1. What is neolocalism? What has been the driving force(s) behind neolocalism? How has it manifested itself?
2. After reading the examples given by the author in the article, choose an example from your own life or your own experience that could fit within the category of neolocalism. Which view(s) of the local does your example fit into? (these views can be found on pp. 66 – 71)
3. Do you agree with the author that your example can "expand the lens" as the author describes?
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Journal of Cultural Geography
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Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age
Steven M. Schnell
To cite this article: Steven M. Schnell (2013) Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age, Journal of Cultural Geography, 30:1, 55-89, DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2012.745984
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08873631.2012.745984
Published online: 31 Jan 2013.
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Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age
Steven M. Schnell*
Department of Geography, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, USA
As the world becomes increasingly interlinked through the processes
of globalization, many have argued that geography as a basis for
identity is losing its resonance. However, the potentially homogeniz-
ing effects of globalization and corporatization have, in turn, spawned
a notable move in the opposite direction in the United States. James
‘‘Pete’’ Shortridge has referred to this move as neolocalism, the
conscious attempt of individuals and groups to establish, rebuild, and
cultivate local ties and identities. The word ‘‘local’’ has, as a result,
taken on renewed vigor over the past two decades, as it is actively
embraced as a counter to globalism. But what does it mean, and how
is it used? Because it is consciously cultivated, this idea of identity
becomes much more than a statement of ‘‘who I am’’; it becomes a
broader political, social, and economic undertaking. This paper
examines a wide variety of manifestations of neolocal identity
building such as microbreweries, local food movements, and the local
living economy movement, and argues that a distinctive American
geography of neolocalism exists.
Keywords: local; local economies; neolocalism; local food; James
The resurgence of place
Globalization has, without a doubt, changed our relationship to place. As
the speed of communication, travel, and movement of goods increases, the
power of space and place to bind our actions is loosened (Harvey 1989).
Technology seemingly creates the space for placeless communities, formed
more by common interests, bonds, and demographics than by place.
Aided and abetted by globalization (or at least the more homogenizing
impacts of the form of globalization dominated by large corporations),
such changes have led many to argue that geography as a basis for identity
has lost its importance. Although space may have been obliterated (at least
for those of us in the wealthy, privileged and wired neighborhoods of the
global village (DeBlij 2009)), the particularities of place have not been so
*Steven M. Schnell is Professor of Geography at Kutztown University, 105
Graduate Center, Kutztown, PA 19530, USA. Phone: (610) 683-1595. Email:
Journal of Cultural Geography, 2013
Vol. 30, No. 1, 55�89, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08873631.2012.745984
# 2013 JCG Press, Oklahoma State University
easily relegated to the dustbin. These potentially homogenizing effects of
globalization, corporatization, and connectivity have, in fact, spawned a
notable move in the opposite direction over the past twenty-five years.
Many people have actively sought a new sense of place, a new attachment
to where they are. James ‘‘Pete’’ Shortridge has referred to this move as neolocalism, the
conscious attempt of individuals and groups to establish, rebuild, and
cultivate local ties, local identities, and increasingly, local economies. As
Shortridge has argued, people seek out ‘‘regional lore and local attach-
ment’’ in reaction to the destruction of more traditional bonds to
community because, as he put it, ‘‘we are feeling a need to forge better
geographical identities’’ (1996, p. 10)1. In the years since Shortridge first
made this observation, such attempts to re-root have gone far beyond a vague sense of regional attachment, and evolved into an interlinked series
of movements to create more local economies and local identities,
movements that are beginning to combine their efforts across the country
in mutual support of place.
This article is an exploration of some of the ways that people have
been attempting to recapture, or to create, ‘‘localness’’ as a way of life. It is
not an in-depth analysis of any one item; I have explored a number of the
individual phenomena discussed here elsewhere in more depth. Instead, it is an effort to examine the commonalities in motivations as well as the
nature of the simultaneous rapid expansion in entities as diverse as
microbreweries, watershed organizations, local living economies move-
ments, community supported agriculture, and numerous other manifesta-
tions of the self-conscious return to localness. I analyze some of the
diverse cultural meanings encoded in the word ‘‘local’’ as used by such
movements by examining promotional materials used by the many
different enterprises covered in the article. I then conclude with an analysis of the geography of neolocalism, as well as an evaluation of the
potential of the movement to transform economic and social relations,
and to reshape place identity in a globalizing age.
Manifestations of neolocalism2
What exactly is ‘‘new’’ about neolocalism? For most of human history,
people lived local lives by default*eating foods produced near them,
following local cultural traditions, and using local building patterns. But with the onset of modernity, the rise of industrialism, and the advent of
ever-improving communications and travel technology, such place-based
ties were no longer a given. People had options*economic, cultural, and
social*that no longer required local ties.
What makes neolocalism different from local ties in the past is its self-
conscious aspect. It is the result of people cultivating local ties by choice,
not by necessity (Zelinsky 2011). Although we can dissolve the bonds of
56 S.M. Schnell
place, it is increasingly clear that people do not necessarily want to. Place
remains a vital part of people’s identity, and when they become detached
from place, many feel that something is missing: a sense of the local, a
sense of belonging to a place, and a sense of that place as distinct from
other places. Increasingly, they react by actively cultivating these ties* whether through the growth of the local foods movement, the flourishing
of self-consciously local enterprises such as microbreweries, or the rise of
the local living economies movement.3
An early harbinger of neolocalism was the explosion of microbrew-
eries in the country in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of breweries has
expanded dramatically over the past twenty-five years, from 82 breweries
in the early 1980s to almost 1,600 today, during a time frame when per
capita alcohol consumption has generally declined (Flack 1997; NIAAA 2010; Real Beer, Inc. 2012). A major attraction of microbreweries is the
exclusive nature of their product*local beers that are not found
elsewhere, products that are tied to a unique place. Such breweries are
often proudly and self-consciously local, and actively promote their brew
through the use of idiosyncratically local beer names and imagery. In
fact, microbreweries are marketing ‘‘place’’ as much as they are
marketing beer, and they actively seek out distinctly local imagery, local
landscapes, and local stories to position themselves as intrinsically rooted in place.
Microbreweries are evidence that growing numbers of Americans feel
a lack of local connections in their daily lives, and will embrace enterprises
that promise reconnection with local economies, landscapes, history, and
culture. The images used by brewers vary as widely as the places they
inhabit. Local landscapes and wildlife are featured prominently in these
promotions. So too do other aspects of a place’s personality, such as
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s vanished steel-making past and its origin as a Moravian religious settlement (indicated by the star of Bethlehem); Moab,
Utah’s status as national center of mountain biking and a gateway city to
Arches National Park; and lobster, the signature food of Maine (Lewis
1989). The logo from New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, with its
fingerprint-patterned map and exhortation to ‘‘Drink Indigenous,’’ makes
the yearning for a connection between identity and unique places explicit
Brewers often go to great lengths to create a distinctly local theme, and the images that adorn their beer labels often get every bit as much
attention as the names themselves. For example, in this image from
the Free State Brewery, in Lawrence, Kansas, we see an image
promoting the brewery’s John Brown Ale (Figure 2). John Brown, of
course, was the famous/notorious anti-slavery crusader whose violent
exploits, in Kansas and elsewhere, helped to spark the Civil War.
Indeed, the name of the brewery itself derives from Lawrence’s status as
a bastion of free-state anti-slavery advocates in the decades prior to the
Journal of Cultural Geography 57
Civil War. The image itself is modeled on John Steuart Curry’s painting
‘‘Tragic Prelude,’’ which adorns the Kansas statehouse in Topeka. The
forceful, and slightly crazed, appearance of Brown is presided over by a
looming tornado, a reference to Kansas’ presence in Tornado Alley.
Both images in turn take issue with the outsider’s common perception
of Kansas as a mild place where not much happens. The resulting
image is thus a multilayered distillation of Kansas uniqueness. Imagery
need not be a point of pride even*only of distinctiveness*as can be
seen in the Wasatch Ogden, Utah’s ‘‘Polygamy Porter’’ (Wasatch
Brewery), or Cleveland’s ‘‘Burning River Pale Ale’’ (Great Lakes
Brewing Company), a reference to the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River
fire (Figure 3).
Figure 1. Distinctiveness of place, reflected in beer label imagery, from New
Glarus, WI, Bethlehem, PA, and Portland, ME.
58 S.M. Schnell
Local wineries too have expanded dramatically during this time
period (Trubek 2008). Indeed, wine is even more explicitly based in place,
through the idea of terroir, the integral connection between a place’s
climate, soils, and the character of the grapes produced in those soils, a
concept that has in recent years been applied to many other areas of food
production as well (Trubek 2008). Winery tours are a de rigueur part of
tourist advertising for most regions of the country, and are touted as a
means of experiencing the ‘‘authentic’’ nature of a place (Schnell 2011).
Breweries and wineries construct localness in different fashion, however.
While wineries generally ascribe their rootedness to the very soil and
climate their grapes are produced in (though some import grapes from
elsewhere to carry out their craft), brewers usually draw their raw
Figure 2. T-shirt image promoting John Brown Ale (Free State Brewery,
Lawrence, KS), drenched in Kansas symbolism, drawing on John Steuart Curry’s
famous mural, ‘‘Tragic Prelude,’’ which adorns the Kansas statehouse in Topeka.
For an image of Curry’s original painting, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
File:John_Brown_Painting.JPG [accessed 10 September 2012]. Courtesy of Free
State Brewing Company.
Journal of Cultural Geography 59
ingredients from elsewhere; barley and especially hops, are grown in
geographically concentrated areas, and hops are said to similarly gain a
large part of their character from their terroir. Beer brewers thus rely on
different means to evoke localness: the art of brewing itself, and the
narratives of place they employ in their marketing.
Microbreweries and wineries are far from the only arena where
ferment of neolocalism has arisen. The local food movement has exploded
in popularity and prominence over the past decade as local food customs,
local food producers, and local cuisines are all increasingly emphasized as
integral to the experience of place (Trubek 2008). The motives behind the
local eating movement are diverse*eating local is said to reduce fossil fuel
inputs into the food system, increase the diversity of food available
(through heirlooms and other, not-easily-transported varieties), keep
dollars spent on food local, and enhance the sense of community centered
on food. Equally important are the explicit ties to place that local eating
The local-eating movement has many facets. One has been the
growth of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, a setup where
people buy a share in a farm for an entire growing season, and often
Figure 3. Imagery need not be a point of pride, just distinctiveness. The Wasatch
Brewery specializes in names that tweak the dominant Mormon culture of their
area. Courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Company and Utah Brewers Cooperative.
60 S.M. Schnell
participate directly in the life of the farm*through volunteer days,
potlucks, and seasonal festivals. Participants in CSA often state that
they join specifically to become more directly connected with the
farmers and the land that produce their food (Schnell 2007).5 In fact,
the Japanese word for CSA, teikei, is often colloquially translated as
‘‘food with the farmer’s face on it’’ (Imhoff 1996, p. 430; Henderson and
Van En 1999, p. xvi). The numbers of CSAs (which began in the United
States in the mid-1980s) are expanding every year, and today there are
at least 4,000 of them nationwide (RVE 2010; Local Harvest 2012).
Many CSAs have lengthy waiting lists, also indicative of the growing
demand. In my interviews with farmers and members of CSAs, one of the
common reasons that both mention for participating is the desire to create
more direct connections between customers and growers. CSAs attempt to
achieve this through a variety of means: face-to-face interaction between
farmers and members, farm visits, social events such as potlucks and
harvest festivals, and even opportunities for members to take part in the
harvest (and the weeding). There is an oft-cited figure (that, if anything,
likely understates reality) that the average item of food travels 1,500 miles
before it reaches your plate; CSA attempts to bring food closer to home.6
It also, in many cases, goes beyond that, as one farmer that I interviewed
observed: ‘‘The growing popularity of CSAs, I think, shows a need in
people’s minds for more connections with their food supply, with small
family farms. And I think a certain amount of that is idealized . . . . But I
think there’s also value in things beyond the food, and when a farm can
offer that, can offer the sense of community, the events that bring people
together, that’s valuable. Because I do feel that community is neglected,
and people are searching for opportunities.’’
Farmers’ markets are another arena that has experienced a similar
level of explosive growth (Brown 2001). They, like CSAs, promote direct
connections between farmers and customers, and make the acquisition of
food both more personal, and more distinctly place-rooted. Many towns
have initiated farm markets as a part of revitalizing downtown areas, and
downtown merchants often sponsor markets in their midst*after all, the
farmers’ market shopper is also one who is likely to be inclined to shop
locally in other places as well.
Throughout the United States, eating locally has gained in promi-
nence, and ‘‘Eat Local’’ campaigns are now widespread. Whether
sponsored by local Chambers of Commerce, sustainable agriculture
groups, state Departments of Agriculture, or other organizations all
actively promote the idea of eating locally (Figure 4). An increasing
number of restaurants also promote their local connections, as diners look
for yet another means of filling their stomach in a place-based fashion.
Such establishments promise not only a good meal, but one with a story
Journal of Cultural Geography 61
attached to it*a story with local connections (Figure 5) (Trubek 2008;
Inwood et al. 2009).
Indeed, the local food movement is the most prominent and rapidly
growing aspect of neolocalism.7 Numerous best-sellers, such as Michael
Pollan’s The omnivore’s dilemma (2006) and Barbara Kingsolver’s
Animal, vegetable, miracle (2007), have fuelled awareness of the broader
implications of our industrial food system. The idea of eating everything
produced within a 100-mile radius has turned into a bit of a game as well,
with ‘‘Eat Local Challenges’’ sprouting up to urge people to localize
their food consumption for a period of time. Oxford American
Dictionary even named ‘‘locavore,’’ a newly coined term for a person
who consciously eats as much as possible from local farmers and food
producers, its word of the year in 2007. This idea has become so
Figure 4. Eat local campaigns are increasingly common. Here, Ithaca’s logo
posts local eating as a revolutionary act, one with political overtones. Courtesy of
www.eatingithaca.com, Edible Austin (copyright 2011; designed by Jenna Noel).
62 S.M. Schnell
widespread that it has already engendered the inevitable backlash (see,
e.g., Stein 2008) and was the subject of some good-natured ribbing in the
first episode of Portlandia, a show set in that most hyper-neolocal of
cities (Portlandia 2011).
This surge to local eating is driven by a desire for local connections,
but it has also been accelerated by an increased knowledge of, and
concern for, the path that industrial agribusiness has blazed. With
alarming regularity, headlines provide us with a new food scare* salmonella-laced peanut butter, melamine-poisoned milk and infant
formula, mad cow disease, infected jalapenos, and pesticide-laced drinking
water. The distant machinations of the food-industrial complex are
increasingly portrayed as producing products that are not only inferior
in taste, quality, and variety, but that may even kill you.
Local food, on the other hand, is positioned as a counter to the
impersonal industrial food economy, a means of sustenance that is place-
based and personal, with a conscious link to community. It is also a means
for people to feel more connected with the sources of their food, to
personalize the increasingly impersonal networks of capital that provide
Figure 5. This restaurant, in Lawrence, Kansas, puts localness at the core of its
identity. Courtesy of Local Burger.
Journal of Cultural Geography 63
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