Skip to main content
Log in

Salvaging Decency: Mobile Home Residents’ Strategies of Managing the Stigma of “Trailer” Living

  • Published:
Qualitative Sociology Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

This paper is based on 45 ethnographic interviews conducted with residents of mobile home communities in West Central Florida between 2005 and 2008. It investigates their strategies of managing the stigma that is commonly associated with living in a mobile home. Informants routinely encounter negative stereotypes regarding their “trailer” home, community, and lifestyle in public discourse and personal interactions, and consequently have developed ways of salvaging their decency. My analysis of these strategies particularly emphasizes two versions of distancing, here called “bordering” and “fencing,” as examples of symbolic boundary work. Other techniques discussed include ignoring, passing, humoring, resisting, normalizing, upstaging, and blaming. Throughout the paper, I argue that mobile home residents’ ways of salvaging decency are both similar and different compared to how other disparaged groups deal with stigmatization. The conclusion discusses broader sociological implications of the research in enhancing our understanding of the experience of stigmatization, folk conceptions of decency, symbolic and social differentiation, as well as race and class dynamics.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. This figure does not include seasonal residents whose mobile homes remain unoccupied more than 6 months in a year. Due to the high number of “snowbirds” Florida presently has the highest estimated number of mobile homes, whereas the assumed total of people living in mobile homes is higher in Texas (nearly 1.8 million), with Florida in second place.

  2. Successful Hollywood films, such as The Wrestler (2008), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004), 8 Mile (2002), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Mars Attack (1996), and Independence Day (1996), offer graphic depictions of the many inadequacies of mobile home residents and communities. Newspaper articles and TV news clips regularly point out when crimes, accidents, and natural disasters occur in mobile homes or mobile home parks, thereby implying a causal or at least statistical link. For instance, the New York Times’ February 2008 coverage of a string of deadly tornadoes in several US states almost exclusively focused on so-called “trailer” residents. Books, cartoons, games, and even recipes featuring trailer-themed jokes are abundant; one popular example being the various “Redneck” products by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

  3. Throughout the last decades, about two dozen research articles and a handful of book-length studies have been published in this area. Topics range from the history of mobile homes (Hart et al. 2002; Hurley 2001; Thornburg 1991; Wallis 1991) to economic and political aspects (Geisler and Mitsuda 1987; Happel et al. 1988; Krannich and Greider 1984); from specific social groups (Edwards 2004; Fry 1979; Hoyt 1954; Johnson 1971; MacTavish and Salamon 2006; Martin et al. 1987; Miller and Evko 1985) to different regions or types of communities (Benson 1990; Edwards et al. 1973; Gruber and Shelton 1987; Martin et al. 1987; MacTavish and Salamon 2001, 2006; Salamon 2003; Salamon and MacTavish 2007).

  4. It is important to stress that distancing is almost never rooted in objective, measurable facts. Rather, it can draw on any characterization that happens to fits one’s personal situation. Katz (1999, pp. 52–59) offers a compelling description of the random social classifications angry drivers use to distance others while giving narrative meaning to their experience (also compare Lamont and Molnár 2002).

  5. Unfortunately, Moss (2003, pp. 84–85) does not develop this excellent concept beyond the following comment.

    [Martha] shows us, in particular, that mobile home residents practice the same type of classism that site-built home people do. Even at what many “outsiders” consider a lower rung of the social ladder, many trailer park residents need to differentiate themselves from those living next door or on the next street. In the park, for example, part of one’s identity is based on who has the bigger and better mobile home and on who owns their mobile home or the mobile home and the land it sits on. The list of minor criteria seems endless as residents recount them. (...) Such micro-othering is a never ending process. (emphasis by author)

  6. TV star Roseanne has spoken in the past of her “White trash” roots. White rap artist Eminem incorporates glimpses into his “trailer trash” upbringing in his music and videos, arguably beating critics to the punch. “Trash” is the title of a collection of short stories by writer Dorothy Allison (2002). Allison speaks of originally claiming the labels “trash” and “White trash” in self defense (Allison 2002, p. xv) because they had been applied to her and her family in “crude and hateful ways.” Bob Moore (2006, p. 5), in his book of photographs titled “Trailer Trash,” emphasizes that his purpose was “not to denigrate those who live in trailers, mobile homes, or the now politically correct, Manufactured Housing.” Instead, he assures readers that he has lived most of his life in such accommodations and carries “the personal epithet of Trailer Trash with pride.”

References

  • Allison, D. (2002). Trash. Ithaca: Firebrand Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, E. (1990). Streetwise: Race, class, and change in an urban community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, E. (2002). The ideologically driven critique. American Journal of Sociology, 107, 1533–1550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, L., Snow, D. A., & Cress, D. (1994). Negotiating the public realm: Stigma management and collective action among the homeless. In D. A. Chekki, S. E. Cahill & L. H. Lofland (Eds.), Research in community sociology: The community of the streets (pp. 121–143). Greenwich: JAI.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arluke, A. (1994). Managing emotions in an animal shelter. In A. Manning & J. Serpell (Eds.), Animal and human society (pp. 145–165). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bachelard, G. (1994). The poetics of space. New York: Orion.

    Google Scholar 

  • Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while doing it. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Benson, J. E. (1990). Good neighbors: Ethnic relations in Garden City trailer courts. Urban Anthropology, 19, 361–386.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berube, A. (1997). Sunset trailer park. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: Race and class in America (pp. 15–39). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burch-Brown, C. (1996). Trailers. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Text by David Rigsbee.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cahill, S., & Eggleston, R. (1994). Managing emotions in public: The case of wheelchair users. Social Psychology Quarterly, 57, 300–312.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Callahan, S. B. D. (2008). Academic outings. Symbolic Interaction, 31, 351–375.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Casey, E. S. (1993). Getting back into place: Toward a renewed understanding of the place-world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus.

    Google Scholar 

  • Duneier, M. (2002). What kind of combat sport is sociology? American Journal of Sociology, 107, 1551–1576.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Edwards, M. L. K. (2004). We’re decent people: Constructing and managing family identity in rural working-class communities. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 515–529.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Edwards, J. N., Klemmack, D. L., & Hatos, L., Jr. (1973). Social participation patterns among mobile-home and single-family dwellers. Social Forces, 51, 485–489.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Feagin, J. R. (1991). The continuing significance of race: Anti-black discrimination in public places. American Sociological Review, 56, 101–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Field, S. (1994). Becoming Irish: Personal identity construction among first-generation Irish immigrants. Symbolic Interaction, 17, 431–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fothergill, A. (2003). The stigma of charity: Gender, class, and disaster assistance. The Sociological Quarterly, 44, 659–680.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fry, C. (1979). Structural conditions affecting community formation among the aged: Two examples from Arizona. Anthropological Quarterly, 52, 7–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gardner, C. B. (1995). Passing by: Gender and public harassment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Geisler, C. C., & Mitsuda, H. (1987). Mobile-home growth, regulation, and discrimination in upstate New York. Rural Sociology, 52, 532–543.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gibbons, M. (2004). White trash: A class relevant scapegoat for the cultural elite. Journal of Mundane Behavior, 5, 1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goad, J. (1997). The redneck manifesto. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gruber, K. J., & Shelton, G. G. (1987). Assessment of neighborhood satisfaction by residents of three housing types. Social Indicators Research, 19, 303–315.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Happel, S. K., Hogan, T. D., & Pflanz, E. (1988). The economic impact of elderly winter residents in the Phoenix area. Research on Aging, 10, 119–133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hart, J. F., Rhodes, M. J., & Morgan, J. T. (2002). The unknown world of the mobile home. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hartigan, J., Jr. (1997). Name calling: Objectifying poor whites and ‘white trash’ in Detroit. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: Race and class in America (pp. 41–56). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hartigan, J., Jr. (1999). Racial situations: Class predicament of whiteness in Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hartigan, J., Jr. (2003). Who are these white people? “Rednecks”, “hillbillies”, and “white trash” as marked racial subjects. In A. W. Doane & E. Bonilla-Silva (Eds.), White out: The continuing significance of racism (pp. 95–111). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hoyt, G. C. (1954). The life of the retired in a trailer park. American Journal of Sociology, 59, 361–370.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hurley, A. (2001). Diners, bowling alleys, and trailer parks. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Irby, L. (1999). Razing gerontopolis: Green benches, trailer trash, and old people in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1910–1070. M.A. Thesis, Department of History, University of South Florida.

  • Johnson, S. K. (1971). Idle haven: Community building among the working-class retired. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kang, M. (2003). The managed hand: The commercialization of bodies and emotions in Korean immigrant-owned Nail Salons. Gender & Society, 17, 820–839.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Katz, M. B. (1989). The undeserving poor: From the war on poverty to the war on welfare. New York: Pantheon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz, J. (1999). How emotions work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz, J. (2001). Analytic induction revisited. In R. M. Emerson (Ed.), Contemporary field research: Perspectives and formulations (2nd ed., pp. 331–334). Prospect Heights: Waveland.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kefalas, M. (2002). Working class heroes: Protecting home, community, and nation in a Chicago suburb. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Krannich, R. S., & Greider, T. (1984). Personal well-being in rapid growth and stable communities: Multiple indicators and contrasting results. Rural Sociology, 49, 541–552.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M. (2000). The dignity of working men: Morality and boundaries of race, class, and immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M., & Molnár, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 167–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MacTavish, K. A., & Salamon, S. (2001). Mobile home park on the prairie: A new rural community form. Rural Sociology, 66, 487–506.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacTavish, K. A., & Salamon, S. (2006). Pathways of youth development in a rural trailer park. Family Relations, 55, 163–174.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marcus, C. C. (1995). House as a mirror of self: Exploring the deeper meaning of home. Berwick: Nicolas-Hays.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, H. W., Hoppe, S. K., Larson, C. L., & Leon, R. L. (1987). Texas snowbirds: Seasonal migrants to the Rio Grande valley. Research on Aging, 9, 134–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Meanwell, E., Wolfe, J. D., & Hallett, T. (2008). Old paths and new directions: Studying emotions in the workplace. Sociology Compass, 2, 1–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mears, A., & Finlay, W. (2005). Not just a paper doll: How models manage bodily capital and why they perform emotional labor. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34, 317–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miller, S. I., & Evko, B. (1985). An ethnographic study of the influence of a mobile home community on suburban high school students. Human Relations, 38, 683–705.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moore, B. (2006). Trailer trash: The world of trailers and mobile homes in the Southwest. Laughlin: Route 66 Magazine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morris, E. W. (2005). From “middle class” to “trailer trash:” Teacher’s perceptions of white students in a predominantly minority school. Sociology of Education, 78, 99–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moss, K. (2003). The color of class: Poor whites and the paradox of privilege. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Neewitz, A., & Wray, M. (1997). What is “white trash”? Stereotypes and economic conditions of poor whites in the United States. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A critical reader (pp. 168–184). New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Newman, K. S. (1999). No shame in my game: The working poor in the inner city. New York: Knopf.

    Google Scholar 

  • Newman, K. S. (2002). No shame: The view from the left bank. American Journal of Sociology, 107, 1577–1599.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Padavic, I. (1991). The re-creation of gender in a male workplace. Symbolic Interaction, 14, 279–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Palmer, C., Ziersch, A., Arthuson, K., & Baum, F. (2004). Challenging the stigma of public housing: Preliminary findings from a qualitative study in South Australia. Urban Policy and Research, 22, 411–426.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Patillo, M. (2007). Black on the block: The politics of race and class in the city. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Patillo-McCoy, M. (1999). Black picket fences: Privilege and peril among the black middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Phelan, J., Link, B. G., Moore, R. E., & Stueve, A. (1997). The stigma of homelessness: The impact of the label “homeless” on attitudes toward poor persons. Social Psychology Quarterly, 60, 323–337.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Roschelle, A. R., & Kaufman, P. (2004). Fitting in and fighting back: Stigma management among homeless children. Symbolic Interaction, 27, 23–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rybczynski, W. (1986). Home: A short history of an idea. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salamon, S. (2003). Mobile home communities. In K. Christensen & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World (pp. 925–929). Berkeley: Sage Reference Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salamon, S., & MacTavish, K. A. (2007). Quasi-homelessness among rural trailer park households in the United States. In P. Milbourne & P. Cloke (Eds.), International perspectives on rural homelessness (pp. 45–61). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schwalbe, M., Godwin, S., Holden, D., Schrock, D., Thompson, S., & Wolkomir, M. (2000). Generic processes in the reproduction of inequality: An interactionist analysis. Social Forces, 79, 419–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. C., & Kleinman, C. (1989). Managing emotions in medical school: Students’ contacts with the living and the dead. Social Psychology Quarterly, 52, 56–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Snow, D. A., & Anderson, L. (1987). Identity work among the homeless: The verbal construction and avowal of personal identities. American Journal of Sociology, 92, 1336–1371.

    Google Scholar 

  • Snow, D. A., & Anderson, L. (1993). Down on their luck: A study of homeless street people. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thornburg, D. A. (1991). Galloping bungalows: The rise and demise of the American house trailer. Hamden: Archon Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wacquant, L. (2002). Scrutinizing the street: Poverty, morality, and the pitfalls of urban ethnography. American Journal of Sociology, 107, 1468–1532.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wallis, A. D. (1991). Wheel estate: The rise and decline of mobile homes. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wray, M. (2006). Not quite white: White trash and the boundaries of whiteness. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wray, M., & Neewitz, A. (Eds). (1997). White trash: Race and class in America. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

I am very grateful for the enthusiastic and skilled help of my ten undergraduate research assistants: Stephanie Antonio, Shon Atkins, Corina Farrar, Alissa Klein, Tegan Lesperance, Alexandra Okolie, Wanda Sloan, Claire Street, Lisa Vasquez, and Isabel Ziemba. A portion of the research conducted for this paper was funded by the University of South Florida via a New Researcher Grant and a Faculty Development Grant both received in 2005. Many thanks also to Jack Katz and Donileen Loseke, as well as the QS editor and four anonymous reviewers, for their detailed feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Margarethe Kusenbach.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kusenbach, M. Salvaging Decency: Mobile Home Residents’ Strategies of Managing the Stigma of “Trailer” Living. Qual Sociol 32, 399–428 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-009-9139-z

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-009-9139-z

Keywords

Navigation