Appalachian Studies Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. Appalachia as a Rural Social System

A. Traditional Culture and the Subculture of Poverty

III. Emergence of the Multidisciplinary Appalachian Studies Movement

IV. Rethinking Culture in Appalachian Studies

A. The Literary Invention of “Traditional” Appalachia

B. The Uses of Tradition

C. The Social History of Appalachia

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In 1898, an American Journal of Sociology article authored by George Vincent applied the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner to interpret Appalachia as a “retarded frontier.” Since that time, sociologists have demonstrated interest in the study of the Appalachian region, and by the late 1960s, a structural functionalist model of Appalachian culture as a semi-closed, poverty-stricken, rural social system was well established. But unexpected events in the region, and the decline of structural functionalism, eventually led sociologists to advance new interpretations based on a multidisciplinary approach to Appalachian studies.

Social movements that focused on civil rights for African Americans, equal rights for women, antiwar efforts, environmental protection, worker health and safety issues, welfare rights, and social and economic justice were but a few of the domestic movements that gained force in the 1960s and 1970s and provoked new approaches in sociology. Each of these national movements was evidenced in Appalachia (Fisher 1993), testifying clearly against images and models of Appalachia as a fatalistic and tradition-bound region.

II. Appalachia as a Rural Social System

Until the late 1960s, Appalachia’s poverty was considered to result from geographical and cultural isolation. But sociologists also recognized that the region was rapidly changing because of improved education, transportation, and mass communication. As the result of a steady but uneven process of cultural modernization, “the sociocultural integration of rural Appalachia within the larger American society” was believed to be “occurring at a rapid rate” (Photiadis and Schwarzweller 1970: vii). New economic opportunities and changing cultural standards led sociologists to assert that traditional culture also was changing and, increasingly, the values of mass consumption and the middle-class lifestyles and urban American ethos were being embraced throughout the mountains. Two factors, however, seemed to impede the diffusion of modern values into Appalachia, namely, persistent isolation and isolationism. As a region in transition, the more geographically remote portions of Appalachia continued to resemble a traditionalistic society, while, under the duress of rapid change, some Appalachians were believed to be retreating into a subculture of poverty. More than any other institution in the region, education was judged to be the “cultural bridge” between Appalachia and the Great Society beyond, the solution to both isolation and isolationism (Schwarzweller and Brown 1970).

The fundamental assumption that economic improvements in Appalachia would result from the diffusion of urban values and cultural orientations into the region’s hinterlands was premised on what is now recognized as an erroneous assumption—that is, “due to the physical makeup, isolation, and homogeneity of its population, the Southern Appalachian Region, in particular its rural segment, has functioned in the past as a semi-autonomous social system” (Photiadis 1970:5). Subsequent research undermines the view that the region was ever culturally isolated or homogeneous. During the 1960s, however, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) viewed the region as economically and culturally isolated: a “region apart—statistically and geographically” (as cited in Whisnant 1980:129). The ARC was designed to overcome such isolation.

Embracing the dominant structural functionalist theory of social change in vogue in American sociology at that time, values and cultural orientations were seen as foremost in facilitating social change. Thus, during the 1960s, it was believed that if Appalachian values were changed, normative (institutional) and psychological (personality) change would follow. Rupert Vance (1965) wrote the following:

Thus mountain isolation, which began as physical isolation enforced by rugged topography, became mental and cultural isolation, holding people in disadvantaged areas, resisting those changes that would bring them into contact with the outside world. The effect of conditions thus becomes a new cause of conditions, but the cause is now an attitude, not a mountain. (P. viii)

“To change the mountains,” Vance added, “[was] to change the mountain personality” (p. viii).

Sociologists of that era differed over just how open the “mountain personality” was toward change. James Brown (1970), for example, believed that “the people [of the region] are restless and ready for a change” (p. 45), while Richard Ball (1970) asked questions that resonated with commonly held stereotypes of Appalachian people:

Why, it is asked, are they so little interested in improving their lives? How can they resign themselves to acceptance of minimal welfare payments and then adopt the dole as a permanent way of life? Why aren’t they more eager to leave their hopeless environment for urban areas of greater opportunity? What, in short, explains their lack of ambition and their inability to arouse themselves to sustained efforts? Admittedly, their past has been bleak and hopeless, but why should this prevent them from responding to the opportunities of the present? (Pp. 72–73)

In response to such questions, sociologists measured value orientations, assessed social institutions and community life, and debated the extent to which a subculture of poverty existed throughout the region.

A. Traditional Culture and the Subculture of Poverty

The most influential region-wide survey of values and attitudes was conducted by Thomas Ford (1962), whose survey of 190 counties in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky provided an operational definition of Appalachia. Ford identified four value dimensions that are central to Appalachian culture: individualism and self-reliance, traditionalism, fatalism, and religious fundamentalism. He answered “no” to the question “Have the Appalachian people clung to their frontier-agrarian traditions, resisting the philosophical premises of industrial society?” and interpreted his findings as supporting the “passing of provincialism” in the region (p. 9). Although Ford’s research reified a cultural legacy of “provincialism,” it also recognized its diminishing importance.

Popularized in Jack Weller’s (1965) widely read book, Yesterday’s People, Ford’s findings were largely accepted as the paradigm of Appalachian values. However, it was unclear how important such attitudes may have been in the past or even if they were distinct to the region. Using cross-regional survey data, Billings (1974) found only minimal attitude differences between Appalachian and non- Appalachian respondents in one southern state and demonstrated that these were largely attributable to the greater rurality of the mountain section.

Sociologists also studied rural, nonindustrial communities. Among the most important studies were those conducted by Brown ([1950] 1988), the four-decade longitudinal study of Beech Creek, Kentucky, by Schwarzweller, Brown, and Mangalam (1971), Mariam Pearsall’s (1959) study of “Little Smokey Ridge,” Tennessee, in the 1950s, and John Stephenson’s (1968) study of “Shiloh,” North Carolina. Each study confirmed the centrality of Appalachian rural kinship relations. In Beech Creek, Brown described a multilevel social structure of conjugal families, extended families, solidary “family groups” characterized by close cooperation and intimacy, and wider kinship “networks” that shaped social choices and horizons. In each of these studies, kinship strongly influenced patterns of residence, recreation and socializing, religious beliefs, work, political orientation, child-rearing practices, education, migration patterns, economic cooperation, and crisis management. Rural Appalachian families were described as larger and more fertile, more patriarchal, less child-centered, and placing more emphasis on extended family relationships compared with typical urban families.

Nonetheless, the national economy was altering Appalachian family life. The social organization of the rural Appalachian family was undergoing profound change (Blee and Billings 1986). Likewise, although impoverished by national standards, these communities were highly stratified, challenging monolithic images.

Although sociologists described only the most isolated subsistence farming communities of the Allegheny- Cumberland plateau, popular writers of the time frequently characterized them as typical of the entire region, often blurring these descriptions with those of mining communities that produced a distorted composite. According to Ford (1962),

To a considerable extent the popular but erroneous impression of a homogeneous mountain culture stems from the fact that most contemporary studies have been of relatively isolated communities, often selected because they still preserved a way of life that was rapidly disappearing from the remainder of the Region. Not only has this bias created a false impression of homogeneity, but it has tended to obscure the tremendous cultural changes that have been taking place for many years. (P. 10)

Despite such disclaimers, essentialism was built into the sociology of the era because of the emphasis on structural functionalist theory. Using the concept of “familism” to describe both kin-based social relations and a psychological sense of shared identity and affectional ties among kin, sociologists froze the complexity of family life into a unitary cultural ethos—an “ism”—that put kinship cooperation at the center of social life.

For sociologists of the 1960s, however, familism defined a traditional and personal way of life for rural Appalachians that seemed to contradict the principles of individualism, achievement motivation, and universalism thought to be dominant in American society at the time. Although weakened by the forces of modernization, the lingering effects of familism continued to pose both structural- and individual-level problems. At the community level, the family-centered world provided only weak support for wider community life and collective problem solving. Understood to be a very effective and “efficient system of social security, the rural family was viewed as a potential hindrance to social change in the region because of its virtual monopoly over the socialization and interest-world of its members” (Brown and Schwarzweller 1971:89). Today, however, efforts to discern the specificity of family interaction that were consolidated under the rhetoric of familism have led to the abandonment of the concept (Batteau 1982; Blee and Billings 1986).

Even more important than familism, however, a culture of poverty was thought to be the greatest threat to individual and regional improvement. Although popularized in the writings of Weller (1965) and Caudill (1963), the culture of poverty thesis was not supported by empirical evidence. Ball (1968) described Appalachia’s rural culture as “an analgesic subculture” that buffered its members from failure and change. Observing that fixation, regression, aggression, and resignation were commonly observed behaviors among laboratory rats, Ball reasoned that such responses might well be expected from humans in Appalachia’s environment of hardship. There, the “frustration- instigated behaviors observable in laboratory experiments have become a thorough-going way of life, justified by religious doctrine and sustained by a social order” (Ball 1970:77). Ball, however, offered no direct evidence about human behavior. Instead, he quoted the British historian Arnold Toynbee (1946), who wrote that Appalachian mountain people, having failed to meet the challenge of their harsh environment, were “no better than barbarians,” representing “the melancholy spectacle of a people who have acquired civilization and then lost it” (p. 149).

III. Emergence of the Multidisciplinary Appalachian Studies Movement

Social activism throughout Appalachia in the 1970s and 1980s stimulated what many observers termed an Appalachian Renaissance. The academic expression of this renaissance included the creation of Appalachian research centers and Appalachian studies programs throughout the region in the 1970s: Appalshop, a grassroots multimedia center for documentary film making, radio, recording, and performance established in 1969; the initiation in 1972 of the Appalachian Journal; and the establishment in 1977 of the multidisciplinary Appalachian Studies Association (ASA). The ASA was created “to coordinate analysis of the region’s problems across disciplinary lines” and “to relate scholarship to regional needs and the concerns of the Appalachian people” (Banks, Billings, and Tice 1993:283). In this context, disciplinary boundaries between sociology and neighboring fields were blurred.

The Highlander Center, located in Appalachian Tennessee and an early leader in the training of southern labor and civil rights activists, also played a prominent role in redirecting the style and focus of research on Appalachia (Glen 1996). Sociologists associated with the center in the 1970s and 1980s, such as John Gaventa and Helen Lewis, promoted the blend of scholarship and activism through participatory research. The prime example was a landmark study by the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force (1983) that trained local researchers to investigate mineral rights, land ownership, and taxation on more than 20 million acres of land in 80 counties spanning six states in the region. Its documentation of vast amounts of absentee-owned, but minimally taxed, land and mineral resources spearheaded tax reform efforts in several Appalachian states and led to grassroots organizations such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC). New attention to power, history, and activism made many younger sociologists critical of the objectivism in mainstream sociology, sensitive to the power relations embedded in scientific knowledge, and more open to dialogue and partnership between citizens and scholars.

Postmodern and poststructuralist theories, as noted by Banks et al. (1993), also exerted a strong influence. Under the influence of postmodernism, the universalism and essentialism of the “modernist” sociology of the 1960s gave way to the recognition of difference and diversity in the region. Universalistic notions of Appalachia and Appalachian identity were replaced by complex plural conceptions of regional and population diversity such as racial identities (Billings 2004; Hartigan 1999; Inscoe 2001; Lewis 1987; Trotter 1990), gender (Anglin 2002; Maggard 1999; Scott 1995; Smith 1998; Yarrow 1991), and nationality/ethnicity (Fones-Wolf and Lewis 2002) and how these positionalities were related to social class. Likewise, the postmodern wariness of essentialism led to self-consciousness about the politics of representation and writing. Rather than transparent vessels that convey truths without influencing their content, representations were now understood to shape what is seen and accepted as true, leading to important studies of the social construction of Appalachia in discourse and the role of stereotypes. Appalachian studies explored cultural topics such as the politics of cultural intervention in the region, ranging from folk festivals and settlement houses (Whisnant 1983) to Americanization programs for European immigrants in coal mining communities (Hennen 1996). In addition, the commodification of highland crafts and music (Ardery 1998; Becker 1998), rhetorical and performance styles among Appalachian churches (Titon 1988), the use of religious resources in class-based oppositional movements (Billings 1990), religious snake handling (Kimbrough 1995), the culture of underground economies (Halperin 1990), and cultures of resistance and renewal among grassroots reform movements (Hinsdale, Lewis, and Waller 1995) were important areas of inquiry.

IV. Rethinking Culture in Appalachian Studies

The representations of Appalachian culture of the 1960s are now understood as having been fueled by stereotypes, overlooking diversity and complexity in the history of the region, and being used to blame poverty on the Appalachian poor in ways that overlooked institutionalized power and economic exploitation in the region. Consequently, the new scholarship explores the literary invention of tradition, the uses of tradition, and the actual social history of the region.

Robert Wuthnow’s (1987) four dimensions of cultural analysis provide a useful way of framing the new cultural studies of Appalachia. In addition to viewing Appalachian culture as a pattern of subjective values, it can also be viewed as an objective structure whose forms and boundaries are embodied in its artifacts, discourses, and texts; as being performed and transformed by active agents; and as invested with power and authority.

The multidimensional approach to Appalachian cultural studies deconstructs the simplistic binary oppositions— traditionalism/modernism, fatalism/activism, and individualism/collectivism—that underlay the paradigmatic sociological characterization of the area’s culture prior to the advent of Appalachian studies. The deconstructive project of Appalachian cultural analysis is especially apparent in recent studies of Appalachian traditions. Thus, the value theme of individualism, when deconstructed, leads to questions that go beyond values and attitudes to the forging of identities and solidarities in Appalachia and beyond fatalism to questions about fear, quiescence, complicity, and activism in the region.

A. The Literary Invention of “Traditional” Appalachia

An especially robust area of inquiry examines the social construction of Appalachia as “a coherent region inhabited by a homogeneous population possessing a uniform culture” (Shapiro 1978: ix). Early travelogues written shortly after the American Civil War first pictured the mountain South in popular magazines as “a strange land and peculiar people” (Shapiro 1978:ix). Soon thereafter, local color fiction writers such as John Fox Jr. published stories and novels of alternatively the innocent and degraded, but always picturesque, mountaineers. Missionaries, settlement house workers, and educators further circulated such tales to legitimate uplifting a worthy but neglected people and to attract benefactors, while developers, railroads, and industry used these same characterizations to argue for the displacement of an unworthy and irredeemable population from the vast Appalachian storehouse of mineral and timber resources (Billings and Blee 1996). Finally, folk song collectors and leaders of the handicraft revival movement embellished images of quaint cultural practices in a region where time stood still (Whisnant 1983).

Henry Shapiro’s (1978) intellectual history of the idea of Appalachia was the first important effort to place this tradition of writing in historical perspective. He analyzed the diverse organizational interests that motivated mythical accounts and explored how the term Appalachia came to signify a region seemingly untouched by progress, a cultural “other” by which American economic success elsewhere could be measured. Others followed Shapiro’s lead by looking at the discourse on Appalachia through subsequent decades and in other forms of the media such as film and television and by tracing the evolving nature and changing uses of Appalachian stereotypes (Batteau 1990; Becker 1998; Billings, Norman, and Ledford 1999; Harkins 2004; Whisnant 1983; Williamson 1995).

Other scholars amplified the performative and institutional dimensions of the cultural construction of Appalachia to show how the discourse on traditional Appalachia was used to market invented traditions such as faux highland handicrafts (Becker 1998) and how, once institutionalized into authoritative texts and expert knowledge, various representations of Appalachia were used to legitimate public and private cultural and social interventions in the region (Whisnant 1980, 1983).

B. The Uses of Tradition

Scholars who research the stereotypic construction of Appalachia in popular and academic writings about the region often do so from a postmodern perspective: They typically refrain from commenting on actual mountain life, focusing instead on how Appalachia is represented, especially by those outside the region. In an alternative approach, other sociologists contend that static notions of traditionalism conceal the many ways that Appalachian residents themselves make and remake their culture as they negotiate and reinterpret the meanings of their past for their own purposes. An important example is Foster’s (1988) ethnographic study of the politics of culture in Ashe County, North Carolina. Rather than presenting a fixed image of local culture as a set of collective traits, Foster argues that culture appears

in this context as extraordinarily fluid and changeable; it operates as a placeholder, a representation that shifts, deviates, and often wobbles in an unstable and quixotic fashion, depending on the desires, options, constraints, and interventions at the crossroads of the present. (P. 203)

In an analysis of the successful efforts of local citizens in 1975 to prevent a power company from damming a portion of the New River to create a reservoir that would have displaced nearly 300 families, Foster examines local resistance as a dramaturgic process, a politics of representation. He highlights the practices Ashe County citizens used to “save the river” and to objectify a version of their cultural past to planners and outside policymakers as a way of life worth preserving. Ironically, by choosing to represent their threatened way of life in terms of stereotyped images, folk-culture artifacts, and old-time music, grassroots activists inadvertently opened the door to the commodification of a partial version of their culture and thus potentially to further domination.

Foster returned to Ashe County nearly 10 years after the struggle had been won to find that the embrace of mythic forms of identity that had served to stop the dam project had also begun to change the rhetorical forms through which local people understood themselves, their history, and their community. More important, from the standpoint of the understanding of tradition, Foster showed how Appalachian culture provides a “forum for negotiating and renegotiating meaning,” not a set of fixed and final values operating as so many writers had previously implied.

Like the dramaturgical approach to culture, the institutional approach looks at how culture is expressed but goes further by asking how resources and organizations are used to institutionalize preferred versions of culture. Power, according to this approach, is used both to reinforce and to resist diverse expressions of culture. A key work by Gaventa (1980), which shows the inexorable link between culture and power, disputes the imputation of both traditionalism and fatalism as core cultural traits in the Appalachian region.

The coal-mining communities in the Clear Fork Valley of Appalachian Tennessee that Gaventa studied have experienced many of the forms of injustice and exploitation for which Central Appalachia is noted. These include the monopolization of land by absentee owners, political domination, taxation inequities, poor working conditions and low wages, deindustrialization, environmental ruin, and social neglect. On the surface, local residents appear to have accepted such conditions as their inevitable fate and have mobilized little opposition to them, even though Appalachians in other communities have challenged similar conditions (Fisher 1993). Thus, to observers assuming the existence of an open political system where such wrongs could be addressed, quiescence would appear to confirm that local people are too deeply mired in a traditionalistic and fatalistic culture to dissent and, furthermore, that their individualism prevents them from mounting collective opposition. Gaventa (1980) shows that “beneath the expressed sense of legitimacy or fatalism is fear” (p. 206).

By examining the history of the Clear Fork Valley, Gaventa shows that local elites with the power to win overt contests, exclude both issues and participants from local arenas of decision making and shape the wants, values, roles, and beliefs of the powerless before challenges arise have managed to enforce routines of nonchallenge within these communities. Coercion and its constant threat—along with vulnerability, feelings of inadequacy, and fears of reprisal among the powerless—have contributed to long-term periods of quiescence, which appear to confirm fatalism as a core cultural trait or deficiency of the local population. In reality, however, the appearance of quiescence implies neither apathy nor ignorance among elements of the population but, rather, relative powerlessness. Whether people or communities in Appalachia are quiescent or rebellious depends on the balance of forces in the local “field of power,” as Gaventa’s empirical comparisons through time and across Appalachian communities make clear.

Gaventa’s assertion that rebellions occur when power relationships are altered has found important empirical support in research on more recent activism in the same vicinity. In a study of community activism against water pollution caused by a local tannery, Cable (1993) demonstrates that the transformation of individual resistance (“periodic ‘fussin’”) into collective opposition depended not only on increased distress but also on changes in the local power field. She notes three changes that altered the local balance of power: (1) the emergence nationally of the environmental movement, which both legitimated local claims of environmental injustice and led to the establishment of federal agencies to deal with them; (2) the consolidation of public schools in the area, which facilitated greater interaction and familiarity among local communities; and (3) the arrival of individuals in the locality possessing both leadership skills and knowledge of governmental routines, which contributed to the ability to challenge the resistance of local authorities.

Additional studies combine dramaturgical and institutional analysis to examine the creative uses of tradition while also reconceptualizing traditionalism and fatalism by interpreting their seeming reality as an index of power relations. Richard Couto (1993), for instance, documented the importance of coal miners’ “historical memory” of early working conditions and labor victories in current labor activism, and Scott (1995) has shown how local power and conflict shape communities’ collective memories of past events and conflicts such as mining disasters and labor activism. Mary Anglin (1993, 2002) has shown how women workers in Appalachian North Carolina’s mica industry have used the imagery of kinship to clarify loyalties, assert rights, and strengthen bonds of class solidarity and emotional support at work. Anglin also demonstrates that the employers of these women use the same symbolism to inculcate a sense of accountability and loyalty to the company, suggesting the multiple and contradictory ways in which cultural traditions can be put to use and, like activism, how the sociohistorical context and power field shape that usage. Anglin’s work is also an example of new studies of gender in Appalachia that further an understanding of Appalachian traditions.

It is now recognized that the white male experience has been universalized in Appalachian studies and that women’s experiences have been neglected (Smith 1998). Whereas the concept of familism implied the fixity of gender relations, Maggard (1999) and Seitz (1995) have shown how gender roles undergo change when women activists, both as wage earners and as members of wage-dependent families, struggle for economic justice in Appalachia. One of the ironies of patriarchy is that nonemployed women in the so-called traditional families may have more flexible time schedules that permit them to commit to local activism and attend public hearings and thus play leading roles in grassroots movements despite traditionally defined gender roles (Cable 1993). In a study of early opposition to strip mining, Bingham (1993) reports that women activists have sometimes manipulated tradition by strategically placing themselves in dangerous situations of direct confrontation, believing that their opponents would be less willing to apply customary forms of intimidation and violence used on Appalachian males to silence women protesters.

Finally, studies of gender—such as those of racial oppression in Appalachia—do not dispute the prevalence of conservative (traditional) ideologies of patriarchy and racism in the region (Griffin 2004). Instead, they challenge the simplistic understanding of traditionalism as a core cultural trait of Appalachia.

C. The Social History of Appalachia

A third challenge to the static image of tradition in Appalachia has come from historical studies of the impact of extractive industries such as coal mining and timber on communities, demography, patterns of economic development, and poverty (Lewis 1998). These studies contend that Appalachia is poor because of the nature of its integration with—not isolation from—the American corporate economy. Eller’s (1982) study of the acquisition of land, timber, and mineral resources and the building of railroads and coal towns in the region by outside investors was path-breaking. Other studies examined how those outside groups achieved political control (Gaventa 1980) and the challenges to these investors by militant labor (Corbin 1981). While some sociologists interpreted Appalachian social and economic development as capitalist industrialization (Banks 1980; Walls 1976), others interpreted it as a process of “colonization” through which outsiders gained entry, established control, educated and converted the “natives,” and maintained control (Lewis, Johnson, and Askins 1978; Lewis, Kobak, and Johnson 1978). In this model, cultural patterns associated with familism and religious fundamentalism were reinterpreted as defensive responses to colonialism rather than the persistence of traditionalism (Lewis, Kobak, et al. 1978).

The interpretation of Appalachia as an “internal colony” highlights the importance of political domination and economic exploitation in the history of Appalachia and the associated poverty. The colonial model inspired the participatory study of land ownership and also helped fuel grassroots activism. But the model lost favor among sociologists because of the dualism of its central trope of insiders versus outsiders. Marxists were especially quick to point out that regions do not exploit regions; rather, classes exploit classes (Southern Mountain Research Collective 1983–1984). Furthermore, analysts who employed the colonial model tended to portray Appalachians as innocent but passive victims of colonization, inadvertently casting attention away from the important role of powerful local classes and elites in the region’s development. They also tended to romanticize Appalachia’s past before coal mining, picturing it as a veritable Garden of Eden of thriving small farms and egalitarian social relations (Shifflett 1991). Here, the mythical discourse of Appalachian otherness still lurked behind the thinking of otherwise progressive scholars.

To understand the social forces that predisposed the region to the dependent economic development first decried by the colonial model, scholars have begun to probe the even more distant Appalachian past. They have debated the relative importance of commerce and family subsistence (nonmarket) strategies of livelihood from the early settlement era to recent times. Working with world systems theory, Dunaway (1996) demonstrated the depth of previously overlooked industrial development in antebellum Appalachia. Identifying more than 6,000 industrial enterprises from a large sample of mountain counties in 1860, Dunaway contends that Appalachia was already deeply incorporated in the circuits of world capitalism long before the era of coal industrialization and that much of its population was fully proletarianized by the time of the Civil War. Her more recent work emphasizes the importance of slavery in the antebellum economy (Dunaway 2003).

Many scholars reject Dunaway’s assessment of the extent of commerce and proletarianization in the antebellum era. Salstrom (1994), for instance, points to the importance of noncommercial subsistence farming in the nineteenth-century mountain economy, portraying its effects in terms of the psychological mentality of farmers— rather than the social relations of production and reproduction in agriculture. He suggests that because of geographical constraints on marketing, an entrepreneurial spirit evident among early settlers was soon replaced by a safety-first, noncommercial attitude toward survival.

Using Moore’s (1966) path-dependent model of the impact of rural class relations on patterns of development, Billings and Blee (2000) examined the interconnections of commerce and slaveholding, subsistence farming, and the local state in nineteenth-century Clay County, Kentucky, and the “Beech Creek” community first described by Brown in the 1940s. These analysts show that the exploitation of slave labor in the antebellum salt-manufacturing industry integrated sections of the Kentucky mountains into a nexus of extra-local commerce, laid the foundation for the political domination of non-slave-owning farmers by wealthy slaveholders, and paved a racially distinct road to poverty for the area’s African American population. While slaveholding prompted more extensive commercial development than previously recognized, the authors claim that the vast majority of white farm families in the study area lived independent of both slaveholding and the commerce it generated. Class patterns of self-exploitation and the exploitation of family members, in a system of subsistence production regulated by norms of kinship and neighborhood reciprocity, provided secure livelihoods for many decades in the nineteenth century until, eventually, population increase and family farm subdivision, along with consequent land shortages and soil depletion, undermined the viability of subsistence farming. By the end of the century, local elites in the area assisted outside capitalists in the extraction of resources, while impoverished farmers turned to low-paying jobs in the emerging wage labor sector. Clientalism and political corruption deformed local governance and public life.

In contrast to the earlier emphasis on individualism as a core cultural trait of the region, recent Appalachian scholars have also explored the history of solidarities in the region, including racial identities, interests, and sectional loyalties during the Civil War (Noe and Wilson 1997), elite factionalism (mountain feuds) and its impact on social development (Billings and Blee 2000; Waller 1988), immigrant ethnic communities (Fones-Wolf and Lewis 2002), and the class identities and ideologies of owners/managers and labor in industry (Scott 1995; Walls 1978). The exploration of such solidarities, including slaveholding (Dunaway 2003), has challenged images of Appalachian homogeneity, while the identification of disparities in power and wealth among regional groups has challenged images of preindustrial equality. Such studies suggest that despite myths about Appalachia’s isolation and lack of economic diversity, Appalachia was not that different from other nineteenth-century rural American regions before the modern era of coal mining (Pudup, Billings, and Waller 1995).

V. Conclusion

Looking ahead, twenty-first-century analysts of Appalachia will undoubtedly continue to assess the persistence of poverty and evaluate the effects of economic restructuring. The economic, political, and environmental problems facing Appalachia are not unique. Indeed, they are similar to those confronting poor communities throughout the world. While Appalachia’s apparent “peculiarities” engaged sociologists of the 1960s, attention is now being drawn to the comparable effects of economic markets, capitalist priorities, and neoliberal governmental policies in the region and around the world. In what is described as a heightened era of globalization, it is likely that the interest in historical-cultural study that has recently engaged Appalachian scholars will be complemented by comparative studies of similar regions on a global scale.

Appalachian scholars have challenged stereotypes of fatalism through the documentation of activist grassroots organizations. At the end of the century, the focus of investigation was on why some organizations are more effective than others (Couto 1999) and why communities—many dominated by local elites (Duncan 1999) and characterized by political corruption and patronage (Billings and Blee 2000)—vary in civic capacity. Such issues offer important new challenges for the twenty-first-century sociology of Appalachia. Environmental sociology is also likely to flourish, especially in response to the damage wrought by new surface mining methods such as mountaintop removal (Reece 2005).

In contrast to stereotypes of Appalachian isolation, Appalachia has existed as a global region for many decades. Early twentieth-century demand for coal reflected the role of the United States in the global economy, as did the arrival of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in Appalachia’s coalfields (Fones-Wolf and Lewis 2002). Similarly, changes in the region’s economy and demography reflect new transnational trends such as the increasing presence of Hispanics in Southern Appalachia (Obermiller 2004). Simultaneously, the search for economic development options directs the region outward as local activists travel to worker cooperatives in Spain’s Mondragon region, to the networked niche-based firms of Modena and Bologna, Italy, and to the World Social Forum in Brazil in search of new economic models. Likewise, Appalachian environmental activists increasingly connect via the Internet with others around the world who contend with similar problems. Thus, globalization, whether thought of as transnational economic processes or as new forms of transnational citizen struggles for economic justice, is likely to be an increasingly important topic of study in the region (Reid and Taylor 2002; Weinbaum 2004). Finally, new forms of scholar/ citizen partnership will likely emerge as the issues described are processed within the discipline and by community leaders across the region.

See also:


  1. Anglin, Mary K. 1993. “Engendering the Struggle: Women’s Labor and Traditions of Resistance in Rural Southern Appalachia.” Pp. 263–82 in Fighting Back in Appalachia, edited by S. Fisher. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  2. Anglin, Mary K. 2002. Women, Power, and Dissent in the Hills of Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  3. Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force. 1983. Who Owns Appalachia? Landownership and Its Impact. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
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