Customer Reviews: Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the "Real" America
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on October 10, 2010
This terrific work is compromised by the lack of maps ... the lack of maps in sufficient size to be readable ... and the lack of maps in color. Contrary to the book jacket, the internal county-by-county maps are reduced in size and printed in varying shades of black-and-white, making them almost illegible to the reader. Trying to depict data graphically on 5,000+ counties is a challenge anyway; reducing maps to half-page size in various gray halftones is frustrating to the reader. The cheap paper stock used in the production of this book further compromises the already-muddy look of the various maps, charts, and graphs. This is an example of a fine work compromised by poor design.
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on August 2, 2012
This is an excellent book. The authors present a unique analysis of data. I would lower the rating slightly just because it could have been even greater if they had widened the scope of the data considered.

In reading this book, you get a clear picture of where American society is at the moment. The authors explain what defines the differences and conflicts we face.

Where their analysis is lacking relates to at least two factors.

First, their chapter on culture doesn't go very deep. The cultures of these comunities have formed over centuries. They have their origins in the cultures of the British isles and the European continent. The differences are vast between the Scots-Irish culture of the American South and the Northern European culture of the American North. If you want a fuller understanding, I'd recommend supplementing your reading with two other excellent books:

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: A Cultural History)
By David Hackett Fischer

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
By Colin Woodard

In this respect, there is another interesting book to consider that helps understand the differences between the North and South:

Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (Southern Literary Studies)
By Ritchie Devon Watson Jr.

Second, the socioeconomic angle seemed even more deficient. America has a long history of economic inequality, class politics, and political disenfranchisement. There is no way of making sense of these community types without putting them in context of this history.

The authors do occasionally make some important observations in this regard. For example, they briefly discuss industrialization in Minority Central and how it differs from the North. What they specifically point out is that lower wages in the Southeast are causally related to low union membership, but they unfortunately don't go much further with this line of thought.

I don't know of any good books that explore the economic and class differences found in all of the different American regions and community types. But there are many books that focus on specific regions or states. For example, here are a couple of books that explore the economic impact on certain regions and how it relates to culture and politics:

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War
By Joe Bageant

What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
By Thomas Frank

The book by Thomas Frank is particularly relevant. He discusses Boom Towns and so would add depth to the analysis found in Patchwork Nation.

As a Midwesterner living in Iowa, I had one other thought which is related to voting. Why has a Tractor Country state like Iowa most often voted for Democratic presidents in recent decades?

Iowa has a long history of both moderate politics and progressive politics. The community-mindedness of Tractor Country, as the authors explain, is entirely different than the church-mindedness of the Evangelical Epicenter. The Midwest in general, especially the Upper Midwest bordering Iowa, has also had a long history of radical politics including socialism.

In the Midwest, there is particularly a large population of those with German ancestry. Germans went out of their way to intentionally create communities according to their cultural preferences. I would argue that the community types aren't merely accidents of outside factors, at least not in all or most cases.

To understand the complexity, consider questions such as:

Why is it that some of the largest Catholic populations and the highest union membership are found in the same regions of the Midwest? And why was it that populist politics had been the one factor that was often able to bring diverse groups together such as Northerners and Southerners, farmers and factory workers, whites and blacks, progressives and the KKK?

As the authors point out, it is true that Minority Central never had as much union membership, but it probably wasn't for a lack of trying. American blacks have been attempting to organize in the work place from the moment they gained their freedom from slavery. And whites, poor and elite, have been attempting to oppress American blacks during this same period. The authors often ignore the larger socio-political forces that control the shaping of communities.

I would have loved to see more analysis by the authors of this complex past. The different community types might have made more sense given this past. There is a reason why community types tend to be concentrated in particular regions.

In summary, the book is good for what it is but could potentially have been truly great. So, I highly recommend it as an introduction that hopefully would lead to further reading.
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on October 5, 2010
Given the current political climate - where pundits and cultural forecasters are spending much of their time attempting to read the unreadable tea leaves - Our Patchwork Nation is a welcome and wholly inventive piece of work. Chinni's opening concept is simple. The U.S. is far too complicated to be reduced to red states and blue states (with apologies to all those cable news stations who have already invested in their markers for the next election round).

But don't confuse Our Patchwork Nation with a dull treatise or dry bit of academic analysis - Chinni is a fantastic writer with a gift for narrative. The 12 community types developed by the project are introduced with the kind of illustrative, long-form journalism we don't see enough of anymore. More than that, there are no heroes or villains offered in the book, no easy answers or clean solutions. Our Patchwork Nation isn't out to tell us what to just asks that we do.

It's found a welcome place on my bookshelf.
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on August 16, 2012
Books such as "Our Patchwork Nation" delve into more detailed information about the diversity of US Americans and why they do what they do. They go beyond the examination of the red and blue States model used to explain the political preferences of US voters, beyond the regional differences which define many of our preferences, beyond the ethnic diversity which we often used to do the same. Chinni and Gimpel provide a new model that examines the USA, county by county, largely in terms of the economic and political behavior of each. This gives us a far more granular and complex, but also more insightful view of US demographics.
The book is both timely and contextual. It gives us a picture of the cultures of the USA in what the authors describe as " The Great Recession," in the lead up to the presidential elections later this year. If we understand culture as the survival and success discourse which people in a particular group create, share, and perpetuate, this is a book about culture despite its heavy emphasis on economics and politics. The down side is that its data will quickly become dated; on the other hand, the assemblage of such data can provide a launching pad and a comparative baseline for future research and observation.
Every model requires some reductionism, simplification to a certain degree, of the complexity with which reality confronts us. A model is a way of looking at and understanding things that inevitably walks the tightrope between fragmentation and oversimplification. The menu is not the meal, but by reading it and glancing about to see what the diners at other tables are being served, and consulting our own tastes, we are able to make a somewhat informed choice about what to order. Such guides as this book are necessarily imperfect but yet useful tools for our understanding of the cultures of an area and determining what kind of investment we will make in order to live there, in order to work or sell there, or in order to receive the endorsement of its electorate.
Chinni and Gimpel draw on substantial amounts of research data in order to define the counties of the USA in some recognizable and potentially useful way. They come up with 12 types of counties whose names give you some sense of the kind of people that predominantly inhabit them:
Boom Towns Immigration Nation Monied Burbs
Campus & Careers Industrial Metropolis Mormon Outposts
Emptying Nests Military Bastions Service Worker Centers
Evangelical Epicenters Minority Central Tractor Country

They then identify a typical representative County for each of the types and dedicate a chapter to exploring its demographics, economics, operational environment, and political propensities. The authors spent two and a half years both researching, and making on the ground visits to the counties that were chosen to represent each of the types, meeting its everyday folk, interviewing its spokespersons. They admit their ambivalence with the complexity, and yet are able to hazard useful interpretations of what is going on. On one hand, the nation has changed and is changing, and the vast majority of US Americans have been badly hurt by the financial crisis. On the other hand, bad times have brought about a resurgence of the almost mythical US "can do" attitude in the majority of individuals. It is also resulting in a renewed determination to come out on top as communities, whether we are speaking of inner-city minorities in a devastated Detroit or about the threatened farmers of Iowa. I found it particularly interesting how the book defines the impact of the current financial crisis on each.
We now know that stress reinforces the primitive cultural discourse for survival that we have learned and carry within us. At the same time it stimulates the need for fresh decisions and changes of course. This connection was an eye-opener for me. I had been long accustomed to seeing retrenchment and change as polar opposites rather than as parts of a single dynamic, driving human individuals and communities to remaster and draw sustenance from their environment. In addition, since each of these twelve identified environments differs in terms of the origin, education, religion, forms of industry, occupation and lifestyle, people within the different kinds of communities, though inhabitants of the same nation, may be headed in different directions and inclined to make different choices. This may involve conflicts of interest between them, alliances formed on certain common needs that do not necessarily resolve or engender compromise on other differences. The authors insightfully choose the metaphor of tectonics to describe how different types of communities, though split and separate in many ways, develop, rub against each other, causing significant upheavals, as well as settling into fresh albeit impermanent new configurations.
Not surprisingly, professionals who earn their bread by understanding the behaviors of people in various US settings, namely marketers, have long tended to segment the country by looking through similar local prisms in order to successfully promote products and situate commercial outlets. The authors frequently cite market research and note the frequency and positioning of Starbucks and Wal-Mart stores as economic and cultural indicators of a specific county's economic and social preferences.
Following these descriptive chapters, are three larger ones, addressing respectively the economy, politics, and culture. Clearly the US economy needs to be fixed, and fixing most likely involves a significant shift that must take place despite the entropy that has kept it stagnating in its current directions. There is no such thing as "the American economy", rather there are the economies of particular communities and the different problems that each experiences as a result of the same crisis. Hardship is defined differently, depending on the community that you are part of. Differing needs may require differing solutions from upper levels of government as well as local initiatives. Not surprisingly then there is rancor about such things as taxation and assistance programs.
Economics naturally bridges us into the realm of politics. It should've been obvious at the beginning that the change promised by Obama would not be a freeway to the future, but a delivery stuck in traffic. The authors pay particular attention in this section to emerging discontent and resistance. They examine the arrival on the scene of the Tea Party, its meaning, its direction, and its makeup, a new voice in the political debate, substantially fragmenting the Republican right. The authors foresee the possibility of more forms of resistance. However, the timing of the publication of the book did not allow them to identify and discuss the Occupy movements. Both of these recent manifestations of discontent are still lacking in concrete platforms for specific forms of change. Currently they are being overshadowed by the noise of the presidential campaigns, which would like to harness their energies, but seem ham-handed when it comes to integrating them with the interests of other constituencies that the candidates represent.
When discussing culture, the authors open with the question of whether in fact "geography is history." Internet and social networking are moving us in that direction. Yet, flesh and blood lives in places of lumber, bricks and mortar, however much we may network digitally. Local cultures may in fact be reinforcing themselves rather than breaking down in the torrent of Internet bits. Here there is further discussion of the Starbucks and Wal-Mart phenomena and how our identity may be affected by what we can buy and where we can buy it. Culture is about the choices that different kinds of communities make and why they tend to make them. Do they buy guns or books? What movies are they likely to see? What kind of talk radio are they prone to listen to? What is their commitment to and frequency of usage of social networking? What are the levels of church going, and how does religion affect choices of entertainment, involvement in politics, and stands on such issues as gay marriage?
The concluding chapter is a very brief summary, which again highlights the many possible directions the future might take. Then what amounts to roughly the final third of the book is dedicated to describing the theoretical and methodological background of the authors' research and summarizing the data in useful maps and charts. Here you can actually look up each US county, see its population fluctuations over a period of six years, and see its primary and secondary classification according to the twelve types mentioned above.
If what I have described above makes you want to read this book, read it now, as it is highly relevant to understanding the dynamics of the economic state of the US, will help you deconstruct the discourse of the current political campaign. Some wag once said that, "If you were to lay the country's economists end to end, they still won't reach a conclusion." That may well be true, but at least this text helps us to feel the current economic crisis in the experiences of a large variety of other people, as well as our own, and, in this context it sharpens our awareness of what is involved in political strategy and decision-making.
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on March 24, 2016
This unflattering review is about the "AUDIBLE" audio-book version of Our Patchwork Nation. The underlying book itself would probably be a 4-star (maybe 5). I've stopped listening halfway through. The book has lots of quotes from real people -- people from all over the USA and people from a variety of backgrounds and political ideologies. When reading a direct quote, the narrator adopts a sometimes slight and sometimes not-so-slight accent or affect. A little effeminate when the supposed speaker is a woman, for example -- which can be odd-sounding but surely tolerable. But when the narrator reads the quotes of people from the south or from rural areas, or people who are conservative, he does so with faked accents including a clear tinge of a hickish, oafish, or dim tone. These border on (if not wholly constitute) mockery of the quoted speaker. His reading of the descriptions of those same people seem sneering (sometimes sarcastic) as well. Full disclosure: I am an Oklahoma native turned South Texan; I am also a Harvard Law grad, and I am keenly aware of the distinction between sounding dumb and simply sounding Southern.

This is not a direct critique of the underlying book, though presumably the authors heard the narration. If they heard it and don't perceive the negative tone attached to the rural, southern, or conservative speakers, I'd worry that they share the narrator's stereotypes and disdain. Attaching faked, stereotypic accents to characters may be fine (and may be quite typical) for works of fiction. For a sociological survey purporting to (objectively) analyze cross-sectional exemplars of America, it at least distracting, generally troubling, and here actually threatens to discredit the underlying work.
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on June 18, 2012
The authors did an exceedingly good job of presenting the data and community-type anecdotes in a way that convinces the reader of their central point: America is a much more complicated place than Red State v. Blue State. The 12 community types discussed do provide a good starting point for thinking more deeply about America's political choices and the authors should be commended for their extensive and valuable research.

Part I of the book walks through each of the 12 community types with a brief description and then stories from one representative town. Some of these chapters, like Immigration Nation, do a fairly good job of capturing what day to day life looks like in these communities, but other categories such as Industrial Metropolis encompass so many communities unique among themselves that limiting the discussion just to Philadelphia leaves the reader wanting a more nuanced treatment. Other community types that are very similar from a data perspective such as Emptying Nests and Service Centers are given representative treatment in Part I that greatly exaggerates the differences between them rather than addressing the many similarities.

Part II looks at the communities as a whole through the lenses of economics, politics, and culture. The chapter on culture presented much more new and interesting material than the chapters on economics and politics which were somewhat cursory. I wish the authors presented election data besides just four presidential elections to give a better sense of voting patterns in local elections. Since two of the candidates were the historically unique Reagan and Obama, the voting trends are not completely helpful in grasping a sense of community politics. Another drawback is that the book is a snapshot of our country at a particular time. Historical trends and future projections are almost completely absent, so how we got to this point and how long the authors' analysis remains relevant is unclear.

Despite these minor drawbacks, there is no doubt that this book is worthy of a read by those interested in understanding our country better. At time when many political books are insufferably biased along party lines, this is a very fair, informative, and engaging work.
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on March 26, 2011
Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the "Real" America, by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel, is a book that reminds me why I got into the social science game to begin with. If I were still teaching sociology (and I miss teaching!), the next course I designed would be totally around Patchwork Nation.

The idea of Patchwork Nation came out of Chinni's and Gimpel's frustration with the Red State / Blue State media divide. They thought that there had to be a more nuanced and accurate framework to understand elections, politics, economics and culture. Using a variety of data sources, they came up with a framework that includes 12 types of communities (with the county as the unit of analysis):

Boom Towns
Campus and Careers
Emptying Nests
Evangelical Epicenters
Immigration Nation
Industrial Metropolis
Military Bastions
Minority Central
Monied 'Burbs
Mormon Outposts
Service Worker Centers
Tractor Country

You can check out what community type you live in at the Patchwork Nation website. [...] Where do you live? Does the description on the site (or in the book) of your county ring true to your experience?

It would be interesting to filter IHE readers through this framework.

Not surprisingly, I live in a "Campus and Careers" county , defined as "...cities and towns with young, educated populations; more secular and Democratic than other American communities". The representative community for Campus and Careers is Ann Arbor, MI.

The combination of the book and the website provides all the material necessary for a great class. I think that the authors are willing to make part of the data they used to construct their analysis available to other researchers (and students) to analyze.

Think about how much richer the Patchwork Nation framework would be if student researchers contributed new forms of analysis to the public educational commons.

What are you reading?
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on December 1, 2013
Similar to the Nine Nations of North America (Garreau, 1981), but a county-based update. Explains much of what is happening across the US. Not the last word, but much of the information behind current conditions.
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on March 20, 2013
If you were someone who was actually interested in the 2010 census and how the migration patterns of our country have changed you will enjoy this book. It is an easy read, but densely packed with information, included in the back is also a comprehensive cross tabulation of the types of communities they discuss.
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on March 3, 2011
The authors use a large amount of county-level data to create 12 community types. They make the interesting argument that people living in varying communities across the US experience vastly different realities. The community types they develop possess considerable validity. However, their efforts to get beyond the "red state, blue state" stereotype really only produce 12 new stereotypes. We've gone from red and blue to "boom towns" and "minority centrals." On the other hand, the authors provide a more nuanced measure of local preferences than currently available that should be useful to any scholars doing county-level research.
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