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The United States of wealth: The communicative construction of master and counter narratives of prosperity in the aftermath of the Great Recession



During the Great Recession, discourses of what constituted prosperity flooded the global landscape. The concept of prosperity became a prominent master narrative that dictated the ways families operated and made decisions. The goal of this study was to examine how 82 married couples experiencing economic uncertainty in California (re)negotiated their family narratives of wealth and prosperity in the wake of the Great Recession. The findings revealed that few, if any, couples were able to communicatively re-define prosperity in a way that wholly resisted or rejected the master narrative of material wealth. The narratives demonstrated how this master narrative held many of these families captive by restricting their ability to reconstitute their understanding of prosperity in productive ways even when the taken-for-granted meaning of prosperity-as-wealth was challenged during the Great Recession. The families who successfully re-defined prosperity depended on other dominant discourses such as health, faith, family quality and relationships to refuse or repudiate the master narrative of wealth as prosperity. The findings support Lindemann-Nelson’s (2001) argument that successfully overcoming a master narrative often requires a patchwork of resistance strategies that permeate daily discourse, before they begin to chip away at the larger dominant discourse.
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e United States of wealth
e communicative construction of master and
counter narratives of prosperity in the aermath
of the Great Recession
Chenthuran Jayachandirana, Kathryn E. Harrisonb, Tamara D.
Ab and Shardé M. Davisc
aUniversity of Iowa / bUniversity of California Santa Barbara / cUniversity of
During the Great Recession, discourses of what constituted prosperity ooded
the global landscape. e concept of prosperity became a prominent master
narrative that dictated the ways families operated and made decisions. e goal
of this study was to examine how 82 married couples experiencing economic
uncertainty in California (re)negotiated their family narratives of wealth and
prosperity in the wake of the Great Recession. e ndings revealed that few,
if any, couples were able to communicatively re-dene prosperity in a way that
wholly resisted or rejected the master narrative of material wealth. e narra-
tives demonstrated how this master narrative held many of these families captive
by restricting their ability to reconstitute their understanding of prosperity in
productive ways even when the taken-for-granted meaning of prosperity-as-
wealth was challenged during the Great Recession. e families who successfully
re-dened prosperity depended on other dominant discourses such as health,
faith, family quality and relationships to refuse or repudiate the master narrative
of wealth as prosperity. e ndings support Lindemann-Nelson’s (2001) argu-
ment that successfully overcoming a master narrative oen requires a patchwork
of resistance strategies that permeate daily discourse, before they begin to chip
away at the larger dominant discourse.
Keywords: Great Recession, master narratives, nancial communication
Requests for further information should be directed to Chenthuran Jayachandiran, PhD
Student, University of Iowa. 105 Becker Communication Studies, Iowa City, Iowa 52242–1498,
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
40 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
When the Great Recession began in December 2007 (Bureau of Labor Statistics,
2012), discourses of what constituted prosperity ooded the global landscape. e
concept of prosperity became a prominent master narrative in that it dictated the
ways families operated and made decisions. Familial narratives serve to commu-
nicatively negotiate the family’s stance within a dominant master narrative or help
them reject it completely (Pederson, 2013). A master narrative contributes to the
world “as we see it” (Bamberg, 2014) and dictates what is important to a culture.
In the United States, the master narrative of the American Dream, or achieving
wealth regardless of social standing (Pederson, 2013), was challenged during the
Great Recession.
Many families in the Great Recession not only experienced involuntary job
loss, but also the loss of other assets such as their homes, savings, college funds,
and retirement (Pfeer, Danziger & Schoeni, 2013). During the Great Recession,
25% of Americans lost 75% of their wealth and over half of all Americans lost at
least a quarter of their wealth (Pfeer et al., 2013). e American dream of owning
a home, paying for children’s college, saving money, and having a stable career was
disrupted for many families who seemingly did “everything right” and still experi-
enced nancial loss. is loss came at a cost to families in the United States, with
increases in suicidal tendencies (Phillips & Nugent, 2014), nancial stress (Pfeer
et al., 2013), corporal punishment (Brooks-Gunn, Schneider & Waldfogel, 2013),
and poor mental health (Lo & Cheng, 2014) aer the Great Recession. e socially
constructed and accepted notion of what it means to be a “successful” family in
American society is deeply rooted in the narration of wealth and can be immense-
ly stressful to renegotiate when one’s wealth begins to decline (Pederson, 2013).
e bulk of the research on nances, however, has focused on the stress of
nancial hardship and insecurity (e.g., Conger & Elder, 1994; Dooley & Prause,
2004; Eriksson, Agerbo, Mortensen, & Westergaurd-Neilsen, 2010; Prause, Dooley
& Huh, 2009) with little understanding of how families actually renegotiate the
notion of wealth, successfully or unsuccessfully, when a recession happens. e
goal of the current investigation is to examine how married couples experienc-
ing economic uncertainty in California, in an area deeply rooted in wealth and
simultaneously at the heart the housing and debt crisis, (re)negotiated their family
narratives of wealth and prosperity in the wake of the Great Recession. Specically,
this study explores how this process of renegotiation conforms to and resists the
dominant cultural discourse that equates material wealth with prosperity.
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
e United States of wealth 41
e Great Recession
A recession can be characterized as a slowdown in the economy due to decreased
production, a slowing of the business cycle, and a massive loss of jobs (Bureau of
Labor Statistics, 2012). In modern economic history, the United States economy
has experienced two major economic downturns: e Great Depression and e
Great Recession. Economists generally evaluate declines in gross domestic prod-
uct (GDP) over the course of two consecutive quarters in order to determine if
the country is in a recession (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2007). is
is dierent than a depression, which is characterized by declines in quarterly GDP,
which are generally sharper, leaving millions not only unemployed but impov-
erished (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2007; Pfeer et al., 2013). e
Great Depression is the most famous economic downturn in United States history
and consisted of two downturns from August 1929 to March 1933 and March
1933 to May 1937 (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2007). Since the Great
Depression, the United States has experienced two recessions. e rst was marked
by a peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in December of 1982 and only lasted for
about six months (Auxier, 2010). e second, named the Great Recession, began
December of 2007 and was characterized by the doubling of unemployment from
December 2007 to October 2009.
During the Great Recession, Black Americans experienced the greatest in-
crease in unemployment, reaching well over 15%, while Hispanics experienced
around 13%, and White or Caucasians remained just under 10% (Bureau of Labor
Statistics, 2012). Men were also more likely to be unemployed than women, re-
gardless of race or ethnicity (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Unemployment
rates varied by state across the country, aecting California, Nevada, and Michigan
the most (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). e unemployment rates during e
Great Recession were the highest ever experienced in American history during a
Existing research has found that most family’s “nancial progress” was essen-
tially paused aer the Great Recession. is halted nancial progress subsequently
altered family and individual plans; starting a family no longer seemed aordable,
divorce was postponed due to the expense, and saving for retirement disappeared
(Cherlin, Cumberworth, Morgan, & Wimer, 2013). is loss of ecacy may have
impacted the ways in which families understood their position in society. For ex-
ample, in 2007 the average income of the 50th percentile was $95,471 in annual
income and by 2011 that average income had fallen to $47,000 (Pfeer et al., 2013).
Suddenly, many middle class families were forced to reach out to their extended
family for nancial help following job loss. In 2010, a Pew Research Center survey
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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42 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
discovered that 24% of young adults between the ages of 18–29 had moved back in
with their parents (Cherlin et al., 2013; Pew Research Center, 2010).
All of these eects were magnied in states like California. Even though
California was not the epicenter for the collapse, many industries within California
heavily contributed. California was responsible for massive irresponsible mortgage
lending, inating home prices, and trapping unqualied consumers in unprec-
edented interest rates (Bardhan & Walker, 2010). California is the nation’s largest
sub-economy, playing a vital role in national and world housing, banking, and
industrial markets (Bardhan & Walker, 2010). e articial ination of the hous-
ing prices crippled California’s consumers, triggering a domino eect across the
United States. Between 2007 and 2009, California lost over 1 million jobs, which
was the largest job loss of any state. Unemployment was the 4th highest in the
country, totaling 12.4% by December, 2009 (Bardhan & Walker, 2010). Following
the fall of home prices, many Californians were no longer able to pay their mort-
gages, leading California to become the number one state in foreclosures (Bardhan
& Walker, 2010). Because of these factors, California was especially vulnerable to
the economic downturn of the Great Recession, which played an inuential role
in the types of nancial conversations occurring within families in the state. is
nancial downturn was painful for many families because if one individual was
aected, the entire family system was as well. Just as California played a role in
the larger global nancial system, it also aected the communication occurring
between couples within the family.
Pre-recession wealth played a vital role in the magnitude of losses families felt
aer the Great Recession (Pfeer et al., 2013). Although socioeconomic groups
who were nancially better o before the recession experienced greater overall
losses, less-advantaged groups, such as families with a lower socio-economic sta-
tus or education levels, endured greater losses in percentage terms (Pfeer et al.,
2013). is only widened the already extensive wealth gap that existed for families
in places such as California. Because of the capitalist ideals of the United States
(Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1993), those losses might have communicated
to families that they would never reach the highest levels of wealth and nan-
cial success that the American Dream promises (Pederson, 2013). is could have
forced many relational partners to rethink and co-construct a new narrative of
what success and prosperity meant to their family.
Research also suggests that a strong marital relationship can help families cope
with nancial hardship (Conger & Elder, 1994; Leinonen, Solantaus, & Punamaki,
2002; Loukas, Prelow, Suizzo, & Allua, 2008). is work suggests that couples with
strong marriages are able to enact coping mechanisms more successfully than cou-
ples in unsatisfying relationships. ese coping mechanisms could have been the
result of renegotiating family narratives of success and prosperity. Although this is
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
All rights reserved
e United States of wealth 43
important work, scholars are still trying to understand the inuence of economic
downturns, such as the Great Recession, on families and what specic communi-
cative properties help buer the ensuing stress.
e narrative of wealth in the United States
Narratives construct identity and meaning (Bamberg, 2014; Lindemann-Nelson,
2001). A master narrative is a story prevalent in society that aids in sense mak-
ing, oen answering the question of “who-we-are” (Bamberg, 2004, 2014). e
American work mentality contributes to the idea that work is paramount in the
construction of a family story (Pederson, 2013). is socializing agent is powerful
in its manifestation in the everyday social world. Master narratives evoke expec-
tations and norms for the ways in which society should operate (Koenig Kellas
& Suter, 2012). ese stories are embedded within society and gain traction by
invading individuals’ communication in day-to-day life, reecting socially con-
structed ideological frameworks of dominant groups (Bamberg, 2004; McCorkel
& Meyers, 2003).
e master narrative of the “American Dreamstates that “America is a place
where anyone with enough hard work can attain a successful life of prosperity
to pass on to future generations (Pederson, 2013, p. 305). Dominant discourses
such as this one, also referred to as “capital-D discourses,” (Bamberg, De Fina, &
Schirin, 2007) shape the ways in which people see the world. During e Great
Recession, many families who followed this model still lost substantial wealth and
assets (Pfeer et al., 2013). is discrepancy in what the American Dream prom-
ised verses what the nancial reality became for middle class families forced many
to negotiate where or to whom the blame should be placed (A, Davis, Merrill,
Coveleski, Denes & A, 2015). Along with larger, more overarching narratives
are the narratives that encompass the content of the narratives or what Bamberg
et al. (2007; Bamberg, 2014) consider “small-d discourses. “Small-ddiscourses
materialize as the day-to-day conversations that contribute to meaning making
and identity. Aer the Great Recession, many families might have had to shi their
“small-d” discourses in order to renegotiate not tting into the master narrative of
what it means to prosper in the United States.
e dominant cultural discourse, which equates material wealth with prosper-
ity, likely inuenced how most families understood their nancial experience dur-
ing the Great Recession. As families constructed their own understanding of what
prosperity meant to them in mundane day-to-day conversations, they were likely
working to narratively resist the larger cultural discourse of wealth and conse-
quently liberate themselves from its oppressive force. Resistance of the dominant
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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44 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
master narrative is the ability to construct a counter narrative, which is a story
that resists the master narrative and oers a replacement story in order to manage
identity issues (Nelson, 1995). at is, counter narratives oer individuals who no
longer t into the master narrative an alternate story as a way to repair a damaged
narrative. ese stories have been called “narratives in conict” (Solis, 2004) and
oer opposing explanatory structures to operate within. Master narratives con-
struct the dominant or taken-for-granted meanings, while counter-narratives at-
tempt to construct viable alternative meanings that mitigate the oppressive force
of the dominant meaning. Constructing a successful counter narrative, however,
is not easy. Lindemann-Nelson (2001) argues that oen times in attempting to
construct a counter story, interlocutors acknowledge the existence of the master
narrative, and thus reify its taken-for-granted nature. On other occasions coun-
ter stories adopt the master narrative in the formulation of a counter narrative
and thus enhance the eects of the master narrative. An eective resistance of
the master narrative then depends on a reformulating of the dominant meaning
that does not depend on nor acknowledge the taken-for-granted meaning of the
master narrative.
e performance of a counter narrative is not as simple as verbally accepting
the inability to function within the dominant narrative. According to Harter et al.
(2006, p. 5), “Narratives traditionally have been understood as involving charac-
ters embedded in the intricacies of lived moments of struggle, resisting or accept-
ing the intrusions of disruption and chaos, maintaining or restoring continuity
in their lives in the face of unexpected blows of fate.” Lindemann-Nelson (1997,
2001) describes a counter narrative as the compilation of reframed stories that
resist the oppressing master narrative. For families that were hit the hardest by
the Great Recession, the ways in which success and stability were conceptualized
might have had to be reframed in a way that resisted the notion that the family was
not successful nancially. To explain the state of their nances, for example, many
couples might have turned to an outside source of strength, such as religion, or
might have even denied the recession was there at all.
When couples can successfully re-appropriate their material and social capi-
tal through the reconstruction of their narrative of prosperity, however, the fam-
ily system might be better able to unite and even thrive from the hardship (A
et al., 2015). Numerous families were resilient in the face of the Great Recession
and even grew from the experience (A et al., 2015; Heeron, Grealy, & Mutrie,
2009). is could have occurred through resisting or reconstructing the master
narrative of wealth. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) describes the growth that oc-
curs aer experiencing adversity or a traumatic experience (Heeron et. al., 2009;
O’Leary & Ickovics, 1995). An example of this can be seen in family meals. A
national survey determined that families with a lower income are more likely to
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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e United States of wealth 45
eat family meals together than families with a higher income (Neumark-Sztainer,
Hannan, Story, Croll, & Perry, 2003; Davidson & Gauthier, 2010). Eating family
meals has been shown to improve adolescent physical and psychological health
and well-being (Davidson & Gauthier, 2010). e sharp decline in net income
many families experienced between 2007 and 2011 might have shied many fam-
ily’s values in terms of spending money, encouraging them to engage in such prac-
tices as shared family meals (Wilcox, 2011).
Many couples might have (sub)consciously adjusted their daily conversations,
or their “small-d” discourses, about money during and aer the Great Recession.
e Great Recession diered from traditional nancial hardship in that it pro-
vided a common enemy, such as banks and Wall street, that families were able
to blame instead of one another (A et al., 2015; Bardhan & Walker, 2010). For
many couples, this allowed them to become unied against the Great Recession
(A et al., 2015). When marital partners cannot agree on how to reframe spend-
ing habits to adjust to their new economic situation, blaming and criticizing may
begin to enter conversations about money, leading to increased interparental con-
ict (Myers, 2007). is restructuring of values is essential in reconstructing the
familial narrative of nancial success. When couples fail to reconstruct this narra-
tive of prosperity, the conict that results could endanger the family system (A
et al., 2015).
When thinking about the stories that families tell and the environment in
which they are constructing those stories, it is also essential to take into account
the sociohistorical context of the family. e sociohistorical context refers to the
inuence of cultural institutions such as religion and class, and how they contrib-
ute to the family’s implicit and explicit sense-making (Stone, 1988; Koenig Kellas
& Kranstuber Horstman, 2015). is concept may help to highlight the pressure
that many living in Southern California at the time felt when facing economic
hardship and the reconstruction of their familial narrative of prosperity. Situated
within the framework of the narrative of prosperity and the ways in which families
renegotiate their role within the nancial climate, the following research questions
were posed:
RQ1: What kinds of narratives do couples draw on to resist the master narrative
of wealth in the United States?
RQ2: How do couples communicatively construct the notion of prosperity in
the wake of the Great Recession?
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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46 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
Eighty-two married, heterosexual couples from Southern California participated
in the study. Forty-four of the couples were Caucasian, 25 were Latino, and 13
were mixed-race (e.g., one partner was Caucasian and the other was Latino). e
parents were continuously married to each other an average of 16.61 years. e
Latino parents were primarily of Mexican heritage, with twenty of them being rst
generation immigrants to the U.S. e couples also all had at least one adolescent
(ages 12–18) whose data are not reported here.
e data were collected from October, 2011 to June, 2013 in Southern
California in the wake of the Great Recession. e families were screened at the
beginning of the study to ensure that they had at least moderate levels of economic
uncertainty and stress. Eighteen (22%) of the wives and 19 (23%) of the husbands
were currently unemployed. Another quarter of the sample was underemployed in
that they wanted a full-time job but could only nd part-time work, did not have
steady employment, and/or were overqualied for their position. Twelve (15%)
of the families had a house in foreclosure or had foreclosed on a house since the
Great Recession began and three (3.7%) were undergoing a short-sale. Five (6%)
of the families had led for bankruptcy since the start of the Great Recession.
Forty-nine (60%) of the couples owned their home. e median household in-
come was $61,000.
e study was advertised in Spanish and English in local newspapers and social
media. Flyers were also distributed in local businesses and at the front doorsteps
of all of the homes that were listed as pre-foreclosures. Aer completing a consent
form and an initial survey (ndings reported elsewhere; see A et al., 2015), the
couples engaged in a discussion with each other on their couch. ey were asked
to talk with each other about their uncertainties regarding their family’s nances,
or things they were unsure about regarding their family’s nancial future, that
made them stressed and tended to produce conict between the two of them. ey
were told that they should talk as long as they could for up to twenty minutes.
e discussions were audio and video-taped. e researchers went outside during
the conversations and re-entered the house when the conversation was nished.
Research assistants who were uent in Spanish and English assisted the Spanish
speaking families throughout the study. e families were debriefed and each par-
ticipant was compensated $30.
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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e United States of wealth 47
Data analysis
Once collected all interviews were transcribed with sucient detail to identify ver-
bal disuencies and pauses (Riessman, 2008). is level of transcription allows
the coders to comprehend meaning in ways that a simple transcription contain-
ing only words might not provide. e Spanish speaking couples’ transcripts were
translated and transcribed from Spanish to English and back translated again to
Spanish ensure accuracy. Members of the research team read over all of the tran-
scripts multiple times to gain a degree of familiarity with the stories and talked
about the themes that were emerging from the stories. Guided by the research
questions, the team was able to identify particular segments of talk that constituted
meanings of “prosperity” in ways that conformed to the master narrative of pros-
perity and other ways that resisted it (Bamberg, 2014; Lindemann-Nelson, 2001).
Prior to coding all transcriptions were numbered sequentially from one
through 82. Once numbered the entire sample was split in two with the odd num-
bered transcripts serving as the initial coding sample and the even numbered
transcripts serving as the verication sample (Braun & Clarke, 2012). e odd
numbered samples were again split in two and two members of the research team
separately coded both sets of transcripts while periodically meeting to reconcile
any dierences. e initial coding process involved each coder identifying any
segment of talk within the larger transcript that informed our understanding of
“prosperity.” Each coder maintained a cumulative list of codes by comparing each
newly identied code with previously identied codes for sameness/dierence.
Maintaining this list allowed the coders to identify the point at which theoreti-
cal saturation was achieved (Bowen, 2008). Once initial coding was done the re-
searchers exchanged samples and repeated the same process.
Coders achieved theoretical saturation on the 17th and 20th transcript respec-
tively. When the samples were swapped and recoded, both coders achieved satu-
ration at the same point, which served as an added measure of reliability. Initial
coding yielded a total of 57 and 42 individual codes respectively. 76 % of the codes
(40 out of 52) were repeated in both samples, while a 100% of the codes identied
in the coding sample were also identied in the verication sample.
Once the initial codes were identied the researchers gathered together to
identify the codes that “hung together” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). If connections
were ambiguous, researchers discussed various interpretations and attempted to
stay true to the meanings made by the conversation participants. Once the themes
were organized into stacks, guided by the common thread holding the stacks to-
gether researchers titled the themes extracted from the transcriptions. In all re-
searchers identied six dierent narrative constructions of prosperity: 1) pros-
perity as resourcefulness, 2) prosperity as aspiring to be better, 3) prosperity as
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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48 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
maintaining baseline standards, 3) prosperity as favorable social comparison, 4)
prosperity as investing in future, 5) prosperity as resistance of materiality.
e ndings from this study suggest that most couples constructed a meaning of
prosperity that was consistent with the master narrative of prosperity as material-
ity, while a few others adapted the master narrative in formulating a resistance to
the master narrative. ere were a few couples, however, who did construct coun-
ter stories that completely re-conceptualized the meaning of prosperity in ways
that resisted the master narrative.
Constructions of prosperity that conform to the master narrative
Prosperity as favorable social comparison One of the most common themes that
emerged from the narratives was couples making sense of prosperity relative to
their peer groups. Couples oen compared their nancial state with those in their
peer group, family or people in general. Couples engaged in two kinds of social
comparisons. Upward comparison existed when couples situated their own nan-
cial standing opposite those who they considered were in better nancial standing
and, thus, the couples concluded that they were not prosperous. When the cou-
ples engaged in downward comparison, they compared their situation with those
in more dicult circumstances and concluded that they were in fact prosperous
compared to others.
While there were numerous couples who engaged in social comparisons,
Couple #3 and couple #47 serve as exemplars of the kind of downward compari-
sons people made in order to make sense of their own nancial circumstances as
prosperous. Below is a segment of talk that showcases how couple #3 negotiated
their understanding of their nancial standing.
H: But in our, in our situation, we…our income, or your income, or uh, uh, the in-
come we can bring to the house is like in…uhh…like in uh, middle. Middle, uh —
W: I mean we’re denitely middle class —
H: Middle class —
W: It’s not like we’re poor.
By invoking the “poor” as an “other,” the wife positioned their nancial well-being
as better than that of a peer group and made sense of prosperity as a favorable
social comparison relative to the “poor.” In the following segment of talk in couple
#47, there is a similar conversational move.
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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e United States of wealth 49
W: We had to buy the kids food and diapers and clothes on credit and..
H: Oh yeah now I remember.
W: Yeah it sucked. It was a sacrice but you know we didn’t go on welfare
H: We couldn’t! [Laughs]
W: We didn’t go homeless
H: We didn’t try to go on welfare necessarily
e “other” in this case is the homeless population, which serves as the positive
social comparison point. ere were several examples of downward social com-
parison being used to construct a meaning of prosperity. e points of comparison
ranged from the un-employed to those who did not own vehicles or relied on food
banks. e relative nature of the meaning of prosperity can be best understood in
the following segment of talk:
W: Yeah, so I mean worry about that I mean I feel comfortable at least we have
over 100,000 in our retirement account-
H: Yeah we have that too [mumbles]-
W: Yeah we do I saw we get the statements every month or every quarter whatever
it is we have that. Now that’s not anywhere close to what Suzy Ormond says-
H: Yeah-W: at you need to have a million dollars. But I feel like well we’re better
than others so we, it’s not like we don’t have anything (Couple #25).
In this case the wife still compares downward, by saying “we’re better than others,
but the point of comparison is dierent from the “poor” or the “homeless” from
the previous two couples. Here the wife compares their standing with others who
also have life savings in anticipation of retirement.
Also evident in the above segment of talk is what can be classied as an up-
ward comparison. e wife compares the savings in their retirement funds to what
they ought to have for a good retirement and arrives at an unfavorable evaluation
of their nancial standing. is is further illustrated in the following section of the
conversation by the same couple.
W: You know and I still, I feel you know I feel insecure that we don’t own a house.
H: I see that in the horizon.
W: Mm I don’t see that, I mean we have to pay for Marcos education, we try at
H: Yeah.
W: I don’t know, I mean I think, you know. I do… I always felt insecure about that
because everyone in our income class and our age already has a house.
H: Yeah-
W: And we are very… an anomaly.
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50 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
e wife sees them as anomalous because they do not own a house. is is vastly
dierent from the comparison to the homeless population made by the couples in
the previous example.
Examining these examples it become clear that social comparison is a tool that
these couples used to make sense of their own nancial standing. If the compari-
son was favorable they constructed a meaning of prosperity that included their
experience, and if it was not they placed themselves outside of the “prosperous.
However, examining the points of comparison exposes how central wealth and
materiality were to these couples’ understanding of prosperity. Comparing their
own experiences to others who own a house, are employed, identify as middle
or upper class, or have a viable retirement plan is how many of these couples un-
derstood prosperity. All of these points of comparisons are rooted in the master
narrative of wealth, and therefore their constructions of “prosperity” conform to
the master narrative.
Prosperity as aspirations While some of the conversations surrounding pros-
perity were grounded in the present, many of the couples were oriented toward
the future. Couples oen constructed their notion of prosperity by articulating
what they aspired for themselves and their families. us, the narrative construc-
tion of prosperity was grounded in future goals as demonstrated by the following
segments of conversations between couples. In the rst example the couple talks
about their children and what they want their future to look like.
Wife: It’s really important for the kids to have an education even though it costs
lots of money and its hard thinking of this. It’s still critical. Even though it’s hard
and expensive…you have to do it. …It’s important to give them an education.
ere really aren’t other solutions like other forms of work because you won’t
earn enough money. With an education you can get better jobs so it’s worth it
(Couple #75).
In this segment while the conversation is about the importance of education for
children, the underlying value is not education for knowledge, but rather educa-
tion for employment status and consequently nancial security. A recurring trend
in constructing prosperity as aspiration was the goals couples had for their chil-
dren. Speaking about what they would like their children’s experience to be, the
husband in couple #49 said the following:
H: But we don’t want to short-change our kids. You know I guess like Diana just
said, we would like them to have that kid play — you know like play sports, play all
the extra activities — which nancially keeps going up too. So we’re always, you
know, trying to get them-they’re the rst in line for us. e house is also rst in
line but we don’t want the kids not to do anything so we work hard.
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e United States of wealth 51
is was a trend that emerged several times. e parents were committed to pro-
tecting the innocence of their children by shielding them from the eects of the
nancial downturn, oen feigning nancial well-being to their children. Couples
articulated their aspirations to keep their children participating in extra-curricu-
lar activities, keep them up-to-date on the latest fashion trends, send their children
to good schools and pay for college. All of these narratives together construct the
value of maintaining the appearance of prosperity in particular ways.
Many of the aspirations that couples spoke about were in regard to their chil-
dren and the goals they had for them. However, other couples spoke of owning
a home, retiring comfortably, donating to church or charity, and sending money
to struggling families abroad. While the couplesaspirations varied, almost all of
them were centered around monetary wealth.
Prosperity as investing in the future In a slight variation from constructing
prosperity as aspirational, some families saw the ability to invest in their future
as prosperity. While these families also had a future orientation, the actions of
the present were expected to yield prosperous outcomes in the future. Noting the
following interaction between the husband and the wife, it becomes apparent that
the anticipated role of the child was somewhat dierent from how the child was
positioned from the previous examples.
H: Well, yeah I think he’s been a good I investment, you know so I think he’d do
- I think he’ll be successful
W: He’s been a good investment? For who?
H: Well for him and for us. I think –
W: We invested in him so you’re going to get money back?
H: Yeah [laugh] sort of, hell yeah. He doesn’t have to pay for school. He gets to go
on trips. He gets to buy all his toys so I don’t know. We’ll see. (Couple #59)
Contrasting the sentiment expressed in this interaction from the example above, in-
vesting in the education of the child is seen as an investment in the future of the fam-
ily rather than simply the well-being of the child either in the present or in the future.
A primary component of many couples’ construction of prosperity was the
idea of material accumulation. ey oen spoke about “making the money work
for them.Central to these kinds of narratives was the idea of having assets that
could be invested or re-invested in productive ways so as to increase value. For
example, the wife in one particular couple (#11) spoke of how having a rental
property allowed them to supplement their income.
W: …we have a property right now that the renters moved out and the more that
it’s unrented the more money we lose, but it’s a great asset, I mean that’s why we
have that asset so that it can appreciated in values and it didn’t lose a lot in this cri-
sis, from 2008 to now, I mean fortunately we haven’t, we developed the property
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52 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
in such a way that it’s, it has not lost money and we have not, we’re able to break
even with what we make on it to be able to pay for it.
e most obvious indicators of the characterization of prosperity as investment
is the language the couples used as they talked about their circumstances. Words
such as “investment,“appreciating value, “returns, and “liabilities” were com-
monplace in their narratives. e emphasis was in increasing the material hold-
ings of the family. erefore, these narratives also center the master narrative of
monetary wealth in constructing the meaning of prosperity.
Constructions of prosperity that contest the master narrative
While many of the themes above centered the master narrative of accumulating
wealth and spending money, other families constructed prosperity in dierent
ways. While some of these narratives started to contest the dominant discourse
of prosperity as wealth and luxury, they illustrate the problem with countering
a rmly entrenched cultural discourse. Lindemann-Nelson (2001) argues that
countering a master-narrative oen takes several forms, and works against vari-
ous fragments of the master narrative. e following stories do not refuse nor
repudiate the master narrative, they do, however, contest pieces of it by centering
an alternate cultural discourse.
Prosperity as resourcefulness While many of the previous families’ narratives
positioned prosperity as social standing, aspiring to do more or better with their
lives and those of their children, there is a distinct dierence between those narra-
tives and the narratives of other families. Encountering hard nancial times, some
couples called upon their resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability as their true
value. Couples oen talked about taking short cuts, and nding creative and inex-
pensive ways to accomplish tasks that were also relationally fullling. For example,
couple #11 talked about how the nancial crisis has meant that the husband, who
is in construction and builds home for a living, is now diversifying his operations
to accommodate the state of the economy. He goes on to explain how doing so
helps out his workers just as much as it does the couple themselves.
W: Well, you have some people on your crew that know how to paint
H: Yeah
W: You’re, you’re a carpenter and you’re willing to even hire out your guys to
paint, that’s a good thing
H: Yeah
W: You can’t be locked into a mindset where you’re like oh woe is me, I mean you
gotta do what you can to change.
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e United States of wealth 53
In this case the husband and the wife pay homage to the resources at their disposal
that allow them to adapt to their circumstances. In this segment and in another
part of their storytelling the husband places a signicant emphasis on being able
to productively use all of their resources, thus positioning the resources as central
to prosperity, not wealth in and of itself.
In a similar story, another couple (#25) resorted to starting their own home
business in response to the nancial crisis.
H: [sigh] Okay, well, that’s true, but…your little home business is taking o…
W: [laughs] Not really…not to feed us every day or so…
H: Well…I mean, yeah, maybe when we run out of like friends…
W: [laugh]
H: …and family, but…
W: Well, I’m gonna try and read that marketing stu, so…I can learn how to do
H: Yeah!
W: And then I have to build a really cool website so that we can market it…And
then we just to have to spend time doing it…
In this example the couple jokingly referred to friends and family as the patrons
who are currently making their small business viable. e husband indicates his
desire to learn more marketing skills and the wife commits to building a more
attractive website to launch their business to customers outside their immediate
family and friends. ese narrative constructions center social and personal capi-
tal (Caspi, 2002) as the root of prosperity as opposed to material wealth. However,
the implicit connection between resources and material wealth is also apparent
in their storying process and therefore these constructions of prosperity contest,
without fully unseating, the master narrative.
Prosperity as maintaining baseline standards Stories that attempt to resist the
master narrative oen center an alternative discourse Lindemann-Nelson (2001).
Some of the families in narrating their experience of navigating the recession did
precisely this by rendering wealth accumulation secondary and instead focusing
on what was necessary to maintain a particular standard of living. e standard
of living couples were attempting to maintain varied drastically from family to
family, but the stories themselves had a common theme of prioritizing family well-
being and stress free living over concerns about wealth.
e husband and wife (Couple #59) below talk about their credit card bill
and their monthly expenses. e concept of “discretionary” expenses is the topic
of conversation and the wife argues that it is not really discretionary since the ex-
penses are for what she characterizes as basic household expenses.
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54 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
W: So those- those two thousand dollar a month credit card bills [chuckle] -
H: Well those are discretionary
W: Well I don’t know they’re discretionary. ey’re medical bills, they’re food,
they’re gasoline. I don’t think we have that much-
H: mmm…
W: I mean obviously we can cut back if we had to but it’s not like we go around
and spend a lot of money…. If you’re paying living expenses and two kids at col-
Of particular importance is the last turn of talk, in which the wife positions these
expenditures as necessary even if they are not essential to survival. She resists the
notion of only spending what is absolutely necessary, which centers the master
narrative of accumulating wealth at all costs, and instead centers a discourse of
In a similar example, a couple (#45) spoke of the addition of a bathroom to
their house in order to accommodate their growing children. ey mentioned the
monetary value of the addition, however they evaluate the peace of mind, and the
privacy of their children as worth more than the cost of the remodel itself.
H: Well yes, we added a bathroom, and all of a sudden that — that was a lot of
money in that decision, the addition of the bathroom and the remodeling of the
old bathroom. Because we have two kids, right now they’re very young and they
need their space-
W: and they’re going to keep growing and they’re going to need their privacy.
H: at’s great that we did that bathroom because there was only one bathroom
W: Well yes
H: (chuckles) And in the mornings…at was stressful
W: Yea we all needed it at the same time
e addition of a new bathroom, which was a signicantly larger cost than that
of the “medical bills, the food and the gasoline” from the previous couple sug-
gests a dierent perception of cost, and perhaps the dierence in economic class.
However, like the previous couple, this couple also prioritized family relational
dynamics over material wealth.
Another example that falls under this category represents thematic coher-
ence, but suggests a dierent economic class all together. In this example the wife
(Couple #21) narrates the dilemma they face in having to choose whether they
maintain a home that is close to work and in a beautiful neighborhood with “crick-
ets and coyotes” or move back to their smaller house in the city temporarily.
Wife: We have the option of buying this place as well …and so we’ve had to go
back and forth and decide that we are going to move back… to our house that we
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e United States of wealth 55
own and umm that’s going to be temporary uhh with the idea that we are going
to be saving a lot of money, which will make us feel more nancially secure and
then umm but were gonna be open minded to the fact that umm I could go crazy
living in a small house aer living in this beautiful place and then we have to umm
ya know … pay attention to our kids and how they’re doing . ey’re really happy
about moving back…but still ummm we have to do what’s right ya know what’s
right nancially and also personally for us as far as making us all be happy
e decision to move back to the city seems to be driven by nancial concerns, but
the narrative itself reveals the amount of consideration that is given to the wife’s
mental state and the children’s happiness. In the last segment of this conversa-
tion, the wife specically positions the master narrative of material wealth in direct
competition with the happiness of the family. Constructing prosperity as main-
taining a certain standard of living or social and personal capital challenged the
mainstream notion that prosperity is material wealth and a luxury living prevalent
in Southern California (Bardhan & Walker, 2010). However, the couples relied on
the dominant discourse in order to counter it, and thus reied the master narrative.
Constructions of prosperity that resist the master narrative
Prosperity as resistance of materiality Lindemann-Nelson (2001) describes counter
stories that repudiate the master narratives as stories that reject the constitutive
properties of the master narrative not only for themselves, but for people who
subscribe to the dominant discourse as well. One couple (#15) in particular em-
bodied this type of counter narrative. In their conversation on how they manage
to maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle the wife stated:
W: If I could tell the researchers one thing about how to be happy and content
with what one has, it’s not to buy into the cultural expectations we have in this
society to be buying a new car and um our practice ever since we’ve been married,
we’ve been married for 24 years we will be 25 on- almost 24 and a half years, and
we believe in buying things cash out right. We have older cars but they’re very
functional and comfortable and they get us to and from where we need to go.
In the aforementioned construction of prosperity, the wife recognized the cultural
discourse and explicitly rejects it as the centering force in dening what a prosper-
ous life is or how to achieve it. By cueing the researchers, she makes it relevant to
the people outside of this family unit who buy into the dominant discourse and,
thus, challenging its legitimacy.
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56 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
In a conversation about balancing their part-time employment demands and
their relationship, another couple (#59), articulate a repudiation of the constitutive
powers of the master narrative on prosperity.
W: If we had lower we just don’t spend, we just tryin’ to.
H: We got enough, we got enough. If we got not enough, we got not enough.
W: Yeah but we’re not like not sleeping at night its like-
H: No, no-
W: Crazy and just you know going like “Oh my god this is unbelievable I’m gonna
die tomorrow, I’m gonna hang myself or blah, blah, blah.
H: Honestly we’ve never…never got in big ght about the money, about the nan-
cial situation, we got you know we get a little bit upset, we get some little bit try to
gure out which way we’re gonna go but you know its life… it’s more important
the relationship than money, so. e money, it’s money.
Here the third turn by the wife consists of mimicry of the dominant discourse and
a subsequent rejection of its constitutive force. e husband in the following turn
co-opts the discourse of family unity in contesting of the master narrative. Both
of these narratives also serve as commentary on society and an indictment of the
master narrative that positions material wealth as synonymous with prosperity.
Several couples reported depending on their faith as a source of strength and
security. ese narratives were oen inwardly directed and refuted the ability of
the master narrative of wealth in dening their own constructions of prosper-
ity. Unlike the previous examples, these couples’ narratives were not directed to a
larger community who subscribed to the dominant discourse. Lindemann-Nelson
(2001) uses this distinction to separate counter stories that repudiate the master
narrative from those that refuse it. For instance, as the following husband and wife
(#9) noted:
H: I guess that God just has something better planned
W: I feel he does, I feel like he has a door that’s gonna open, and I don’t know what
it is but you know…I don’t really feel scared because I know he has a plan and I
know he put us together and I know he put us through the things we went through
and I know he wants us to be strong.
H: We can only know what he’s given us
W: And we’ve been through worse, and we’ve been through really rough times.
And our kids are still here and we’re still alive like
H: at’s the thing is I see that what he has given us, he’s given us these kids, you
know they’re our kids they’re not going back, they’re our kids, they’re not going
back to their other parent
is couple rejects their nancial hardships as dening the family experience and
instead focuses on the gis and opportunities they have received from a divine
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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e United States of wealth 57
source as constituting prosperity. e wife, in stating that she is not afraid of the
consequence of nancial hardship, serves as a refutation wealth as a dening force.
is narrative is not directed outward but rather speaks of the specic family ex-
perience and circumstances surrounding the children.
While some of these stories successfully resisted the master narrative of wealth
as prosperity, there were many more stories that attempted to do so but failed. As
an example, the wife in this particular couple (#15) had this to say in looking at
their family circumstances:
W: And I think that’s something that’s maybe dierent from us than other fami-
lies is we focus more on the quality of our relationships, we’re spiritual we love
God, we love other people and um…I think because of that, that’s helped us not
to become stressed- Too I think we have a wonderful philosophy in life in that we
do the very best we can with what we have.
is segment of talk constitutes a counter narrative positioning spirituality as the
centering force in dening prosperity. is kind of story, however, also represents
what Lindemann-Nelson (2001) would characterize as a “boomerang story,” or a
story that locates the subjects as exceptions and therefore reinforces the master
narrative even as it attempts to resist it (p. 177). Several other families communi-
cated similar constructions of prosperity by positioning themselves as exceptions
to the larger cultural discourse. While the previous example used faith as a source
of refusal, other families attempted to resist the master narrative by suggesting
that the Great Recession represented an opportunity for them to teach their chil-
dren nancial management, and that their children were unlike others in that they
were good, hardworking children who were considerate of their parents’ nancial
circumstances. ese types of “bad counter stories” serve as evidence of the perva-
siveness of a master narrative of prosperity based on material wealth.
e Great Recession debilitated the economy of the United States and subsequent-
ly forced many families to re-examine their understanding of prosperity (Pfeer
et al., 2013). Set against the dominant discourse of accumulating wealth and using
aggressive spending as a means to reverse the Great Recession (Gillespie, 2011),
many couples were forced into conversations about re-dening prosperity but
were simultaneously held captive to this master narrative of wealth. is study
contributes to existing literature on the nancialization of the American family
(Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002) by examining the communicative meaning mak-
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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58 Chenthuran Jayachandiran et al.
ing that underpins the well-documented psychological and sociological eects of
recessions and nancial hardship.
Overall, our ndings showcase the kind of narrative work done by families in
the face of substantial nancial hardships. Most of the families who successfully
re-dened prosperity depended on other dominant discourses such as health,
faith, family quality and relationships to refuse or repudiate the master narrative
of wealth as prosperity. Lindemann-Nelson (2001) argues that successfully over-
coming a master narrative oen requires a patchwork of resistance strategies that
permeate daily discourse, before they begin to chip away at the larger dominant
Discourse. e ndings from the current study serve as additional evidence of the
pervasive nature of master narratives and their oppressive force. e narratives
demonstrate how the discourse of wealth as prosperity held many of these families
captive by restricting their ability to reconstitute their understanding of prosperity
in productive ways even (and especially) when the taken-for-granted meaning of
prosperity-as-wealth was challenged during the Great Recession.
Even though some couples were able to communicatively reconstitute and
even resist the master narrative rooted in the accumulation of material wealth, this
master narrative dominated the couples’ discourse. In many ways these ndings
re-arm Lindemann-Nelson’s (2001) argument that resisting dominant discourse
has to be a fragmented endeavor. e majority of the themes that emerged sub-
stantiated the dominant discourse by positioning material wealth as the dening
force in understanding prosperity. Some of the narratives contested the center-
ing force of material wealth as the dening property of prosperity while simul-
taneously acknowledging that wealth accumulation is the denition that is being
contested. ese contestations were founded largely on other dominant narratives
such as family cohesion, spirituality and mental well-being. Very few couples’ nar-
ratives explicitly refuted or rejected the dominant discourse of monetary wealth
and spending and thus lend credence to the idea of the nancialization of the fam-
ily unit in the United States (see Hall, 2016; Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002).
While this study points to important discoveries about how families made
sense of their nancial standing, it highlights some additional gaps in the research
that need further exploration. Even though this study revealed the kind of nar-
rative meaning making that couples engage in, it stops short of making claims
about the concurrent mental and physical well-being of the families themselves.
Future research should examine the potential relationship between the kind of
narrative meaning making families engage in and the overall well-being of the
family and the couple. Hall’s (2016) ethnographic study of families in economic
crisis shows the degree to which discourses of wealth can penetrate the family
unit, but connecting wellness markers to meaning making might shed light on
the processes that contribute to outcomes such as resilience (A & Denes, 2013;
© 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Company
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e United States of wealth 59
Heeron, Grealy, & Mutrie, 2009), family conict patterns (Papp, Cummings &
Goeke-Morey, 2009), and stress (A & Nussbaum, 2006).
is study also examines the meaning making process of the parents and ex-
cludes their children even though, as evidenced by the narratives, the children
were a primary topic of conversation. In some of the narratives it was evident that
the parents’ meaning making of the nancial crisis was deeply rooted in maintain-
ing or dening the child’s understanding of the crisis. While much of social science
literature has treated children as largely non-agentic beings (Avison, 2010), given
the impact of the Great Recession on the family system, future research should
examine children’s experience of the family crisis as well. Finally, scholars should
examine the degree to which counter-narratives can be installed in families in
crisis to allow them to re-frame the situation. Somers (1994) argues that identities
can be narratively re-constituted by communicatively re-framing aversive stimuli.
When the dominant discourse is so pervasive, however, a competing discourse
might have to be introduced into the system communicatively from an external
source (Somers, 1994; Stevens, 2012). But, what external sources produce change
in the narratives? Some of the narratives in the current study suggested that having
children, as well as losing what was perceived as valuable (i.e., wealth), were driv-
ing forces in re-constructing the narrative of prosperity.
Just as personal narratives have constitutive properties on identity (Bamberg,
DeFina, & Schirin, 2007), family narratives have constitutive inuences on the
meanings that circulate within the family system (Koenig Kellas & Kranstuber
Horstman, 2015). Local discourses that circulate within the family system are of-
ten inuenced by, and responsive to, the master narratives that permeate outside
the system (Bamberg, 2014; Lindemann-Nelson, 2001). e current study investi-
gated the ability of members within the family system to contest and resist the in-
uences of a master narrative of wealth within the context of the Great Recession.
e ndings reveal that despite several kinds of narrative meaning making in
which the couples engaged, they still struggled to construct meanings that coun-
tered the master narrative. is struggle highlights the need to articulate the com-
municative ways in which couples can counter these master narratives.
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Corresponding author’s address
Chenthuran Jayachandiran
PhD Student
University of Iowa
105 Becker Communication Studies
Iowa City
Iowa 52242–1498
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Full-text available
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Literature within economic geography on the financialisation of everyday life has so far overlooked the role of family. Using data collected from ethnographic research with six families in the UK before and during the recent financial crisis, this article argues the case for using family as a lens through which to conceptualise everyday experiences of recession and finance. The findings highlight interpersonal family relationships, inter- and intra-generationality, gender responsibilities, reciprocity, shared experiences and memories as essential to conceptualising how people get by in times of financial crisis and relate to finance in everyday life. The conclusions outline the key contributions of the article to literatures on geographies of finance and family.