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Works in Progress: Work Habits

A stint on a family farm brings the shifting lives of the American middle class into focus.

By Karen Wright
Sep 1, 2000 5:00 AMMay 9, 2023 5:43 PM


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The conversation is more lively than the work. When he's not showing the tall one how to mend a fence, the farmer with the cowboy hat talks about his daughter's wedding, his father's cultivation philosophy, his cousin's grazing practices, his neighbor's crops. The tall one plies the cowboy hat with questions until, around midmorning, he pulls a pen and a notepad out of his fanny pack and jots a few things down. He's not taking notes on fence fixing. He's taking notes on the farmer.

Cal Hoff and Tom Fricke may be the most unlikely pair of field hands ever to work a fence line together. For the past two years, Hoff and his farming family have been the subjects of an in-depth study by Fricke, one of the lead anthropologists in a nationwide program to study the changing work habits and family lives of ordinary, middle-class Americans. Fricke's home base is the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he has lived and worked with the Hoffs for months at a time, braving irate Herefords, errant hailstorms, barbed humor, and barbed wire. His cowpoke status gives him a close-up view of farming communities in the American heartland. In return, the Hoffs get a chance to spread the word about the imperiled lifestyle they cherish— as well as another pair of hands to help out around the farm.

"Anthropologists call it participant observation," says Fricke. "Driving tractors and breaking things is mostly what I'm doing. I've shoveled cow manure out of pens in a barn. I'm a Ph.D. well traveled." Between chores Fricke documents family interactions, local history, civic functions, and moral perceptions among the 626 inhabitants of Richardton, a rail stop with a grain elevator 80 miles west of Bismarck. Fricke was drawn to North Dakota in part because he hails from the state. He ended up living with the Hoffs because, well, they let him.

"He was saying he didn't have a phone at the hotel," says Cal's wife, Julie, recalling her first conversation with Fricke. "And I thought, well, we have phones."

The Hoffs also extended their hospitality because they are concerned with some of the same issues Fricke has come to study. Like many rural communities on the Great Plains, Richardton once sought to isolate itself from outside influences. But its farms must now participate in a global marketplace that Cal Hoff tracks hourly with sophisticated software and a satellite feed to his den. The Hoffs have also become the first family in the county to try no-till seeding, a method of cultivation Cal picked up in Canada during the slow winter months. It demands far less soil preparation and has allowed him to more than double his arable acreage. Meanwhile, the town of Richardton is suffering a slow decline as its young people leave in increasing numbers to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The Hoffs' oldest child, Crista, left home last year to study interior design at a college in Minneapolis. These "outside influences" are as intriguing to Fricke as they are worrisome to the Hoffs.

"Notions of family relationship are bound to change when you go from a face-to-face, everyday-contact kind of world to something more episodic," says Fricke. Episodic encounters between far-flung family members usually revolve around holidays or special life events— births, funerals, or weddings, like Crista's nuptials with a local boy last June. Those occasions, emotionally charged to begin with, only become more tense and freighted when kin aren't sharing their daily lives, says Fricke. "The general heightening of emotional intensity means that small things get overblown. It's harder to resolve misunderstandings when you're feeling rushed and your emotions haven't ripened."

Fricke thinks the changes in Richardton could illuminate more general transformations in the American experience of work and family. A diaspora of kin, for example, is a common feature of family life in middle-class America. Back in Ann Arbor, at the Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life, Fricke's colleagues are rounding out the picture with studies of day care, family leave, and family-planning practices in other milieus of Middle America. One professor is watching prime-time TV for clues to how media representations of family life influence the attitudes of real families; another is exploring the culture clash between innovators and managers at a dot-com start-up. The idea is not just to quantify what middle-class Americans are doing but to discern why they're doing it and how their decisions create new ideals for work and family, as well as new tensions from failed, if outdated, expectations.

"I felt that anthropology would be ideal for looking at what's happening with mainstream American culture," says Kathleen Christensen, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which funds five centers for the study of families, including the Michigan group. The program challenges anthropologists like Fricke to apply their tools and principles in a novel setting: everyday lives of middle-class families with two working parents. "That was not really a major direction of the field. Anthropology has typically looked at preindustrial cultures and at the exotic and the marginal in industrial cultures," says Christensen.

From his notepad scratchings on the Hoffs' everyday life, Fricke types up formal field notes and chatty letters for the folks in Michigan. He also tapes interviews with the townsfolk to sound out their views on particular topics. Eventually these observations will suggest patterns that describe the local culture as well as the larger context in which it's embedded.

One of the themes to emerge from Fricke's study so far is the importance of geography in creating a sense of unity and continuity for families. "This is Hoff country," he says, surveying the county from an upland corner of a pasture. He points in every direction: "Hoff, Hoff, Hoff, Hoff, Hoff, Hoff," cousins and brothers, aunts and uncles, children and parents joined by real estate as well as by blood. "It's like the land itself maps out his family links."

Fricke says the global, postindustrial economy uproots workers and demands that they stay mobile. But for many people, a sense of family, work, and place remain inseparable. He cites the case of the wealthiest family in Richardton, whose heirs moved away and sold off all the houses, barns, and land. They kept one unoccupied 14-acre parcel for family reunions, which helped maintain their ties to the past and one another.

Even for nuclear families, land and physical proximity seem to be critical for maintaining a sense of belonging and unity. Fricke's student, Brian Hoey, works in Traverse City, Michigan, where many newcomers have moved after abandoning lucrative jobs in big cities. "People are challenging the 'living to work' model," says Hoey. "They feel their lives are less fragmented here because it's all sort of closer together geographically: Their children's schools, their place of work, their homes, and their recreational opportunities are all right here."

Fricke hopes to shift his focus to the Richardton emigrants to see how they restructure their lives in the wide, rootless world. He suspects that their notions about work as well as family may get a shake-up when they move from the multifaceted, task-oriented culture of farming to the specialized, schedule-laden ethos of a service economy. But, he acknowledges, his own struggles with that transition promise to complicate his exploration.

"There's this old saying that a fish doesn't know that there's water," says Christensen. "It's the taken-for-granted aspects of our lives that someone really has to cultivate enough distance to be able to study and understand."

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