"Active Living": Transforming the Organization of Retirement and Housing in the U.S

Article excerpt

We examine the transformation of the social institutions of retirement and housing in the US in the latter part of the 20th century. Using institutional ethnography we explicate a woman's experience relocating to an age segregated community. Her relocation is predicated upon ideological practices that reconceptualize retirement as "active living" and the construction of a setting in which retirees engage in this new lifestyle. We demonstrate the textual mediation of this ideological and organizational reformation through an examination of an advertising campaign undertaken by the Del Webb Development Corporation in the marketing of Sun City, Arizona. The advertising texts provide an ideological code to manage and reorganize at multiple sites the social relations of one segment of the housing industry under late capitalism.

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In this paper we examine how texts enter into social processes to articulate and redefine the social organization of housing and retirement practices in the latter part of the 20th century in the US. We explicate one woman's experience of moving from Youngstown, Ohio, to Sun City, Arizona, in 1978, and in doing so, show how her activities are embedded in actual spheres of changing social relations which are textually mediated through advertising. The method we use is that of institutional ethnography. As institutional ethnographers we begin with an experience of a particular subject and the subject's experience becomes a point of departure. From there we seek to explicate that experience by discovering its social determinants. The subject's account of her experience leads us to a consideration of specific texts. (For a description of institutional ethnography see Campbell, 1998; Grahame, 1998; Smith, 1987. For works examining texts and social processes in other institutional arrangements see de Montigny, 1995; Diamond, 1992; Griffith, 1992, 1995; Jackson, 1995; Kinsman, 1987; McCoy, 1995, 1998; Mueller, 1995; Mykhalovskiy, 1999; Ng, 1995; Reimer, 1995; Smith & Smith, 1990; Swift, 1995; Townsend, 1998; Turner, 1995; Walker, 1995.)

We interviewed Ursula Roberts on several occasions about her experiences in housing herself and family over her life. (1) We introduce her to you through a brief biography, and then we present her account of a specific period of her life when she moved to Arizona with her husband, Al, and took up residence in Sun City. The account is in the form of a reconstructed narrative that we compiled from her words. In the account she spoke of seeing advertisements about Sun City in the Youngstown, Ohio, newspaper. That led us to the Sun City Area Historical Society to recover some of the advertisements that she might have seen in the early 1970's. We also examined earlier ads and present some of them in this paper. We read these ads as textual practices in the exercise of power that reconceptualize housing and retirement under advanced capitalism (Walker, 1995). We begin with the biography.

Ursula Roberts was born in 1917, the oldest of two daughters, and reared in a small town in Pennsylvania. During her childhood her mother was a housewife and her father was a sales manager for an automobile dealership. After graduating from high school, she attended college briefly and then began working for J.C. Penney. In 1938 she married Al Roberts, who began working for Ursula's father. Ursula ended her employment when Al began working for J.C. Penney also, and within a few years they had two children.

During WWII Al worked in a defense-related industry, and after the war he sold groceries wholesale. In 1952 Al entered the insurance business as a general agent. He was quite successful and soon was running offices for a national company, Washington National Life Insurance. Since Al was frequently called upon to rectify troubled agencies, the family moved from city to city quite often. From 1952 until Al's retirement in 1977, many of Ursula's activities revolved around caring for her two children and her husband who had his first massive heart attack when he was 45. …