Community Social Polarization and Change: Evidence from Three Recent Studies
This review article analyzes three major recent books (written by Robert Wuthnow, Arlie R. Hochschild, and James and Deborah Fallows, respectively) concerning ongoing political, economic and social change in United States’ rural communities to probe differing frames and claims among them. We contend these works together point to vital social and political forces that must receive increased attention if the communities they treat are to address the challenges confronting them successfully. Thereafter, we briefly and illustratively underscore the significance of these authors’ arguments using our own ongoing work in two small communities confronting catastrophic economic decline and social fissuring in Central Appalachia. Overall, we argue that an analytical approach that combines elements of Wuthnow’s sensitivity to demographic and scalar polarization and divides, coupled with Hochschild’s emphasis on opportunities to instill and call on empathetic imagination in development efforts, could assist these rural communities’ residents to understand more fully the dynamics at play within them and to craft strategies aimed at addressing those challenges. In particular, we contend that the Fallowses’ call for pragmatic interventions and partnership building must be accompanied by long-term efforts to overcome the fear engendered by the view that rural community life constitutes a consumerist zero-sum game, and the accompanying widespread belief in those jurisdictions that scapegoating and explicit or implicit racialized hierarchies represent reasonable responses to such anxieties.