocations negotiated behind the closed doors of city halls or chambers and commerce. Consequently, the locational preferences and geographic migrations of individuals are
now crucial to regional competitiveness. To make sense of these, Florida looks to the “creative ethos” that motivates, indeed defines, the workers and entrepreneurs of this economy. Symbolized by the artist’s need to produce and the scientist’s quest to discover, the creative ethos is a state of creative and individual becoming that members of the creative class cherish and seek out across the spheres of workplace, leisure, community, and location. Transformed into in-demand skills, it can generate big incomes, but this extrinsic reward is a happy accident for the creative worker who (according to Florida) gives priority to her muse. Florida explains that the creative class congregates in “creative cities,” be these urban centers or remote college-towns, because those places have features and amenities that support the creative ethos. These features and amenity offer “quality of place” along three dimensions:
What’s there: the combination of the built environment; a proper setting for pursuit of creative lives.
Who’s there: the diverse kinds of people, interacting and providing cues that anyone can plug into and make a life in that community.
What’s going on: the vibrancy of street life, café culture, arts, music and people engaging in outdoor activities—altogether a lot of active, exciting, creative endeavors (Florida 2002: 232; emphasis in original).
Florida fleshes these ideas out into specific characteristics of creative cities. For instance gay-friendly cities and ethnic diversity (excluding non-white diversity; Florida 2002: 263) symbolize the tolerance to difference so valued by the creative class—as symbols of
openness and lifestyle hospitality, if not communities or neighborhoods they will actually engage with (Florida 2002: 256). Late-night street life, eclectic merchants, and other elements of urban authenticity “recharge” creative workers with opportunities for inspiration or simply after-work release (Florida 2002: 185). As Florida himself acknowledges, this quality of place draws on many of the generators of economic diversity and social integration found in the “great American cities” Jane Jacobs championed. Yet, significantly, Florida’s concern is not the vital city itself, but its attractiveness to the creative class. Furthermore, he understands this attraction as an individual process repeated ad infinium: creative workers recognize that the city supports their lifestyle pursuits. Florida’s focus groups tell him as much: “lifestyle frequently trumps employment when they’re choosing where to live” (Florida 2002: 224). This marks an important shift in the attribution of QOL. Jane Jacobs (1961: 372; emphasis in original) may have admonished urban advocates that the complex dynamics of urban vitality, which operate above the level of visual order perceived by planners and urbanites, impose “a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art.” Yet although Florida appreciates this higher-level complexity, its value is the aesthetic pull it exerts upon people, particularly the creative class. QOL may be built into the environments of creative cities for the benefit of all, but for those watching the score in the economic competitiveness game, it is individuals whose creative and lifestyle pursuits—is there any distinction?—who give (economic) value to quality of place. Although Richard Florida’s thesis has garnered much controversy, as we will see, wide swaths of the urban policy and planning world have accepted at least several of its
premises. Many agree that the creative economy—a broad category encompassing hightechnology, arts and entertainment, health, and innovative business services—comprises one of the most competitive sectors in post-industrial America. Florida’s theory is congruent with broader arguments in economic geography about the geographical organization of labor markets in specialized sectors, and of the role of places’ “creative milieux” in socializing and reproducing skilled labor in these sectors (e.g., Kenney 2000; Castells 1996: 65). Place, in dimensions both tangible and ephemeral, has long been recognized as a key orienting principle in these cutting-edge sectors; for example, in 1989 we heard that knowledge workers “are very sophisticated consumers of place” (Knight 1989: 237). Furthermore, many agree that in the post-industrial city, entertainment and consumption have become key economic development strategies (see the articles in Clark 2004a). Observes Robert Fishman (2005: xiii), “the older urban cores have, after the near-death experience of the urban crisis, seen a surprising resurrection, not least among the young and hip, whose tastes rule the future.” Increasingly, urban policy and planning converge on the thesis drawn from Florida’s theory and made explicit by Terry Nichols Clark (2004b) that quality-of-life amenities, from open natural spaces to bookstores and Starbucks, drive urban growth. Although quality of place may benefit many, a common wisdom emerges that it is the tastes of the creative class who matter most.
The great mosaic of QOL So much attention has the urban amenity thesis generated that a backlash among scholars and public intellectuals was perhaps inevitable. Most of it targets Florida’s various arguments in The Rise of the Creative Class, the critical response to which has
been so voluminous as to warrant substantive and political classification of its own. Rather than take up that task here, below I touch on this response to underscore the broader counterperspective that emphasizes a diverse cultural geography of QOL. Tellingly, a good number of proponents of this perspective do not use the term QOL at all, although their reasons are largely rhetorical; Florida and his ilk have used this term in such a restrictive fashion as to debase the term into a cultural buzzword of a liberal elite. Although I do not share the political motivations of some of Florida’s critics, in keeping with my ethnographic concerns I think QOL can be rehabilitated with the broader insight that it is certainly not the sole province of the creative class. Many readers, including those sympathetic to Florida’s argument, balk at his celebration of a narrow set of tastes in work, play, and identity, especially if these are now promoted as the qualities that cities must cultivate. As one critic observed, Florida’s book is essentially “an engaging account of the lifestyle preferences of yuppies” (Marcuse 2003: 41). Yet perhaps this is too broad a characterization, even granting the generational shift from the 1980s yuppie. A dot-com CEO once told me, “I work with a lot of high-tech people who think quality of life is a Mountain Dew and a window to the outside world” (quoted in Nevarez 2003: 58), and his remark underscores the selectivity of Florida’s perspective on the contemporary, knowledge-based workplace. Florida discounts the good number (25-38 percent of information technology workers by his count) of creative workers who view “old economy” compensation as a key job factor. His insistence that most creative workers value the challenge, lack of repetition, and other innate rewards of creative work overlooks how these can coincide with rather stressful, burnout-inducing workplaces (Sharone 2004). Florida’s selectivity has, furthermore, a
geographic correlate. Tellingly, he identifies compact, urbane San Francisco as an emblematic creative city while ignoring the sprawling, traffic-choked Silicon Valley region, with its monotonous landscape of corporate offices, shopping centers and condos that sprawls up to and economically subsumes the older city. (With its great number of Starbucks, perhaps the Silicon Valley counter-example at least supports Clark’s findings.) Many of Florida’s critics are also skeptical of the creative class’s embrace of tolerance and diversity as more than background landscape. Joel Kotkin (2006: B1) laments, “Cities once boasted of their thriving middle-class neighborhoods, churches, warehouses, factories and high-rise office towers. Today they set their value by their inventory of jazz clubs, gay bars, art museums, luxury hotels and condos.” While perhaps overly caustic, Kotkin’s comment calls attention to the problems of homogeneity and gentrification in the creative city—problems Florida notoriously neglects in The Rise of the Creative Class. As childless professionals and hip creatives move in, gentrification sets in, schools empty out, other middle-class residents move out, and non-creative oldtimers hang on by their wits in service-sector jobs. Then there is troublesome fact that cities aren’t even the hotspots of the economy anymore, if they ever were in the booming new economy. Only a handful of large cities have been revitalized by creative economies; far more still are experiencing deindustrialization, population loss, and deteriorating urban cores. More importantly, all the economic action—population growth, job growth, middle-class concentration— occurs outside the city in the “nerdistan” suburbs and greenfield exurbs (Berube 2003; Berube and Forman 2003). Good schools, perennially the Achilles heel of cities, remain the primary centrifugal force pushing the middle classes out, including many former
creative types who reach child-bearing age; to a lesser extent, so are affordable housing, space to accommodate the 1-2 cars, and shopping convenience. Significantly, it is also the outer metropolitan region that has inherited the socioeconomic diversity that once characterized the city. It is when one leaves the central city that one can encounter both farmer’s markets and Wal-Marts, bike paths and hunting grounds, antique districts and mega-churches. The professional strivers, the newly minted middle-class, the countrymusic listening white working classes, the active retirees and not-so-active seniors, firstgeneration immigrants: all claim their own areas in the older suburbs and exurban greenfields beyond the historic city (Frey 2003). Out here, albeit in self-selected and de facto segregated settlments, is the pluralism that the city once promised—indeed, for cultural conservatives like critic David Brooks (2004), the pluralism that America still promises. If I may be selective in my own reading of Florida’s critics, Brooks’ perspective is especially instructive; although he is far less committed to saving the city than fellow Florida-bashers like Kotkin, he perhaps inadvertently reveals and extends a QOL framework that Florida also holds. To begin, he avoids use of the term QOL because of its association with the “bobo” or bourgeois bohemians, the cultural class that bears more than a passing resemblance to the creative class:
Today, American once again has a dominant class that defines the parameters of respectable opinion and taste—a class that determines conventional wisdom, that promulgates a code of good manners, that establishes a pecking order to give shape to society, that excludes those who violate its codes, that transmits its moral
and etiquette codes down to its children, that imposes social discipline on the rest of society so as to improve the “quality of life,” to use the contemporary phrase (Brooks 2000: 46).
With this passage, Brooks reduces the QOL rationales behind regional policies for “smart growth” planning and gun control (to name just two examples) to the domination of a cultural interest group. To see how Brooks really understands QOL, we must look elsewhere. In On Paradise Drive, he writes, “as we take our drive through America, we will see that people congregate into communities not so much on the basis of class but on the basis of what ideal state they aspire to, and each ideal state creates its own cultural climate zone” (Brooks 2004: 18; emphasis mine). This passage highlights three larger points worth consideration. First, these “ideal states,” I contend, are rhetorical substitutes for QOL, as they highlight the aspirational dimensions of QOL in its individualized orientation—an orientation that Florida shares. Second, Brooks points to an alternate theory of how place supports QOL. While people’s conceptions of QOL (i.e., the “ideal state they aspire to”) differ, places also differ in their hospitality to diverse QOL pursuits—the “cultural climate zones” they offer people. Thus, “single-family homes, churches, satellite dishes, and malls” (Kotkin 2003:34) are not exclusive to QOL but merely support a different kind. Third, Brooks banishes the environmental determinism behind QOL-related
policies. America’s great mosaic of QOL stems solely from the social efforts of (in Brooks’ case) cultural affinity groups.1
QOL as contexts for place
Distrustful as I am of the “revenge of the red states” agenda behind some of Richard Florida’s critics, I think their larger point is valid: QOL belongs to everyone, taking different forms in different settings. Indeed, we only have to pay close attention to how people really use this term to recognize that places support diverse QOL pursuits in a variety of ways.
FIGURE 2: MONTGOMERY GENTRY LYRICS
Yet this apparent live-and-let-live ethos is not merely an intellectual resolution to our debate. It is also an orientation that reflects the same forces that make “QOL” a compelling idea albeit an ethnographic complexity. To understand this, we must inquire into the structural contexts that precede and make meaningful these QOL-enhancing places.
Perhaps relatedly, Brooks recently encouraged cultural geography to young people seeking to “understand the forces that will be shaping history for decades to come”; Brooks 2005). 14
Structures of individualization To begin, we must foreground the centrality of the market in framing the debate about place and quality of life. Radical critiques of Florida (summarized in Peck 1995) have already laid the groundwork here by asserting that the creative class he describes ushers in the naturalization of a neoliberal ethos in the social contract. Instead of collective bargaining, the creative class instead values work’s intrinsic rewards; instead of industrial policy, the creative class happily shoulders the burden of retraining and jobhopping that, when pursued in off-hours classes and coffeehouse klatches, can even be fun.2 As it should be clear by now, neither do Florida’s critics from the right offer alternatives to the individual reductionism of this labor market framework. Indeed, how could those square with celebrations of hard-working red-state folks? Yet cultural analysis does not go far enough. We must further see how the market structures the social experience of place and quality of life. In this regard, it is quite remarkable that the critical insights of urban political economy have so little shaped the debate on place and quality of life; perhaps this is because planners and economic development advocates have dominated this conversation so far. Nevertheless, this much urban sociologists know about the contemporary contexts in which place appears to us. Today, the development and promotion of places, from neighborhood to city to region
Of course, this culture of neoliberalism finds another receptive audience in urban policy-makers, who long ago surrendered (unwillingly, in many cases) their demands of entitlement to federal aid in exchange to the compulsion of urban entrepreneurialism and entertainment districts. Peck (2005: 761; emphasis in original) is particularly perceptive in reading into critics’ anxieties over Florida’s influence in urban policy: “The reality is that city leaders from San Diego to Baltimore, from Toronto to Albuquerque, are embracing creativity strategies not as alternatives to extant market-, consumption-, and property-led development strategies, but as feel-good complements to them. Creativity plans do not disrupt these established approaches to urban entrepreneurialism and consumption-oriented place promotion, they extend them.” 15
and state, is thoroughly shaped by developers and growth coalitions who compete with their counterparts representing other places to attract corporate locations and, increasingly, household spending (in the form of home ownership, retail, and tourism). At the level of advertising and marketing, this competition bombards place-consumers with information that to a great degree is comparative and distinguishing, implicitly if not explicitly; the value of potential locations to buy a new home or spend a vacation is explained and understood in contrast to other locations, groups, and ways of life that place-consumers know by reputation if not experience (cf. Gottdiener 1995: chap. 7). Thus, place-consumers assess the desirability of potential locations through preferences shaped by the boredom of work and home (Urry 1990), regional associations of place identities and status groups (Duncan and Duncan 2003), and the pervasive American fear of the urban (Beauregard 2002; Jackson 1987). To this supply-side structure, we must also see how the market makes possible the demand-side capacity of people to consume places. As the rich have long known, wealth frees people from the geographical frictions that keep them bound to places. For many reasons, the middle classes now enjoy this freedom (in Brooks’ account, they are essentially peripatetic). Perhaps more importantly, in a society of private capital investment, decentralized government, and little-to-no public support for childcare or other household maintenance, geographical search provides a crucial means by which individuals and families maximize life-chances and pursue QOL.3 The value of
When businesses locate where they want, individuals who want optimal labor market rewards follow them (the converse is only a recent phenomenon for creative workers and does not negate this general mobility). When municipal boundaries fragment school districts and public utilities, households exploit geographic differences in the quality of services through housing markets. When families exclusively shoulder the costs of 16
geographic search grows commensurate with economic expansion and, in our society, the accompanying social stratification; as economic winners take all (or more of it), neighborhoods and cities polarize, extending the span as well as the stakes of the search. These are features of the institutional disintegration (“flexibility,” it is more often called) of collective institutions like Fordist corporations and the welfare state that Ulrich Beck have theorized as individualization. “The individual himself or herself becomes the reproduction unit of the social in the lifeworld,” Beck (1990: 90; emphasis in original) writes. With little institutional safety-net to protect them in any place (i.e., across all places), individuals’ locational choices matter more than ever in the resources and opportunities they obtain to enhance life choices. Biographical characteristics frame much of this individualized pursuit of QOL. For instance, life-stage becomes an important basis for constructing our QOL aspirations and choosing suitable locations: e.g., the 20-something playgrounds of hip urban neighborhoods, the family-friendly environments of the suburbs, the golf courses and community centers of “active senior” developments. These examples also overlap the organizing basis of lifestyle. Although the “lifestyle enclaves” that that replace the holistic community of olders cities and towns are not new topics in sociology (cf. Bellah et al. 1985: 71), there seems to be consensus that lifestyle-based migrations are becoming more frequent, covering longer distances, and reflecting an increasingly essential contemporary experience. Certainly many in the past have leapt before they looked with little hope of anything but lifestyle affirmation, but we must not lose sight of the larger
childcare, parents must balance incomes with childcare costs, and depending on their child-rearing aspirations two-parent families may opt to keep one parent (usually mothers) out of the workforce. 17
structures that economically valorize these otherwise random individual decisions. Human capital agglomerations only become rewarded when economic shifts and corporate concerns bestow value to these lifestyle-organized labor pools, be these bohemians producing urban cool for the culture industries (Lloyd 2005) or Mormon stayat-home mothers providing a home-bound labor pool of customer-service operators (see Friedman 2005: 37). Just as importantly, vast populations, from the underclass of rustbelt cities to the rural poor, are largely stuck in place and wait for their revalorization as human capital. Until then, their aspirations remain tied to community sentiments and local networks of informal support, two forms of gemeinschaft that wealth gives independence from. This socioeconomic spectrum of immobility and rootlessness frames the mental geographies and migrational capacities of individuals, setting limits or opening vistas that in turn shapes their QOL aspirations.4
Discursive constraints Do these structural contexts alone explain how QOL frames our relationship to place? Are there ways in which the idea itself exerts a discursive force on how we encounter and experience place? My comments here pertain to the most common rhetorical uses in contemporary American society, not the full semantic range of this idea in scholarly exchange and different cultural settings. However, in conjunction with the structural contexts described above, the discursive frames I outline below suggest how
In very different ways, the framing of QOL around immobility is illustrated by patriotic country music and gangsta rap, two cultural forms that give meaning to and, indeed, validate the constraint of community. 18
our understanding and deployment of QOL do not draw from this broader possible range of meanings but instead reinforce a limited framework through which we engage place. To begin, it is striking how the contemporary frame of QOL resonates with and reinforces the rational individualism of homo economicus, the idealized actor of economic theory. Granted, QOL necessarily entertains more values than merely raising standards of living (i.e., “making a lot of money”). Yet if the geographic migrants recounted by both Florida and Brooks share anything, it is their rational scan of geographic settings. For people who “value family,” the sprawling suburbs of Costcos and affordable (if homogenous) real estate is a rational choice of location, just as people who “pursue creativity” through music scenes and bodily expression will most likely thrive in urban neighborhoods of coffee shops and cramped apartments. Rational pursuits lead to rational migrations of population across geography; the demographers might draw back from such overstatement, but the ideal looms in contemporary associations of QOL and place. Then there is the rampant consumerism that inevitably influences our aspirations and pursuits of QOL. It is perhaps troubling, but hardly surprising, that almost every description of QOL discussed in this paper can rest upon both the empirical data and the paradigmatic premises of the market research industry, which sorts the population into demographic clusters, social groups and lifestage groups.5 By upholding choice as a preeminent value while explaining how lifestyle choices vary across the lifecourse, market research can even recast stages of “anti-consumerism”—for example, austerity
From the Claritas group comes the highly researched insights that in exurban areas, some younger populations “fashion fast-paced lifestyles centered on sports, cars, and dating,” while some older groups “lead low-key, home-centered lifestyles, with social lives revolving around activities at veterans clubs and fraternal organizations.” 19
(e.g., DIY subcultures) or sacrifice of leisure (in exchange for suburban schools in “culturally sterile settings”)—as quantifiable consumer pursuits (cf. Bauman 1998). Yet it is also clear that QOL strains against the mindset of the market. It sustains a rhetoric far richer in meaning than the means-rational, desocializing orientation that the neoliberal social contract imagines. Perhaps this tension is what makes the discourse of QOL thrive in our contemporary moment. More meaningfully, and therefore effectively, than corporate brands or themed spaces, QOL provides a discourse to enchant our disenchanted world through the means of consumption (cf. Ritzer 2005). Yet through place, QOL organizes a coherent interpretation of social and spatial features that align with individual aspirations. Indeed, as more individuals congregate to pursue common aspirations and lifestyles, QOL can theme space more “authentically” and thus more effectively than any corporate developer. Is it the aestheticizing gaze of QOL that makes the otherwise harsh rationalization of neoliberal individualism and spatial restructuring go down easier, so to speak? It is tempting to find evidence of this in the aesthetic roles that planning agencies, architects, and even community activists play in the production and politics of contemporary place. Presumably in service of a utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number (if not a more progressive concern for social justice), these actors also re-conceive and rework the physical environment to enhance the individual user’s pursuits, be they convenience, spectacle, or the appreciation of sublimity. In this regard, creative-city advocates who crack open dusty copies of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities at Richard Florida’s suggestion are as guilty of this aestheticized emphasis (thereby stripping Jacobs’ planning manifesto of its moral claims) as the
engineers who design suburban water features or office park amenities. Arguably, the slow-growth movements so widespread in the suburbs and exurbs reinforce a parochialism that furthers the environment-to-enhance-my-QOL dimensions of planning discourse.6
In 1970, the Girard Bank, a leader in the Philadelphia business community that was staring down the barrel of the then-called “urban crisis,” commissioned the historical novelist (and occasional sociology lecturer) James Michener to articulate the challenges facing the region and the nation. He came up with The Quality of Life (Michener 1970), an 85-page essay containing cogent, well-reasoned discussions of the issues most worth tackling in an era overwhelmed by upheaval and protest. His title underscored the stakes of the problems Michener outlined; although he worried little for America’s economic prosperity and military security, he feared their unthinking maintenance could only cheapen the quality of life Americans enjoyed and ultimately poison the decency and civility that characterized the best ideals of the nation. Among all the issues he addressed, such as race relations, the environment, education, and youth, Michener devoted his first chapter to “Saving the City.”
A contradiction of the slow growth movement lies in its geographic and organizational atomization, in tandem with the American “home rule” tradition of decentralizing planning authority. As Alex Krieger (2005: 49) observes, “a ‘Not in My Back Yard’ attitude pushes development away from areas resisting growth, increasing rather than containing sprawl…. Once settled, these newcomers will guard against subsequent encroachers.” 21
I offer this anecdote not to bring up the urban crisis of the 1960s but to highlight how unlikely, even odd, the connection of its resolution to “quality of life” should strike the contemporary viewer. By linking the latter idea to a set of proposals that surely would require sacrifice of tax revenues and suburban convenience, Michener urged citizens of the Philadelphia region to acknowledge their connections and mutual dependency upon one another for the broader good.7 Yet in the name of “quality of life,” American policy and citizens have largely done just the opposite in regards to place: pursuing individual utilities, shirking collective obligations, finding common grounds in lifestyle affinities. As many urbanists have argued, the suburbs and now exurbs are hospitable settings for such individualized pursuits. Yet this point, as well-taken (if controversial) as it may be, ignores how the historic draw of the metropolitan periphery was also, perhaps more so, framed around explicitly social sentiments and relations: white flight and the fear of racial others, other-directed status distinctions (cf. Riesman 1961), and long-standing cultural currents about the superiority of the country to the city. Undeniably, many of these sentiments are ugly and retrograde today (and were probably so back then); far from suggesting the common good, they only speak to public disunity and hierarchy. Yet these sentiments highlight the transparency of interconnection and interdependence that today’s QOL aspirations obscure in the suburbs and, yes, the hip, gentrified cities so popular with the creative class. By abdicating a vocabulary of the
Michener’s solutions to the urban crisis today sound quaint for their good intentions, and tragic for their half-hearted, piecemeal acceptance by policy-makers: enhancing metropolitan government, halting the shrinking of city coffers by municipal fragmentation and retail exodus, inviting business investment while maintaining urban wages, creating a urban transit system that does more than facilitate suburban commutes, tackling crime, maintaining cultural amenities, and reversing the population shift. 22
social, the language of QOL individualizes the political; QOL aestheticizes the political.8 This happens even before QOL finds its “hospitable” setting in a given place. Perhaps these shifts are understandable in the American contexts, even preferable to the dystopian planning and civil antagonism that ushered in the urban crisis. Nevertheless, without understanding how the structural and discursive forces that make QOL meaningful in the way it is today also frame the contemporary experience to place, sociologists might only stand back and wonder why market researchers can describe what drives community formation and geographical more confidently than our profession.9 Lest we join in the crackpot realism about how cities “enhance” QOL, or how diverse locations “support” diverse QOLs, we might step back and re-inquire into the structural and discursive contexts of QOL that precede place altogether.
At least in regards to place; by no means does this analysis exhaust the meanings of quality of life. In other QOL domains—say, the medical profession’s shifts toward embracing a conception of well-being that is not defined by an unconditional focus on the extension of life—we can find examples of QOL discourses that promote a common good in the new moral calculus they articulate. 9 For a statement of how the field of market research field approaches QOL, see Sirgy et al. (1982). 23
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Figure 1: Domains and indices of QOL (from Cummins 1996) [See http://faculty.vassar.edu/lenevare/2006/soci283/QOLdomains.doc]
Figure 2: “You Do Your Thing,” by Montgomery Gentry (2004) Put me on a mountain way back in the backwoods Put me on a lake with a big’n on the line Put me round a campfire cookin’ somethin’ I just cleaned You do your thing, I'll do mine I ain’t tradin’ in my family's safety Just to save on a little gas And I'll pray to god any place, any time And you can bet I’ll pick up the phone if Uncle Sam calls me up You do your thing, I'll do mine (chorus) Hey I'll worry bout me You just worry about you And I'll believe what I believe And you can believe what you believe to I ain’t gonna spare the rod Cause that ain’t what my daddy did And I sure know the difference between wrong and right You know to me it’s all just common sense A broken rule, a consequence You do your thing, I'll do mine (chorus) I’m gonna keep on workin’ Make my money the old fashioned way I don’t want a piece of someone else’s pie If I don’t get my fill on life, I ain’t gonna blame no one but me You do your thing, I'll do mine You ain’t gonna be my judge Cause my judge will judge us all one day You do your thing, I'll do mine
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