Sociologists have long studied subnational development across the United States focusing on state and market forces that contribute to spatial inequality and uneven development. Subnational research is central to development sociology's concern with the present neoliberal stage of capitalism and to numerous theoretical, substantive, and policy issues that revolve around poverty and prosperity within the nation. Yet the body of work faces a number of challenges. Research is fragmented and its potential for building broader development sociology overlooked. We provide a critical analysis of this research tradition focusing on its theoretical development and identifying a wave of shifts in economic structure and the state that require new engagement. Our analysis raises challenges for development sociology as a broader field of study. Profound state and market changes are unfolding within the United States but they remain under-theorized with implications for limiting progress in the field as a whole. We identify a series of questions that offer promising directions for future research.
Development sociology is conventionally associated with cross-national research and nations in the global South. From the field's classical foundations onward, theory and analysis have focused primarily on the nation-state and global system levels. Yet while the macro scale remains privileged, over the past few decades the purview of development sociology has been extended in a large body of work aimed at the subnational scale, particularly in the United States. This work makes a distinct contribution to the comparative analysis of development disparities and state and market processes within a nation.
Subnational development studies are concerned with systematic processes within a nation that go beyond the limits of single cities or communities (Lobao and Hooks 2007). These studies range from completely covering national territory to covering select parts or regions such as Appalachia, the US South, and rural areas. Scholars are interested in relationships occurring across places within this territory, particularly as they involve disparities in poverty and prosperity and the state and market forces that determine such inequalities. While subnational studies employ place units of analysis such as states, cities, and counties, scholars’ interests lie in a higher-order level of explanation drawn from the comparative analyses of these places. The subnational tradition thus is much like cross-national sociology in its comparative methodological approach and in the general questions it poses about the determinants of development. Subnational approaches further span the social sciences and to some degree are more advanced outside sociology, as discussed below.1
The subnational tradition is found globally (Almeida 2012, 2014; Hiskey 2005; Snyder 2001), with discussions across nations provided in prior reviews of the literature (Hooks and Lobao 2010; Lobao forthcoming; Tickamyer and Patel-Campillo forthcoming). We focus on the United States because subnational development is intrinsically complex and because previous articles have not probed in depth the pressing state and market forces that now affect development in this context. Using a US focus, we delineate a promising area of research that allows greater exposition of the underlying issues.
We provide a critical appraisal of sociology's subnational research tradition as it has been deployed to understand development across the United States. We explain the theoretical status of current work, including how sociologists’ approach to theorizing compares with that of other social sciences such as geography. We then turn to the empirical literature. We draw together wide-ranging studies that address state and market processes, explaining commonalities among them and their similarities with cross-national development studies. Recent articles summarize sociology's subnational literature, explaining its disciplinary roots, boundaries, and substantive themes of inquiry (Hooks and Lobao 2010; Lobao forthcoming; Lobao and Hooks 2007; Tickamyer and Patel-Campillo forthcoming). Our focus, however, is to move the subnational tradition forward in two ways: by more incisively interrogating theory and research that explicitly analyzes state and market processes; and by identifying a wave of public and private sector shifts that require new engagement to advance the study of development within the United States.
The Significance of Subnational Research for Development Sociology
Sociology's subnational tradition raises profound questions about geographic disparities that emerge from uneven development processes. These questions are reflected in numerous substantive, theoretical, political, and policy concerns (Lobao forthcoming). Present in all nations are geographic disparities in economic growth and distribution and in numerous other forms of well-being. In the United States these gaps are reflected in historically disadvantaged regions such as Appalachia, the rural Mississippi Delta, southwestern Mexican-border colonias, and rural areas more generally. Subnational disparities are also reflected in recent patterns of spatial inequality. Here variations across places may be incremental over time, as in the general spread of prosperity across US localities during the 1990s and its contraction during the next decade. Sharper polarization trends may also be observed: for example, some regions are still mired in decline from past deindustrialization, while others, such as the bicoastal United States, are experiencing accelerated growth but with rising inequality. The Great Recession altered the geography of development in that rural America was less affected and to some degree prospered from new energy development. As we discuss below, sociologists are just beginning to scratch the surface of the state and market forces behind post-twentieth-century spatial inequalities.
A visual illustration of the development disparities that scholars are addressing is shown in FIGURES 1, 2, and 3. The maps display probably the most extensively studied indicator in subnational research, the nation's poverty rate. To illustrate comparisons across the three decades, we carry through the quintile categories for 1990 to 2000 and 2010. The proportion of counties’ population below the poverty threshold is shown.2 The 1990 map (FIGURE 1) displays the classic development path of the subnational United States. Despite decades of industrial restructuring, the familiar North-South pattern is still found in the markedly higher poverty rates in the South—and the lower poverty rates for the northeastern and West Coast regions. Pockets of poverty also stand out in Appalachia, along the Mississippi Delta, and in states with Native American reservations and large rural Latino populations. The 1990s were a decade of prosperity for the nation, and this is shown in FIGURE 2 as the majority of counties shift toward lower levels of poverty in 2000. FIGURE 3 displays the results after the Great Recession. The Northeast and, with a few exceptions, rural North Central states fared better than the South and much of the West Coast.
In addition to raising critical substantive questions inherent to the subnational scale itself that merit sociological attention, research sheds light on how theory works out on the ground. Subnational research can be a testing ground for macro-level theory, serving to correct, extend, or challenge theory (Snyder 2001). National development is the summary of processes occurring at lower geographic levels. When these processes are not acknowledged, incomplete or even misleading views about nation-level relationships can emerge. For example, national levels of socioeconomic well-being are a function of persistent structural disadvantages from class, gender, race, ethnicity, and other statuses that vary across and are often historically tied to places. This makes the study of inequality and development more complex than assumed by studies that analyze nation-states as a whole (McCall 2001).
Going further, subnational-scale processes appear to exert a major influence in producing some defining attributes of the United States, yet these processes are not well understood or acknowledged. The nation's notably high degree of income inequality has been very much influenced by shifts that have occurred in a handful of large metropolitan areas (Galbraith 2011; Chakravorty 2006). The stinginess of our welfare state is in part attributable to regional voting-block shifts toward the Republican Party that were a response to the defense industry's location in the North and West in the 1940s (Hooks and McQueen 2010). The nation's move toward broader neoliberal development can be attributed in part to subnational patterns of migration and racial segregation and political responses to them across northern and southern localities in the 1960s, which set the course for future Republican victories (Fortner 2010). Currently, successful US implementation of national health care policy and national climate change policies such as EPA cutbacks of carbon emissions is threatened by red-blue gaps between state governments. To paraphrase Fortner (2010), scrutinizing subnational processes leads to the conclusion that not all questions about a nation-state's development require national-level answers.
With regard to methodological and policy implications for development sociology, subnational research makes a novel contribution. It has ushered in a wave of methodologies still relatively new (to sociology) that address geographic processes, including spatial analytical modeling and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) (Irwin 2007; Matthews and Parker 2013). For public policy, US sociologists historically may have their strongest influence at the subnational scale. Research informs federal, regional, and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations that track development and well-being, with funds often allocated accordingly (Lobao forthcoming; Wimberley 2008).
Finally, the subnational scale has become increasingly important for understanding neoliberal development because of shifts in the state and market discussed further below.3 Developed nations have tended to move from more centrally driven Keynesian-state systems with stronger social safety nets to more decentralized limited-government systems (Brenner 2004; Harvey 2005). Research on “state rescaling” explains how the state itself has been rescaled territorially in the neoliberal era, with subnational governments assuming greater roles in nations’ growth and redistribution (Brenner 2004; Kazepov 2010). The United States has historically been one of the most decentralized governance systems among Western nations (Cox 2009). It has a greater degree of local government autonomy in revenue raising and service delivery—and in turn a great deal of geographic variability in the quality of government (Warner 2006; Warner and Pratt 2005). Market shifts such as long-term deindustrialization, polarization in the service sector, the increase in precarious employment, and the rapid rise of such industries as financial services and mining of shale gas and oil further create geographic disparities across the United States. Yet when sociologists examine in any generalizable manner state and market shifts under neoliberal development and related free-market policies, including social service retrenchment, focus is almost always on nation-states and cross-national outcomes. We have tended to ignore the broad impact of neoliberal development in our own backyard. To analyze this issue requires bringing the sociological focus down to the subnational scale across both the urban and the rural United States.4
Assessing Subnational Research on the Market, the State, and Development
In appraising current work, we necessarily provide a selective account. Research examining development comparatively within the United States is extensive but diffuse (Lobao and Hooks 2007). Studies tend to respond to questions derived from segmented literatures (such as literatures germane to economic sociology, political sociology, general inequality research, rural sociology, and demography). Rendering a meaningful synopsis of the body of work requires imposing order with a selective discussion.
Our concern is market and state processes because they illuminate social forces identified in theoretical accounts of capitalist development across space, particularly debates about neoliberalism. In discussing market processes, we focus upon how researchers have conceptualized these as working out on the ground across places—primarily through industries and jobs and related labor market trends as workers are matched to jobs. Our focus is therefore upon areas’ economic structure. In focusing on the state, we refer to its relative size, strength, and capacity to intervene and its efforts at policy formulation. We consider both the federal state and the subnational state.
In terms of development, our interest is how researchers have conceptualized the impact of market and state processes on development outcomes. Subnational studies examine development indicators commonly used in cross-national research. But most attention is given to economic growth and distribution, and we focus on these here as well. Economic growth at the subnational scale is usually studied by employment and income growth. Distribution is conceptualized through various stratification indicators that are most commonly measured by poverty and income inequality. Like cross-national studies, subnational studies examine numerous other markers of well-being, such as educational and health disparities, environmental degradation, social safety net generosity, and political indicators (Lobao forthcoming).
Finally, we focus on studies whose interest is places (i.e., states, counties, cities) as the unit of analysis, interest, and comparison. We take a place-centered approach for several reasons. First, most subnational studies are aimed at relationships across place units. Second, we aim to call attention to the commonalities between subnational research and comparative cross-national research, most of which too takes “places” (i.e., nation-states) as its unit of analysis. Cross-national work has commonalities in research design and in delineation of key state and market forces that can potentially be extended downward to explore subnational development (Babones 2013). Third, sociologists have not well theorized how states and localities diverge across the US subnational system, making this an important issue for future work. We do not devote separate attention to multilevel studies that focus on individuals and how their life chances vary by context. Although extensive work on neighborhood effects within cities exists, this multilevel tradition has not been scaled up to subnational areas in a similar, in-depth manner.5 In some sense, until we have a better grasp about difference across US places, multilevel studies will be inherently premature.
In the next section, we provide an overview of sociological theory at the subnational scale and how it compares with theory in other disciplines, notably geography. Here the overriding challenge remains for future researchers: How do we build sociological theory at this scale?
THEORY AT THE SUBNATIONAL SCALE: A SOCIAL ECOLOGY OF CAPITALISM?
The sociological study of development is limited by the surprisingly limited attention devoted to contemporary theorizing at the subnational scale.6 Uneven development processes, by which regions and localities come to be differentiated from each other, are particularly undertheorized in the case of the United States. For most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, no single theory has been widely identified with the sociological study of subnational regions in the United States, the exception being human ecology (Hawley 1950; Odum and Moore 1938). Today, various frameworks are applied but none consistently, and few are directed to studying the subnational scale on its own terms (Tickamyer and Patel-Campillo forthcoming). In this respect, sociology differs from geography and economics, which have attempted to understand the social ecology of capitalism. As discussed elsewhere, sociology's limited attention to theorizing derives from the legacy of the classical sociologists, their emphasis on history over geography, and their general belief that capitalist development would have a leveling effect across regions within nation-states (Lobao and Hooks 2007; Soja 1989).
In twentieth-century sociology, the human ecology framework with its functionalist roots provided a perspective on categorizing the distinct qualities of US regions (Hawley 1950; Odum and Moore 1938). Tonnies's urban-rural continuum and the legacy of Durkheim formed the inspiration for much of this early work. As human ecology developed, theorists formulated more general processes that brought subnational space into sociology: they focused upon how social organization varied across places because of population density, centralization of service functions, and transportation and communications networks (see Irwin 2007 and Irwin and Kasarda 1991). The human ecology tradition also brought a distinct methodological approach that continues today, the subnational comparative tradition of analyzing socioeconomic development across states, counties, and cities via quantitative designs (Duncan et al. 1961). Thus the study of US comparative subnational development was long a part of sociology. But of course its aim was not a critical analysis of the economy and state. When the shift away from structural functionalism in the later twentieth century led to the eclipse of the human ecology framework, theorizing about the subnational scale was not replaced with an equally coherent approach—in contrast to urban sociology, which turned directly to Marxian political economy (Walton 1993). Nevertheless, the human ecology tradition had identified the importance of integrating regional spatial processes into the study of subnational development. This has continued to influence contemporary work, especially as quantitative geographic methodologies, including GIS, have become increasingly utilized (Porter 2011).
From the 1970s onward, Marxian political economy perspectives that connected capitalist development to the subnational scale began to infuse human geography and to some degree other social sciences. This shift is explained in a number of studies, and along with the general turn to conflict theory in sociology it has brought a critical perspective to the study of subnational development (Lobao and Hooks 2007; Soja 1989; Tickamyer 2000). We call attention to this shift in geography because it provides a disciplinary example of how theorizing at the subnational scale has been honed over decades to grapple with changes in capitalism. The geography literature also illustrates the political economy framework, which has been influential in sociology as well.
Subnational Development in Geography and the Other Social Sciences
In human geography, extensive theorizing emerged on the political economy of subnational development as it applied to the case of the United States and other developed nations. The Marxist approach was extended across all scales, not just that of the city (Harvey 1982; Smith 1984). General principles of the operation of capitalism were outlined, including its tendencies toward continued expansion over time and place; instability in development across places; and creation of differentiation across places, especially with regard to economic structure (Storper and Walker 1989). This new wave of theorizing added to and often challenged other, earlier frameworks in human geography used to analyze the subnational scale, such as central place theory, growth pole theory, and theories about industries’ profit cycles across space (see Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney 2006). Critical, Marxist-oriented development frameworks emphasized the economic geography of industries, firms, and jobs and how, under certain stages of capitalism, some industries were in ascendance and others in decline (such as manufacturing in the post-1970s US North), so that regions in turn grew and declined accordingly (Massey 1984; Storper and Walker 1989). While the operation of the private sector economy was given the greatest attention as a driver of subnational development, institutional arrangements of capital with labor and the state were also recognized to be important. Such arrangements are reflected in norms, laws, and conventions that pertain to the relative power of labor (seen, for example, in the levels of unionization) and to the state's relationship with its citizens and capital (seen, for example, in the generosity of the social safety net). Economic structure coincided with institutional arrangements across regions as capitalism required such spatial fixes to promote accumulation (Harvey 1982). An example is the South, where weak bargaining power of labor and a weak social safety net became particularly attractive to northern firms in the opening decades of deindustrialization.
Later political economic work drew from regulation theory, which posited distinct epochs of capitalism, each with a distinct regime of accumulation and mode of regulation (Aglietta 1979). The term regime of accumulation refers to the link between production and consumption, the ways economic growth is produced and surplus is shared (seen, for example, in jobs that pay a family wage). The term mode of regulation refers to institutional arrangements such as norms, laws, and practices that govern this process, particularly those pertaining to the state. The twentieth century was characterized by two key epochs, the era of Fordism, characterized by manufacturing as a leading sector, rising earnings, and the Keynesian state with its stronger social safety net; and the post-Fordist era of this system's decline, beginning in the 1970s. Regulation theory more coherently integrated the role of the state and institutional arrangements into the analysis of changing economic structure. While regulation theory centers on national regimes of accumulation, geographers brought its insights down to the subnational scale. They aimed to understand regional variation in economic structure and the state (Peck 1996) and posited the potential for local or regionally distinct modes of regulation (Peck and Tickell 1992). Regulation theory became foundational to the analysis of neoliberal development in the United States and elsewhere (Derickson 2014). That is, the post-Fordist economy and state are seen to have entered a neoliberal phase, where the power of capitalist elites has increased dramatically and the state at all scales is under increased assault (Harvey 2005). Neoliberal development, however, is not homogeneous across places. Rather, “varieties of neoliberal development” exist that can take variegated forms within a nation (Brenner and Theodore 2002, 2010).
Geographers, in addition to carving out the study of development at the subnational scale, have grappled with scale itself (Marston 2000). The legend of a map typically includes a scale, the ratio between a given length on the map and the length of the actual object that is being represented. In recent decades, geographers have used the metaphor of scale to highlight theoretical challenges. Their theoretical efforts start with the assumption that scale is socially produced. Swyngedouw (1997) examined “scalar narratives” whereby academics devoted extensive attention to processes at the scale of the global system of nation-states and in turn, the city, in a sense reifying these scales and crowding out the analyses of other territory. Temporality is also linked to scalar dynamics. For example, in the Fordist-Keynesian period, the nation-state scale was on center stage. In contrast, in the neoliberal period both local and global scales figure more prominently in development processes (Brenner 2004). Human geographers’ work on scale sheds light on why sociologists had neglected subnational territory relative to the nation-state and the city. It also recognizes that development processes cut across scales and that theorizing needs do the same.
We believe these contributions by geographers are especially valuable for development sociologists. Geographers draw on and contribute to critical development theories, while their insights into scaling bring into sharp relief the importance of also treating subnational dynamics.7 We highlight geographers’ sustained engagement with theorizing subnational processes to provide a contrast with sociology.
Beyond geography, other social sciences have also turned attention to theorizing subnational scale development. In economics, the traditional neoclassical model assumes that development stems from exogenous factors or external inflows of capital, labor, and technology to places. Mobility of capital and labor is unconstrained, with capital flexibly moving to seek higher profits and labor moving to seek higher earnings. This creates convergence in development levels over time as firms are attracted to low-wage regions and as labor is attracted to higher-wage regions. But over the past few decades the neoclassical model has been revised by various scholars to account for regional divergence in subnational development. Krugman's (1991) “new economic geography” became influential in extending the neoclassical model to account for path-dependent regional development. Here past conditions for growth could carry forward so that some places would realize increasing returns to their initial capital, labor, and technological endowments. Endogenous growth theory, a related perspective, explains that internal features of regions such as knowledge spillovers among firms, synergies for investment, gains from human capital investment, and public policies and institutions can propel development in self-reinforcing ways so that some regions achieve continued success and other fall further behind (see Pike, Rodriguez-Pose, and Tomaney 2006).
Political scientists also have given greater attention to the subnational scale. Sellers (2005) explains the evolution of the comparative subnational approach in the discipline. Other political scientists address the conceptual and empirical contributions of subnational research, focusing on how this research provides a perspective on politics and political institutions that is missed by both cross-national and city-centered work (Fortner 2010; Snyder 2001).
Contemporary Sociological Theorizing About Subnational Development
A concerted effort to theorize the process of subnational development did not unfold with the eclipse of human ecology in sociology. In the contemporary period, there is little attempt to conceptualize why uneven development exists in the first place. Rather, attention is to its spatial patterns in forms of advantage/disadvantage—and how these are connected to some causal determinant(s) of interest. Theory is wide-ranging and eclectic, usually drawn from a specialty area such as economic sociology, political sociology, rural sociology, or the general inequality literature. Among the perspectives employed, the political economy framework remains well recognized; here there is much cross-fertilization with geography, particularly in the work of Brenner (2004), Jessop (2002a), and Peck (1996, 2001), which straddles both disciplines.
Even though research is theoretically fragmented, it shares a sociological lens, although this is rarely articulated in any individual study. Underlying principles by which development and inequality are reproduced at the national level are assumed to apply subnationally. Macrosociologists have long stressed that the organization of the economy determines nations’ level of economic growth and class actors’ struggle over its distribution (Lenski 1966). The state is seen as an important institution that influences growth and mediates the struggle (O'Connor 1973). In the struggle over distribution, the agency of diverse social actors beyond economic classes, including gender and racial/ethnic groups, is also emphasized (Tilly 1998). These principles that guide macrosociology, as well as general stratification theories, political sociology, and economic sociology, are applicable across spatial scales. They are an implicit foundation of subnational research, though not put forth in any distinct theory.
Contemporary sociological research addressing variations in development across the United States can be seen to proceed along four theoretical paths. First, probably the most common strategy is to think through questions about development through the use of an existing (often aspatial) theoretical framework derived from a sociological subfield. Economic sociology, political sociology, and general inequality literatures particularly inform subnational research in this way (Lobao and Hooks 2007). Researchers focus on causal determinants identified as theoretically significant to these respective frameworks, such as the service and manufacturing sectors, the state and its policies, and civic society. They then extend these frameworks spatially to explain variations in subnational development. For example, economic sociologists recognize the importance of foreign direct investment, so they have theorized why foreign-owned firms can be expected to differentially affect development across localities (Wallace, Gauchat, and Fullerton 2012). Tolbert, Lyson, and Irwin (1998) and Blanchard, Tolbert, and Mencken (2012) address the role of small business or independent middle-class producers in economic development. Small (relative to large) business tends to promote greater collective efficacy and democratic decision making so that places with more locally owned small businesses have better socioeconomic conditions. This strategy of theorizing tends to treat the subnational scale as a testing ground for relationships from a particular substantive literature. It is particularly taken in studies that address market and state processes, discussed in greater detail below. The purpose is not to explain holistically why levels of development vary across the United States. Nevertheless, this research is significant for identifying key economic, state, and institutional determinants that affect US development, connecting them to specific bodies of theory, and producing extensive empirical findings.
In contrast, a second approach is to draw from existing perspectives aimed at holistic understanding of subnational development, notably human ecology and critical Marxist political economy, discussed above. Human ecology's attention to the spatial organization of societies and the functional differentiation of the economy—for example, the location of higher-order services in large cities—yields a portrayal of the United States as a web of places whose development is dominated by the growth and expansion of large cities (Irwin 2007; Irwin and Kasarda 1991). This view is similar to that of general regional science, which emphasizes agglomeration processes in understanding the location of industries, firms, and jobs and in turn levels of development across regions (Partridge and Rickman 2006). Hybrid approaches that combine insights from human ecology with critical political economy are also used. Researchers employ human ecology to understand the spatial organization of US society and then use Marxist or other critical frameworks to analyze how capitalists and the state work through and affect this organization. For example, Goe (1994) examines the decline of northern cities due to firms’ deindustrialization decisions, questioning whether new firms engaged in producer services might allow these areas to regain their dominance in the urban hierarchy. His findings do not provide much support for this outcome. Hooks (1994) takes a hybrid approach to analyze the role of the state. He finds that the federal state's actions pertaining to the location of the defense industry created a new, national spatial organization of development with growth centers in regions such as the Northwest.
However, when holistic theory is invoked today, interdisciplinary political economic theory usually informs sociologists’ work.8 These neo-Marxist approaches are wide-ranging. The general political economic framework calls attention to economic structure, institutional arrangements, and the state as causal forces in development. Lobao and Hooks (2003) draw from this general framework to explain socioeconomic disparities across the United States: high-wage employment, a stronger social safety net, and public sector employment are related to higher income and lower income inequality across places. Distinct political economic schools such as regulation theory and the social structures of accumulation (SSA) approach also frame theory. Wallace and Brady (2010) provide an important extension of the SSA approach and a new view of subnational disparities that emerge from capitalists’ use of “spatialization.” Here, the real or perceived threat of firm relocation serves to discipline workers and communities. As communities’ bargaining power with capital decreases, they are left with increasingly poorer conditions.
A third strategy for theory building has been to extend sociology's cross-national development tradition downward. Researchers are interested in examining the explanatory power of cross-national theories and whether their posited relationships work out isomorphically. For example, Moller, Alderson, and Nielsen (2009) draw from cross-national inequality research to assess whether similar economic, institutional, and political determinants also explain county-level income inequality. Building from cross-national welfare state theory, Jenkins, Leicht, and Wendt (2006) analyze class politics and institutional determinants of state governments’ economic development policies. Although few studies thus far extend cross-national frameworks downward, the aforementioned studies suggest that these frameworks yield insights applicable to subnational development.
Last, a fourth strategy should be recognized: not all studies share an interest in elucidating theory, especially as it pertains to broad questions about state and market forces under capitalist development. Extensive work across the social sciences aims to identify empirical determinants of socioeconomic disparities across the United States. Review articles categorize these determinants in different ways, but in addition to characteristics pertaining to the economy and the state, they span demographic attributes such as population composition, including race/ethnicity, gender, age, and migration; human capital attributes; health status; environmental conditions; political conditions; natural amenities; and infrastructure and the built environment.9
In summary, sociology today is characterized by disparate work at the subnational scale that is sensitive to key determinants and pieces of the development puzzle—but this work does not coalesce into a distinct disciplinary approach. As discussed earlier, in this regard sociology contrasts with geography and economics, which have continued to explore why subnational uneven development exists. Within sociology itself, this gap in analyzing the missing middle scale also contrasts with long-standing theoretical traditions honed to study the cross-national scale and the city (Lobao and Hooks 2007). This disciplinary gap raises the overriding open question in this review—-What is to be done?
A sustained effort to rebuild theory abandoned with the eclipse of human ecology would seem to be one path. Needed are sociologically driven approaches that provide an analysis of the social ecology of capitalism across the United States as well as the general process of uneven development. Sociology's tools for theoretical regeneration may well reside in the political economy and human ecology traditions, cross-national sociology, and studies in subfields such as economic and political sociology and rural sociology. However, efforts are needed to utilize lessons learned from these traditions for more coherent development of theory. The importance of theory building goes beyond informing current sociology. As we have discussed, the subnational scale is increasingly important for understanding the trajectory of neoliberal development, yet we lack the theoretical power to understand development at this scale on its own terms. This makes it difficult to track how changes in the market and state work out across the nation and affect the fortunes of places and populations.
CONTEMPORARY DEVELOPMENT ACROSS THE UNITED STATES: MARKET AND STATE PROCESSES
The private sector market and the state are primary social forces used to explain the character of neoliberal development and its resulting impact on the well-being of populations across nation-states as well as subnationally (Lobao and Hooks 2003; Prasad 2006). State and market processes are linked theoretically in the political economy frameworks discussed above: they define the respective shift from the Fordist-Keynesian system toward the present post-Fordist, neoliberal era. Moreover, there are important empirical connections between the two. Pierson (1998) explains that the slide away from manufacturing and toward a service economy slows earnings growth, increases inequality, and impedes the revenues needed to support the welfare state. The result is a tendency toward “permanent austerity” among governments in developed nations.
For the analysis of subnational development today, the market and the state in conjunction with institutional arrangements and spatial or regional processes offer fertile insights. The impacts of economic structure or industries and jobs on development across the United States have been given the most attention, as discussed below. Researchers have analyzed the state far less frequently, and emphasis is mainly on the federal state. Subnational institutional arrangements pertaining to the market and the state long have been studied (although not systematically) and have been conceptualized as the balance of power between capital and labor and between the state and citizens, as reflected, for example, in levels of unionization and welfare state generosity (Lobao and Hooks 2007; Tomaskovic-Devey 1987). Finally, spatial processes are conceptualized in a range of ways from location in the national and global division of labor, to spillover effects from development in neighboring places, to simply statistical noise that needs to be bracketed out.
We now review contemporary work on state and market forces, including their connection to institutional arrangements and spatial processes, and identify open questions for future researchers. We focus on two issues: (1) conceptualizations of the market and the state at the subnational level and (2) the ways the market and the state affect development as exemplified by poverty and prosperity across places.
U.S. Economic Structure and Development Outcomes
Sociology's contemporary work on subnational economic structure and its impacts stems from the 1970s—when the disciplinary lens was turned toward the massive deindustrialization confronting developed societies. In the United States, Bluestone and Harrison's (1982) seminal research inspired widespread interest in the decline of manufacturing employment and growth of services and the resulting impacts on communities—and the deindustrialization thesis was born. Attention first focused on the urban northern manufacturing belt, but as other regions also deindustrialized, community impacts were studied across the country. Researchers continue to address variations in questions set out in the deindustrialization thesis that a shift away from manufacturing and toward services has negative impacts on economic well-being and particularly contributes to growing inequality. Services tend to generate lower growth and productivity, and this sector tends to have high earnings inequality relative to manufacturing (Pierson 1998). This coupled with institutional shifts such as lower unionization and weaker worker bargaining power in most service sectors adds to concerns about how places fare with the loss of manufacturing. But although new rounds of restructuring have occurred, no singular sociological theory like the deindustrialization thesis has emerged to conceptualize them. No single framework that explains shifts in present economic structure and their impacts is widely used across subnational studies today.
While manufacturing and service employment continue to be the focus, research has moved beyond the manufacturing/service dichotomy to look at divisions within each sector. To conceptualize economic structure, early researchers drew from the industrial segmentation literature, which sees sectors as varying by quality and quantity of employment generated (Hodson 1983). This foundational work continues to influence contemporary studies. Economic structure is commonly conceptualized by industrial sectors and measured by the share of employment in that sector for any given area. Higher-wage industries, such as durable manufacturing and producer services, are usually contrasted with lower-wage industries, such as consumer services. Researchers assume that economic sectors have causal impacts on subnational economic well-being, although they rarely trace out how these impacts occur.10 Industrial sectors can influence economic growth and its distribution in direct and indirect ways. Primary impacts are through earnings and occupational structures (Bloomquist and Summers 1982). Secondary impacts occur through economic multiplier effects where both workers and firms in one sector purchase goods and services from other sectors within the area (Moretti 2012). Other indirect effects can also occur. Higher-wage employment can create broader regional wage spreads as employers’ competition in the labor market drives up labor costs. In sectors that depend on local skilled or stable labor, employers also may support state sector interventions that improve regional well-being overall (Lobao and Hooks 2003). Hence, the impacts of economic sectors are not simply an isomorphic transfer from what can be inferred at the macro level; instead, distinct regional processes intervene.
Taking stock of the more consistent findings, subnational research has resulted in a set of relationships commonly hypothesized across studies. At any cross-sectional time point, researchers tend to find that communities with more high-wage employment such as durable manufacturing and FIRE (finance, insurance, real-estate services) fare better in terms of higher median incomes and lower poverty rates (Blank 2005; Cotter 2002; Lobao, Rulli, and Brown 1999; Partridge and Rickman 2006; Rupasingha and Goetz 2007; Weber et al. 2005). Further, manufacturing employment overall has long been found to have a negative relationship with income inequality, producing more egalitarian outcomes across the United States (Bloomquist and Summers 1982; Levernier, Partridge, and Rickman 1998; Lobao et al. 1999; Moller et al. 2009; Nielsen and Alderson 1997). However, when the focus turns to services, because of polarization within that sector, a greater share of employment in higher-wage sectors such as FIRE tends to be related to greater inequality (Lobao et al. 1999; Moller et al. 2009; Peters 2012). Finally, institutional arrangements associated with manufacturing employment tend to be related to beneficial impacts. Places where unionization levels and labor market sheltering of lower-income workers are greater tend to have lower inequality and higher incomes (Lobao et al. 1999; Moller et al. 2009; Tomaskovic-Devey 1987). Volscho (2007) shows that labor unions particularly help raise the income of middle-income families across areas. Researchers have tested the relationships above at different, cross-sectional time points, and they have remained relatively consistent at least until recently. But when the research question is framed to ask how places with a greater share of employment in manufacturing or services fare in subsequent years, results can be expected to diverge, as we discuss below.
As research on subnational economic structure has matured, studies have built on this tradition to address different economic sectors and development outcomes. Foreign-owned firms and related indicators of globalization have been addressed (Grant and Hutchinson 1996; Wallace et al. 2012). In contrast to conventional assumptions, Wallace et al. (2012) find that employment in foreign-owned firms does not increase earnings inequality across the United States. Rather, this employment is related to lower inequality in terms of the gap between middle and high earners and has no significant effect on inequality between low earners and middle earners. They also find that globalization indicators overall are related to more beneficial outcomes (lower inequality) for the South relative to other areas. Small, locally owned businesses have been studied. Where there is a greater share of these businesses, economic well-being tends to be higher (Tolbert et al. 1998), and this extends to other well-being indicators, including the population's health status (Blanchard et al. 2012). Researchers also have focused on industries often touted by public officials to increase economic development. These include high-technology industries (Jenkins et al. 2006), producer services (Goe 1994), and prisons, which appear to be a de-development strategy for rural areas (Hooks et al. 2004).
Last, this attention to economic structure has been combined with environmental sociology interests in a large literature that assesses the impacts of different industries on environmental conditions. Environmental inequality is inherently spatial (see Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009). For some research questions, environmental inequality has been assessed at the nation-state scale (Jorgenson and Clark 2009), while for others urban neighborhoods and census tracts are the level of study (e.g., Mohai and Saha 2007). But environmental inequality does not conform to and is not contained by the urban and nation-state scales that dominate sociological theory and research; it often operates on the subnational scale. Bullard's (1994) foundational study Dumping in Dixie examined the disproportionate dumping of toxins across the southern region of the United States. Exposure to environmental hazards is also linked to geological formations such as coal, with extensive mining found in both the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain regions. Nearby people and places are exposed to dangers posed by tailing ponds, mountaintop removal, and attendant degradation. In recent years, the extraction of natural gas from the vast Marcellus formation in eastern states has contributed to contamination of water and a range of environmental assaults. Environmental inequality generated by military activities also operates at a subnational scale (Hooks and Smith 2004).
Issues for Future Research
While decades of sociological research have addressed subnational economic structure and its outcomes, open questions remain. These pertain to more recent economic shifts as well as to long-standing issues not fully resolved. These blend together because if we are to grapple with the former, resolution of the latter is necessary. We denote three broad categories of questions for future work.
First, as discussed earlier, the central question is how to regenerate sociological theory to provide more holistic understanding of subnational development. With such theorizing, the conceptualization and analysis of industries, firms, and jobs could be better honed toward addressing the present stage of capitalism. This would require updating our blueprint of industrial structure to reflect the shifts of recent years and extending aspatial research from economic sociology (Dwyer 2013; Kalleberg 2011; Kristal 2013; Tomaskovic-Devey and Lin 2011) to the subnational scale. The rise in precarious employment, increasing wage polarization, and new growth industries are a part of this theorizing.
Second, a number of little-explored questions about the present economy remain. Industries have experienced structural shifts where labor's share is declining while capitalists’ share increases (Kristal 2013). This has particularly occurred in manufacturing. These changes require rethinking structural variations across industries and how they affect development. For example, some recent studies do not find that manufacturing employment has retained effects as beneficial as those found in earlier studies (Lichter and Cimaluk 2012; Peters 2012). Regional multiplier effects of manufacturing can be expected to be lower or less positive over time as workers’ earnings and bargaining power have eroded.
A new wave of growth industries also raises questions for future work. Industries at two ends of the development continuum—financial services and extractive industries, specifically mining—have become dynamic forces in the US economy, but their broad impact on subnational development is unclear. Both can be seen as tied to the present era of neoliberal development, financialization, the movement away from productive investment toward dispossession (Harvey 2005), and growth in mining, where sacrifice of the environment may be supported by local communities hungry for jobs (Newell and Mulvaney 2013). The growth of employment in financial services has been studied largely aspatially or in the context of large cities (Tomaskovic-Devey and Lin 2011). The marked inequality between this sector and other industries is likely to contribute to inequality across places as well. In mining, the shale gas and oil industry is rapidly expanding but there have been few generalizable studies (Kinchy et al. 2014). The industry has created development resurgence in formerly moribund rural areas and was a reason (in addition to less dependence on the fortunes of the housing market) why the Great Recession had less of an impact in rural America. The shale oil/gas industry is further penetrating urban areas. But whether the end result will be poorer economic conditions over the long term, as would be anticipated by the “natural resource curse” literature, is not clear (Bonini 2012; Freudenburg and Gramling 1994). In contrast, coal mining employment is declining dramatically, and recent EPA regulations regulating coal-fired power plants will cut production even more. Appalachia is anticipated to be particularly hard hit. With most past studies focusing on general services and manufacturing, subnational research has yet to grapple with the dramatic changes brought about by the financial industry and by energy extraction.
Changes in industries also filter down to occupational structure, but the latter is not as frequently analyzed in subnational development studies. Two important related trends for future studies are occupational polarization and the rise of care work. High-wage, skilled occupations and low-wage, low-skilled occupations have increased relatively while middle-skill blue- and white-collar occupations have declined (Autor 2010; Kalleberg 2011). Care work, or jobs involving labor that nurtures and reproduces the labor force such as those found in health, education, and personal service industries and typically filled by women, has contributed strongly to the rise in job polarization (Dwyer 2013). Few studies have analyzed how these occupational trends may have increased poverty and inequality across places.
A related question is the manner by which “complex inequalities” work out and influence well-being outcomes across places. McCall (2001) set out this question with a subnational comparative analysis of how wages differ by industry, race, and gender and how differences vary geographically across labor markets. Racial and gender attributes of the labor force, including their skill and educational attainments, mix with the demand for labor in different industries across places, creating different spatial configurations of inequality. For example, regions with a greater share of high-technology and manufacturing employment tend to have greater wage gaps among men but not among women. Other studies have examined spatial matches/mismatches between labor force characteristics and industry sectors and their relationship to poverty across localities (Partridge and Rickman 2006). Overall, however, few recent studies grapple with the intermixing of regional, economic, and social structural processes. This is an important line of inquiry that needs to be updated for the post–Great Recession era.
A final set of questions revolves around the specification and analysis of causal processes by which economic structure influences subnational development. Research is limited by both qualitative and quantitative studies. Qualitative historical work in sociology consists largely of case studies of communities assumed to be representative of broader regions such as Appalachia (Billings and Blee 2000; Duncan 1999; Lyson and Falk 1993).11 The causal relationships that can be analyzed are important and complex, but their generalizability is an issue. For example, studies of Appalachia often question the degree to which the mining industry and external corporations are responsible for present high levels of poverty and/or whether local elites are more to blame, how isolation and distance matter, and how such factors interact. Such development processes are virtually impossible to study directly in quantitative studies that depend on secondary data. The open question that remains is, How can we better understand the economic and geographic processes that affect development broadly across the United States given current data limitations? We denote several challenges that need to be overcome in future quantitative research.
First, too often researchers are unclear about the causal specification of relationships. An example is the treatment of manufacturing where researchers assume an association with lower poverty and inequality but fail to clarify the conditions under which this occurs. When all variables are measured at the same time point, as in cross-sectional and pooled cross-sectional designs, such an association is likely. But when the question turns to how places with more manufacturing fare over time, arguably the more interesting question for development scholars, this relationship may not be found. Such places may show increased poverty and inequality over time, as Bluestone and Harrison (1982) suggested. Lagged models where independent variables are measured at an earlier time point allow better understanding of this relationship (Peters 2012).
Second, subnational research raises inherent challenges pertaining to endogeneity or distinguishing cause from effect. The present location of a firm or industry depends on past location decisions that are likely to be intertwined with development levels or well-being. For example, lower-wage industries often seek out poorer localities such as rural areas and the South. It thus becomes difficult to separate out the independent impacts of economic structure from the places in which it is embedded: past poverty or other local processes have a persisting influence on how an industry affects a given community today. Economists have developed instrumental variable procedures to address endogeneity. However, few subnational studies in sociology explicitly consider endogeneity, let alone seek out methodological procedures to minimize it. While cross-national sociologists have begun to recognize the problem (Hamm, King, and Stuckler 2012), endogeneity remains a lingering issue in subnational research.
Finally, questions remain about how geographic processes intervene in relationships. Included here are the general conceptualization of regional processes and spatial autocorrelation or spatial dependence due to diffusion processes (Irwin 2007; Isserman, Feser, and Warren 2007; Matthews and Parker 2013). As noted above, few studies systematically trace out the different pathways by which industrial structure affects regional well-being. Sociology has not developed an analysis of multiplier effects, which economists have long studied (Pike et al. 2006). Spatial diffusion processes also occur. They may be manifest in the outcome variable, for example, as poverty in one place usually spills over to neighboring places. These processes may also be due to unmeasured factors that spread across areas and influence the relationship between economic structure and outcomes. Spatial lag and spatial error models respectively seek to account for these processes (Irwin 2007). However, why such spatial diffusion effects occur is still poorly understood. Nor do some studies seek to address them, which may lead to biased estimates. While GIS is increasingly employed by sociologists to understand geographic patterns and diffusion processes (Porter 2011), its adoption remains slow for studies analyzing economic processes.
In summary, a series of open questions remain for studies concerned with economic structure and its development impacts. These questions revolve around theory, conceptualizations of the new economy, and analyses of causal and regional processes.
The State and Development at the Subnational Scale
Political sociologists give extensive attention to the national-level state, including its movement toward neoliberal governance. But the operation of the state across US territory and especially its subnational arms such as state and county governments is widely overlooked (Leicht and Jenkins 2007). Even among scholars whose interest is subnational development, far more attention is paid to the private sector than to the state. As discussed below, this has created a serious knowledge gap about the state's role in society. In particular, subnational governments are growing relatively across nations as state rescaling has reconfigured states’ functional division of labor (Brenner 2004; Kazepov 2010). Nation-states’ acquiescence or resilience to neoliberal development paths cannot be understood unless their subnational states are taken into consideration.
Research concerned with the state at the subnational scale is fragmented, with the role of government in development conceptualized and measured in different ways. The state in principle is anticipated to undertake both growth and equity functions—promoting economic development and guiding redistribution across places. On the basis of subnational research and cross-national conceptualizations, we identify two sets of attributes that appear particularly important for analyzing development: the state's capacity in terms of size and broader institutional capacity; and policies and programs. These defining attributes of the state have their counterparts in research on the development paths of nation-states (Hacker 2005; Hicks 1999; Huber and Stephens 2005; Pierson 1994; Prasad 2006). Size and broader institutional capacity (administrative, fiscal, and other resources) are classic Weberian indicators of state strength that allow growth and equity functions to be undertaken more successfully. Governments that are larger and have greater institutional capacity should be more resilient to welfare state retrenchment and better able to smooth out inequalities across places and populations. Policies and programs are interventions aimed at economic growth and redistribution.
In this section we explain how subnational research has grappled with the character of the state, focusing on its capacity and policies.12 We also summarize findings across studies that examine the influence of these attributes on development outcomes.
Analyses of state capacity have primarily focused on bureaucratic size, usually measured as public sector employment. Researchers typically combine all levels of government in quantitative studies. Public employment tends to have a positive impact on distributional indicators but mixed effects on growth indicators. A larger public sector has been found to be related to lower income inequality across counties (Lobao and Hooks 2003; Moller et al. 2009) and metropolitan areas (Volscho and Fullerton 2005). However, public sector employment tends to have less beneficial effects on growth indicators relative to private sector employment, as growth in capitalist societies tends to be driven by the private sector. For the few studies that disaggregate the public sector, federal relative to state and local employment has more positive effects potentially because earnings in the federal sector tend to be highest (Lobao and Hooks 2003; Volscho and Fullerton 2005).
Beyond bureaucratic size, state capacity is not well explored. Fiscal expenditures can be viewed as an indicator of state strength, and some studies have examined its outcomes. For social program spending, income transfers have been found to be related to lower income inequality and poverty across the United States (Levernier et al. 1998; Lobao and Hooks 2003). Federal spending for economic development is usually hypothesized to work as intended to promote growth and reduce poverty across the nation. But some recent studies find the opposite relationship, with federal spending related to lower growth (Mencken, Bader, and Polson 2006) and higher poverty (Rupasingha and Goetz 2007). A difficulty in assessing the impacts of government spending is the potential for endogeneity—fiscal expenditures are likely to be directed to poorer places as governments may take a “worst-first” approach toward reducing spatial disparities (Rupasingha and Goetz 2007). As discussed earlier, in such situations cause and effect become difficult to disentangle.
Turning to specific policies, research is fragmented by policy domain and level of government. Prasad (2006) notes that in cross-national studies the analysis of economic development policies and social welfare policies in separate literatures makes it difficult to assess the complete neoliberal policy package that nations adopt. This gap also holds true for subnational research, but it is exacerbated in the case of social welfare policy, where attention is disproportionately directed to the federal state. Further, as we discuss below, the determinants of policy selection rather than policy impacts on development have received the most attention.
When political sociologists have looked to the subnational scale, they have focused on explaining variation in support for the federal welfare state. Quadagno (1994:196) notes that “anti-government ideology has generated most antagonism to the welfare state when it has been associated with racial issues” that vary subnationally. In a similar vein, Hooks and McQueen (2010) document the regional intersection of racial politics and the military-industrial complex in the World War II era. Amenta and collaborators (Amenta 1998; Amenta, Bonastia, and Caren 2001; Amenta and Halfmann 2000) have examined variation in political support for social welfare policies among the 50 states, emphasizing the importance of institutions, politics, and social movements. Notably, this line of research provides evidence that state capacity produces a more ambitious policy agenda and support for the welfare state more generally. But overall political sociology devotes relatively little attention to state and local governments. In the aptly titled article “The American Welfare State, or States?” Howard (1999) calls attention to and provides a review of this gap in the literature.
Some sociological studies, however, have aimed to understand why states and localities select business-friendly or, alternatively, pro-citizen, pro-poor policies. They generally hypothesize relationships similar to those of cross-national work that jointly stresses class-centered forces (such as political economic factors, including the power of business and labor) and state-centered forces (such as administrative and other institutional capacity) (Dixon 2010; Jenkins et al. 2006; Lobao, Adua, and Hooks 2014). Local governments’ policies are usually studied using samples of cities or counties because of the need to collect primary data, while state government studies provide national coverage.
Economic development policies of subnational governments have long been studied across the social sciences (Logan and Molotch 1987; Reese and Rosenfeld 2002). Since the 1970s US states and localities have rapidly increased their role in economic development. Bartik (2001) argues that subnational governments set the nation's economic development policy because of federal inaction. Economic development policies are usually conceptualized on a continuum of high- to low-road strategies, with the former emphasizing more sustainable small business and human capital development and the latter emphasizing competitive policies designed to attract large, external business (Reese and Rosenfeld 2002). A weak working class, strong business power, and Republican party orientation are generally hypothesized—though not necessarily found—to be related to less progressive policy; institutional capacity, however, tends to produce greater use of policies of all types (Dixon 2010; Jenkins et al. 2006).
Some studies examine the choice of pro-poor policies and services (Amenta and Halfmann 2000; Fording, Soss, and Schram 2011; Fox 2010; Lobao et al. 2014; Oakley and Logan 2007; Tickamyer et al. 2007; Zylan and Soule 2000). Political economic forces and institutional factors are hypothesized to affect policy/service selection, but consistent findings are limited. With regard to political economic factors, higher poverty (Tickamyer et al. 2007), fiscal problems and Republican partisanship (Zylan and Soule 2000), and weak unions (Amenta and Halfmann 2000) have been related to less progressive policy. Racial/ethnic composition has a complex relationship with policy choices, with some studies not clearly supporting racial politics hypotheses that high-minority areas have weaker public service provision (Fox 2010; Oakley and Logan 2007). Institutional determinants such as bureaucratic capacity and path dependency or use of similar past policies/services have an important influence on future policy/services (Oakley and Logan 2007; Lobao et al. 2014; Zylan and Soule 2000). Relationships for these determinants follow those of national-level studies, which find that greater state capacity and path dependency promote welfare state resiliency in the neoliberal era (Pierson 1994).
Beyond the limited past research on economic development policy and social service provision, sociologists have still rarely explored a range of austerity policies and privatization thought to characterize the present neoliberal era across the subnational scale. Research addressing such policies is found in Kazepov (2010), Lobao and Adua (2011), and Warner (2006).
Issues for Future Research
The operation of the state across subnational space ushers in a series of questions for future research. As with economic structure, these reflect long-standing as well as newer questions with regard to theory, substantive issues, and causal and regional processes. Moreover, these questions pertain not only to the ways the state influences development but to the fundamental character of the US state itself.
First, the overriding question about theorizing subnational development raised earlier applies particularly to state processes—How do we formulate more holistic and updated theory to guide the analysis of the state? Needed is a new blueprint of how the US state has changed overall and with regard to its role in subnational development. Here conventional political sociological theory about the state falls short. Literature on state rescaling offers an important corrective; however, while it informs geography and European sociology it is not widely brought into US sociology. Theoretically, the state-rescaling literature explains that the neoliberal development model has an inherent subnational dimension. It is a project of shifting the functions of the state territorially, so that subnational governments such as states, counties, and other localities are activated to assume a greater role in economic growth and redistribution (Allard 2009; Brenner 2004; Jessop 2002a, 2002b; Peck 2014). As Peck (2014:28) explains: “What remains of the Keynesian commitment to public services in the United States (including education, unemployment and disability insurance, aid and healthcare for the poor, and corrections) is basically delivered at the state and local level.” State and local governments have grown relative to the federal state up to the Great Recession period. This is reflected in the size of the state today when measured as an employer: the federal state accounts for 12.7 percent of public employment, state governments for 24 percent, and local governments for 63.3 percent (Jessie and Tarleton 2014). When subnational governments become engines of economic development and key sites for administering social services, past welfare state arrangements directing beneficial resources, programs, and policies to citizens and the poor potentially stand to be eroded. Peck (2014), for example, sees the present neoliberal austerity policy agenda as promoting devolution to reduce public spending overall and increase reliance of local governments upon local sources of revenue. The assumption is that local governments will cut back on public employment, services, and spending as they must balance budgets and cater to business interests in the quest for growth. Yet we know little about the degree to which states and localities across the United States are embracing this path. The state-rescaling perspective provides a fruitful line for future research. It integrates theoretical observations about shifts in the state, how these shifts should be manifest subnationally, and their potential impacts on development.
Second, a series of substantive questions about the character of the subnational state in the neoliberal era remain open. As noted above, despite the importance of subnational governments, we know little about them across the nation with regard to their capacity and policies. How have their size, administrative and fiscal resources, spending, and range of service provision changed over time? To what degree are they embracing privatization; austerity policies that limit government, such as layoffs, selling assets, and cutting back employees; and policies that seek to increase resources, such as raising taxes and imposing user fees? How are vertical processes of decentralization and horizontal processes of bringing nonstate actors into government decision making and service provision altering governance across the United States? And what factors determine changes in capacity and policy, particularly with regard to broader political economic and institutional forces? In sociology, these types of questions are sometimes investigated in case studies of select cities but are rarely investigated for the governance path of the subnational state overall through the analyses of states, counties, and cities across the nation. These questions are critical because they denote the degree to which the United States overall is following neoliberal paths that cut the state's role in redistribution and channel its resources toward the private sector.
However, the ability to ask generalizable questions about the subnational state is hindered because secondary data on governments across US localities are far more limited than data on private sector economic structure. Studies that drill down below the state level are needed to assess spatial inequality in the fundamental rights of citizenship: populations even in the same state face dramatically different access to public services and social safety net programs depending upon where they reside. Primary data collection efforts are increasingly critical because neoliberal bellwether policies such as austerity policies, privatization, and competitive economic development programs can essentially not be studied across the United States with existing secondary data. Sociology once had a strong, subnational comparative tradition that addressed austerity and other policy issues for local governments across the United States and other nations using primary data collection (see Clark 2000; Clark and Harvey 2010). This tradition is in need of resurrection. On the basis of primary data collection, up to the Great Recession, subnational (county) governments across the nation appeared to have been resilient in not widely embracing privatization and social service cutbacks (Lobao et al. 2014). Such findings counter a view of the US state as homogeneously following neoliberal policy paths. But how much this resilience extends to the post–Great Recession period and whether a new geography of policy variation has unfolded are not known. In sum, timely, updated research addressing a range of policies is needed to assess the path of the subnational state.
A third set of substantive questions revolves around the impact of the state: we know little about the overall institutional capacity of the state to promote development and alleviate inequality across national territory. Does the state even have the capacity to influence development relative to private market forces, and if so, does a strong state benefit states and localities? While some studies address the impact of public employment and select policies, the question here is broader and more pivotal in an era when government is under assault. This gap contrasts with cross-national work and its comparative welfare states tradition (Huber and Stephens 2001, 2012; Prasad 2006) and also with the Weberian, state-centered tradition. From these literatures, where government is larger and institutionally stronger (i.e., with greater bureaucratic and fiscal capacity) it should operate more effectively. The rise of leftist governments in Latin America is found to reduce poverty rates, for instance (Huber and Stephens 2012). Questions about state-institutional capacity could be applied to all levels of the state (i.e., federal, state, and local governments) and how they affect subnational development. The aftermath of the Great Recession has made the question of capacity central to development. In contrast to most previous recessions, where governments followed a countercyclical response and public employment grew to address the downturn, the public sector contracted during the Great Recession—with most contraction in local government (e.g., teachers, firefighters, police) (Greenstone and Looney 2012). Since the early 1950s (when data were first collected), local governments never shed jobs at a faster and more sustained pace than they have in recent years (Polak and Schott 2012). For the first five years after the Great Recession (2007–12), local government employment fell by 3 percent. In the equivalent period following the 1990 and 2001 recessions, local government employment grew respectively by 7.7 and 5.2 percent. Seen in this light, changes in local governments are of interest beyond the academy. Greenstone and Looney (2012:3) note, for instance, that without the decrease in local government employment the nation's unemployment rate would have stood at 7.1 percent in June 2012 rather than its actual rate of 8.2 percent. Krugman (2012) asserts that the shedding of jobs by local governments has contributed to aggregate unemployment and an anemic recovery. Sociological research is needed to analyze how changes in the local government sector have affected development across the nation.
Another question about the state's impact concerns its specific policies—do they make a difference to development across the United States? While there is much debate, little systematically is known. Most sociological research is qualitative and historical work on particular policies and programs. Federal policy decisions such as defense industry location (Hooks 1994; Hooks and McQueen 2010) and flood control programs (O'Neill 2006) have been found not to be spatially neutral but to contribute further to regional uneven development. Welfare programs, which are highly geographically varied because of a mix of federal, state, and county standards and norms for program operation, also appear more to reproduce than to alleviate past disparities (Fording et al. 2011; Tickamyer et al. 2007). Turning to economic development policies and programs of states and localities, some sociologists have analyzed their effects across the nation. Questioning their effectiveness, Green, Fleischmann, and Kwong (1996), Jenkins et al. (2006), and Lobao et al. (2012) report mixed effects on growth and other indicators of well-being across the United States. Overall, however, generalizable research on policy impacts—while significant for assessing the effectiveness of the state—faces difficulty in accounting sufficiently for causal processes. While studies of specific programs and communities can be more rigorous, robust research to evaluate policy outcomes when generalizing across regions is limited across the social sciences (Bartik 2001).
Finally, subnational research on the state faces research design issues similar to those noted previously in the study of economic structure: the need to consider endogeneity and spatial spillover processes. As discussed above, core questions for future work include: To what degree and why do state institutions and policy interventions vary across space, and how do they affect subsequent development? Endogeneity poses serious barriers in answering these questions, but the problem is not well recognized by sociologists. Hamm et al. (2012) grapple with this causal question in the case of privatization policy, albeit at a national level. To what degree are there spatial diffusion effects in governmental processes, and why do these occur? Few sociological studies consider diffusion effects, particularly in the case of local governments across the nation (Leicht and Jenkins 2007). Finally, nesting of some governments within others, such as governments of cities and counties within states, is an issue when focus turns to subnational governments.
In sum, limited attention has been given to the state relative to the private sector in subnational development. Data sources are more limited, and the state tends to be particularly complex. But the broader problem is that sociologists are in more uncharted waters because the discipline tends to “see the state” as the federal state (Sheingate 2009). A series of questions for theory, conceptualizing changes in the state such as state rescaling, and analyzing causal and regional processes, are therefore key for future research.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF PURSUING SUBNATIONAL RESEARCH
Although subnational research holds great promise, the extant body of work faces a number of challenges. Overall, it is characterized by fragmented studies that limit its impact as a distinct tradition in development sociology. Key questions about the state and economy are unevenly studied. Conceptual-methodological gaps remain with regard to causal and spatial processes. Currently, most studies center on theorizing how a single social force or a few social forces, usually economic structure, affect development disparities. This limits and fragments research.
Drawing together existing studies, we see four social forces that are important to integrate in future theory—economic structure, the state, institutionalized arrangements pertaining to the state and economy, and spatial-geographic processes—as they play out in the present era of capitalism. The impacts of economic structure on development and inequality across the United States have been given the most attention, as explained earlier. It will be necessary to revise existing conceptualizations to address new growth industries and, alternatively, rising forms of precarious and low-wage employment. Subnational researchers recognize the importance of the state but treat it largely in its federal form or otherwise miss the role of subnational government. A new approach to studying the state is needed that requires reconceptualization to account for state-rescaling processes, the importance of decentralized government, and recent, Great Recession–related changes that have produced unprecedented contraction of local governments. State-economy institutionalized arrangements determine how private sector growth and state resources are redistributed across places and populations. Previously these were conceptualized in terms of the bargaining power between capital and labor and between state and citizens, as reflected respectively, for example, in levels of unionization and welfare state generosity (Tomaskovic-Devey 1987). While research particularly from the political economy tradition attends to institutionalized arrangements, greater attention is warranted. Workers’ power to demand high-quality employment and citizens’ access to state resources and high-capacity government arguably continue to diminish, but where they remain, development levels should be higher. Finally, spatial/geographic processes are increasingly incorporated into studies but typically with limited treatment. Often they are viewed narrowly as development spillover effects from neighboring places that need to be controlled. These processes merit greater interrogation as to why they occur. More importantly, conceptualization of the role of geography itself, such as the effect of the location of regions and localities in the national and global division of labor on subsequent development, needs to be given greater attention.
These four social forces could form the basis for more holistic theorizing of subnational development on its own terms. Complex inequalities of race, class, and gender operate through the economy, the state, institutionalized arrangements, and geographic space. Further, these forces are prominent in frameworks outside sociology that theorize neoliberal development (Harvey 2005), including varieties of neoliberal development within nations (Brenner and Theodore 2010).
In the interim, to reinvigorate sociological theory, researchers should aim to modify how it is deployed. Synthetic approaches, competitive tests between perspectives, and extensions of cross-national theory, including interdisciplinary political economy approaches, offer broader headway for conceptualizing subnational development than studies theorizing only economic or other singular determinants of development.
Turning to open questions about market and state processes, our analysis underscores the centrality of holistic and updated theory. Conceptualization of market and state forces as well as their impacts requires integration into broader theories that account for recent state and market shifts. With advances in theory, empirical research could be better equipped to understand the trajectory of neoliberal development.
Another set of questions revolves around analytical designs. These include steps to improve the understanding of causal processes, the need to scrutinize regional-geographic processes in relationships, and the importance of generalizable studies that provide new detail about recent trends. These concerns are not merely methodological; they reflect broader conceptual questions about analyzing how the state and the economy operate across subnational territory.
We also identified a wave of changes in the economy and the state that suggest questions for future research. For economic structure, there is a need to address both recent shifts and traditional industries in a new era. For example, how have patterns of development shifted given the rise of new growth industries on opposite poles of the development continuum—the financial sector and the extractive sector? What does the rise of the care economy mean for poverty and inequality across the nation? How do complex inequalities emerge across places as economic structure changes and employment opportunities are reshuffled by race and gender? How have old industrial regions fared in the postindustrial era? Turning to the state, we know little about how it operates across subnational territory and, despite devolution, little about the subnational governments overall, especially how they affect growth and redistribution across the nation. To what degree does spatial inequality in the state exist, such as inequality in size, administrative and fiscal resources, spending, and range of service provision? What are its impacts on development and the rights of citizenship across the nation? Has the subnational state been acquiescent or resilient to the neoliberal rollout?
Sociologists have long studied development within the United States, analyzing state and market forces that influence spatial inequality and regional uneven development. In providing a critical analysis of this work, we identified a series of questions that offer promising directions for future research. Our analysis also has important implications for advancing the field of development sociology overall.
Subnational research is critical to the future of development sociology. This research stands to make a foundational contribution by situating the field's big questions about capitalist development, the state, and market forces within the heart of its spatial knowledge gap. It responds to serious issues that will intensify as the US economy and state experience further transformation in the neoliberal era and as geographic disparities become more visible to the scholarly and public eye. Subnational research can illuminate theory and findings from nation-state/cross-national research, potentially challenging and serving as a corrective to conventional macro-level studies.
Our analysis raises challenges and opportunities for development sociology as a field whose perspective is conventionally associated with research at the cross-national/nation-state level. Dramatic social changes have occurred across the United States, but sociologists have lacked the theoretical tools, the methodological acumen, and even the disciplinary awareness to fully grapple with these changes. Research tends to be mired in inertia, overlooking major transformations in the state and economy that are beleaguering places and populations. Timeliness of studies to address new or growing concerns such as state and local government cutbacks is a related limitation. Disciplines such as geography, regional science, and to some degree even economics and political science, despite shortcomings, have been attentive to issues that sociology has let lapse. Insofar as development sociology remains remiss in building its subnational tradition, its influence across the social sciences will remain diluted and pressing public issues will go unaddressed.
Our analysis highlights new areas where subnational studies can fill important gaps in macro-level development sociology. With regard to the economy, the growth of the extractive sector, specifically oil and gas mining, is rapidly transforming the geography of development. Such growth within the United States raises an anomaly for development theories from the dependency school onward that assume that modern societies shed these industries and that a large extractive sector leads to chronic underdevelopment (Bonini 2012). With subnational research, scholars can examine which US regions have shifted toward these industries and the outcomes for development. In turn, state rescaling and the increased importance of the subnational state call for development sociology to go beyond the conventional view that the central state has been weakened by neoliberal globalization and supranational governing bodies. It requires that we also look downward to assess the degree to which the central state's functions have been offloaded to subnational governments—and what this means for economic growth and redistribution. This raises new questions about US exceptionalism in its welfare state and its embrace of free-market capitalism. To what degree can the United States today be characterized as a model liberal (i.e., neoliberal-oriented) welfare state if so much of the safety net is decentralized and if spatial variation exists in strong/weak or progressive/backward governments across the nation? Subnational research opens up for challenge Margaret Thatcher's classic proclamation that “there is no alternative” by shedding light on geographic variations and thereby localities and states where resistance to neoliberal development takes shape across the United States.
There is no common term in sociology for this middle scale where analytical interest is below the nation-state and above the individual locality. Region is used in geography and regional science, but in sociology region is usually equated with nominal regions such as Appalachia or the South. Subnational is used by various studies in sociology and other disciplines to refer to this scale, however (Lobao and Hooks 2007).
Data are from the US Census Bureau, with years 1990 and 2000 from the Census of Population and year 2010 from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.
By neoliberal development, we refer to the system of market relationships and governance emerging with the waning of postwar Fordism and the Keynesian state in the 1970s (Harvey 2005; Peck and Tickell 2002; Prasad 2006). Guiding this development philosophically within the United States was the Chicago school of economics and right-wing think tanks that became influential from the 1980s onward (Harvey 2005). Varieties of neoliberal development exist globally (Prasad 2006) and subnationally (Brenner and Theodore 2002, 2010). While the forms that state and market relationships take in the neoliberal era vary empirically in different settings, societies move toward the free-market development model as opposed to the Keynesian model.
An exception is found in rural sociology, where researchers study individual-level relationships and how these vary between rural and urban America.
Subnational territory is considered in cross-national development theories such as dependency theory and world systems theory and commodity-chain analyses but mainly as a derivative of macro-level processes. A number of sociological studies exist on various US regions, especially Appalachia and the rural South (Billings and Blee 2000; Duncan 1999; Lyson and Falk 1993; Wimberley 2008), but these studies seek to understand processes unique to these regions rather than to theorize how and why regional uneven development occurs within nations. For the aforementioned regions, researchers identify the history of poor labor market opportunities, the power of local and external elites, state institutions supporting local elite interests, and remote rural location as factors in regional disadvantage.
In the US case, internal colonial theory from the dependency school (e.g., Frank 1967) gained little traction even to explain regions such as Appalachia. Development is recognized to be fluid and complex across US regions. In the case of Appalachia, local rather than external elites were often culpable for the region's high poverty (Billings and Blee 2000).
This is an inherent limitation of studies relying on secondary data, as such pathways cannot typically be determined. Our point is that researchers should devote more attention to recognizing that regional processes intervene and therefore that relationships at the macro scale do not necessarily hold in an isomorphic manner at the subnational scale. For examples of this regional complexity, see Green (2013).
In studying these defining attributes, subnational research follows current cross-national research in bridging at least implicitly the state-centered versus society-centered perspectives that once divided political sociology. It should also be noted that urban sociology has long studied government capacity and policies but that the research tends to be studies of individual cities and large metro areas (Clark and Harvey 2010).