Living on Martha's Vineyard: Paradise or Predicament?

Samantha Rabin '11
Samantha Rabin '11
Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, Samantha Rabin ’11 never thought her home was that different from any other. Living on an island resort was nothing out of the ordinary, and having to deal with tourists was just part of the package. But now that Rabin is older, she realizes that because she is surrounded by crowded hotels and sun-scorched bathers, her seemingly commonplace life is actually dominated by an unusual economy. Rabin is working with Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Irons to assess how a person’s financial position shapes his or her relationship to the community. 

Her research is funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program. The program provides students with significant opportunities to work collaboratively with faculty members, researching an area of interest. 

Rabin says that some islanders rely almost entirely on tourists for their salary, while others have sources of income independent from local attractions. How these people identify with the community could affect how they view tourists. For example, hostility toward vacationers is rampant on the island – cars sport bumper stickers with slogans like “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” while friends sneer and joke about the influx of visitors. Ironically, most of the people who claim to hate tourists could not stay on Martha’s Vineyard without them. 

“Adults get really frustrated with the traffic and congestion,” said Rabin. “But for the most part, they seem aware that the tourists are what makes living there possible.”

Do all “Vineyarders” demonstrate aggression toward tourists, whether or not their occupations depend on them? Rabin intends to investigate how the perception of tourism among all groups of people affects interactions with outsiders. Furthermore, she wants to determine the degree to which islanders incorporate this sense of hostility into their idea of what it means to be a “Vineyarder.” 

To complete her project, Rabin will read relevant sociological literature and theories on community and identity. She will also consult the U.S. census, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and the Island Plan to map the local economic structure. To better understand their attitudes, she will then interview full-time residents of the island. 

But why do some people choose to surround themselves with parading tourists year-round? 

“Many of them had a hard time answering that question,” Rabin admitted. “They say that they suppose it is the beauty and uniqueness of the place. A lot of them also enjoy the serenity of the winter, so they just have to get through the summer.”

Rabin says that her project could evolve into something that she would use for her senior thesis in sociology. It is especially timely for two reasons: first, the economic recession might reduce the number of tourists heading to the island this summer, thus hurting local citizens who need the money. Second, reporters suspect that President Obama and his family will vacation there for two weeks this summer. It is difficult to predict whether or not the upcoming season will help or hinder the economy based on these contradictory factors.
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