Defining Freedom: An Ethnographic Study with American Vanlifers
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Moving alongside the “snowbirds” and grey nomads that have been discussed in the academic literature, there is a group of nomads that appears to have escaped scholarly attention. United under the “vanlife” and “buslife” hashtags, these individuals belong to a community of nomads who convert ordinary (and sometimes, extraordinary) vehicles into living spaces, and travel North America’s backroads in search of freedom and adventure. Using Cresswell’s definition of mobility as the combination of movement, representation, and practice, this thesis explores the meanings that American vanlifers assign to their mobility. Relying on participant observation and ethnographic interview data collected on the road during the summer of 2017, this thesis argues that when we deconstruct vehicle nomads’ use of the word “freedom,” it reveals important information about how they understand their mobility. By using a relational ontology and employing an epistemology of mobility rather than place, this thesis also attempts to expand the ways in which mobility can be understood by geographers. Through a detailed exploration of participants’ representations and practices, this study finds that when vanlifers used the word “freedom,” they were referring to their mobility in three specific senses: as freedom from social norms, freedom from routines and schedules, and freedom to pick up and go whenever they liked. As existing studies on RVers and British traditional nomads have already captured similar uses of the word “freedom” among their participants, this finding draws the existing research on vehicle nomadism into conversation in a productive way.