Manufacturing "Deindustrialization": the Origins of a Preeminent Social Problem in the United States,1950-2018

Dan Hirschman, Brown University
Christopher Rea, The Ohio State University

Manufacturing employment as a share of the U.S. economy has steadily declined since the end of WWII while manufacturing output has steadily increased. Despite the relative smoothness of these trends, "deindustrialization" as a social problem erupted at a very specific moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Drawing on a nascent but promising literature on the sociology of loss and through an historical accounting of structural and geographic shifts in the U.S. economy and people’s experiences those changes, we explain how and why “deindustrialization” emerged as a social problem when it did. Our account carries implications for understanding how and why concerns about the “decline” of American manufacturing remain salient in contemporary political debates. We develop our argument in three steps. First, we document how structural shifts in the character and quantity of production-line work in manufacturing that began in the early 1980s, especially in the Midwest, created conditions of both material and symbolic loss both for affected groups (e.g. wage laborers) and for political actors and elites concerned about those changes. Second, we show how geographic redistributions of industry to the U.S. South and Sunbelt and accompanying technological and productivity-enhancing changes in manufacturing (e.g. automation) changed the character of manufacturing work in ways that allowed the manufacturing sector to continue to grow in absolute terms even as a) material losses and b) their symbolic counterparts continued to dominate both academic and popular accounts of the changing U.S. economy. Finally, we show how, out of a space of possible problem framings, academic and political elites manufactured “deindustrialization”—and its optimistic compliment, reindustrialization—as a preeminent social problem. This framing, in turn, fed back into popular narratives and politics in a way that elevated “deindustrialization” to the status of a "fact" and a powerful political talking point that remains politically potent today.

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 Presented in Session 170. Expertise II: Classifications and Definitions