Hochschild explain that sociologists describe research methods like the one used for this book as “‘exploratory’ and ‘hypothesis-generating.’” This kind of research does not try “to see how common or rare something is, or where one does and doesn’t find it, or to study how the something comes and goes through time” but rather “to discover what something actually is.” Her “something” is the “emotional draw of right-wing politics,” and figuring out what it is required “getting close” to her subjects.
In short, Hochschild’s goal in this book was to answer the question, “what is the emotional draw of right-wing politics?”
Hochschild used this method for much of her previous research, adapting it to each particular topic. In her research for this book, Hochschild started with focus groups, followed up with the members, met their families, and “snowballed” out through their social networks to build a larger sample of Louisiana Republicans. She also met various conservatives through campaign events, tapped into Mike Tritico’s network of anti-environmentalist friends, and encountered activists like Mike Schaff and General Honoré at public environmentalist rallies.
Hochschild’s research was qualitative and ethnographic: she was interested in building genuine human connections with people in southwest Louisiana rather than simply surveying or observing them from afar. This allowed her to embed herself in people’s real social networks and study the personal and political dimensions of their lives at once. Her “snowballing” method allows her to more easily build trust with new acquaintances, since she can demonstrate that she already knows people in their networks.
All in all, Hochschild interviewed 40 Tea Party members and 20 other community members for context. Interviewees signed consent forms and could ask Hochschild to stop recording whenever they liked; many of Hochschild’s stories come from these off-the-record conversations. She picked six main interviewees to profile in depth through participant observation—she followed them about their lives and visited places that were meaningful to them. Her “core group” of 40 was roughly equally split between men and women. All these subjects were white, between working and middle class, and over 40. About a third worked for the oil industry.
While Hochschild followed the formal consent and documentation procedures of traditional academic research, the material that made its way into the book largely emerged from more informal, off-the-record conversations and participant observation. While consent and documentation are ethical necessities in social science research, this pattern confirms Hochschild’s belief that empathy and trust give her an unparalleled access to the complexity and depth of other’s experience.
Along with her research assistants, Hochschild also studied national opinion polls and compared them to her interviewees’ beliefs. Soon, she became curious about the relationship between political identification and exposure to pollution, which she summarizes in Appendix B.
Although the vast majority of Hochschild’s research was qualitative, she also did quantitative analysis where it was appropriate for her purposes—namely, in pinning down contested facts and finding tangible evidence for the Great Paradox as it relates to pollution.
Hochschild also “explored Louisiana” through visits to various institutions and events. She went to Angola Prison, the United States’ largest maximum-security facility, as well as Civil War reenactments and the restored Oak Alley Plantation, and paid attention to way different groups inhabited public space in Lake Charles. She notes that she was lucky to be “white, female, gray-haired, and writing a book about a divide that also troubled those I came to know.” She became “deeply grateful” for Southerners’ hospitality.
Although most of these other episodes did not make it into this book, they demonstrate that Hochschild was as interested in forming a complete picture of the Louisiana social landscape as she was in getting “up close” to a few individuals. She recognizes that her own resemblance to her subjects, at least on the surface, probably influenced their willingness to trust and work with her—had she gone around southwest Louisiana as a young black man, for instance, she probably would have met much more opposition from white conservative locals.