Award Date

May 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

Michael I. Borer

Second Committee Member

Robert Futrell

Third Committee Member

David Dickens

Fourth Committee Member

Simon Gottschalk

Fifth Committee Member

Steven Clarke

Number of Pages



In this manuscript I explore the issue of how groups appropriate broad cultural trends in local contexts. Using the case of a community garden in Las Vegas I examine how social space is imbued with meaning and how those meanings come to shape the subsequent interactions that take place in the meaningful place. This research draws from four years of participant observation at Vegas Roots Community Garden (VRCG), 20 in-depth interviews, hundreds of informal interviews, and content analysis of documents produced by others about the garden and by the garden organization about itself.

I expand on Howard Becker’s (1974) work on cultural production suggesting that although reliance on cultural conventions can benefit cultural producers by saving time and facilitating interpretability among audiences, overreliance on conventions can be detrimental to both producers and the product. I also examine how issues of race, class, and geography are elided in garden participants’ imagining of what community means at VRCG and the impact that has on actions taken and assessments of progress and success. Garden participants assign meaning to the idea of community, and those meanings in turn shape their imaginations about which goals are possible, which ones they should pursue, and what constitutes a “successful” garden. Specifically, I analyze how not talking about race, class, and geography at the garden led to a conceptualization of community that was so inclusive that it created a scenario in which the garden was for everyone in Las Vegas. I argue that by trying to appeal to everyone, the garden was for no one. Finally, I examine garden participants’ strategic choices regarding organizational and interpersonal norms and goals. I investigate how decisions made early in the garden’s existence set the project down a particular trajectory, making some actions more likely than others, and rendering other outside the realm of possibility. I document certain “turning point” moments in the garden’s existence when participants reflexively analyzed the trajectory or rethought the goals of the project and how they came to either change trajectories or stay the course.

This research contributes to our understanding of urban culture by documenting some ways that the meanings, images, symbols, and narratives that people create in and about urban places act back upon the place and those interacting in it. The meanings about Las Vegas, food, and community that emerged through interactions between the garden organization and volunteers shaped how the garden took shape. The stories that circulated at the garden about Las Vegas, food access, the promises of alternative food, inequalities, and paths for social change shaped the ways in which the director of VRCG and volunteers understood what goals were desirable, the available means to achieve them, and the possibilities for change.

In addition to the contributions this research makes to our understandings of urban culture it also builds upon the social movements literature on the role of agency in collective action. By analyzing the more mundane aspects of group formation at VRCG I demonstrated the ways in which agentic choices set the garden down trajectories that shaped the ways members perceived future situations, possibilities, and the garden itself. I also illustrated how even after Roz and volunteers settled into habitual patterns of decision making and interpretation it was possible to exercise agency, change courses, and develop new patterns of interpretation.

In the right kind of soil, with water and sunlight, plants will grow nearly anywhere. In many ways gardening is a science. Community gardening demands attention to the cultivating of plants as a community. Vegas Roots’ promotional materials frequently feature tag lines like “Yes, you can grow food in the desert!” Emphasizing this alleged horticultural feat casts a shadow over an equally important consideration, how to create a sense of community in a city infamous for the transience of its residents. Thinking about Vegas Roots as a community garden, as a noun, as a thing, draws attention to the plants. Thinking about the possible interactions and activities that can happen at Vegas Roots as community gardening, as a verb, as practices, draws attention to people interacting. Figuring out how to successfully grow tomatoes in the Mojave Desert requires technical knowledge. Growing tomatoes together as a community requires not just the application of technical knowledge together, but the careful consideration of how to organize and implement that knowledge in ways that reflect the strengths, needs, desires, and values of those who make up the community of gardeners. However the boundaries of community are defined, the community should make those considerations.


Collective Action; Community; Urban Gardening



File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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