Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Linking How Cities are Imagined and How They are Made: A Critical Approach to Discourse and Communicative Practice in the Suburbs of Metropolitan Detroit

Linking How Cities are Imagined and How They are Made: A Critical Approach to Discourse and Communicative Practice in the Suburbs of Metropolitan Detroit
Elizabeth Wright Engles

A critical analysis of space, how it is imagined, represented, produced and consumed by social actors, is necessary for an anthropological understanding of urban life. This proposed research seeks to explicate the relationship between the social construction of space and the nature of communicative practices.

Relying on Bourdieu’s work on communicative practice, and methods derived from critical social theory, specifically critical discourse analysis, a historical investigation into the social construction of space in the suburbs of Detroit will serve as a framework for understanding the linguistic capital of the suburbs. Ideas about the ways in which space and time are represented influence social actors’ patterns of behavior in space, and those social activities, in turn, reinforce the social ordering of space and time. These ideas about the ways in which space and time are represented are ‘made visible’ in the form of social discourse.

Discourses, verbally in the form of Homeowners’ Association meetings, and textually in the form of residential covenants/by laws and local newspaper stories, were analyzed in order to investigate the link between how cities are imagined and how they are constructed.

This research investigated two related questions:

What is the relationship between how cities are imagined and how they are constructed, and then what sorts of social relations are made possible by cities constructed in particular ways, with particular ideological beliefs embedded within their constructions?

How do specific types of communicative practices—discursive trends relating to the nature of urban life in the post World War II era—contribute to the contemporary state of affairs within the suburban areas?

A literature review of historical, social theory, and anthropological works revealed patterns relating the social imagining of the suburbs as a place distinctive from the city. Paying close attention to the history of restrictive residential covenants, this research can make some conclusions about the nature of contemporary communicative practices in the suburbs.

With regards to the Homeowners’ Association meeting case study, attendees displayed their linguistic capital by seeking authority from the subdivision bylaws. They used the bylaws to promote their ideas about community and the desired appearance of the subdivision. Similarly, a local newspaper relayed suburban residents’ discontents over their neighbor’s failure to pay their yearly dues—the type of social discourse seems to arise out of residents’ failure to behave in historically, socially imagined ways. In conclusion, the history of social discourse on the suburbs reciprocally reinforces the construction of the suburbs and social behavior in the suburbs.


April 17, 2009 - Posted by | abstract


  1. In your study of local newspapers, did you find that they were always representative of the residents of these communities, or did they reflect the composition of the newspaper staff? It seems that the attitude of reporters might skew the perception of the way that the residents feel about and act in their communities. Furthermore, an editor’s outlook can determine whether the stories are printed at all.

    Comment by Dan Davis | April 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. I am curious as to whether you are giving any consideration to the physical construction of space and the ordering of the neighbourhoods in terms of their social construction, or looking at neighbourhood planning to compare imagination and implementation/practice as a source of tension? I wonder if the bylaws, at least, might have any revealing information.

    Comment by Elanya | April 19, 2009 | Reply

  3. Liz Engels from Saint Cloud? I know your brother, Paul, very well. We graduated from Tech together. I like the abstract! One thought…in the last line of the first paragraph and the first line of the second paragraph, you use the word “practice.” I think you should vary your diction a bit more to add verbal texture. This might keep it from getting boring and will help subjectively engage the reader.

    Comment by Joe | May 30, 2009 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: