“Appalachian studies could use a little theoretical ferment”

Barbara Ellen Smith is one of my favorite intellectuals working in Appalachia today. She has been doing incredible work on the region for decades integrating feminist theory and critical discussions of place and neoliberalism.

Here are some excerpts from her wonderful chapter “Representing Appalachia: The Impossible Necessity of Appalachian Studies” in Studying Appalachian Studies: Making the Path by Walking (2015) edited by Chad Berry, Phillip J. Obermiller, and Shaunna L. Scott and published by University of Illinois Press.

…it is still possible to speak of “Appalachians” and “mountaineers” as generic and seemingly self-evident categories. As if being from the region overrides of other forms of social identity. 43

Today, it seems to me that we are ripe for another paradigm shift in Appalachian studies. 43

When the United Mine Workers of America is disappearing from the coalfields and coal barons are managing to position themselves alongside miners as embattled “insiders” to the region through, for example, such organizations as Friends of Coal, contemporary intra- and interclass dynamics within Appalachia become confounding, unexplained by the unidimensional paradigm of mountaineer insiders pitted against venal “outsiders.” 43

…the ultimate impossibility of identifying fixed criteria, whether cultural traits, ancestry, or place attachment, that can separate the true Appalachians from everyone else. 45

In sum, paradigms that utilize cultural criteria to define the genuine Appalachian imagine a monolithic region; they tend to reduce its social complexity to a rural, white, place-attached mountaineer. 45

…spatial differentiation has a complex and by no means straightforward relationship to social inequality, exploitation, and oppression. 46

…the formal institutions of economics and politics remain central, and cultural identities, practices, and beliefs tend to be analyzed in relation to them. Among the many consequences are the invisibility of noncapitalist economic relations and the tendency to overlook the activities of the majority of the population of Appalachia, which is female. 48

The aim of women’s history becomes uncovering not only the activities of women but also the changing character of gender as a social relation. 51

Appalachian studies could use a little theoretical ferment. Developments on the ground—such as struggles over climate change, mountaintop removal, and the future of coal; transformations in gender and sexuality, family structures, employment, and class relations; the current neoliberal iteration of capitalist globalization and its savage destruction of place—outpace our scholarship and theorization. 52

…the intellectual and political project of Appalachian studies becomes not a matter of creating spaces in which diversely “Othered” identities might be heard, because this strategy assumes the prior existence of unequal and unjust subject positions (rather than examining their production); it thereby unintentionally reinscribes certain Appalachians as normative and others as, well, othered. Rather, the point is that the particularistic, power-laden, and situated status of any Appalachian should be interrogated and decentered if we are to explore the systematic operations of power (in the forms of race, gender, etc.) as constitutive of the region. 54

How do we influence and ultimately transform the wider social relations and cultural representations that demean our subjects…and shape established academic disciplines (where we are often marginalized and discredited) while remaining open to internal disagreement, criticism, and transformation within our relatively young embattled fields? 55

If inclusion is a sincere goal, we need to create an ethos in Appalachian studies that valorizes reflexivity and critical exchange. We may thereby better examine the power of our multiple social positions, recognize the partiality of our scholarship, and collectively pursue the impossible necessity of Appalachian studies. 56

-Barbara Ellen Smith


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