Beyond (internal) Colonization, Blame, and Binaries: Working Towards a Relational Economy

We realized that so many of the problems communities were dealing with were related to the economic system, and if we could not reform the economy—develop a moral economy, one which serves all the people—we could not solve health, education or environmental problems.

–Helen Lewis

A few weeks ago[1] I was reunited with a group that blurs the line between activists and academics at the 38th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Johnson City, Tennessee. The Association’s annual gathering draws an estimated crowd of 900 musicians, farmers, dancers, writers, scholars, teachers, community organizers, healthcare professionals, and others with loose ties or deep roots to the region that is the group’s namesake. The space is unique: at once welcoming, communal and rigorous. The conference boasted panels on literature, ethnicity, pedagogy and sustainable development. I presented on a New River Valley musician and moderated a panel addressing the area’s hip-hop and rap scenes. I sought in my presentations to push the boundaries of what is and is not considered the regional soundscape and to understand why those presuppositions exist.

The event included wonderful moments of sharing and exploring. However, it was the session, “Internal Colony—Are You Sure? Defining, Theorizing, Organizing Appalachia” that has lingered in my mind.[2] Internal colonization has conceptually been helpful for many scholars to begin to describe desolate conditions in the region without recurring to a culture of poverty model or a world systems analysis. As the roundtable’s title suggested, the use of the construct (internal colonization) is being questioned by many, and rightly so. The panelists and attendees left without answers, but with fresh questions—suggesting this session’s importance.

What was evident for me as I reflected on the roundtable was that 1) many interested analysts and other individuals long for discussions of political ecology and social economy, and 2) we do not yet have a language for next steps.[3] Rather than dive into the debate concerning whether internal colonization is a suitable model for studying the region, I seek here to reflect and engage briefly with the questions: What do we make (literally and conceptually) of the region’s current political, cultural and social ecology? How do we re/create a just economy in Appalachia? In order to attain that aspiration, what relationships must be cultivated, what bridges must be crossed, and what concepts must we question?  In my view, regional scholars must address these questions since, as Douglas Reichert Powell has argued, “[T]he function of critical regionalist cultural scholarship ideally should be not only to criticize but also to plan, to envision. . . more just and equitable landscapes.”[i]

Different Understandings of Poverty in Appalachia

Scholars, public officials and journalists have largely attributed the economic difficulties in the region to a “culture of poverty” or to the effects of capitalism (through world systems theories). World Systems perspectives, heavily influenced by the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, “conceptualize capitalism as an expansionist ‘world system’ evolving over centuries and operating over and above the collective decisions of individuals.”[ii] Internal colonization was introduced to scholars through the pivotal work, Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case, edited by Helen Lewis.  Lewis and her contributors argued that the purpose of the “Colonialism Model” (also known as internal colonialism, exploitation, or external oppression) was to, “stand in contradistinction to other ways of viewing and interpreting the problems of the region, most significantly the deficiency or Culture of Poverty Model and Underdevelopment Model.”[iii]  Lewis’ text’s authors did not accept portrayals of “hillbillies” as “backwards and barbaric,” nor did they view the region as a space that needed to be saved by outside intervention. Rather, the book created a clearer understanding of how Appalachia (a “relational term” according to Douglas Reichert Powell[iv]) has been manipulated by economic and political interests via (micro) dominance within communities and (macro) systematic oppression. This perspective proved incredibly empowering for many people within the region, as was evident at the ASA conference, where many were vocally hesitant to move beyond this theorization. 

Implications of Being an Internal Other

One can see the implications of accepting and utilizing internal colonization not only as an explanation for exploitation, but also as a vessel for change in Ron Eller’s Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, a heralded text within Appalachian Studies.[v] It offers a thoughtful analysis of the political and economic situation of the region as increasingly understood and demarcated by policies. Eller explored the implications of the fact that so many public officials and citizens have perceived Appalachia as an anomaly and incorrectly imagined its people as isolated and backward.  While conceptual “otherness” may conjure romantic views of “yesterday’s people,” it historically led as well, as Eller contended, to the belief that advances in technology and science could “overcome” such differences and supposed deficiencies and create a more equal playing field for those afflicted.[vi]

Nonetheless, while this culture of poverty model has reaped few analytic rewards, it is equally problematic to apply a generic one-size-fits all program or strategy, as entailed in an analysis guided by the assumptions of the internal colony perspective. Eller’s assessment of the efforts of the United States Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) illustrated this point, even as its animating ideological “push” proved helpful in stirring social movements in the region. Indeed, it was only when the OEO began to press to include “the poor” on its various organizational governing boards that the region began to see true momentum towards realizing more equitable community relationships and projects, and thereby a more just political ecology. This characteristic—the inclusion of different types of knowledge/s and gendered, racial, socio-economic, or insider/outsider experience within communities—is also what I find exciting and promising about Appalachian Studies generally.

Eller’s discussion of faith-based programs, such as the Christian Appalachian Project, (CAP) clearly articulated the grave danger of exceptionalizing the region in order to assist it:

Drawing on perceived images of Appalachian isolation and degeneracy to justify its programs, the CAP reinforced the popular idea of Appalachian otherness and limited its own ability to effect change . . . fail(ing) to confront the realities of injustice and economic exploitation that continued to marginalize poor people.[vii]

The inability to place Appalachia within the context of America at large and an incorrect belief that the region’s residents were “other” and distanced from the national ecology characterized CAP’s depiction and undermined the effectiveness of its efforts—as well intended as it projects were. Overall, Eller’s text argued that poverty arises largely as a result of exogenous forces and true change must act in reverse, arising from within communities. As Reid and Taylor have suggested, “Allen Bateau warned us twenty years ago about emphasizing the cultural distinctiveness of Appalachian to the point of limiting the political consciousness of the similarity between the domination of the region and the other forms of oppression.”[viii]

Cynthia Duncan’s sociological comparative study, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, 2nd ed.,[ix] offered an example of a shift in methods for approaching poverty in the region.  Her book provided a compelling descriptive narrative of how and why poverty persists in Appalachia, from the viewpoint of those in and above poverty levels in the fictional town of “Blackwell,” a typical coal town in the area. Duncan contended that cyclical poverty had long been understood through the lens of social structures and systemic issues, but that analysts had more recently begun to view it as the result of “social relationships and institutions in the community.”[x] Duncan’s text connected Appalachia to other American sub-regions and found similarities regarding their governance. Those relationships, I believe, are key to the profiled jurisdictions moving forward as communities— moving beyond imposed boundaries and binary understandings of rich/poor, insider/outsider, and towards more equitable practices and change processes.

Today, with heightened awareness of the neoliberal state and its protean reach, the impact of personal relationships on economic progress must be addressed. The emotions connected with money; the affectual aspects of our economic positions and class limitations and dreams are interwoven. Wendy Brown has written that neoliberalism is a mode of governmentality in which subjects become “entrepreneurs, wholly responsible for their well-being. In this construct, citizenship is reduced to successful entrepreneurship.”[xi] Neoliberal subjects are controlled “through their freedom;” those acting in line with neoliberal ideals are widely seen as responsible, worthy and moral.”[xii] Within this confused relational paradigm, in which many routinely hold Appalachia’s residents solely responsible for the area’s relative poverty, new moral conceptions must emerge, or older and more empirically accurate indigenous norms and mores must resurface if the region is to develop a more just economy.

Helen Lewis has described the region’s distributive justice challenge as resulting from the “morals” of capitalism, as evidenced in the quotation above.  On the most simplistic level, this is a consequence of the ways in which our nation and population have rationalized capital, labor, and economics. The financialization of everything represents a grim reading of the state of our collective psyche. Nevertheless, I believe there is reason for hope. I agree with Lewis that our values must change and I agree with Brown that the demos is destroyed by a neoliberal rationale and must be rebuilt on the basis of a radical reimagining. That is, we must work across boundaries and false binaries to seek an economy as relational as the spaces to which we collectively cling for meaning. I argue that the work of theorists such as J.K. Gibson-Graham and analyses such as Duncan’s can offer the foundation for just such a profoundly necessary project.

Radical Imaginaries beyond Binaries

Scope for future studies and hope for impoverished mountain communities may be found in the examples of thrift economies or share economies scattered throughout Duncan’s selected interviews. J.K. Gibson Graham’s work has shed light on this contra-hegemonic structure, which requires an undoing of our emotional and moral relationship with money, arguing:

We may need to produce a noncapitalist economic imaginary in the absence of desire (or, in the presence of multiple and contradictory sites). Whereas we may ‘desire’ the capitalist totality because of the powerful antagonistic sentiments we feel in its vicinity, we may not want to live with it. We may want instead a landscape of economic dissidence, in the presence of which paradoxically we feel no desire. The process of social representation calls forth and constitutes desiring subjects—persons with economic, professional, sexual, political and innumerable other compulsions and desires. But the representation of noncapitalist class processes has barely begun.[xiii]

Examples of this sort of imaginary in practice may be seen in Duncan’s description of cars lining the side of the road with quilts over their hoods and items for sale arrayed on them. Another example is vegetable gardens planted beside mobile homes. Communal dinners and childcare are also examples of this ethic, as are local radio stations with airtime dedicated to residents.

I have seen this form of economy flourish in my hometown (McDowell, North Carolina) and in my own life in local farmers markets and in the example of my father trading fiddle lessons for grazing land for our horses. Larger cities, such as Asheville, North Carolina, have proven that by diversifying and focusing on small community or co-op-based projects one building can bring in more revenue for a community than a Wal-Mart can produce.[xiv] These are obviously not non-capitalist examples, but instead are predicated on alternate understandings of production and value.

Duncan has used the term “underground economy” to describe these sorts of “off the books” ways of making ends meet that encourage community bonds and support. In a world where thrift stores, trade lots, flea markets and Craigslists have emerged as social spaces, different understandings or relations to product, labor, and money may develop. This shift in space and power does not necessarily boost individuals out of poverty, but it may alter the playing field in a unique way and serve as possibilities for “contradictory sites” or different ways to imagine collectively understood social mores.

Looking Forward

I believe there is much hope if we rewrite the moral foundations of the Appalachian economy. This may begin with the false dichotomies of internal/external, here/there, and “other” dialogue that have prevailed in conversations concerning how to view the region. The ASA roundtable specifically asked the following overarching question linked to this concern:

… As the need for major economic transitions within Appalachia, perhaps especially the coalfields, becomes more widely accepted, questions about how to define and theorize the past in order to overcome its legacies and organize towards brighter futures become more urgent. Does “internal colony” adequately clarify the context and aims of our struggle? Is ridding the region of outsider ownership and control our central organizing goal? If not, what is?[xv]

In order to reach a sustainable and just economy and “organize towards brighter futures,” Appalachia’s residents must look beyond borders, beyond here and there, insider/outsider, public/private distinctions and address the many levels of oppression, dependence and privilege which weave between and around—and most certainly within—the region. Until then, as the ASA conference session revealed, we must begin crafting a new language with which we can better articulate our hopes and the possibilities of our collective (radical) imagination.



[1] The Appalachian Studies Association Conference was held March 27-30th on the campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

[2] The roundtable was co-chaired by Barbara Ellen Smith (Virginia Tech) and Steve Fisher (Emory and Henry College). Participants included: Mary Anglin (University of Kentucky), Dwight Billings (University of Kentucky), Silas House (Berea College), Cathy Kunkel (Advocates for a Safe Water System), and Ada Smith (Appalshop).

[3] The Beehive Collective has made a tremendous impact bridging this divide through their work with visual media. Collecting personal narratives for use in creating more general and untold versions of regional histories, their murals serve as spaces that transcend local/global divides through stories of lived experience.

[i] Powell, Douglas Reichert. Critical regionalism: Connecting politics and culture in the American landscape. University of North Carolina Press , 2007. (25)

[ii] Lewis, Ron. “Industrialization” High Mountains Rising (62).

[iii] Ibid. 13

[iv] Powell, Douglas Reichert. Critical regionalism: Connecting politics and culture in the American landscape. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. (4)

[v] Eller, Ron. Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

[vi] Eller, Ronald. Uneven ground: Appalachia since 1945. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. (62, 63)

[vii] Ibid. (123)

[viii] Reid, Herbert, and Betsy Taylor. “Appalachia as a global region: Toward critical regionalism and civic professionalism.” Journal of Appalachian Studies (2002): 9-32. (13)

[ix] Duncan, Cynthia M. Worlds apart: Why poverty persists in rural America. Yale University Press, 2000.

[x]  Ibid., (187)

[xi] Brown, Wendy. “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 37-59. (201)

[xii] Brown, Wendy. “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) (43-44).

[xiii] Gibson-Graham, Julie Katherine. “The” End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy; with a New Introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.  (21)

[xiv] Montgomery, Charles, “Wal-Mart, An economic cancer on our cities. Nov. 10, 2015. Available at

[xv] Appalachian Studies Association Annual Conference 2015, Full Schedule. Available at


Brown, Wendy. “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

Duncan, Cynthia M. Worlds apart: Why poverty persists in rural America, 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2015.

Gibson-Graham, Julie Katherine. “The” End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy; with a New Introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Lewis, Ron quoted in Straw, Richard A., and H. Tyler Blethen, Eds. High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place. University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Marshall University.

Powell, Douglas Reichert. Critical regionalism: Connecting politics and culture in the American landscape. UNC Press Books, 2007.

Reid, Herbert, and Betsy Taylor. “Appalachia as a global region: Toward critical regionalism and civic professionalism.” Journal of Appalachian Studies (2002): 9-32.


jordanlaneyJordan Laney studies theories of space and place, musical communities, transformative pedagogy, and cultural politics in the ASPECT program at Virginia Tech where she teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture. Laney received her M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University with a concentration in music, her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and was a 2013 member of Leadership Bluegrass. She currently serves as the co-editor elect of the Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Theory Archives (SPECTRA) and as a Diversity Scholar through the Graduate School.



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