Theories & Static Images of Appalachia
This paper analyzes theories that have been used to understand and interpret Appalachia and its people, such as “subculture of poverty”, “Internal Colonialism”, “Domestic colonialism”, and “Predatory Capitalism” interpreted by Walls and Billings and Lohmann. In addition, this paper describes the static image of Appalachians that later reinforced and justified the exploitation of the mountaineers by the outside capitalists interpreted from Banks et al., Lewis, and Eller.
Moreover, Billings and Walls’ “The Sociology of Southern Appalachia” explores the first theory discussed in this paper— Subculture of poverty. The theory is but one broad approach that “identifies the internal deficiencies of the lower class subculture as the source of the problem” (pp. 132.) Four themes emerge of the subculture: individualism and self-reliance, traditionalism, fatalism, and fundamentalism where individualism refers to the personality, familism is the common social interaction, and puritanism is their belief system (Billings & Walls, 1977.) Likewise, these themes are seen as features that have created the barriers for Appalachian people. However, the theory of Subculture of poverty is often criticized (Billings & Walls, 1977), because of its use of stereotyping Appalachians into a static image. The theory also has a limited understanding of economic development. Often, the idea that poverty is a culture assumes that Appalachians are weak to the pressures of a modern industrial age. The theory also invokes the idea that all Appalachians were and/or are affected by poverty—which will further be discussed in this paper on how the static image and the subculture of poverty theory contributed to the overdevelopment of Appalachian land by missionary and profit motives of the capitalist outsider elites.
The second theory discussed by Billings and Walls, Internal colonialism, assists in the understanding of Appalachia by examining the process of dominant outside interests establishing industrial control and continuing to subordinate the internal colony (Billings & Walls, 1977.) The industrial control included exploiting cheap labor through a process of establishing and maintaining domination where raw materials were extracted from the region, local people/colonized groups/indigenous people and sold to outsiders who could afford the products (Billings & Walls, 1977; Lewis, 1999.) The internal colonialism that brought commercial industry, created the labor force of the miners and millhands out of those mountaineers (Billings & Walls, 1977.) This theory was reflected through the examples of outsiders buying up land and exploiting workers for their own profits (Billings & Walls, 1977.)
The third theory that assists in the understanding of Appalachia is Domestic colonialism as described by Lohmann (1990) in “Four Perspectives on Appalachian Culture and Poverty”. Domestic colonialism raises the question: how is the experience of poor Appalachians compare to poverty throughout America and the globe? For example, the theory compares the underdeveloped regions of Appalachia to Africa and Asia due to the colonization of land and resources (Lohmann, 1990.) Specifically, the theory explains a regional history of exploitation especially environmental issues (air, water, strip mining), housing, and land ownership (corporately or absentee-owned) (Lohmann, 1990.) For instance, corporately owned land accounts for half the land in coal counties, and land that is ‘absentee-owned’ accounts for 72% occupied in coal counties (Lohmann, 1990.) What’s more, 11 corporations own nearly all the land in Logan County, West Virginia (Lohmann, 1990.)
Furthermore, the declining importance of mining and ownership of a large percentage of land by outside interest, are two issues to understanding poverty in Appalachia (Lohmann, 1990.) Predatory capitalism perspective, focuses on the alienation and sense of powerlessness of the unemployed and working poor (Lohmann, 1990.) The powerlessness and alienation felt by poverty is the precondition to socially controlling the functioning of labor markets in capitalist economies (Lohmann, 1990.) Even public assistance in a capitalist society is a form of social control because there are profits in keeping people unemployed or underemployed (Lohmann, 1990.) But, the outside corporations are still dependent upon a surplus population of workers, because they become the “servants for the middle class retirees and vacationing second-home owners” (Lohmann, 1990, pp. 221.)
Instead of suggesting there is a culture of poverty—assuming that mountain people accept or chose to live this way—the focus should be on how Internal colonialism is an agent of poverty. The theory Internal colonialism mentioned by Walls and Billings will be further examined here because it reflects the development of Appalachia. Typically, Appalachia was seen as having a ‘backward’ economy sustained by a subculture of poverty, according to Ronald Lewis (1999.) Often, Appalachia’s traditional values, geographic location and cultural isolation are said to be the barriers that explained a phenomenon of poverty then and now (Lewis, 1999.) But this is not the reality of Appalachian history. The myths about Appalachia was that it was a subculture of poverty, when in fact there was concentrated wealth, and thus great social stratification (Lewis, 1999.) For instance, Internal colonialism constructed the stratification between the commercial elites and the working poor. The elite used their wealth to create booming industries to profit off of people that depended on their labor and services. Elites used immigrants, black slaves, and poor whites as their labor force to expand profits (Lewis, 1999; McKinney, 2000.)
Additionally, those outside corporations persuaded Appalachians to sell their land for resources (Eller, 1982; Lewis, 1999.) The selling of the mountains for coal mines, logging, and railroads marked the first stages of the crippling blow to the region (Eller, 1982.) For instance, ex-military officers began to survey land for iron and coal deposits, which led to purchasing land or mineral rights from the local mountaineers. Another example: in 1889, when 2000 acres of land granted to its original settlers in 1839 were bought for $200 at an auction by the American Association, Ltd. company of London, England (Eller, 1982.)
Other examples of Internal colonialism were the approximate 500 company towns in the southern Appalachian coal fields and less than 100 independent incorporated towns (Eller, 1982.) To put this into perspective, the United State Coal Commission found that 750,000 acres of Appalachian coal lands was controlled by the Morgan affiliate and it auxiliary companies (Eller, 1982.) And this was common for coal companies to own hundreds of thousands of acres, in another example where English investors controlled 550,000 acres of land (Eller, 1982.) Another, where Hellier and May controlled the mineral rights to land in Elkhorn that spanned 500,000 acres (Eller, 1982.) Even though the Appalachian people despised the coal mining development because of the noise, smoke, destruction of land, and disturbances, the people adjusted and eventually became attracted to the lure of big money, thus the landscape was transformed from a picturesque view, to a “discrete and isolated self-contained social units” (Eller, 1992, pp. 165.)
Consequently, Internal colonialism protects itself, by creating a false narrative of Appalachian people. For one, Lohmann describes Appalachia as a culture of subsistence, where high levels of poverty are normalized. Because poverty is accepted and/or normalized, and outside culture has romanticized a simple, slow-paced life, there is a strong fatalistic sense among some. Likewise, religion buffers poor Appalachians in coping with poverty as fate, while heaven is used to romanticize salvation. Helplessness is learned and passed down through families in addition to the rhetoric, language, and religious ideologies of the community. Industrial capitalism gave a voice to novelists, missionaries, reporters, educators, movie producers that painted Appalachian people as ignorant, violent, uncouth, outlaws, and uncivilized. This was a way to silence the working poor, and separate the affluent, white (immigrants) class from the lower class; and it was a way to preserve the classification of people and exploit this vulnerable labor force to continue to be dependent.
Furthermore, this “static image” as described in Eller’s Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, invokes a pioneer-like simple life of Appalachian peoples. It is a controlling force that suggests that Appalachian people are isolated from the industrial age, haven’t changed their way of life for generations which keeps Appalachians stifled from the modern industrial world (Eller, 1982.) Consequently, outsiders typically accuse Appalachians for creating their own poverty, lack of education, and poor health, instead of acknowledging the outside forces that have caused these issues. Then, the stereotype (‘static image’) is reinforced to believe that mountain people are a ‘backward people’ (Eller, 1982.)
Additionally, the static image of Appalachians applies to the region’s “progress” and the controlling images of Appalachians still leads to the region’s “modernization.” For example, timber and mining companies were buying up land as part of the industrial age (Eller, 1982.) In the industrial age, “progress” was made by ‘outside capitalists’ and for those who controlled the political system to exploit, degrade, and diminish the land’s natural resources for their own wealth. From here, a social gap existed and a segregation between the working class and managers and highly skilled professionals (Eller, 1982.) The shift from an agrarian mountain life where one was impacted by the timber industry, led to people pushed off of the land and into public work (Eller, 1982.) This progress meant that people left the mountains for burgeoning cities and towns to work for companies that profited off of the timber industry such as furniture plants (Eller, 1982.) As coal and timber industries declined, cotton mills emerged and then Appalachian people were then negatively affected by a new wage system (Eller, 1982.) In fact, in most cotton mills, 80% of the workers were women and children, usually working 65 to 72 hours a week (Eller, 1982.)
Subsequently, when you are a people that is viewed as ‘backward’ and ‘worthless,’ then you are similarly viewed as ‘the other’ that needs to be saved. This led to justification and incentive for the acquisition of mountain land and resources by outsider capitalists (Eller, 1982.) Ironically, “profit motive and missionary motive have often gone hand-in-hand in the development of ‘backward people’” (Eller, 1982, pp. 43.) Social welfare made the region dependent on the federal government while federally owned land increased (Elle, 1982.) Internal colonialism was reinforced by capitalists that worked under the guise that they were helping to uplift the mountaineers by bringing resources to the land (Eller, 1982.) Thus “missionary motive” and the “profit motive” worked together because missionaries who enter the region during industrialization, still profited from a ‘commercial spirit’ to uplift mountaineers (Eller, 1982.) Politicians and newspapers advertised and publicized the wealth of natural resources in Appalachia in an effort to attract commercial investors and recruit foreign immigrants to the region for labor and land development (Eller, 1982.)
According to Couto, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) defines Appalachia as 410 counties across 13 states (66% are rural counties and the rest urban), and some eight percent of all Americans lived in Appalachia in 2000. From 1880 to 1920, central Appalachia grew from 200,000 to 1.2 million people (Lewis, 1999.) As the population in Appalachia increased due to the expansion of commercial industry, the population became diverse as the industry attracted immigrants as well. Within Appalachia, European Americans as part of the textile manufacturing and mills, while immigrants and African Americans worked in construction and extractive industries; and African Americans predominately worked the cotton fields (Lewis, 1999.) Lewis (1999) also contends that the population in Appalachia looked like a blend of Scottish, Irish, Asian, African Americans. Eller (1982) stated that the largest ethnic group were the Italians that immigrated to the mountains, in addition to Poles, Hungarians, and Slavs. With this in mind, Appalachians were certainly not geographically isolated, and it is a myth that mountain folk were isolated and homogeneous (Lewis, 1999.)
Banks et al. (1993) writes that a postmodernism approach is common sense reasoning as well as representation of how thoughts are expressed. Postmodernism involves a heightened and healthy skepticism, highlighting the diversity, multiplicity, and fluidity (Banks et al., 1993.) Postmodernism approach shifts the narrative from viewing people in a static image, and taking a universal/essentialist view of Appalachia as fixed or absolute (Banks et al., 1993.) Ronald Lewis (1999) takes a Postmodern approach in his article where he discounts the myths of Appalachia. As mentioned previously, Lewis discounts the geographical isolation and homogeneity of Appalachia. As previously mentioned, Appalachia was not a population of only white, European Americans, and was not a population of complete poverty; and instead was a heterogeneous population with great social stratification, places even having concentrated wealth (Lewis, 1999.)
Once again, there was a large fictional narrative of Appalachian culture and identity as isolated, homogenous, backward folk that were less civilized (Banks et al., 1993; Lewis, 1999; McKinney, 2000.) Appalachian identity has been complexly constructed (Banks et al., 1993), due to the exploitation of the region’s resources and labor force (Banks et al., 1993; Billings & Walls, 1977; Eller, 1982; Lewis, 1999; Lohmann, 1990; McKinney, 2000.)
Also, Couto (1994), contends that Appalachian identity was social constructed much like the identity of cowboys and Indians. Even though Appalachians were portrayed by this static image, Appalachian studies have contributed to postmodern approaches and see the region as diverse (Banks et al., 1993; Lewis, 1999; McKinney, 2000.) This fictional Appalachian identity created a phenomenon that conjured public assistance, capitalist corporations, and missionaries to uplift them (Eller, 1982.) Capitalists were attracted to the region because of the picturesque view the landscape, a homestead, and a log cabin (Eller, 1982.) But it didn’t lead to preservation and conservation of the land, and instead led to capitalists buying out local people’s land, to create developments which led to removing mountains, contributed to the logging timber industry, adding railroads, and ascending into a culture of coal mining (Eller, 1982.) By the 1920s, coal-mining villages dotted the hollows along every creek and stream (Eller, 1982.) Sadly, the people were left with diseases and malnutrition from the coal mines (Eller, 1982.) Not only was the land scarred and barren from overdevelopment but also left a lasting depression and decline in business took place when cheaper fuels such as oil and gas, hydroelectric power and technological progress stifled the coal industry (Eller, 1982.)
Whether a predatory capitalist, Internal colonialist, or postmodern approach, Appalachia tends to be viewed in terms of impoverished, needy, and uneducated which attracts outside missionary and profit motives. The postmodern approach of Appalachian studies tends to analyze the root oppression as a systematic dominance of the region’s people. The examples described in the paper suggest that Appalachia was an exploited region by outside capitalist elites and humanitarians (missionary and profit motives). To analyze the exploitation of Appalachia while reinforcing a false image is to analyze poor regions across the nation and globe—it happens much the same way where capitalism and colonialism go hand-in-hand. The implications from the readings and theories, is a call for radical action, that may include a redistribution of land and wealth, a balance between sustainable technology and energy, biodiverse farming practices, as well as a consciousness shift towards the empowerment of the people.
Banks, A., Billings, D. B., & Tice, K. (1993). Appalachian Studies, Resistance, and Postmodernism, in Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, ed. by Stephen L. Fisher (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), pp. 283-302.
Billings, D. B., & Walls, D. S. (1977). The Sociology of Southern Appalachia. In Appalachian Journal, 5(1), 131-144.
Couto, R. A., Simpson, N. K., Harris, G., & National Cancer Institute (U.S.). (1994). Sowing seeds in the mountains: Community-based coalitions for cancer prevention and control. Bethesda, Md.: Appalachia Leadership Initiative on Cancer, Cancer Control Sciences Program, Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Cancer Institute.
Ronald D. Eller. (1982). Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press).
Lewis, Ronald L. (1999). Beyond Isolation and Homogeneity: Diversity and the History of Appalachia. In Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes, ed. D. Billings, G. Norman, and K. Ledford, 21-43. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. Originally published as Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes.
Lohmann, Roger A. (1990). Four Perspectives on Appalachian Culture and Poverty. In the Political Economy of Appalachia, 217-224. Originally published from Journal of Appalachian Studies Association.
McKinney, G. B. (2000). Diversity in the Mountains: Regional and Cultural Identity. Appalachian Heritage 28(3), 5-20. The University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from Project MUSE database.