I recently flipped through Our Patchwork Nation, a recent book that tries to explain differences in America by splitting counties into twelve types: “boom towns, evangelical epicenters, military bastions, service worker centers, campus and careers, immigration nation, minority central, tractor community, Mormon outposts, emptying nests, industrial metropolises and monied burbs.” A review in the Washington Post offers a quick overview of this genre of book:
And every few years there’s another book promising to chart the country’s divisions by splitting it into categories more telling than the 50 states. Former Washington Post writer Joel Garreau offered his “Nine Nations of North America” in 1981; two decades later came Richard Florida with “The Rise of the Creative Class,” followed by Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort,” which sought to explain why so many of us are clustering in enclaves of the like-minded.
The latest aspiring taxonomists are Dante Chinni, a journalist, and James Gimpel, a University of Maryland government professor, who use socioeconomic data to break the country’s 3,141 counties into 12 categories.
This sort of analysis is now fairly common: there is a lot of publicly available data from the Census Bureau and many more people are now interested in looking at the United States as a whole.
I have two concerns about this data. My main complaint about this effort is how the types are developed at the county level. This may be a good level for obtaining data (easy to do from the Census Bureau) but it is debatable about whether this is a practical level for the lives of Americans. When asked where they live, most people would name a community/city first and then next a state or region before getting to a county. County rules and ordinances have limited effect in many places as municipal regulations take precedence.
A second concern is that this type of sorting or clustering tells us where places are now but doesn’t say as much about how they arrived at this point or how they might change in the future. This is a cross-sectional analysis: it tells us what American counties look like right now. This may be useful for looking at recent and upcoming trends but most of these places have deeper histories and characters than just a moniker like “monied burbs.” This would explain some of the Post’s confusion about lumping together “emptying nests” communities in the Midwest and Florida.