Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Life in the Field: Why I Study Appalachia

My research program in Appalachia is an outgrowth of my life experience in and around eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. I was born in Appalachia as were parents and their parents. My ancestors have participated in some of important, almost iconic historical events in our “neck of the woods”:  the Hatfield-McCoy “feud” and the Matewan Massacre. You can read more about great-grandfather, George T. Blankenship, Sr., in Rebecca Bailey’s (2008) Matewan Before the Massacre. Because my father worked for the telephone company, he was transferred periodically throughout my childhood. When I was 5 years old, my family moved from Pikeville to Winchester, KY. Though the Appalachian Regional Commission defines Winchester as part of Appalachia, most folks from the mountains view it as a Bluegrass suburb of Lexington. Until I moved to Winchester, I thought I was just a white, middle class American kid. But, in elementary school, I discovered that my eastern Kentucky accent marked me as culturally different –also, laughable and inferior. My accent faded over the years, and I was recognized as one of the smartest kids in the class. A few months before my 12th birthday, my family joined small migratory influx of population to the region. In a sense, my “fieldwork” in Appalachia started then:  when I returned to the mountains after six formative years in the Bluegrass. About two months after we moved to Johnson County, the Buffalo Creek coal waste dam collapsed and killed 125 people in West Virginia. I remember quite vividly my feeling of shock and horror, not only at the event, but at the fact that Pittston Steel and WV Governor Arch Moore blamed God for the disaster.

Perhaps I would have been an intellectually critical and politically rebellious teenager, wherever I lived. But I lived in Appalachia, so my critical gaze was focused there. I could not ignore the fact that eastern Kentucky’s social realities contradicted my idea of how things should be. These early field observations have informed my research in Appalachia since then; in fact, they inspired it. These include:  1) the poor quality of education; 2) class elitism and prejudice against rural residents; 3) the lack of racial / ethnic diversity; 4) the lack of substance and reason in political discourse; 5) religious hypocrisy; and 6) unwise policies  –most notably, the prohibition of alcohol sales there and in surrounding counties. I witnessed more public drunkenness in Paintsville, where the sale of alcohol was illegal, than in Winchester, which allowed liquor sales. So, if the purpose of being dry was to discourage public drunkenness and alcohol abuse, I reasoned, it should be repealed because it was not achieving the desired effect. Like many teenagers, I thought the adults in my town were unreasonable and unwise.

Some of them apparently thought I was a “trouble-maker.” One day, when my mother was shopping in a downtown store, she overheard one of the clerks say that, if I were her daughter, she would take me over her knee for good spanking because I spoke against the political rhetoric associated with a campaign to raise the town property tax rate for increased school funding. To clarify, I was not opposed higher taxes or increased school funding. Rather, I was offended at what I saw as an elitist political discourse surrounding the campaign to increase the tax rate. One day during class discussion, I noted that this political discourse reinforced and legitimized the advantages that town-dwelling, elite children had over the rural children who attended the more poorly-funded county school system. It was this exercise of my First Amendment rights that elicited the spanking threat from the store clerk. When I returned home from school that day, I found my mother eagerly awaiting my side of the story. I was amazed at the efficiency of the “grapevine” in Paintsville. Later, when I was participating in the construction of a memorial to deceased miners in Harlan County, I also noted how quickly rumors can circulate in small towns and, also how this gossip can serve as communication and deliberation as well as function as a social control mechanism (1995 and 1996).

If my educational journey had stopped after high school graduation, I would have abandoned Appalachia and remained somewhat embarrassed at my association with the region. But, instead, I went to the University of Kentucky where I took an Appalachian Politics course. Exposed to new ways of thinking about the world, my understanding and orientation toward the region changed dramatically. Instead of unreflexively accepting the hegemonic construction of the region’s residents as isolated, backward and inferior, I began to recognize the structural connections between economic underdevelopment of the region and wealth-creation elsewhere. I acquired the tools to expand my critical gaze beyond small town politics to recognize how it articulated with national and global economic, political and cultural forces. I began to explore these connections and forces in earnest when I went to graduate school. But my undergraduate education at U.K. marked a turning point for me. No longer was I ashamed by my association with eastern Kentucky. I embraced ancestors who formally served as a source of social embarrassment:  my great-uncle who was shot to death by law enforcement officials, my great-grandfather, uncles and cousins who engaged in a shoot-out with Baldwin-Felts agents in Matewan, and my great-grandmother who delivered neighbors’ babies.

Inspired by my great-grandmother, I wrote my senior Honors Thesis on Appalachian lay midwives. Under the tutelage of my UK professors, I won two research awards for the project, presented it at two professional conferences, and had the thesis published in a professional, peer-reviewed journal (1983). With their encouragement, I applied for graduate work in Anthropology at the University of California where I wrote a dissertation and later a book (1995) that was inspired by my family’s involvement in violent class conflict in the coalfields. After I completed my PhD, I took a position in sociology at U.K. where I have been lucky enough to work alongside of many of my former professors and mentors. Even though I switched disciplinary allegiance, my commitment to understanding and assisting the Appalachian region has remained constant. Over the past 21 years, my research program has become increasingly more engaged, participatory and practical. For the past ten years, I have been researching the social impacts of coal waste disaster and the relationship between social trust and perceptions of water quality with a colleague at Eastern Kentucky University (2005, McSpirit et al. 2005; 2011; in progress; projected 2012). Even more recently, I have revisited a 1980 community-based, participatory research project called the Appalachian Land Ownership Study (2008 and 2009); this study was instrumental in changing my view of the world during my undergraduate years. In addition, I am currently conducting ethnographic research on local economic development planning and local business promotion as a way to create a more sustainable and democratic economic and political basis for community life in eastern Kentucky. Finally, I am collaborating with colleagues to produce a critical assessment of the interdisciplinary field of Appalachian Studies. Coal waste disasters, political ideology and conflict, democratic deliberation, economic development, and critical evaluation –these are the foci of my current research program. They all have roots in the social phenomena and issues that I encountered during my first ethnographic encounter with my home region in 1972. You could say that have been happily plowing this same field for almost forty years now, and I have not yet exhausted the soil.

Shaunna L. Scott
Associate Professor, Sociology
Director of Graduate Studies


Bailey, Rebecca.  2008.  Matewan before the Massacre: Politics, Coal, and the Roots of Conflict in a West Virginia Mining Community. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Berry, Chad,  Phil Obermiller and Shaunna L. Scott, eds.  In progress. Taking Stock: Appalachian Studies Examined.

Stephanie McSpirit, Shaunna L. Scott, Sharon Hardesty and Robert Welch.  2005.  “EPA Actions in Post-Disaster Martin County, Kentucky: An Analysis of Bureaucratic Slippage and Agency Recreancy.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 11 (1&2): 30-58.

Shaunna L. Scott.  1983.  “Grannies, Mothers and Midwives: An Examination of Traditional Southern Lay Midwifery.” Central Issues in Anthropology 4 (2): 17-29.

Shaunna L. Scott.  1996.  “’Dead Work’: The Construction and Reconstruction of the Harlan Miners Memorial.” Qualitative Sociology 19 (3): 365-94.

Shaunna L. Scott, Stephanie McSpirit, Sharon Hardesty and Robert Welch. 2005. “Post Disaster Interviews with Martin County Citizens: ‘Gray Clouds’ of Blame and Distrust.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 11 (1&2): 7-29.

Shaunna L. Scott. 2008. “Revisiting the Appalachian Land Ownership Study: An Oral Historical Account.” Appalachian Journal 35 (2): 236-252.

Shaunna L. Scott. 2009. “Discovering What the People Knew: The 1979 Appalachian Land  Ownership Study.” Action Research 7(2): 185-205.

Stephanie McSpirit and Shaunna L. Scott. In progress. “The Martin County Coal Waste Spill and Beyond: Citizen Efforts at Protecting Kentucky’s Vital and Vulnerable Water Resources” (working title). Chapter for Shaped by Water: Kentucky’s Watersheds, Landscapes, and People. Brian D. Lee, Alice Jones, Dan Carey ad John Burch, eds. University Press of Kentucky. Projected publication:  2012.

Scott, Shaunna L. and Stephanie McSpirit. In progress. “A Disasters’ Impacts on Local Media Framing of Coal Corporations in Martin County, Kentucky.” (working title)

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