Hollowing Out the Middle - The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas
Behind the Scenes with the Sociologists
The Heartland Study
The convention in sociology when one completes a study of a community is to write a so-called “methods appendix,” where the researchers talk about how they found their site, gained access and built trust with the people they studied, and completed their research. Though some such appendices, such as William Foote Whyte’s seminal postscript to Street Corner Society, are masterful in their elucidation of the craft of in-depth research, more often than not they appear as a bit of an afterthought to the main menu of description and analysis. As we wrote up the final drafts of Hollowing Out the Middle we decided not to include an appendix because it would be just that, something tacked on that wouldn’t add much to the overall work, and which, because of space limitations, would be curtailed in any case-more fodder for the methods police to find fault with. Instead, we felt that it would be better to summarize the research in a more open-ended forum, so that those who want more information about the study can find it, and people who want to replicate it have an idea of how we went about it.
The Heartland Study and the choice of Ellis as its site was a serendipitous mixture of vision and travelogue happenstance. That there was a study at all owes to the vision of Frank Furstenberg, the director of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, who wanted to chronicle the experiences of young adults in different parts of the country at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To do so, he enlisted us to be part of a research team that would preside over an in-depth interview study with twenty-somethings in different parts of America. By the time we came on board the coastal sites of New York City and San Diego had already been chosen, and were soon to be followed by the Midwestern metropolis of Minneapolis/St. Paul, all three of which were places that had existing longitudinal research projects on which the “coming of age in America” study would piggy-back. Furstenberg, however, felt that there needed to be another research site-one that would be the small town counterpoint to the big cities, and one that would embody the non-metropolitan experience. This is where we came in. We were hired to develop this yet-to-be-named site, and, at a meeting at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City in August 2001, Furstenberg and several of his colleagues outlined their wish list to us. The wanted us in “one of those Red states”, “in the middle somewhere”, in “a place with one high school” and “far away from any metropolitan center.” As it happened we knew of a place that would fit the bill, and where we wouldn’t exactly be strangers.
Several years before our summoning to New York Pat had stayed in Ellis as he traveled around America and he had made friends with several people there. He had not chanced upon Ellis by accident, but had been introduced to it by a native, Katy, who had spent a summer in Ireland, rooming at the house of his good friend Justin. Later that fall as he traveled around the Midwest he stayed in Iowa city with Katy and was invited to her house for Thanksgiving. In all Pat spent over a week in Ellis in November 1989, during which he spoke to the history class at the high school, danced an Irish jig at the elementary school, and played pool with a group of septuagenarian farmers at one of the local bars. He became fast friends with Katy’s family, and two years later, when she was dying from spinal cancer, he returned to Ellis for what were to be her final days. Katy’s family visited Ireland the following year further strengthening ties and, while we completed our graduate studies in Chicago, we visited Ellis on occasion.
So, when, over lunch, we discussed what Furstenberg and his colleagues had described to us in their wish list for a research site, Ellis seemed like the obvious choice. You see Ellis is a town of a little over 2000 people nestled in the northeastern part of the state, far away from any major city. It has one high school, a smattering of stores and churches and no stop lights. It is, in short, a typical Midwestern small town and definitely non-metropolitan. And, to top it off, we had ties there so we would not be starting from scratch. When we reconvened in the afternoon, we relayed to the group that we thought we had found the place. One member of the group quickly retrieved an atlas of American states and said “show us where this Ellis is”, which we did. Yes, the agreed, that would do just fine, and within days we had put in our first calls to our friends there to tell them that their town was about to become part of a national study, which, in their own parlance, “really tickled” them.
As we began to design our study two things became clear to us pretty quickly. One, it was indeed a stroke of luck that we had entrée into the community, as doors that were stiff at the outset quickly opened when we name dropped the people we knew in town. Two, because the Heartland Study did not have the benefit of previous waves of data, we had to quickly play catch up with the other sites. The overarching goal of the coming of age study was to chronicle, through in-depth interviews, what it is like to be a young adult in different parts of the country. To do this for Ellis, Furstenberg advised that we focus on two sets of young adults, those in their early twenties-what we called the recent transition group, and those who were in their late twenties, or the mature transition group. But where to start? We could try and interview all of the young adults in these age groups in the town of Ellis. That would be fine, but, as we soon learned, that would mean excluding anyone who had left the town to study or work elsewhere, serve in the military or whose family had moved away. We intuitively felt that, if we were going to tell the story of coming of age in a small town, then we had to include everyone regardless of whether they still lived there. As it turned out, this was an extremely important decision though we didn’t really know it at the time. We decided that the best way to gain access to the groups we wished to target for recruitment would be to work through the Ellis High School, and, to that end, we made what would be our most important friend, Arlene, the school Secretary, who became an invaluable resource and one of the best subject finders we have ever met. With her help we assembled incoming lists of high school freshmen who entered Ellis High to graduate in 1990, 1991 and 1992 (the mature transition cohort set), and 1995, 1996 and 1997 (the recent transition cohort set). So our freshmen lists were from 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, and 1993, and from these we compiled a database of everyone who was enrolled to attend Ellis High that year. The freshmen lists were chosen because we wanted to make sure we interviewed some who had dropped out of high school. We did eliminate some people from the database. First, we excluded any foreign exchange students because they did not grow up in Ellis, and second, we omitted young people who entered Ellis High but who relocated during high school and graduated elsewhere. After the eliminations we were left with a total population of 339 young adults, and with the herculean efforts of the school secretary we surveyed this population in order to obtain some baseline information, and identify people for the in-depth interviews. We began sending out surveys in December 2001, and we continued collecting surveys until late summer 2002. In all we amassed completed surveys with 275 people, an 81% response rate. Many of the surveys were filled out by people and mailed to us, while some were filled out during a telephone interview. We called young people on army bases in Alaska and Okinawa, received surveys mailed from twenty-seven different states in the continental U.S., and we even received one survey from a federal penitentiary. The latter was actually a good story. Arlene had found out that one young man, who had been sent to the federal prison system for selling crystal meth and so she sent off a survey, complete with a stamped return envelope. A few days later the packet was returned with a note from the young man that he was not allowed to receive a stamped envelope as this would contravene the contraband policy. He did fill out the form, return the envelope we had sent, and had used his own money to mail it all back.
The response rate for the survey is considered to be in line with what is considered acceptable as a proxy for the population, and moreover, we are confident that we got surveys from some very-hard-to-reach people in our population. For instance, we completed surveys with two people who were of no-fixed abode at the time we spoke with them, and from others who had vague addresses, but who we managed to track down through Arlene’s many contacts. We also did other things to boost our recruitment efforts. For instance, we sponsored a keg for the five and ten-year high school reunions that were held in the summer of 2002 in exchange for the organizers of the party handing out our surveys and talking up the project. Several people filled out the questionnaire at the party and we’re pretty sure that we would never have gotten some of them if we had not bought the drinks for the party.
The baseline survey helped us do several things. One, it helped us locate over four fifths of the population, in several cases updating the contact information we had for the participant. Two, the survey announced the project to the population and we told respondents that we might be asking them to do a longer in-depth face-to-face interview. Three, the information we gleaned from the surveys helped us profile the young adults. We gathered data on place of residence, educational attainment, employment, marital status, religious affiliation, military experience and life course events, and from this it was easier for us to non-randomly choose people for the in-depth interviews. Tables 1-4 below summarize the survey. All of the six classes-here signified by the supposed graduation date whether or not they actually did-were well-represented in the survey, and there was an equal distribution between males and females. What was apparent early on in the survey collection was the dispersal of the young adults originally from Ellis. A little over two-fifths still lived in and around Ellis in Liberty County, while just shy of thirty percent lived elsewhere in the state of Iowa, both in cities such as Iowa City, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and in other smaller towns and rural areas. Just over one quarter of those we received surveys from lived outside the state of Iowa, at the time in a total of twenty-seven of the continental United States, Alaska and several foreign countries-exclusively those serving in the military overseas. There were two other trends that were worth noting from the survey. One is the diversity of experiences within the sample, in terms of education, work and family formation. For instance, in terms of educational attainment there were high school dropouts and people with professional degrees, and all shades in between. It was a similar story with respect to work and family, and the variation within the sample helped orient the selection of people for in-depth interview. The second trend that we noticed was that a significant part of our sample seemed to be what Wayne Osgood and his colleagues have called “fast starters” with respect to adulthood. If the goal of the Network who commissioned our study was to chart the experiences of the modern, elongated transition to adulthood, then the Iowa case had evidence that some young people were behaving like their grandparents generation in that they were finishing school, leaving home, starting work, partnering and having families by their early twenties. For the sample as a whole the mean age was just over twenty-six years and the average person had completed over three of the five adult transitions (see table 5 below).
We had collected most of the surveys by February 2002, though we continued to try and find people through the summer of that year. While we were getting to know the population and were analyzing the data that was coming in, several members of the research network had started to draft the interview guide that would be used in all of the sites. There had been a general training meeting for interviewers in New York City in December 2001, and in January the interview guide went through several drafts. Many of the questions that were used were based on those that had been used in a previous wave of interviewing for the Immigrant Second Generation in Metropolitan New York (ISGMNY) study. In addition to the questions from this study, the drafting team added several sections, notably on subjective aging, reactions to September 11, criminal justice system experience, and we also added questions and probes to sections on living arrangements, education, family and relationships, employment, religion and leisure (see the pdf of the interview guide below). All told, the common core interview guide ran to twelve pages and included hundreds of open-ended questions and probes. The Principal Investigators for each site the conducted their own pilot tests of the guide before commencing interviews in March 2002. The goal of the research team was to ensure that there would be comparable data across the sites and so working from the common core of questions was essential. However, there were several obstacles in the way of producing similar data streams in each site. One problem that arose was the variability in what institutional review boards (IRB) for the protection of human subjects in research would allow each team to do in the field. For instance, in the Minnesota site, the IRB mandated that the interview could not last longer than ninety minutes, reasoning that it would be onerous for the participants, all of whom had been part of several waves of data collection for the ongoing Youth Development Study (YDS), to answer questions for longer than this period. In effect, this meant that the interviewers in Minnesota had to omit some questions from the schedule. Another problem was how to ensure that interviewers stuck more or less to the script. This was particularly an issue for the New York and San Diego sites because the teams of interviewers there were quite large, whereas we conducted almost all of the Iowa in-depth interviews and it was a similarly small team in Minnesota. The tension between allowing interviewers to follow up on some issues and having them go rogue is always a difficult one, and the larger the team the more chance there is of not being able to have complete control over the quality of the data. That said, each site conducted constant checks on interviews, reviewing tapes and transcripts regularly and having interviewer meetings to discuss issues arising from the fieldwork.
For the Heartland study, we field tested the interview several times in February 2002, and made a number of changes to the questions in the guide based on our pilot. Satisfied that we had a smooth flowing interview guide we set about deciding whom we would try to recruit for the first interviews. We had decided that we wanted to interview Ellis natives all over the country because we wanted to capture the experiences of those who had left as well as those who stayed, and so we set about contacting some of the young adults who had relocated to the northeast-basically anyone within a day’s striking distance of Philadelphia. At that time, we also received a request from a Newsweek reporter who had heard about the study and was doing a story on “today’s twenty-somethings.” She wanted to shadow us during an interview, and as the Network thought that this would be a good way to promote the research, we asked for special IRB clearance to allow the reporter to sit in on what would be our first interview. We duly received the clearance whereby if the interviewee was okay with the reporter being present, and if her identity and location were not divulged, then it would be fine to proceed. The interviewee, Marcy, was finishing up a doctorate in science at an Ivy League university, and represented one pole of experience in our sample. Pat interviewed Marcy early in March, and though it was a little strange to have someone else present, the interview went well. Marcy’s experiences as a leaver who was successful in her career and who doubted she would ever return to Ellis, save for the odd visit, gave us an early profile of the group of young people we would later label Achievers. As it happened Marcy’s interview never made it beyond the cutting floor at Newsweek (the moral of that story for us is never go out of your way to help journalists), but, importantly, it did give us a start to our project. We had a better idea how long the interview was running (Marcy’s took over two and a half hours to complete), what questions were working well or not, and what themes might be ones to watch. In the weeks that followed our first interview we completed several more in and around the greater Philadelphia area and in New York and the Washington D.C metro area, and we had planned our first interviewing trip to Iowa, which would be during spring break. We spent a week in Iowa City and interviewed a further six young adults, and by the end of March 2002 we had completed fifteen interviews. At this point, we paused to take stock of what we were finding and we began planning the next stages of the research. The interviews were being transcribed by our research team at Saint Joseph’s University concurrently with the research, so we were able to review the interviews. We also prepared a summary of each interview, which averaged three pages, where we noted details about the interview, descriptions of the interviewee and what we thought were the most important parts of the interview. The review sheets were helpful in orienting us to the emerging themes, and, as we reflected on the first batch of interviews several items were noteworthy.
First, we had only interviewed Ellis natives who had left and some of the more evocative passages in the interviews had to do with leaving Ellis, what the young adults missed or not about the place and their reflections on whether they would ever go back. It seemed that for these leavers there really was little chance that they would go back, though for many this realization was a source of some angst. A second theme to emerge was the different trajectories of the leavers we had interviewed. Most of them had left to pursue opportunities away from Ellis, starting with third level education and with the overall goal of building a career elsewhere. These leavers were academically talented, focused on their careers, and unsure exactly where life would lead them, but positive that it would not be back to Ellis. A smaller subset of leavers were less focused on success and were more concerned with broadening their horizons and experiencing the wider world and the diversity it has to offer. Some of the latter group had used the military as a way to “get out” of Ellis. The early interviews had unearthed what would become the Achiever and Seeker categories, and we decided that we would chase down more leavers and young people with military experience to see if we were on the right track.
By the spring of 2002 we had decided that we were going to spend an extended period of time in Ellis, and we made plans to move there for the summer of 2002. We felt that we needed to immerse ourselves in the town itself, and it would help us to schedule interviews with the young adults still living in and around the town. The word was spreading among the networks of young people that we were conducting the in-depth interviews, not to mention paying a $50 honorarium, and in most cases when we call up to schedule an interview, we had to spend very little time explaining the study. People either remembered from the survey that they might be asked to do a further interview, or they had heard from someone who had already completed one. In this regard our “word of mouth” was excellent, testament to the interview itself, which was lengthy, probing, but also fun, and perhaps also because we are veteran interviewers, and in most cases, we are effective at putting people at ease and getting them to open up. Most of all, we believe that the young adults liked being asked for their opinion about everything from their own education and work experiences to the post-911 world.
In May 2002 we moved to Ellis where we rented a two bedroom wooden frame home on the southwestern part of town. The house belonged to Libby Duncan, who was then in her eighties and had taken up residence in the local nursing home. Libby’s daughter, Bess Swenson, had rented the house to us only because others had vouched for us. The house was not normally rented out, and was exactly the way Libby had left it, down to the decorated, cozy sewing room, that would become the site for many of our interviews that summer. We did our best to be good tenants, but at times, we found that we were not quite up to the standard that was tacitly expected in Ellis. The house was located in a working-class part of the town, several streets over form the larger single family homes where the small but influential middle class members of Ellis society live. Our neighbors were intensely curious about us and what we were doing, and while they never completely took to us-there was always a certain reticence in the way they interacted with us-they were friendly and offered us help when they thought we needed it. Our first transgression of the local norms came on Maria’s first night in the Duncan house. Maria had moved to Ellis ahead of Pat and was understandably apprehensive on her first evening along there. She committed the cardinal error of leaving the porch light on, and not long after 9.30 Bess Swenson knocked on the door to ask if anything was wrong, seeing as the neighbors had called her to tell her about the lapse. The second hurdle we had to overcome was cutting the lawn in a timely manner. Not long after Maria had learned that she had to turn off the outside lights at night-Ellis was ahead of Philadelphia on the energy conservation front-the spring rains turned the yard around Libby’s house into a lush green carpet. Maria thought nothing of it as the grass really wasn’t that long. Another visit from Bess Swenson, and a pointed offer of landscaping help from our neighbor, who volunteered one of his boys to do it, spurred Maria into action, and soon the lawn had the regulation Ellis crew cut. Having spent so much time in the Chicago neighborhood of Beltway, and even after having written about the solicitousness with which Beltwayites treated their patches of grass, we really should have known better. But these peculiar joys of small town living helped us get to know this spot on the map, and, though we never tried to hide the fact that we were outsiders and that we were probably going to write a book about the town, we did our best to toe the local line and fit in.
Other ethnographers, sociologists and chroniclers of small town life and the mores that undergird it have written more eloquently about the experience of the outsider in the midst of a tight-knit community, and to that venerable literature. Nancy Naples, writing in the journal Qualitative Sociology in 1996 about her own experience doing fieldwork in Iowa, says that the positions of “insider” and “outsider” in such a milieu are not fixed entities. Rather they shift as one encounters different people and situations, and this was certainly our experience in Ellis. To some, we were old friends, familiar from our visits to the town in the years before the Heartland study. To others, we were not, and to this group we were either viewed with mild curiosity or with something just shy of polite hostility-anyone who has spent time in the Midwest knows that the latter phrase is not an oxymoron. Maria had barely unpacked when the Catholic parish priest, who lived in a well-appointed house at the end of our street, came calling. He was more than a little curious to meet his new neighbor, especially as he had “heard you are Hispanic, Maria.” The bookend hostility also came courtesy of the Catholic Church, when one Sunday no-one shook our hand at the point in the Mass where the congregation is exhorted to exchange the sign of peace. It was a singular moment of cold exclusion, and, it should be added, was aberrant in our time in Ellis. Such incidents serve as a reminder that small towns are complex social systems that are not easily penetrated.
After an initial settling in period in Libby Duncan’s house, which included having to get the central air repaired (in Ellis the repair man comes when you call, actually fixes what is broken and doesn’t charge the earth for the service, how refreshing), we quickly set about interviewing people in the area who were part of our two cohort sets. Initially, we selected people based on several criteria. For instance, we were interested in hearing about the experiences of young adults who had taken different educational, occupational and personal pathways to adulthood and so we wanted to hear from high school dropouts, as well as those who had gone to community college or university. We wanted to interview people who worked in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations, white and pink collar workers, and those who still made their living from farming. We also wanted to interview people who were currently or who had served time in the military. As we had baseline information from the survey, it was fairly easy to identify people who fit these broad categories and, for the most part, it was easy to set up interviews. In our time in Iowa only two people refused an in-depth interview while two others never actually said no, but basically avoided us or asked us to call them back at a better time. About half of the Ellis-based interviews took place in Libby Duncan’s house, and we completed the other half at the homes of our respondents. When we called people up we gave them the choice and while some were happy to have us come to them, others seemed relieved that we had an interviewing location. In that regard Libby Duncan’s sewing room was perfect in that it was a small wood-paneled room with a bright western facing window and it had two sliding doors, one connecting the room with the kitchen and the other leading into the living room. There was a small couch and two unmatched chairs, a glass coffee table, as well as a battered leather sewing seat with a removable top. The room was festooned with porcelain figurines, crocheted dolls, embroidered pin cushions and other assorted knick knacks and had the homely air of a Grandma clubhouse. Really, all that was missing was a steaming apple pie cooling on an open window sill. The ambience of the room definitely helped us put people at ease, and though it got a little stuffy sometimes when the summer sun was blazing outside, our interviewees invariably enjoyed themselves. Most of the interviews ran over two and a half hours, and respondents invariably commented that they hadn’t noticed how much time had passed. The longest interview was over four and a half hours long, and the shortest was just over forty-five minutes, with the average coming in at about two and a half hours. If the participants seemed to enjoy the process, it was also a genuinely pleasurable experience from the interviewer side. Between us we have completed many research projects and have conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews, and this one was a real pleasure to direct because of the combination of an elegant interview guide and an enthusiastic and open group of young people who were eager to share their stories, hopes and fears with us.
As fun as the interviews were for us, there are still some notable difficulties about doing this kind of a project in a small town. We operated under strict IRB guidelines that forced us to take every precaution to protect the confidentiality and preserve the anonymity of our respondents. Certainly, in the book we have been careful not to identify Ellis or the people we spoke to there and elsewhere around the country. But when you are living in a small town it is hard to keep people out of your business, and people were really keen to know whom we were interviewing. Beyond the intense local curiosity there was the danger that news would leak out about the study and thus blow the cover of the town. In that regard, we were almost responsible for letting the cat out of the bag ourselves. A few weeks into our summer the local newspaper editor, publisher, reporter, and, as it turned out, chief photographer, called us to ask if he could do a story on our project, which he had heard about from several people in the town. As the local paper does not really have a wide circulation and functions more as an advertiser than a news source, we felt that it would be fine to do that. The fourth estate everyman duly arrived at our house and we had a pleasant chat about the study, and he took some photos of us in the sewing/interview room. As we noted in the book we thought the “story” would merit a few column inches back in the midsection of the paper alongside advertisements for the local diner and supermarket, so we were a little shocked when we received above the fold front page coverage with a headline that ran “town to be site of national study.” A few days after the story ran in the Ellis paper we received a call from a reporter with the Waterloo Courier who wanted to do a story on us. He wanted to mention Ellis’ real name in the piece and so we quickly declined the invitation. Later in the summer a television news reporter from Cedar Rapids, who had heard about the study from a young woman we had interviewed who worked at the same station, also called and wanted to include us in a summertime profile of Ellis, which was to be part of an ongoing feature on small towns throughout the state. Again, citing the constraints on anonymity, we declined. Though these situations are quite unusual in the course of a normal research project, they were timely reminders to us that we had to work very hard to maintain the anonymity of the town and the participants in the study. So, at times in the manuscript we have omitted some fine grain detail about the town or about participants to protect their identities. Certainly, the people in Ellis know that the book is about them, and some may even recognize some of the people we profile or quote, but in certain cases where participants divulged sensitive information, we have either excluded it or masked it in such a way that the person is not easily identifiable. There is an argument that sociology should be more like journalism and identify the speakers and the place in work such as this, but as long as IRBs impose stringent restrictions we are bound by the rules of our discipline. And, with an eye on the controversy surrounding journalist Nick Reding’s portrait of the Iowa town of Oelwein and its inhabitants in his scabrously readable Methland we are not too sorry about the professional norms to which we must conform.
Though we moved to Iowa mostly because it made sense to be on-site for an extended period of time while completing interviews, living in the town really helped us get to know the place, and without doing so, we doubt if we would ever have written a book about the brain drain, connecting what we were initially interested in-a portrait of coming of age in a small town-with the larger issue that is so profoundly reshaping the Heartland. It was during this time that our thinking about the project and the larger issues of brain drain began to coalesce. First, the interviews in Ellis were helping us crystallize our thinking about the counterpoints to the achievers and seekers that we had begun interviewing that March. In Ellis we spoke with a lot of young people who had never left the town-the Stayers-and others who had left temporarily but had boomeranged back to live there-the Returners. We also were asked by the local Rotary Club to talk to them about the research because they wanted to figure out how the town could attract more professionals to live and work there-the group we term High-Flyers. Being in Ellis during the summer was also good for catching Achievers and Seekers who were back visiting. All told we began to see the small town coming of age in terms of two great questions that all of these young people seem to face as they become adults. First, do you stay or leave the town where you came from, and second, once you leave, do you ever go back? Though this finding was hardly likely to set the world on fire, the more we mulled it over and talked with others members of the Ellis community about the steady outflow of the Achievers and the less than compensatory inflow of High-Flyers, and the shrinking lack of opportunities for Stayers and many Returners in a post-industrial economy, the more our thinking focused on the small town as the epicenter for brain drain. As we spent more time interviewing the Leavers, Stayers and Returners, it was clear that they had very different experiences growing up, and importantly, they were cultivated differently by parents, teachers and community members. Achievers were carefully prepared to leave and succeed elsewhere, while Stayers, Seekers and most Returners did not receive as much time and attention. The inequality of cultivation across groups has profound consequences for small towns because it means, in effect, that you invest more in those most likely to go somewhere else and use their talents, and less in those most likely to remain or return. As we came to understand this has always been the pattern for places like Ellis, and to deny the so-called best and brightest a chance to succeed elsewhere would be churlish in the extreme. But we could also see the inherently self-defeating aspects of this strategy in that so very few of these talented young people ever make it back to contribute to the small town common weal. In our conversations with the people in Ellis who are the key personnel in this process we had frank exchanges about how they were sowing the seeds of their own decline, particularly as the economic prospects for those young people who stay are much grimmer than they were for their parents’ generation.
Living in Ellis allowed us to experience first-hand the workings of the local economy. When we lived in Ellis and on a number of subsequent visits there, we got to know several of the prominent employers in the town, and they have generously shared their insights on the current state and future prospects of their companies. These interactions helped us develop a perspective on the precarious nature of a small town’s economy that articulated with the narratives of young people trapped in a waning agro-industrial economy, and which allowed us to connect the experiences of Ellis young adults with their similarly placed peers in other places in the Midwest. We doubt whether we would have developed a feel for how the individual pathways and the wider socio-economic forces intersect had we not been immersed in the place.
We completed the bulk of our interviewing in the summer of 2002, and we returned for shorter periods in the Fall of that year to our home away from home in Ellis. By the end of 2002 we had gathered narratives from over a hundred of the young people from our two cohort sets. We had interviewed several dozen Achievers and Seekers as they bounced back to Ellis that summer, but we also traveled to several states to complete interviews. On one occasion, Bernadette Hall, one of our excellent team of research assistants at Saint Joseph’s University, managed to complete two interviews in New Mexico when she went home to visit her parents in Albuquerque. We also traveled to Chicago, Tampa, suburban D.C., Long Island, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to speak with people who, at the time, made these places their home. Though the in-depth interview sample is not a random snap shot of the population of the six classes we set out to study, we are confident that we captured the spirit of these young people from Ellis, and the diversity of life experiences and pathways taken was, at times, surprising and always invigorating. There is a summary table below (Table 6) that describes some of the details of the final sample. Again there is good balance between the high school classes and between the cohort sets, and it is also evident that we targeted specific categories of young people, for instance, those who attended community college, those who did not graduate high school, those who were or had at one time served in the military, and those who had been arrested.
Interview transcription was ongoing while we were in the field, and we frequently reviewed the transcripts, which helped us identify emerging patterns in the data. We also had the advantage of doing practically all of the interviews ourselves (98 out of 104) and so we were able to debrief with each other after interviews and discuss what we thought were the main emergent themes. As the Heartland Study was part of a larger comparative examination of young adulthood, the transcripts would have to be coded along the same lines as the other research sites. The plan was to use the Atlas Ti qualitative coding software because this particular package is designed to handle large databases. The basic logic behind Atlas is to organize each transcript into a set of “Family” and “theme” codes. Family codes are large categories such as gender, education level, family status, or employment status, where each person is assigned a family set. So the respondent could be an unmarried female with a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job. The assigning of family codes helps compare across groups-for instance, a researcher might want to see what all female unmarried college graduates said about a certain topic, such as marriage. In the later regard, the second and more fine-grained level of coding is “theme” coding, where passages from individual transcripts are organized in terms of a discrete topic. An example of a “theme” code would be “orientations toward marriage” or “high school problems” where passages that dealt with these issues would be tagged in the database. It is also possible to add additional layers to theme coding, and so you could have sub themes of positive, negative or neutral orientations toward marriage or disciplinary, personal or social problems during high school.
In the fall of 2002 the Research Network decided that to facilitate the coding process, each site would complete a rudimentary “family” coding of their transcripts and that the bulk of the “theme” coding would be done by the central team, located at the CUNY Graduate Center, and supervised by Ervin Kosta. Ervin, who was the Atlas savant for the comparative project, oversaw training for coders from each site, and also did most of the theme coding for the comparative study. For the Heartland study, we had two primary coders, based at Saint Joseph’s University, who completed all of the family and much of the theme coding for our transcripts. The work on the Ellis data was completed collaboratively and the coders consulted each other about how to assign codes to discrete parts of the narrative, so we are confident that there is a large degree of consistency in the finished transcripts. The Ellis coding team completed a large amount of theme coding that was specific to the Iowa site. For instance, we coded for where respondents talked about leaving, staying or returning to Ellis because this was a central theme in our work, and would not really be relevant in the other research sites. Ervin did add some coding to the Ellis data on topics such as civic engagement and subjective aging, but, for our purposes, the basic Iowa themed codes were sufficient for our analysis phase. Indeed, we found that one of the drawbacks of Atlas is when you add too many codes you end up with a convoluted and confusing transcript, and that the individual portions of narrative don’t really make a great deal of sense when seen out of context. To that end we assembled two discrete sets of transcripts into three-ring binders, a coded and a blank set. As we analyzed our data we could draw from either, and in practice, we used the blank transcripts more often than not. We did however, organize our transcripts by the emerging categories of Leaver (Achievers and Seekers), Stayer and Returner (Boomerangs and High-Flyers) and this helped tremendously when we sat down to draft the manuscript.
The final phase of our research evolved slowly over a few years from early 2003 through 2006, and it entailed episodic visits to Ellis to speak with community leaders, teachers, and local employers. We had begun these conversations while we were living in Ellis, and, as our thinking about our research progressed beyond the story of just the young adults to that of the town and the thousands like it struggling to survive, we wanted to hear more about the hopes and fears of those people who are immersed in trying to keep the town viable. We also followed up periodically with some of the young people we interviewed. In addition, we spoke to state legislators in Iowa, members of the Generation Iowa Commission, and to employers and civic leaders in other towns and states. These conversations helped us connect the story of Ellis with the wider travails of the hollowing out Heartland and were instrumental in the writing up phase of the project. Ultimately, we are taking the classic case study approach of trying to connect what happens in the micro situation of a small town with the wider changes in the economy and society so we can speak to an issue that inscribes Ellis but resonates in many other places. Whether we have been successful in our attempt is largely up to others to judge, but we feel confident that we have told a story that is timely and important. Each time we have presented our findings to audiences in Iowa or in the academy people have responded positively to the work and we are hopeful that we will continue to spark discussion about hollowing out. In the end, we have worked hard to be faithful to our data and to the generous, eloquent and trusting participants in this research, and we hope that we have represented their experiences faithfully and accurately.