American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


A Place Apart: The Role of Nostalgia in a Detached Community

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Scott Martin (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ruben Anguiano (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Kristine Blair (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Duane Larson (Committee Member)


This work investigated the power of nostalgia in perpetuating rituals and folkways in detached communities. The focus of this study was Camp Luther, a family camp operated under the auspices of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. Over the summer of 2010, approximately sixty interviews were conducted at the camp, and qualitative data from these interviews was used to formulate ideas and theoretical underpinnings for a concept the author calls "the nostalgic reflex." These interviews were transcribed and then coded to indicate the manner in which nostalgia was driving the thought processes of the interview subjects. Quotations from the interviews were used throughout the document to support the theory of the nostalgic reflex.

The interview data was rich with language and notions that indicated the level to which adherents of the camp were "under the influence" of the nostalgic reflex insofar as their devotion to the ethos of the camp's character was concerned. One of the most interesting data points was people's willingness to raise a large sum of money to preserve the lakefront of the camp, giving credence to the theory of "solastalgia" as coined by Glenn Albrecht. The language of the interview subjects also dovetailed neatly into Diane Barthel's tenets of the Staged Symbolic Community. Also, the work borrowed from Edwin Friedman's study of homeostasis and emotional triangles in his germinal work Generation to Generation.

The study also parsed the differences between Svetlana Boym's restorative and reflective nostalgia, especially in maintenance of the hetero-normative male dominated status quo at the camp. The work concludes that the academy has a somewhat overt bias against nostalgia. It noted with irony how it is ultimately nostalgia that undergirds the structure of the academy itself in the postmodern era. Further studies were discussed in the conclusion, inviting more discourse on the topic, especially in gender and ethnic studies. Ultimately, the work added to the ongoing influences of Harper, Davis, Lowenthal, Boym, and Wilson on the power of nostalgia.

From the conclusion: So the nostalgic reflex is there to remind us in times of joy and adversity of those things which matter most. Like any faculty, it can be used for good or ill, depending on the motives of one who wields it. It remains within all of us. It is triggered on a daily basis, and its presence in our cognitive processes is often unseen, yet influential. I know, on a purely cognitive level, that Camp Luther is a collection of mildewed cabins, bland food, with a panoramic vista that only hints at the greater grandeur of an ocean view. This is what the photographs show and the palate recalls. The narrative of camp as polished through the lens of nostalgia, however, breathes magic into my cognition, and my desire for its luminosity trumps my rationalism every time. I only hope that others feel this quickening as I do, not necessarily for camp per se, but for something that adds value to their existence—a sense of Harper's "presence," even if that translates into a temporary escape from ennui and malaise.