The Geography of Somewhere


The crimes of the car are manifold, or so say academics and others who have blamed it for—among other sins—atmospheric pollution, environmental scarification, highway carnage, personal over-indebtedness, back-seat immorality, and a sense of rootlessness often summed up by author James Kunstler's titular phrase, The Geography of Nowhere. (That is, you may no longer have much fealty to any place, but then there's hardly any places worth identifying with anyway.)

Yet lots of people continue to buy cars. Presumably, they're getting something in exchange for such horrors. One of the things they're getting, according to University of California at Berkeley sociologist Claude Fisher, is—well, a sense of "rootedness" in their communities. In his recent paper, "Ever-More Rooted Americans," published by the Russell Sage Foundation, Fisher argues that automotive mobility has allowed Americans to move to better jobs while remaining in the communities they like.

"When living a couple of miles from one's job was impractical," Fisher declares, "changing jobs required changing homes. When half an hour's drive easily covers a dozen miles, people can change jobs and stay in their homes." Fisher's study uses Census data to demonstrate the point. (For instance: Rates of residential mobility actually declined from the 19th to the 20th centuries, and continued to decline between 1950 and 1999.)

Sociologist Fisher is making a career of demonstrating that academic technophobia is empty nonsense. A decade ago, when critics of the telephone were arguing that phones were responsible for creating "a palpable emptiness across which voices seemed uniquely disembodied and remote," he released a study that demonstrated that the telephone had, from its introduction, "solidified and deepened social relationships, most notably for women, isolated farm wives, the middle aged and the elderly."