Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crossing County Lines in Appalachia

Each county is like a country in rural Kentucky.  I was once told this in an interview; in anthropology, we may be just as prone to reinforcing those borders as high school athletics or local economic development processes can be. As a discipline, we may have moved from the community study to commodity studies and multi-sited, trans-state ethnography, but we still accrue depth of conversation and ethnographic insight in particular settings – whether a farmer’s market, a boardroom, or the World Court, tracing the lines between those venues. It is as vital to apply our critical inquiry as anthropologists to the construction of “Appalachia” as a summary identity in tension with powerfully diverse histories, claims, and strategies, as it is to do so for the construction of the nation-state, the border zone, or the “global.”

When I returned home to Kentucky this summer to direct the Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Center at the University of Kentucky, I realized that I knew a few things about my home county from 25 years of ethnographic research there (linked to multi-sited research in Mexico and Sri Lanka on how people make sense of globalization and transnational policy), but I did not have a parallel understanding of the other 53 Appalachian counties of Kentucky. As an anthropologist, I have advocated a more regional framing of discussions of economic development to take into account the way some urban residents hope to buy land and have a sense of belonging in rural areas (combating anomie in social relations and the global food chain), for example, and rural residents hope for more sustainable livelihoods that may include finding jobs, consumers, and services in urban areas. Urban/rural planning processes could take transportation, communication, and production/distribution/consumption issues into account. The informal economy emphasizing trade in prescription drugs, a major factor in income generation if not economic development, demands a regional lens as well.

As a Nicholas Countian, however, I suddenly found myself with a lot of questions about how things work and what people have to say in Magoffin or Perry or even Robertson County (which was carved out of Nicholas County some years ago). When I lived in California, I could more easily elide Nicholas County with rural Kentucky in the classroom, ethnographic writing, or in my own thinking. But now I find myself caught in our own disciplinary cautionary tale about generalizing from the particular.

Appalachian Regional Commission designations are political (Appalachian counties are designated by action of the U.S. Congress, which is lobbied heavily each year by potential new designees). ARC-designated Appalachian counties are represented on ARC maps in shades of red, white, and blue reflecting modernity’s language of progress from economically distressed to attainment of economic success. While a bioregional and political identity beyond state boundaries can be useful in some kinds of organizing, parallel to the European Union, it is not a primary identity for most residents, as Anglin, Billings, Dunaway, Eller, Scott, and many other scholars of Appalachia are quick to point out. Like national identity in many ways, county identity is a primary way to conceptualize “home” across the region. That has been reinforced in political, economic, and social processes over centuries. Of course people are moving across county borders all the time, temporarily and permanently, so this is not a fixed identity for residents so much as a strong discourse for the production, understanding and use of identity.  There are discourses of identity that are strongly shared across Appalachian county lines – like the contesting of stereotypes of Appalachian identity – but identity within and across counties of Appalachia is actually quite diverse.

Just because it is possible to check a box on a grant application that a site is “in Appalachia” or because the Appalachian Regional Commission has designated regional belonging by a growing perimeter around the red, white, and blue, does not mean that ease of categorization works within the region. Much as there are arguments about authenticity and belonging within the European Union currently, there are arguments within what is mapped as Appalachia about whether this or that county belongs. Anthropologically, one could take that up as a project in itself, of course, but I find it useful to think instead about how this is all the more reason for projects being developed collaboratively across university/community lines, disciplinary lines, and county lines. There is so much to learn with each other. As a returnee, I am busy reading local newspapers from across the 54 Appalachian Kentucky counties – and some across state lines – instead of just keeping up with Kentucky through the one local newspaper that’s followed me to all my addresses as an itinerant anthropologist.

Ann Kingsolver
Director, Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program
Professor of Anthropology University of Kentucky

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