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American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability

Robert Wuthnow

How American respectability has been built by maligning those who don't make the grade

How did Americans come to think of themselves as respectable members of the middle class? Was it just by earning a decent living? Or did it require something more? And if it did, what can we learn that may still apply?

The quest for middle-class respectability in nineteenth-century America is usually described as a process of inculcating positive values such as honesty, hard work, independence, and cultural refinement. But clergy, educators, and community leaders also defined respectability negatively, by maligning individuals and groups—“misfits”—who deviated from accepted norms.

Robert Wuthnow argues that respectability is constructed by “othering” people who do not fit into easily recognizable, socially approved categories. He demonstrates this through an in-depth examination of a wide variety of individuals and groups that became objects of derision. We meet a disabled Civil War veteran who worked as a huckster on the edges of the frontier, the wife of a lunatic who raised her family while her husband was institutionalized, an immigrant religious community accused of sedition, and a wealthy scion charged with profiteering.

Unlike respected Americans who marched confidently toward worldly and heavenly success, such misfits were usually ignored in paeans about the nation. But they played an important part in the cultural work that made America, and their story is essential for understanding the “othering” that remains so much a part of American culture and politics today.

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American Mythos

Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short

Robert Wuthnow

America was built on stories: tales of grateful immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, Horatio Alger-style transformations, self-made men, and the Protestant work ethic. In this new book, renowned sociologist Robert Wuthnow examines these most American of stories--narratives about individualism, immigration, success, religion, and ethnicity--through the eyes of recent immigrants. In doing so, he demonstrates how the "American mythos" has both legitimized American society and prevented it from fully realizing its ideals.

This magisterial work is a reflection and meditation on the national consciousness. It details how Americans have traditionally relied on narratives to address what it means to be strong, morally responsible individuals and to explain why some people are more successful than others--in short, to help us make sense of our lives. But it argues that these narratives have done little to help us confront new challenges. We pass laws to end racial discrimination, yet lack the resolve to create a more equitable society. We welcome the idea of pluralism in religion and values, yet we are shaken by the difficulties immigration presents. We champion prosperity for all, but live in a country where families are still homeless.

American Mythos aptly documents this disconnect between the stories we tell and the reality we face. Examining how cultural narratives may not, and often do not, reflect the reality of today's society, it challenges readers to become more reflective about what it means to live up to the American ideal.

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American Neighborhoods and Residential Differentiation

Residential patterns are reflections of social structure; to ask, "who lives in which neighborhoods," is to explore a sorting-out process that is based largely on socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and life cycle characteristics.

This benchmark volume uses census data, with its uniquely detailed information on small geographic areas, to bring into focus the familiar yet often vague concept of neighborhood. Michael White examines nearly 6,000 census tracts (approximating neighborhoods) in twenty-one representative metropolitan areas, from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, Newark to San Diego. The availability of statistics spanning several decades and covering a wide range of demographic characteristics (including age, race, occupation, income, and housing quality) makes possible a rich analysis of the evolution and implications of differences among neighborhoods.

In this complex mosaic, White finds patterns and traces them over time—showing, for example, how racial segregation has declined modestly while socioeconomic segregation remains constant, and how population diffusion gradually affects neighborhood composition. His assessment of our urban settlement system also illuminates the social forces that shape contemporary city life and the troubling policy issues that plague it.

A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Census Series

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The American People

Census 2000

For more than 200 years, America has turned to the decennial census to answer questions about itself. More than a mere head count, the census is the authoritative source of information on where people live, the types of families they establish, how they identify themselves, the jobs they hold, and much more. The latest census, taken at the cusp of the new millennium, gathered more information than ever before about Americans and their lifestyles. The American People, edited by respected demographers Reynolds Farley and John Haaga, provides a snapshot of those findings that is at once analytically rich and accessible to readers at all levels.

The American People addresses important questions about national life that census data are uniquely able to answer. Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Angela O'Rand compare the educational attainment, economic achievement, and family arrangements of the baby boom cohort with those of preceding generations. David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman find that, unlike progress made in previous decades, the 1990s were a time of stability—and possibly even retrenchment—with regard to gender equality. Sonya Tafoya, Hans Johnson, and Laura Hill examine a new development for the census in 2000: the decision to allow people to identify themselves by more than one race. They discuss how people form multiracial identities and dissect the racial and ethnic composition of the roughly seven million Americans who chose more than one racial classification. Former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt discusses the importance of the census to democratic fairness and government efficiency, and notes how the high stakes accompanying the census count (especially the allocation of Congressional seats and federal funds) have made the census a lightening rod for criticism from politicians.

The census has come a long way since 1790, when U.S. Marshals setout on horseback to count the population. Today, it holds a wealth of information about who we are, where we live, what we do, and how much we have changed. The American People provides a rich, detailed examination of the trends that shape our lives and paints a comprehensive portrait of the country we live in today.

A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Census Series

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American Religion

Contemporary Trends

Mark Chaves

Most Americans say they believe in God, and more than a third say they attend religious services every week. Yet studies show that people do not really go to church as often as they claim, and it is not always clear what they mean when they tell pollsters they believe in God or pray. American Religion presents the best and most up-to-date information about religious trends in the United States, in a succinct and accessible manner. This sourcebook provides essential information about key developments in American religion since 1972, and is the first major resource of its kind to appear in more than two decades.

Mark Chaves looks at trends in diversity, belief, involvement, congregational life, leadership, liberal Protestant decline, and polarization. He draws on two important surveys: the General Social Survey, an ongoing survey of Americans' changing attitudes and behaviors, begun in 1972; and the National Congregations Study, a survey of American religious congregations across the religious spectrum. Chaves finds that American religious life has seen much continuity in recent decades, but also much change. He challenges the popular notion that religion is witnessing a resurgence in the United States--in fact, traditional belief and practice is either stable or declining. Chaves examines why the decline in liberal Protestant denominations has been accompanied by the spread of liberal Protestant attitudes about religious and social tolerance, how confidence in religious institutions has declined more than confidence in secular institutions, and a host of other crucial trends.

restricted access This search result is for a Book

American Religion

Contemporary Trends

Mark Chaves

Most Americans say they believe in God, and more than a third say they attend religious services every week. Yet studies show that people do not really go to church as often as they claim, and it is not always clear what they mean when they tell pollsters they believe in God or pray. American Religion presents the best and most up-to-date information about religious trends in the United States, in a succinct and accessible manner. This sourcebook provides essential information about key developments in American religion since 1972, and is the first major resource of its kind to appear in more than two decades.

Mark Chaves looks at trends in diversity, belief, involvement, congregational life, leadership, liberal Protestant decline, and polarization. He draws on two important surveys: the General Social Survey, an ongoing survey of Americans' changing attitudes and behaviors, begun in 1972; and the National Congregations Study, a survey of American religious congregations across the religious spectrum. Chaves finds that American religious life has seen much continuity in recent decades, but also much change. He challenges the popular notion that religion is witnessing a resurgence in the United States--in fact, traditional belief and practice is either stable or declining. Chaves examines why the decline in liberal Protestant denominations has been accompanied by the spread of liberal Protestant attitudes about religious and social tolerance, how confidence in religious institutions has declined more than confidence in secular institutions, and a host of other crucial trends.

Now with updated data and a new preface by the author, this revised edition provides essential information about key developments in American religion since 1972, plainly showing that religiosity is declining in America.

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American Sanctuary

Understanding Sacred Spaces

Edited by Louis P. Nelson

This volume examines a diverse set of spaces and buildings seen through the lens of popular practice and belief to shed light on the complexities of sacred space in America. Contributors explore how dedication sermons document shifting understandings of the meetinghouse in early 19th-century Connecticut; the changes in evangelical church architecture during the same century and what that tells us about evangelical religious life; the impact of contemporary issues on Catholic church architecture; the impact of globalization on the construction of traditional sacred spaces; the urban practice of Jewish space; nature worship and Central Park in New York; the mezuzah and domestic sacred space; and, finally, the spiritual aspects of African American yard art.

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The American School Counselor

A Case Study in the Sociology of Professions

A comprehensive case study of secondary school counseling as a developing profession. The author examines the growth of counseling, the characteristics of the contemporary counselor, the use of standardized tests, the changing orientation of the counselor from “educational advisor” to “therapist,” the influences of the institutional setting on counseling, and the impact of counseling on students and society.

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The American Soul Rush

Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege

Yoga. Humanistic Psychology. Meditation. Holistic Healing. These practices are commonplace today. Yet before the early 1960s they were atypical options for most people outside of the upper class or small groups of educated spiritual seekers.

Esalen Institute, a retreat for spiritual and personal growth in Big Sur, California, played a pioneering role in popularizing quests for self-transformation and personalized spirituality. This “soul rush” spread quickly throughout the United States as the Institute made ordinary people aware of hundreds of ways to select, combine, and revise their beliefs about the sacred and to explore diverse mystical experiences. Millions of Americans now identify themselves as spiritual, not religious, because Esalen paved the way for them to explore spirituality without affiliating with established denominations

The American Soul Rush explores the concept of spiritual privilege and Esalen’s foundational influence on the growth and spread of diverse spiritual practices that affirm individuals’ self-worth and possibilities for positive personal change. The book also describes the people, narratives, and relationships at the Institute that produced persistent, almost accidental inequalities in order to illuminate the ways that gender is central to religion and spirituality in most contexts.

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American Women in Transition

This is the first in a series of eighteen projected volumes, to be published over the next two years, aimed at converting the vast statistical yield of the 1980 Census into authoritative analyses of major changes and trends in American life. A collaborative research effort, funded by public and private foundations, this series revives a tradition of independent Census analysis (the last such project was undertaken in 1960) and offers an unparalleled array of studies on various ethnic, geographic, and status dimensions of the U.S. population.

It is entirely appropriate that the inaugural volume in this series should document trends in the status of American women. Dramatic social and demographic changes over the past two decades make American Women in Transition a landmark, an invaluable one-volume summary and assessment of women's move from the private domain to the public. Clearly and in detail, the authors describe women's increasing educational attainment and labor force participation, their lagging earning power, their continued commitment to marriage and family, and the "balancing act" necessitated by this overlap of roles. Supplementing 1980 Census data with even more recent surveys from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies, Bianchi and Spain are able to extend these trends into the 1980s and sketch the complex challenges posed by such lasting and historic changes.

This definitive and sensitive study is certain to become a standard reference work on American women today, and an essential foundation for future scholarship and policy concerning the status of women in our society.

A Volume in the Russell Sage Foundation Census Series

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