Like the trope that begins so many ethnographic accounts, this story starts with an entrance to “the field.” Though it reinforces divisions and alterity from places of scholarship and data — of places where information is gathered and those where it is processed and analysed — it is a reality of my fieldwork trips to Southeastern Ohio. Capital, scholarship, and best intentions usually flow in certain directions, and my starting point of the city of Columbus (the home of land-grant university The Ohio State University as well as the state capital of Ohio) is no exception to this flow. The campus of the university and streets of the city are decorated with the names of famous men complicit in the dispossession of land from American Indian groups (Lee et al. 2020) and gilded-age development that wrought mansions and palaces in some places while leaving holes and scars in others (Tribe 2012).
I drive my truck through sprawling suburban development and rolling farmland, coming at once the edge of the great Pleistocene glaciation. With a turn off the four-lane highway, it feels like I’ve dropped into the winding roads and forested flanks of West Virginia, my home state and other field sites of the past ten years. Two lane roads network a collection of small towns and villages in this area dominated by absentee ownership in a constellation of federal, state, and private land tenure practises. Each of the aptly named “Little Cities of the Black Diamonds,” mirror the geologic distinctions that sit on or below their surface. At the turn of the 20th century, they boomed with the extractive industry, providing labour to service the mining of coal, tapping of oil, quarrying of stone, and harvest of ceramic clay. Their names reflect back the colonial legacy of the United States, where dispossessed American Indian groups and long-dead barons of industry are presenced in their absence. Rendville, Shawnee, Congo, Haydenville, Nelsonvile, Corning, New Straitsville.
Their architecture of wood-beamed houses and brick recall the quick and easy ways in which these boom towns were often constructed, while mammoth opera halls, churches, and mayor’s offices demonstrate the liveliness of social and political life in these towns that spawned the American labour movement (Blosser and Winnenberg 2006). The creeks that run though and among these little cities, were and are among some of the worst polluted in the United States, artefacts of unregulated extraction during the United States’ Gilded Age – the “Era of Good Stealing” whose theft continues through today. Sunday Creek and Monday Creek emerge from the hills of this area, tainted orange from ferrous sulphide that pours from un-reclaimed underground mines whose guts lie spilled on the surface in gob piles of coal waste. A century removed from the desolation of that iteration of the coal industry has seen a dramatic decline in the demographic who trickled out of the area as their ancestors had once poured in.
However, there are those that continue to stay and fight, contrary to many popular narratives professed by national politicians and news outlets alike. The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council leads tours and scholarship on the industrial heritage of the area that fostered the Knights of Labor and the nascent coalition of miners who organised across contemporary distinctions of race, class, and migration status to form the United Mine Workers of America in Columbus in 1890. The Rendville Historic Preservation Society and the Tablertown People of Color Museum hold the standards to remember the radical re-imagining of Black life in the late 19th century that took place in these hills. Rural Action and the Buckeye Trail Association attempt to reconnect the severance with the natural environment that happens land is removed from people and people are removed from land. Sunday Creek Associates physically fills in the gaps – restoring buildings, hosting children’s education camps, and looking to alternate economic futures for the region. Janis Ivory, John Winnenberg, Harry Ivory, David Butcher. These people are the reason I return.
Since 2019, I have been partnering with them and many others on a garden of projects which sprout under the tacked-up sign of The Ohio Field School. Together, we use ethnographic toolkits to document and question how folks in this part of Ohio make meaning and sense of their changing environment and notions of place. Bringing together students, public folklorists, university faculty and staff, and community partners, the project operates under a theoretical framework of collaborative ethnography that attempts to resist the extractive methods that have leeched from coal, timber, and other industries into the documentation and critical analysis of the region.
Sense of place in Appalachia is inextricably tied to the legacies of extractive industry. The material and social processes of extraction reach into every dimension of social, economic, political, and environmental life. Coal and timber are usually the most associated elements of extraction, but gas, oil, gold and other precious metals, clay, and a range of other raw materials and resources have been the focus of returned and renewed methods of material exploitation (Eller 2013). Such resource extraction and accompanying uneven development of infrastructure, healthcare, education, and other metrics of social attainment led many sociologists and anthropologists to consider an “internal colony” of the region (Lewis et al. 1978). Taking up the mantle of the history of activism in the region, Appalachian scholars began to frame the extraction and uneven development of Appalachian Communities as a colonising practise.
Debates over the accuracy of applying a colonial model and attempts to decolonise a region that is at once also part of the global north with its own extractive tendrils elsewhere in the world have led Appalachian Studies Scholars beyond dualities to think extraction fundamentally as process (Scott and Hatcher 2016). In this way, Appalachian Studies scholars came to the discussion of decolonisation with a nuance and appreciation of process and overdetermination now becoming part of broad discussion on the framework’s place in method and theory. Coupled with a community-driven approach that always attempts to put the impacts of scholarship on those being studied first (Hinsdale et al. 1995), Appalachian Studies has a framework for us to do non-extractive work in our ethnographic efforts.
As a course offered through the Folklore Studies program at OSU, we also frame our work through Folklore’s coming-to-terms with its historical legacy of extractive work. Paternalism, selective representation, and material dispossession have all figured prominently in the history of the discipline’s academic and public-facing work. Reciprocal ethnography (Lawless 2019) and collaborative ethnography (Campbell and Lassiter 2014) have arisen as key methodologies to address the historical inequities at play in folklore research. Acknowledging the ongoing successes and failures of these methodologies (Lawrence 2022) and the various roles that ethnographers must take as organisers and facilitators first (Lassiter et al. 2020) are principles that have shaped our non-extractive field techniques. In other words, listening to what others identify as important, finding how your skills can respond, and realising that our work relationships are deeply human come with the practice of equitable ethnography in the field school setting.
In Appalachian Ohio, we have attempted to build a model for collaborative work that counters the legacy of extraction in the region: one that builds upon the efforts of community partners in Appalachian Ohio, that brings ethnographic methods to the service of residents and activists as partners rather than research subjects. The Field School is structured in a way to remain accountable to community partners, provide reciprocal engagement, and give students a chance to practise collaborative methods when the structures of their degree programs frequently deny that possibility (Borland et al. 2020). The outcomes of such structures and efforts on the part of students and instructors have been the development of an archive of thousands of interviews, photos, digitised records, and ethnographic field reports – all of which have seeded projects for theses and dissertations, as well as various exhibitions, events, and presentations. These kinds of outcomes are easily measured and appreciated by the institutions that house us but leave questions about the impact of our work for our collaborators.
As one community partner, John Winnenberg, has said ‘We’re the first to bleed and the last to heal,’ pointing to the legacy of precarity that historical and ongoing material dispossession of the region’s resources has continues to unfold. What use can ethnographic projects be to such problems? In discussions with community partners, our colleague Rachel Terman at Ohio University (Athens, OH) found that many residents described the work of imagining futures in cultural fields as building houses while still trying to put out the fires of opioid addiction, environmental degradation, quality housing, and access to sustainable livelihoods (Terman et al. 2021). Pivoting from the observant/participant ethnographer to a more active role that emphasised the skills of ethnography (listening, organisation, theme-building), we took on the roles of organisers and facilitators in the Sharing Visions program. With the relationships sustained throughout continued ethnographic work, we brought together community organisations to draw on each other’s material resources and knowledge of negotiating regionally-specific challenges during a series of summits. Field School partners were compensated through a grant program to address the issues identified through ethnographic research, but best answered by those addressing them in their everyday contexts.
Nevertheless, the distance created by institutions that seek to represent such a broad constituency as the entire state of Ohio still draws issues. Can we do counter-extractive work without being there? Without living the environment and social lives alongside our partners? As OFS community partner David Butcher frequently puts it, ‘I still carry my lunch box to work every day’, referencing that the work he puts into documenting the history and contributions of people of colour to Southeast Ohio history is additional to his work at a coal-processing plant. This is common for our partners, who labour in evenings and weekends and into their seventh and eighth decades to continue to tell these stories while we’re afforded the luxury of our working hours. Cassie Patterson, one of the co-founders of The Ohio Field School, moved to the field schools’ previous site in Portsmouth, Ohio to begin Southern Ohio Folklife to address the gaps and silences that emerge as well as maintain the continuity needed to establish collaborative research. We attempt to be present and active members of community efforts as much as possible, but institutional settings default back to the mean, and our own bureaucratic and institutional fires always threaten to spread (such as the Ohio State Bill 83 aimed at restricting efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion on Ohio’s campuses of higher education).
In these contexts, we aspire to be counter-extractive: to build trust so that partners will invite our critique and analytical positions, to ensure that our partners are seen as producers and custodians of knowledge about their communities, to reciprocate their time and efforts in the ways they deem significant. With partners we’ve given presentations to the Society for Applied Anthropology, the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore, the American Folklore Society, and the Appalachian Studies Association, among others. We’re currently working on a volume with community partners as co-authors along with former students and faculty of the Ohio Field School. Every day we strive to be co-conspirators of our partners when extractors of experience, capital, and resources come knocking or knocking down, as they do.
I began this essay with a nod to the entrance to the field from my home and office in Columbus, Ohio. Fieldwork and “a field” begin with an abstraction of place, that there is a place that is meaningful to the ethnographer and that meaning can be found, known, and captured and distilled to its essence. How can we counter this extractive tendency? What can we leave in its place? What can be planted to grow, disperse, and even decompose (Ahlstone 2022)? What can be grafted onto existing structures that might bear alternate fruit than the economic gains of extraction? In spring 2024, I’ll be returning with a new Ohio Field School cohort to the region. We’ll see what happens when we stick our hands in the dark earth, not to pull something out, but to help something grow.
Dr Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies and Archivist for the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH). He completed his PhD in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY) in 2019, and worked for several years in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC). His upcoming book Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers and Appalachia’s Mountain Forests (West Virginia University Press, Fall 2023) looks at the intersection of craft economies, forest ecologies, and music in Appalachia. A book on The Ohio Field School with contributions from former students, instructors, and community partners is currently under contract with University Press of Kentucky and due to be released in late 2024. @craftethnography on Instagram
Ahlstone, Daisy. Decomposition as a Model for Concluding Collaborative Ethnographic Projects. 2022. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society. Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States.
Borland, Katherine, Cassie Rosita Patterson, and Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2020. “The Ohio Field School: A Collaborative Model for University-Community Research.” Journal of Folklore and Education. 2020 (7).
Blosser, Cheryl and John Winnenberg. 2006. Agents of Change: The Pioneering Role of the Miners of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds in the Nation’s Labor Movement. Shawnee, Ohio: The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council.
Campbell, Elizabeth and Luke Eric Lassiter. 2014. Doing Ethnography Today: Theories, Methods, and Exercises. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Eller, Ronald. 2013. Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
Hinsdale, Mary Ann, Helen M. Lewis, and S. Maxine Waller. 1995. It Comes from the People: Community Development and Local Theology. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
Lassiter, Luke Eric, Brian Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell, eds. 2020. I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press.
Lawrence, David Todd. 2022. “When We Blew It: Vulnerability, Trying, and Failure in Ethnographic Research.” Journal of Folklore Research, 59 (2): 129-147.
Lawless, Elaine. Reciprocal Ethnography and the Power of Women’s Narratives. 2019. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Lewis, Helen, Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins, eds. 1978. Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Boone, North Carolina: The Appalachian Consortium Press.
Terman, Rachel, Joy Kostanek, and Franchesca Rife. 2021. “Intergenerational Community Visions in Appalachian Ohio,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, 27 (2): 187-201.
Tribe, Ivan. 2012. Sprinkled with Coal Dust: Life and Work in the Hocking Coal Region, 1870-1900. Shawnee, Ohio: Black Diamond Press.
Scott, Shaunna and William Hatcher, eds. 2016. “Special Forum on Sustainable Economic Development,” Journal of Appalachian Studies. 22 (1).