We drive by houses every day and learn something about the residents as we gaze at the carved pumpkins, bird baths, flower pots and flags that make up their domestic landscapes. Yet rarely have social scientists used this information to provide insight into how households choose to represent themselves in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender and social class.
Our research collaborative brings together qualitative, quantitative, visual and material culture researchers from sociology and anthropology to study how households arrange and make choices of how to craft the public “face” of the exteriors of structures and the land. Although visual aspects of neglect (like broken windows or graffiti) are associated in the social science literature with decline, there is little attention paid to investment and representation that occurs more positively. Yet these efforts represent a public display of “self”, whether it is a Huskers flag, a flamingo or a garden gnome. What is lacking is a systematic assessment of these landscapes created to “speak” to the passerby in their own vernacular. What can they tell us about how people see themselves in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender and social class? What image do they wish us to see? What is important to them?
For the past few years, we have conducted literature review searches, debated the best way to collect data, and discussed how to involve students in the vernacular landscapes project. One difficulty with this type of research in the past was the issue of data collection—how do you collect landscape information, link it to demographic community data and code it for content? Fortunately for us, technology has solved some of the most time consuming aspects of this process through the use of sites like Google Earth and Zillow.