This dissertation addresses empirical, applied, and theoretical issues in the place literature through an ethnographic study of the volunteer stewards in the nonprofit McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (Scottsdale, Arizona).
The first phase of study explores Conservancy stewards’ phenomenological place meanings through participant observation, a photovoice protocol (N=18), and life-history interviews (N=53). Findings indicate that being a steward fosters deep, identity-based place meanings within the conservation land (the McDowell Sonoran Preserve) and City of Scottsdale.
The second phase of study measures stewards’ psychometric place attachments to the Preserve and broader community using the Place Attachment Inventory (PAI) survey. New stewards’ (N=29) PAI scores—collected before attending orientation and one year after—demonstrate a rise in Preserve place attachment and place identity in the first year of service. Established stewards’ (N=275) PAI data suggests no correlation between place attachment and volunteer intensity. These findings are complemented by phase I results and suggest that stewards experience a rise in place identity after earning the identity of an environmental steward, regardless of engagement.
The third phase of study experimentally combines the data from established stewards who participated in phase I and II (N=48) to test the hypothesis that those with identity-based place meanings would possess higher place identity scores. Data analysis found no significant differences in place identity scores between those with and without a Predicted High Place Identity. The outcomes of this experiment suggest construct validity issues with the widely used place attachment and place identity constructs.
While it is established that volunteers arrive at an organization with a strong sense of place, this study demonstrates empirically how place attachments increase and place meanings deepen further after joining a volunteer organization. Communities and organizations can learn from the Conservancy’s practices that help stewards easily establish and perform a place-based steward identity. Finally, the experimental mixed methods findings suggest a sense of place research program that measures attachment to a place’s meanings rather than attachment to a place. This shift will allow place meaning and place attachment to be studied concurrently, advancing the sense of place construct and broader place theory.