I’m pleased to announce that my new book has finally been published: Pursuing Quality of Life: From the Affluent Society to the Consumer Society.  Here’s the official blurb.

From anxieties over work-life balance and entangling technologies, to celebrations of cool jobs and great places to live, quality of life  frames the ways we enhance our lives and legitimate social change today. But how does the idea of quality of life envision the greater good, and what gets lost as a result? This book provides the critical framework for understanding the idea’s contexts and tensions that is conspicuously missing in popular discussions, professional activities, and scholarly research on quality of life. With multiple case studies taken across North America and Europe, it provides a sociological perspective on the contradictory ways we talk about and pursue quality of life in relation to technology, consumerism, family, work, public space, rural ways of life, and ultimately the final years of life. Drawing on contemporary and classical social theory, it provides an incisive account of the historical shifts in developed societies over the last half-century that have transformed our views and pursuits of quality of life. Originally a promise to undertake collective effort and pursue social justice at a moment of unprecedented opportunity, quality of life now enshrines a solipsistic ideal with which to accommodate the storms of market forces and political failure.

“In this highly original book, Leonard Nevarez examines the meaning of quality of life through a variety of lenses. In particular he focuses on the structural shift around the world toward individualism and its implications for place making and social organization. The book is an exceptional contribution to the literature on social organization, political sociology, and urban sociology.”
-Susan Fainstein, Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University

“This is an extremely timely book. It draws on the best of sociology to understand our condition, and asks how it can be bettered.”
-Amitai Etzioni, International Affairs, George Washington University

“As even economists come to understand the limits of Gross National Product and personal income levels in determining human well-being, there is a new emphasis on terms like ‘happiness’ and ‘quality of life’ as ways to measure progress. This book makes it clear that consumerism in all its forms is not the way to a better world; scholars and laypersons alike will benefit from reading it. ”
-John de Graaf, Co-director of The Seattle Area Happiness Initiative

On the surface, this topic seems to have nothing to do with music.  But my recent posts on how places branded by their music scenes and recent trends in arts-based urban revitalization involve a simplistic, often branded idea of place best entertained by outsiders comes from an idea I develop in the book called the quality of life gaze. In these passages from the book, just substitute “hipster” with “quality of life (QOL)” and you’ll get a sense of the perspective common to the book’s argument about quality of life and the more critical views of musical urbanism I’ve put forth in this blog. (Academic citations have been removed from the text for easier reading.)

Today, place no longer serves as the primordial community that sociologists of old variously called gemeinschaft, primary groups, or mechanical solidarity.  Randal O’Toole’s “communities” of road cyclists and Belgian Tervuren dog-owners exemplify the sociological axiom that modern individuals transcend the territorial and social structures of place to associate and self-identify through occupations, institutions, interest groups, cliques, subcultures, social networks, and lifestyle affinities, now online as well as off.  The relevance of this expanding matrix of potential affiliations is heightened under the contemporary development that theorists following sociologist Ulrich Beck call the individualization of social structure, in which people assume responsibilities for their own social reproduction as social institutions lose their collectivizing force.  For most, the migration from the primordial community to the industrial city marked the first untethering of our collective fates.  By the late 20th century, collective institutions like the state, the corporation, the union, and the nuclear family had largely lost their social reproduction functions; as a result, people have little choice but to reproduce their social position through each biographical event and major decision they undertake.  Consciousness shifts accordingly.  With place reduced to one of many factors, alongside the kinds surveyed in the prior chapters, that shape our lives, livelihoods, life-stages, and lifestyles, consciousness of place—and of family, work, and other venerable institutions—becomes more reflexive.  Freed from its primordial grip, place can now be categorized, strategized, and used to achieve social concerns, values, and identities.

Reflexivity toward can be instrumental in nature—“Where can I find a good job?  Should we move before the kids finish high school?”—but it is hardly limited to this.  Place especially highlights how individuals enchant and aestheticize their values, goals, and progress through the world.  This is most evident in tourism, as sociologist John Urry explains with his theory of the tourist gaze, a subjective perspective on place that foregrounds the structured orientation through which tourists perceive the subjective ‘appeal’ of particular landscapes and destinations.  Across the vast array of tastes and interests that various destinations can stimulate, the tourist gaze “depends upon what it is contrasted with; what the forms of non-tourist experience happen to be . . . particularly those based within the home and paid work.”  This means tourist destinations are not intrinsically interesting, culturally exotic, family fun-filled, or romantic, and so on.  Rather, tourists actively and often imaginatively discern those place qualities when they perceive their own lives to be routine, culturally homogenous, unsupportive of family unity, or romantically uninspired, respectively.  In its emotional and aesthetic mode of place consciousness, the tourist gaze constitutes an irrational reflexivity.  From such imaginings of place, drawn from affective orientations often based in whim or titillation, may come sentiments of ‘love’ for a place and idealizations of the ‘beautiful’ destination or landscape.

Tourism is perhaps the archetypical modern encounter with place.  Like mass migration, education, and non-leisure forms of travel, it teaches us about various places and ‘expands our horizons’ (i.e., provides a comparative orientation) on place in general.  Unlike these venerable experiences, tourism frames this awareness of place as a consumer experience.  Until recently, tourism emphasized mass consumption; popular destinations, oceanliner cruises, and group vacations illustrate how the tourist gaze is traditionally a standardized one often made in the copresence of many other beholders.  More idiosyncratic, ‘postmodern’ forms of tourism have since arisen with ecotourism, tours of urban decline or wartorn regions, and other kinds of visits motivated by dissatisfaction with the pre-packaged, superficial nature of mass tourism and a search for an ‘authentic’ landscape or ways of life.  In this postmodern sense,residential mobility stands upon but goes further than contemporary tourism, offering arguably the most intensive and personalizable modality for the encounter and consumption of place.  Moving from one place of residence to another deepens the comparative experience of place, exposing the migrant to subtler, less visible aspects of place than might be gleaned by visiting only.  Residential mobility also constitutes social reproduction in an individualized world; in both the decision to move and its consequences (new job, neighborhood, friends, romantic relationships, etc.), it epitomizes the ways social reproduction and personal well-being are accomplished with each significant biographical event one undertakes.  Economists and other social scientists often assume that residential migration involves the most of rational decision-making dynamics, given the considerable fiscal and social investment this act entails.  Yet the prior discussion suggests we might be skeptical that rationality alone informs the decision to move; the assumption surely underestimates the number of moves made based on apparent whim (“I knew I’d have to live there one day the first time I visited…”) or ‘irrational’ constraints (“I would do anything to get out of this place…”).

Can we conceive of a QOL gaze among the possible modes of place reflexivity?  Extending Urry’s idea of the tourist gaze allows us to consider a vast array of QOL attractions through the standpoint of the beholder’s extant daily rounds.  Places ‘with a high QOL’ are attractive as possible places to live because they imaginatively resolve the anxieties people attribute to their current contexts; limiting ourselves just to residential contexts, these may range from security concerns about crime, congestion, neighborhood change (or neighbor change, as in fears of ethnic diversity and foreign immigration), and even the fear of terrorism; to ‘post-material’ concerns for placelessness, environmental unsustainability, and the affluenza of neighbors and peers… [pp. 163-5]

As a cultural framework, the consumer orientation to place promises a remarkable kind of moral emancipation.  Consider how these technologies promote a heightened sensitivity to place preferences and a comparative, abstract orientation toward place-based QOL.  “When one likes a town because it is small, one does not have to think about or come to terms with the particularity of the town because what is attractive about it only incidentally belongs to it,” sociologist Kieran Bonner has observed in his study of Canadian exurban migrants.  The QOL gaze also exerts the same effect ‘back home,’ where people’s conceptions of what they want from a place escape the moral gravity of current livelihoods, relationships, and daily rounds; the gesellschaft of place-based QOL is not subject to the frictions of distance and wealth that normally ties them to existinggemeinschaften.  Bonner further asserts, “Thinking about a place in this way allows one to keep one’s options open—a method for keeping the possibility of mobility alive.”  Richard Florida’s advice at the beginning of this chapter urging us to “be willing to move when necessary” suggests how radically the consumer orientation toward place-based QOL strives toward rootlessness, although the most significant outcome for my purposes here is not the actual migration across geography (about which, see next section).  Even if one never walks out the front door, the ability to evaluate and try on places (at least in imagination) becomes practically infinite. [pp. 167-8]