Musings on The Human-Ecology Imaginary

Contemplating events at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock, South Dakota, many people have found it hard to connect Indigenous values with their own beliefs about their relationships to the land on which they live. I am no sage, nor was I raised in an Indigenous culture. However, in the name of creating community among Reflections readers, and emerging from my concerns arising from the dispute concerning possible use of sacred Sioux Tribal land for an oil pipeline in South Dakota, I am stimulated to share a recent personal epiphany regarding my understanding of the sacredness of land.

I periodically drive south from Virginia into Tennessee and travel Interstate 26 as it winds its way into North Carolina, and I am always intrigued by the many Native American sounding names on the road signs. I find myself wondering what I might discover in the Watauga watershed and what the names Unicoi, Okolona, and Unaka signify in historical terms.  When did Sycamore Shoals State Heritage Park and Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, Tennessee, come into being and what was there before the land was set aside as public parks?

As I zip by in my car at 70 miles-per-hour, I wonder what stories this land and these waterways could share. And, yet, as intrigued as I am year after year, I never take time to stop and learn more about this area or the specific places that have long captured my attention. I never delve into the history, the stories or the traditions, past and present, of this portion of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. I simply speed by, in my time-pressed existence, to my destination.

However, recently, while in Asheville, North Carolina visiting friends, I read Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Basso, 1996) and it occurred to me that these sites I pass every few months and whose names always strike me, are likely attached to the language of my Native American and Appalachian ancestors who lived in these regions. I found myself wondering whether there were, and possibly still are, family stories about these locations. On a recent trip, I mused about why this possibility had not previously crossed my mind; why I had not sought out the wisdom surely contained in these places.

As I continued to reflect, I found myself asking what it would mean to live in a world that actively drew on the knowledge represented by places. Would such a society treat land as a sacred being sought out for companionship? Would residents of such a society rethink elements of their otherwise currently technocentric lives? Would our public policies be different? Would we disavow today’s reigning dictum of profit over place?

Anthropologists, such as Basso who authored the book on the Western Apache, dedicate their professional, and often personal, lives to exploring and sharing the stories and cultural understanding of diverse groups that are otherwise too often not given voice. These analysts may be viewed as agents who help us see our collective assumptions. They do so by acknowledging the complexity of the woven fabric created by the cultural stories told and documented by Indigenous peoples and by recognizing that those narratives are recounted with supreme facility generation after generation to teach, heal and preserve shared beliefs.

But their work also points to something still deeper concerning human beings and their relationship to the land they inhabit.  Indeed, it suggests something so deep that it could penetrate my analytical, pragmatically trained mind and force me to recall the knowing that surely is, under the many layers of modernity, within each of us.  It is about this abiding, deep seated awareness that Basso astutely observed, “Inhabitants of their landscape, the Western Apache are thus inhabited by it as well, and in the timeless depth of that abiding reciprocity, the people and their landscape are virtually as one” (1996, p.102, emphasis in original). That is, the Western Apache belief system highlights the intersubjectivity of human-land reciprocity. Basso’s book offers many more strikingly perceptive and thoughtful statements synthesized from conversations with Western Apache tribe members during a more than 30-year period. Each such observation, like the “arrows” discussed by the tribe members, pulled me deeper into thoughts about the symbiotic, communicative relationship between nature spirits and human beings, or as it might also be regarded, the human-ecology imaginary.

The interviews and stories Basso recounted also prompted me to reflect on how our society considers the constructed relationship between space and time. The Western Apache portray that linkage in healing ceremonies that transcend the concept of time. Their ontology stands in direct opposition to modern life and science. To the broader public, such a perspective is either not in its collective consciousness or is ignored or denied as unorthodox. Perhaps for this reason, few researchers cross the boundary of “appropriate” inquiry to share such views that were born in a time before science came to dominate our individual and collective sensibilities. For this reason, too, individuals, Indigenous or not, often do not share their non-conforming views concerning relationships to land, space and time in public venues.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering how dominant societal norms might change if ancestral voices, via ancient stories of land and nature, were widely employed to teach morality, identity and resiliency? How could we open individually and collectively to the offers of healing such a possibility would represent? How could individuals with no Indigenous affiliation enter into such relationships? Could this be done without unethical appropriation or cooptation of Native beliefs and customs?

These substantial questions only begin to scratch the surface of the potential insights offered by the Western Apache and other Indigenous peoples. From the Western Apache tradition, I have been pondering the belief that wisdom arises from three antecedent conditions: bíni’ godilkǫǫh (smoothness of mind), bíni’ gontŁ’iz (resilience of mind) and bíni’ gonŁdzil (steadiness of mind) (Basso, 1996, p. 131). Basso revealed that, for the Western Apache, steadiness of mind is achieved by looking inward and eliminating all inner incongruences, whereas, resilience of mind is attained by learning how to cope with and recover from external forces. Once these attributes are attained, a person may develop smoothness of mind, “the primary mental condition required for wisdom” (Basso, 1996, p. 131). I find it deeply intriguing that the Western Apache believe:

none of these conditions is given at birth, each must be cultivated in a conscientious manner by acquiring relevant bodies of knowledge and applying them critically to the workings of one’s mind. Knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in this regard because it illustrates with numerous examples the mental conditions needed for wisdom as well as the practical advantages that wisdom confers on persons who possess it (Basso, 1996, p. 130).


I was struck by this contention because the Western Apache beliefs felt so profoundly relatable to my life. The tribe teaches that the knowledge of place aligns individuals with their highest potential for wisdom. For this reason, I became convinced that I owe it to myself to further explore eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and seek to learn from the places located there that still retain their Native names. My first steps toward developing a relationship with the area follow. My knowledge to date is paltry and must be supplemented by sustained efforts to come to know this terrain first hand, but it represents a start.

  • ➝ Okolona: A marker along the highway within Johnson City, Tennessee simply states the name without descriptors. However, the term most likely comes from the Chickasaw word Okalaua, meaning peaceful, yellow or blue water. Interesting, it has been proposed that tribal people who were moved with the 1887 Dawes Act were taken from Tennessee and placed into, what was later called Okolona county, Mississippi.
  • ➝ Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area: European settlers proclaimed a town in this area in 1772. The “Transylvania Purchase” of 1775 transferred Cherokee lands to those colonizers, which resulted in a series of attacks on the incomers by the tribe. Tennessee established the park in 1976 on the grounds of Fort Watauga, constructed 200 years before, in 1776, to protect settlers from continuing Cherokee attacks. The Watauga River runs through the area, creating shoals prime with fish and wildlife.
  • ➝ Unaka: The name Unaka is rooted in the Cherokee language symbols ᎤᏁᎦ, and term unega, meaning “white,” and is the historic name of the subrange of the Appalachian Mountains bordering Tennessee and North Carolina. They are said to be comprised partly of white stones/quartz. The Cherokee National Forest and the Pisgah National Forest protect sections of the Unaka Mountains; the Appalachian Trail traverses their crest. Unaka is also the name given to an unincorporated community in Cherokee County, NC, located within the Nantahala National Forest.
  • ➝ Unicoi: The Unicoi Mountains run through the small town of the same name nestled near the Cherokee National Forest. The name Unicoi also comes from the Cherokee root word unega. In this context, it refers to the low-lying clouds and fog that often drape the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the early morning or on humid or moist days. Unicoi is a main resupply point for Appalachian Trail hikers and Nolichucky River enthusiasts. It is also a hub and home to workers of the CSX railroad. The community’s first post office opened in 1851.
  • ➝ Watauga watershed: The name’s meaning is lost to history, as reported by John Preston Arthur in his 1915 classic ethnology of the region (Arthur, 1915). The Tennessee portion includes parts of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties in the northeast part of the state and drains approximately 614 square miles into the Boone Reservoir. The region contains two Designated Natural Areas: Watauga River Bluffs Designated State Natural Area, a 50-acre site, and Hampton Creek Cove Designated State Natural Area, a 693-acre reserve. The watershed contains 123 documented rare plant and animal species.
  • ➝ Established in 1991, Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, is a 200-acre district park. The Robert Young Cabin, built in the early 1770′s, is the oldest building on the property. The park also commemorated the Massengill Monument to honor Henry Massengill Sr. and Mary Cobb, who in the 1760s were considered the first permanent European settler family to the area.


Arthur, John Preston. (1915). A History of Watauga County, North Carolina: With Sketches of Prominent Families. Richmond, VA: Everett Waddey Co.

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. (1996). Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

City of Johnson City Tennessee (n.d.) Winged Deer Park. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Cooper, A. (2015, June 12). Native American Tribes & the Indian History in Okolona, Mississippi. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from,_Mississippi

n.a. (n.d.) Henry Massengill and Mary Cobb. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Watuaga Watershed. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Van West, C. (2009). Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Wikipedia sites, accessed February 2, 2017:,_Tennessee,_Tennessee


Rachael Kennedy is a Doctoral Candidate/ABD in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education.  She is particularly interested in the concept of community viability as it relates to regions’ ability to develop and sustain community food systems. She is exploring this concern both domestically and internationally by means of a sociological perspective that highlights the catalysts of initiation, community engagement, leadership style and power structure. Kennedy embraces a social justice stance that honors participatory research and community-based programming. She is intrigued by interdisciplinary approaches to major social problems and. was inducted into the Virginia Tech chapter of the Interdisciplinary Research Honor Society in 2013, which she now serves as President. Kennedy won a Fulbright Scholarship to Turkey for 2015-2016 and learned much from the Turkish people during her time in that country.

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Social Movements, Neoliberal Policy and Indian Democracy

Dominant social narratives pressing for the relentless expansion of the neoliberal state through extension of state assistance through grants and other welfare measures have been widely criticized for both the way the programs are set up and for failing to reach those for whom they are intended. Many view such welfare measures as a necessary political offset to the continued rapid growth of corporate capital. India stands out as a unique case of state intervention and redistribution at a time when many governments around the world are vigorously curtailing social welfare expenditures.

During the past decade, the Indian national government has passed several laws, such as the Right to Education Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Food Security Act and the Right to Information Act, that ensure that individuals receiving state welfare services have rights concerning those benefits. I contend that this situation could only occur because the form that democracy takes in India allows marginalized people(s) to assert their rights. The people’s movement that has resulted in these statutes has played a multifaceted role in efforts to initiate bottom-up development as well as in national policy-making. That movement’s efforts in turn resulted in these polices becoming more sustainable as groups demanded their rights and services and rendered politics more accountable in the process.

At the same time, these new government programs have served as a life line for the poorest of the poor during a period of continuing decline in agricultural production and urban area population expansion, with cities experiencing difficulties in absorbing that population influx. I argue that the specific ways social movements practice democracy in India may be laying the foundation for more radical governance possibilities in the future.

Scholarly consideration of neoliberalization has often been confined to its origins and manifestations in the North, namely Great Britain and the United States (U.S.).  However, in 1991, India, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, began a slow process toward adopting such goals. The Indian economy has grown at a consistently high rate since, although there has been some slowing in recent years (IMF, 2015). India’s economy expanded 7.3 percent year-on-year in the last three months of 2015, slowing from 7.7 percent growth in the previous quarter, but in line with market expectations (IMF, 2015).  By comparison, global growth, currently estimated to have been 3.1 percent in 2015, is projected at 3.4 percent in 2016 and 3.6 percent in 2017. Trade as a percentage of GDP stood at 25 percent in 2011 in India and the country remains one of the most sought after foreign direct investment (FDI) destinations (Roy, 2014).  But even as India has opened its borders to free movement of goods and capital, it has simultaneously maintained social welfare programs at the top of its policy agenda, thus attempting to pursue an Adam Smith notion of the power of free trade to have a noticeable, but not sole impact, to ensure human wellbeing. India stands out in the neoliberal era as a uniquely large-scale case of continued state intervention at a time when governments around the world have been curtailing state expenditures in virtually all areas except defense (World Bank, 2015).

Neoliberalism can be defined as both an ideology and a policy model; in both cases its adherents emphasize the value of free market competition (Harvey, 2005). Although interested scholars continue to debate the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice, the public philosophy is most commonly associated with the extension of laissez-faire economics into non-economic areas of society. In particular, neoliberalism is often characterized by its advocates’ belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient mechanism by which to allocate a variety of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs and its commitment to free trade and capital mobility (Harvey, 2005; Roy, 2014).

Neoliberal “rule of the market” involves cutting public expenditures for social services, massive deregulation of many sectors and privatization of previously publicly owned goods or services. In general, neoliberalism devalues the concepts of “the public good” and “community” in favor of replacing them with “individual responsibility.”  This ideology has been widely embraced despite the fact that neoliberal states have often been called upon to intervene on behalf of their richest and most powerful actors in order to maintain the power and influence of those groups.

Criticism of Development as Rights-based Approach

With India’s neoliberal turn during the past 25 years, a new dynamic logic has tied the operation of “political society” (comprising the peasantry, artisans and petty producers in the informal sector) with the hegemonic role of a “neoliberalized” bourgeoisie in “civil society.” In other words, India is a unique case in the neoliberal era because numerous social movements have pushed the state to temper the excesses of neoliberal claims by maintaining and extending welfare programs.  The logic is sustained by the state’s efforts to stem the ill-effects of primitive accumulation of capital with anti-poverty programs. The question here is how this state of affairs came to be and how this politics works in the larger society.

Chatterjee has argued that the state’s balancing act is a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital in India (2008). The state, with its mechanisms of formal democracy in regular, largely accepted elections, is the space in which the political negotiation of demands for the distribution of resources, through fiscal and other means, are articulated and made manifest through programs aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the nation’s population, including its large cadre of poor.

According to some analysts, electoral democracy makes it unacceptable for the government to leave marginalized groups without the means of labor and to fend for themselves, since this carries the risk of turning them into “dangerous classes” (Dreze, 2004).  However, for Chatterjee, the emphasis on development as freedom gained through political and economic rights does nothing to challenge the underlying source of the unequal system, i.e. the State and its support of a neoliberal society (Chatterjee, 2008).

While I agree with these critiques in theory, the desperate realities of Indian poverty mean that rights-based development approaches play an important role in making India’s grassroots democracy practices unique. India currently has a higher malnourishment death rate than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, (Dreze and Sen, 2013) for example, and more then 40 percent of India is confronting active insurgency (Report, 2008). This reality underscores the vital importance of the 30 kilograms of food distributed monthly by the national government to families below the poverty line of Rs 350 (USD 5), as required by the Right to Food Act. The Right to Food (RTF) campaign, which secured this state action, is not merely a temporary pressure group that gained increased allocations to public food aid programs. Instead, it is an ongoing social movement with a much broader agenda, playing an important role in challenging the barriers that people face in gaining access to the public programs and resources to which they are entitled, creating new ways to press the state to expand them, and ultimately ensuring the government is accountable for ensuring entitlements.

In this way, hunger and malnutrition have become a political priority that did not end with enactment of the RTF Act, since the Act requires the State to monitor continuously whether resources are reaching their intended beneficiaries.  From the perspective of the State, constantly mobilizing social movements such as the RTF campaign constitute continuing pressure in contrast to more temporary initiatives. What critics such as Chatterjee ignore is that these food programs not only provide basic sustenance, but also strengthen marginalized individuals and communities, especially different tribal and Dalit groups, which in turn has encouraged the maintenance of their respective political struggles. Eighty percent of the beneficiaries of the RTF Act are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dreze and Sen, 2013).

Bob Marley once said that a hungry man is an angry man. Hungry men (and women) can bring revolutions, but how are such actions possible? Movements and revolutions are a result of planned strategic activities that develop during long periods. How can the angry man fight with an empty stomach?  Thus, critiques of rights-based approaches should focus not on the results of formal political processes, such as the Right to Food Act, for doing nothing to challenge the underlying system of neoliberalization, but instead on these as stepping stones to more fundamental changes to political and economic systems.[1]

Why Ongoing Public Pressure is Key

The permanence of campaigns such as the RTF highlight the unique quality of Indian informal democratic strategies, such as public hearings, awareness campaigns, street protests and civil disobedience, which serve as an ongoing check on bureaucrats, contractors, dealers and money-lenders who have mercilessly exploiting marginalized individuals for so long.  This brings us back to the complementarity between local action and other higher scale processes, such as judicial activism and lobbying at the state level. In all these respects, there is an urgent need to bring the campaign to a higher plane, drawing on the whole spectrum of formal and informal democratic institutions. Thus, the response to the violation of one fundamental right, access to food, is mobilized to work for ancillary issues that in general challenge larger systemic forces of neoliberalization and state oppression.

What made the Right to Food campaign possible?

Democracy as space of resistance for robust civil society

As far as formal democratic institutions are concerned, India is doing reasonably well from a historical and international perspective. As Dreze has illustrated, in comparison with the U.S., India fares much better in many respects: India has a much higher voter turnout rate (the United States is near the bottom of the international scale in that respect), has institutionalized more extensive provisions for political representation of socially disadvantaged groups and is less vulnerable to the influence of “big money” in electoral politics (Dreze, 2004). There is also far greater pluralism in Indian than in U.S. politics in terms of ideological representation. Dozens of political parties, from the extreme left to the far right, are represented in India’s lower house, in contrast to the U.S. two-party system (with virtually identical political programs). In short, by contemporary world standards, Indian formal democracy appears in a reasonably good light as far as its institutional foundations are concerned.  Having said this, the ongoing challenge for Indian self-governance is how to continue to mobilize populations in the face of ongoing challenges such as economic insecurity, lack of education, social discrimination and other forms of disempowerment. The informal democratic processes that thrive in India are key to alleviating these negatives, especially in terms of providing spaces for marginalized communities to exert pressure on governmental institutions.


[i] On one hand, India has very strong rights-based national movements like the Right to Food campaign, while on the other hand, India has witnessed strong Dalit and Tribal Communities involved in the rights-based approach. Together, these have led to the development of skills and resources at the local community level to negotiate with the authorities. Further research needs to occur concerning the interplay between the two and how they share skills, resources and awareness/consciousness of rights and how these have played a pivotal role in not just making political structures more accountable and sustainable, but also in supporting other movements.


ICDS- Integrated Child Development Center (Anganwadi )at a Village in Bihar

Women working at an NREGA (National Rural Employment Gurantee Act) worksite in a village in Bihar JPG

Women raising slogans in a Village Meeting


Chatterjee, P. (April 19, 2008). Democracy and Economic Transformation in India. Mumbai: Economic & Political Weekly.

Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

International Monetary Fund . (2015). International Monetary Fund Report- India . New York: IMF.

Report, E. C. (2008). Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas. New Delhi : Planning Commission of India .

Sen, J. D. (2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Princenton University Press.


Pallavi Raonka is a third -year doctoral student in the Sociology department at Virginia Tech. Her areas of interest include social movements, global political economy, subaltern theories, development and South Asia. She is investigating the longstanding contentious relationship between Adivasi(indigenous) and State actors in the context of the ongoing Maoist Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Pallavi received her  BA- Psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, India, and her M.A. in Rural Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.


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Cooperative Organizations: Toward an On-Going Practice of Democracy


The United States (U.S.) recently completed a national election. Millions of people went to the polls and voted for President as well as for legislators and considered referenda on multiple issues. Shortly before the election, current U.S. President Barack Obama told a crowd in North Carolina that the “fate of the republic” and the “fate of the world” depended on how they planned to vote (“US Election” 2016). Yet, despite the asserted high stakes, only 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on November 9, 2016 (Bialik 2016). This response is typical and turnout is consistently much lower for state and local elections (Holbrook and Weinschenk 2014). Indeed, local political contests often attract fewer than 20 percent of registered voters.

Not only did less than 6 in 10 registered voters participate in this year’s national vote, but on election night, popular comedian Stephen Colbert also told his audience that the election had taken up “precious brain space” (Luibrand 2016). He argued that whether “your side won or lost,” Americans do not have to “do this” for a while. He concluded by saying it was now time to “get back to your life” (Ibid.). Along similar lines, journalist and political writer Matt Taibbi wrote days before the election that Americans should turn off politics permanently. He asserted that the only meaningful avenue most Americans have for political expression is voting every four years and he urged Americans only to think about politics when such concerns intersect with their “real lives” (Taibbi 2016)(Taibbi 2016). Colbert and Taibbi’s comments reflect a common misconception that conflates democracy with voting and asserts a sharp distinction between democratic participation and daily life.

However, as Rothschild has argued, there is very little “flesh on the skeleton of democracy” if it only consists of periodic voting (2009, 1038). Indeed, according to Sen (2005), casting a ballot is only one part of the “much larger story” of democracy. In addition to voting, democracy entails the exercise of “participatory reasoning and public decision-making” (Ibid.). Perry has argued aptly that without people actively participating in ruling themselves, “there is no democracy—no rule (kratia) by the people (demos)” (2014, 205).

With this robust view of democracy in mind, I here explore democratically organized cooperatives as an example of sites in which democracy as active self-governance is realized in their members’ daily lives. I have first sought to problematize the idea that democracy entails only voting in periodic government elections. Secondly, in view of the fact that many Americans are not even participating in this weaker understanding of democracy as voting, I follow Rothschild’s argument that democratic cooperatives represent one possibility to “catalyze” political interest and engagement among more Americans (2009, 1024).

Cooperatives as Sites of Lived Democracy

Directly challenging Colbert and Taibbi’s assertions of a binary distinction between democracy and private life, there are many individuals who participate in organizations that practice democracy on a daily basis. Many such entities fall under the “cooperative” umbrella. Cooperative organizations are “owned, controlled and operated for the benefit of their members” (“Types of Cooperatives” 2016). They typically adhere to seven principles of cooperation: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community (“About Us” 2016). The degree to which active and regular democratic participation occurs varies by cooperative (Low, Donovan, and Gieseking 2012).

However, there are more than 200 cooperatives in the U.S. and thousands around the world that actively work to include all members in decision-making processes with equal standing (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 165). These include what are typically called “worker cooperatives,” which are owned and managed by each firm’s employee/owners—examples include the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco, CA and New Era Windows in Chicago, IL—as well as a network of living cooperatives organized as the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). These organizations often do not operate along hierarchical rational-bureaucratic models of authority, but rather on the basis of what Rothschild-Whitt has called collectivist-democratic authority (1979, 511). According to Rothschild-Whitt, democratic control is the “foremost characteristic” of such entities (1979, 518).

The decision-making mechanisms used by democratically organized cooperatives vary. Such organizations often operate on the basic assumption of one-person, one-vote (Estey 2011, 358). Some use majority-rule voting while others pursue consensus building strategies (Rothschild-Whitt 1979, 512). Additionally, individuals may cast their votes publicly or by private ballot (Harnecker 2009, 31). Ng and Ng have argued that, in theory, any organization can incorporate varied democratic practices (2009, 83). However, the cooperatives of interest here institutionalize such processes and require, as Ng and Ng have suggested, “open meetings” in which all members have equal decision- making authority (Ibid.). The key point is that all members of such organizations have equal standing not only to participate in decision-making processes, but also to authorize, through majority voting or consensus, their collective decisions on a regular and on-going basis.

Democratically structured cooperatives assume different organizational forms. Some operate as for-profit businesses while others pursue non-profit objectives. According to the Democracy at Work Institute, there were 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the United States in 2013, which operate on a one-person, one- vote rule.[1] Other organizations, such as NASCO, coordinate democratically structured living cooperatives in which residents share equally in the responsibilities of daily life, such as cooking and cleaning, and make decisions collectively on issues pertinent to their households (“About Us” 2016). In cooperatives, members—employee/owners in for-profit worker organizations and residents in housing entities—participate daily in decisions that affect their lives. Such practices demonstrate that democratic organizational governance is possible in both the economic and personal/private spheres. The next section explores how these experiences can help to build citizen engagement in wider political processes.

Cooperatives Build Democratic Capacities 

Democratic self-governance has intrinsic value (Sen 1999, 10). Individuals and groups should have the ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives (Fraser 2008, 411; Scholte 2002, 285). Democratic cooperatives can facilitate this process.[2] Additionally, beyond the valuable exercise of self-governance for cooperative members, participation in such organizations can also help members build the virtues and capacities necessary to participate in democratic public institutions at all levels of governance.  

According to Perry, democratically organized workplaces can work to break down class divisions among members (2014, 206). Reducing or eliminating in cooperatives the distinction between professionals who make decisions and nonprofessionals who carry out tasks prescribed by those in authority provides individuals an “education” in the capacities necessary for self-governance. This participation teaches citizens how to be active rather than passive as well as how to include the views and interests of others in their deliberations (Ibid.). Furthermore, workplace cooperatives offer institutional arrangements that facilitate prolonged and meaningful contact among people of different backgrounds. Perry has argued such interactions in democratic workplaces have more potential to reduce prejudice based on race, gender and other identity markers than occurs in hierarchical, capitalist workplaces (206, 216).

Two studies addressing worker cooperatives in Hong Kong and Venezuela have offered further insights into the value of daily democratic practices as incubators of civic virtue and capacity. Ng and Ng have asserted that conflict is inherent to participatory democracy (2009, 185). Members of the three Hong Kong cooperatives these scholars studied found this characteristic emotionally taxing. However, participants in one of the cooperatives reported that their engagement had helped them improve their interpersonal and conflict management skills and that they had become more patient and tolerant through their involvement in the organizations (2009, 197). Harnecker has also argued that many Venezuelan cooperative members became more active in their communities as a result of their participation in such organizations (2009, 35).

These findings, both in the United States and other contexts, point toward the daily practice of democratic self-governance as a potential component of addressing societal divisions and building the skills necessary to ensure civically engaged citizens. Given that voter turnout is particularly low in the U.S. compared to many other nations, the country might look toward democratic cooperatives as an alternative space in which individuals can exercise self-governance and as a model that may build engagement with broader democratic processes.


Varman and Chakrabarti have perceptively observed that the practice of democracy is an “evolving reality” (2004, 187) that requires acknowledging the difficulty of building democratic norms and negotiating the contradictions and challenges of maintaining them. For this reason, calls such as Colbert and Taibbi’s to disengage from active self-governance or to define it as only periodically relevant to the supposed “real world” are misguided in their conflation of democracy with the act of voting and failure to recognize the difficult, on-going civic virtue and engagement necessary to maintain self-governance.

Finally, in a thoughtful exploration of democratic practices in the workplace, Pausch concluded that: “Citizens cannot become convinced democrats if they—in their daily lives, in schools and in their workplace—do not experience democracy” (2013, 16). Democratically structured cooperatives represent one mechanism by which individuals in the United States may begin to build daily experiences of lived democracy that offer the potential for encouraging wider and deeper citizen engagement in their collective self-governance. While the number of democratic cooperatives is relatively small, these organizations serve as an existing nucleus that suggests that alternatives are possible as well as templates for building new and restructuring existing organizations.



[1] Forty-two percent of these cooperatives started as hierarchical capitalist businesses (“A State of the Sector” 2015).

2 Though cooperative organizations are primarily of interest here for the ways in which they both practice and teach democratic self-governance, there is also evidence to suggest that worker-owned and managed cooperatives are at least as efficient as hierarchical capitalist businesses and in some cases more so (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 167–68). Additionally, the Democracy at Work Institute reports that a 67 organization sub-sample of the 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the US had a slightly higher average profit margin than comparable hierarchically organized firms (“A State of the Sector” 2015).


“About Us.” 2016. NASCO. Accessed November 1.

Bialik, Carl. 2016. “No, Voter Turnout Wasn’t Way Down From 2012.” FivtThirtyEight.

Estey, Ken. 2011. “Domestic Workers and Cooperatives: BeyondCare Goes Beyond Capitalism.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 14: 347–65.

Fraser, Nancy. 2008. “Abnormal Justice.” Critical Inquiry 34 (3): 393–422. doi:10.1086/589478.

Harnecker, Camila Piñeiro. 2009. “Workplace Democracy and Social Consciousness: A Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives.” Science & Society 73 (3): 309–39. doi:10.1521/siso.2009.73.3.309.

Holbrook, Thomas M., and Aaron C. Weinschenk. 2014. “Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in Mayoral Elections.” Political Research Quarterly 67 (1): 42–55. doi:10.1177/1065912913494018.

Kennelly, James J, and Mehmet Odekon. 2016. “Worker Cooperatives in the United States, Redux.” The Journal of Labor & Society 19: 163–85.

Low, Setha, Gregory T. Donovan, and Jen Gieseking. 2012. “Shoestring Democracy: Gated Condominiums and Market-Rate Cooperatives in New York.” Journal of Urban Affairs 34 (3): 279–96. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.2011.00576.x.

Luibrand, Shannon. 2016. “Stephen Colbert’s Poignant Sign-off to the 2016 Presidential Election.” CBS News.

Ng, Catherine W., and Evelyn Ng. 2009. “Balancing the Democracy Dilemmas: Experiences of Three Women Workers’ Cooperatives in Hong Kong.” Economic and Industrial Democracy 30 (2): 182–206. doi:10.1177/0143831X09102419.

Pausch, Markus. 2013. “Workplace Democracy From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back.” The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal 19 (1): 1–20.

Perry, Forrest. 2014. “Reducing Racial Prejudice through Workplace Democracy.” Journal of Social Philosophy 45 (2): 203–27. doi:10.1111/josp.12060.

Rothschild-Whitt, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review 44 (4): 509–27.

Scholte, Jan Aart. 2002. “Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance.” Global Governance 8: 281–304.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. “Democracy as a Unversal Value.” Journal of Democarcy 10 (3): 3–17. doi:10.1353/jod.1999.0055.

———. 2005. “The Diverse Ancestry of Democracy.” The Financial Times, June 13.

“Series US Worker Cooperatives: A State of the Sector.” 2015.

Taibbi, Matt. 2016. “After This Election, Turn It Off: Let’s Never Follow Politics Again.” Rolling Stone.

“Types of Cooperatives.” 2016. Accessed November 23.

“US Election 2016: Obama Warns Fate of World at Stake.” 2016. BBC.

Varman, Rahul, and Manali Chakrabarti. 2004. “Contradictions of Democracy in a Workers’ Cooperative.” Organization Studies 25 (2): 183–208. doi:10.1177/0170840604036913.


 Jake Keyel - PhotoJake Keyel is a second-year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement and deepening democratic practices of governance. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused with organizations focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University.

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Protecting Cultural Property and Heritage Sites During Conflict

Dear Readers,

Today’s RE: Reflections and Explorations marks a milestone: publication of the 100th essay in this series. I would like to thank all of those who have contributed their time and talents to what has emerged as a high quality, salient and multi-disciplinary body of work addressing a disparate array of governance topics at all analytic scales. This collection of essays, which has already produced one edited volume, reflects the intellectual diversity, depth, vitality and imagination of the graduate student community interested in governance and policy making at this institution. It is a special privilege to edit their work each week and to learn of the wide range and high quality of such research now underway at Virginia Tech.

I also want to thank Dr. Lyusyena Kirakosyan (ASPECT, 2013) once more for developing the idea for the series and ensuring that it came to fruition. It surely constitutes a special gift to participating students and the intellectual community of the Institute for Policy and Governance and Virginia Tech of which she and all who have contributed to this series will always be a part. MOS



… collective memory is not an inert and passive thing, but a field of activity in which past events are selected, reconstructed, maintained, modified, and endowed with political meaning.

Edward Said (2000: 183)


            As the world watched, ISIS moved into the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria in May 2015. Throughout the following summer, descriptions of destruction and executions continued to reach an international audience. The photographs and videos of death and ancient monuments reduced to rubble were brutal and shocking. But, not only did ISIS destroy what they called idolatrous images, the terrorist group also sold smaller cultural artifacts on the black market to fund its activities (Jeffries 2016).

Palmyra provides an example of what can happen when conflict, unrest and political turmoil prevent protection of archaeological sites, museums and cultural property. Public displays of art, history and culture are political in that they constitute a form of soft power that can be used to stabilize national identities and promote community unity. The soft power of cultural heritage has vast possible implications for states and that influence can extend well beyond national borders. I argue that it is imperative to protect cultural heritage since it is important to citizen identity development and can also aid in the social recovery following conflict. International governing bodies also have a role in protection and recovery of cultural property during times of political turmoil. But due to a lack of transnational enforcement, their efforts can be hampered. Understanding existing frameworks for cultural property protection will aid in expanding such efforts in the future.

The Significance of Cultural Property

As a global community we define the interaction between humans and cultural property/heritage sites based both on the physical attributes we employ collectively to define value and the symbolic meanings we attach to them. Cultural property and heritage sites are also important to national development since they are used to contextualize present national identities and to relate them to past achievements. Objects and sites in a single nation related to ancient civilizations also influence and connect with international audiences on the basis of a shared past that extends well beyond any one country. Cultural property is therefore a tangible type of collective memory and as noted above, control of those assets—and cultural heritage in a broader context—is a form of soft power for states.

Exploring Cultural Property’s Soft Power

 “Soft power” describes international relations not based on military or economic pressure (hard power), but on the ability to influence other actors in the international system. Its reach and sway are intangible: “When it comes to soft power, museums are particularly strategic for international relations, whether as symbolic meeting places or as part of a network of relationships with other museums” (Lord and Blankenberg 2015: 22-23). The artifacts and objects housed in museums and preserved as heritage sites symbolize common cultural proximity to the ancient past. As apparatuses of soft power, museums—and the objects they house—can shape collective values and social understandings. They act as tools to create a unified national identity (Anderson 1983; Luke 2002) because they are significant tangible entities used to interpret and understand a society’s past (Lubar and Kingery 1993) and to shape its future. Consequently, when these are attacked or destroyed, the effects of that destruction go beyond the local to the international.

Protecting Cultural Property during Conflict

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was the first international agreement of its kind (UNESCO 1954). This pact arose in the aftermath of WWII with the decolonization of former colonies seeking to control their wealth (Merryman 1990; Brodie 2015). The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property followed and sought to establish guidelines for objects that had been unlawfully removed from nations (UNESCO; Merryman 1990). It created processes for ascertaining the provenance of objects transported transnationally. UNIDROIT, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, is an independent intergovernmental organization that first met in 1995 to continue an international conversation on the illicit movement of property and to investigate how private and commercial law can be used to restore objects previously removed from nations to their original locations (Merryman 2005; UNIDROIT 1995). Together, these 1954,1970 and 1995 international agreements comprise current international policies aimed at safeguarding cultural objects during situations of deep political and/or armed conflict (Brodie 2015). Unfortunately, these conventions lack universal enforcement mechanisms and are therefore understood and addressed differently throughout the world. Since these agreements cannot be enforced, these conventions act more as ethical guidelines or injunctions for nations and belligerents, rather than as provisions enjoying the force of law.

The 1954 Hague and 1970 UNESCO Conventions established the conditions under which artifacts taken by nations could be returned to their original locations. Although, as noted above, cultural heritage is often used to promote a national image and identity (Calhoun 2002), all of humanity can claim some level of proximity to ancient cultural artifacts, whether this is through an inherited understanding of its role in the world or a larger perspective on history. Future international agreements targeted to the problem of cultural heritage protection should begin from the premise that individuals possess both a national or sovereign identity, AND a shared global cultural identity.

How is the International Community Helping?

 International agreements have redefined the question of cultural property protection from a national issue to a global concern by recognizing that the matter does not respect state boundaries.  However, those efforts have often been controversial since they have involved transnational policies and dealt with issues that cross territorial borders (Bevir 2012, 89). Nonetheless, such agreements represent an integral part of the solution to protecting world heritage sites and to ending illicit trafficking in historic artifacts taken from them.

UNESCO, other international organizations and specific states[1] are currently pressing numerous initiatives designed to put policies and processes in place that will help safeguard cultural property during and after political unrest in nations throughout the world. These efforts are seeking to fill voids created by intra-national conflicts not fully addressed by the private or public sectors in those countries. For example, the International Council of Museums has developed databases that track missing—or endangered—artifacts and sites so that experts, military personnel and civilians know which cultural property has been looted and trafficked (ICOM Red List Databases, updated 2016). UNESCO has also proposed setting up protection zones around cultural heritage sites to reduce the amount of plundering that occurs in those locations during conflict. But the feasibility of this project is doubtful when considering other humanitarian crises in conflict zones that often demand more immediate attention: bombings, refugee relocation, crumbling infrastructure, etc.


Culture can be used as collateral, whether to represent national ideals or to promote a specific policy agenda. Said (2000) has claimed that public memory has long served as a political tool for the establishment of nations and his argument should be understood to extend to cultural heritage and all that it represents. Globalization has made it easier for citizens around the globe to become more aware of the imperative of cultural heritage protection and that salience has increased the international community’s willingness to develop efforts to preserve humanity’s shared past. The power of cultural heritage lies in its ability to connect human beings with objects and places that are not specific to their culture’s histories, but nonetheless tie them to the evolution of humankind as it has unfolded far beyond and single country’s borders.  

Sample list of groups working to protect cultural artifacts in conflict zones

 American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), Cultural Heritage Initiative:

Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation (ECHO):

Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project (ESSHP):

Illicit Cultural Property website:

International Council of Museums (ICOM) Emergency Red Lists for Objects at Risk (red lists can be found for-Egypt, Syria, and Iraq):

Penn Cultural Heritage Center:

UNESCO International Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage initiative:

United Nations Security Council Resolution (i.e. Resolution 64/78 of 7 December 2009 and Resolution A.67/L.34 of 5 December 2012)



[1] National governments are working to protect illegal cultural property crossing into their countries from conflict zones. For example, the US introduced H.R. 1493—the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act on March 19, 2015, which became Public Law No: 114-151 on May 9, 2016 (Committee on Foreign Affairs 2016).


 Anderson, B., 1983. Imagined Communities. Brooklyn: Verso.

 Bevir, M., 2012. Governance: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brodie, N., 2015. Syria and its Regional Neighbors: A Case of Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure? International Journal of Cultural Property, 22, pp. 317-335. [Accessed 20 September 2016].

Calhoun, C., 2002. Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Towards a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism. South Atlantic Quarterly 101, pp. 869-897.

Dexter Lord, G. and N. Blankenberg (eds), 2015. Cities, Museums and Soft Power. Washington DC: AAM Press.

ICOM. International Council of Museums’ Red List of Databases. [Accessed 30 September 2016].

Jeffries, S., 2015. Isis’s destruction of Palmyra: ‘The heart has been ripped out of the city’. The Guardian, 2 September 2015. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

Lubar, S. and Kingery, W. D. eds., 1993.  History From Things:  Essays on Material Culture. Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press.

Merryman, J.H., 2005. Cultural Property Internationalism. International Journal of Cultural Property, 12, pp. 11-39.

Merryman, J.H., 1990. “Protection” of the Cultural “Heritage”? The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 38, Supplement US Law in an Era of Democratization, pp. 513-522.

Said, E.W., 2000. Invention, Memory, and Place. Critical Inquiry, 26(2), pp. 175-192, Published by the University of Chicago Press.

UNESCO. 1954, 1999. Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

UNESCO. 1970. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris, 14 November 1970. [Accessed 1 October 2016].

UNIDROIT. 1995 (updated version 2016). History and Overview of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law. [Accessed 30 September 2016].

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs. “President Signs Engel Bill to Stop ISIS from Looting Antiquities.” Press Release, 9 May 2016. [Accessed 1 October 2016].


breske-photoAshleigh Breske is a doctoral student (ABD) in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include cultural property protection in conflict zones, indigenous rights and global governance and indigenous property repatriation. She is currently working on projects exploring the governance of repatriation as a political practice and the international movement of cultural property. Ashleigh is currently serving as the managing editor for the Review of Middle East Studies (RoMES). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Virginia Tech and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University.



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Hogra and Youth Inclusion in the MENA region

“Hogra” and youth exclusion in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa)

Hogra is a word used in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to describe the anger, rage and humiliation experienced by individuals and communities that have been deprived of their basic human rights. Hogra is the feeling of exclusion one experiences when it becomes evident that you are not being treated equitably or fairly in the provision of public services or in the protection of your civil or human rights. It may manifest itself in an encounter with a public official who refuses, for no defensible reason, to provide a copy of one’s birth certificate, when one is denied health care because of their poverty or social background or when a police officer abuses his power during a public protest concerning the need for employment.  Hogra describes a perceived loss of dignity.

Hogra is what Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor likely felt when he set himself on fire in response to the degrading confiscation of his wares at the hands of a municipal official on December, 17th, 2010.  This tragic event became the catalyst of the Tunisian revolution and triggered other serious protests against the institutionalized humiliation that some other governments in the MENA region had also long practiced.  Young protesters from Morocco to Yemen criticized a lack of job opportunities during 2010-2011 protests, as well as the difficult political circumstances fueled by the frequent abuse of the rule of law by local authorities in those nations.

Hogra is both a cause and a consequence of the parlous conditions youth face in the MENA nations. Boudarbat and Ajbilou (2007, 5) have defined exclusion in the context of Morocco as, “not just a condition, but rather a process which marginalizes certain individuals.” They have argued that youth exclusion from society is not solely economic, but also political, social and cultural and have emphasized that five main drivers work to marginalize young people: poor macroeconomic performance, rapid urbanization, persistent poverty, poorly performing labor markets and family dynamics. These realities explain how exclusion manifests itself in Morocco and in the MENA[1] region more generally.

Social and economic marginalization sets young people from impoverished households apart from mainstream society and limits their opportunities to exercise agency and to participate in a wide range of activities. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2016), with unemployment levels exceeding 30% in most MENA countries and an even greater share of young men and women underemployed or out of the labor force, those nations are deprived of a key source of their future social and economic development. This does not necessarily imply that these youths are not seeking such possibilities. Overall, despite the challenges they face and the difficulties implicit in providing avenues for their productive engagement, MENA nation underprivileged youth represent key potential agents for efforts aimed at securing positive socio-economic change:

Young Arabs have a lot of momentum to contribute to their communities and become agents of positive change in their countries’ economies. In general, the tension that exists between human potential and utilization lies not in a lack of purpose, but instead in the perceived and real dearth of economic opportunities (Gallup 2009).

Avoiding Hogra: The imperative of youth inclusion in MENA nations

Indeed, youths represent tremendous social promise in the countries of the Middle

East and North Africa. They are vital to their societies for at least three reasons.
The first is that they constitute more than half the population of the MENA region. The United Nations Population Division (2011) estimated in 2010 that one in five people living in the MENA area belonged to the youth demographic category, that is, aged between 15 and 24. That group included nearly 90 million individuals in 2010. The number of people in this age cohort is expected to grow in most Middle East and North African countries by 2 percent each year for the next 10 years. In comparison, analysts expect worldwide population growth to rise 1.2 percent per year during the same period.  This fast growing young people’s cadre in the MENA region has created what analysts refer to as “a youth bulge,” a baby boom of sorts. Yufu (2012) has defined the youth bulge as, “a stage of development where a country achieves success in reducing infant mortality, but mothers still have a high fertility rate.” This results in a relatively high portion of the overall population being comprised of children and young adults.

Understanding the importance of this demographic trend is essential if the region’s governments are to help manage the transition of these youths to adulthood effectively.
Not only is this group of young people very large, but they must also navigate many of life’s crucial transitions in a relatively short period as they become adults. The World Development Report on Development and the Next Generation (World Bank 2007) has identified five main possible major transitions that MENA youths may potentially undergo: learning, working, migrating, staying healthy and forming families. This list of milestones includes pursuing secondary and higher education and/or entering the job market, matching their interests and skills with education and opportunities available to them as well as considering migration to obtain better employment and living conditions. However, not all youths have the aim and/or the opportunity to undergo all of the transitions considered by the Report, such as migrating or forming families. In addition, the Report did not analyze explicitly the additional dynamics attending passage from adolescence to adulthood, which include the emotional transformations that accompany that process. Nonetheless, given the large demographic they represent and the pressure they are under individually and collectively to attain economic independence, youths are as important to their countries, as their nations are essential to them in helping manage their transitions to adult life. The mutual dependence between youths and their respective countries is important and significant.

A third reason young people are crucial to the MENA region arises because their success or failure is closely intertwined with the trajectories and fates of their countries. A democratic and economic transition of the MENA area cannot occur without ensuring youth employment opportunities and social inclusion. The “Arab Spring” is a perfect illustration. Young people took to the streets from Morocco to Yemen to protest their governments’ inability to govern transparently, secure economic prosperity and encourage job growth. The present scenario in many MENA nations ultimately deprives young people of their innate dignity as they finish even university level education and confront labor markets that simply cannot provide anything like all those who are qualified reasonable employment possibilities.

As Fuller (2004) has explained, a large youth cohort intensifies and exacerbates many existing social problems. For example, it places major new strains on educational facilities, social services, housing and employment needs, which, when unmet, may lead to social instability, volatility and radicalization. This is in no way to imply that the youth bulge is per se negative. However, affected governments in the MENA region must cope with the reality that without appropriate opportunities to channel young peoples’ energy, skills and potential, radicalism, delinquency and marginalization may find fertile ground.

Challenging assumptions

When thinking about this region-wide challenge, it is important first to emphasize that youth issues are cross-sectoral; that is, young people make demands on and also help to shape many social concerns including, education, health, governance and employment patterns, as well as unemployment. Taking into consideration how important these matters are in society, youth roles deserve sustained policy-maker attention. Ministries directly addressing young people’s concerns should seek to coordinate their work with other concerned ministries as well as civil society entities so that youth needs can be met in an integrated way.

Second, national strategies for youth inclusion should be planned and implemented with young people’s participation because, without their vigorous involvement, such policies are likely to reflect their needs poorly and therefore, are as likely to fail. Third, as highlighted above, government officials should not view youths as a threat, but instead as sources of tremendous potential for MENA countries. This orientation suggests in turn that all steps aimed at supporting them should be guided by a belief in their potential and not by fear that they represent a ticking bomb. Viewing young people as a threat rather than a partner for development and well-being is likely to undermine the “bulge” cohort’s belief in the legitimacy of the government officials with whom they are dealing and perhaps, the credibility of the regime those individuals represent as well.  Meanwhile, too, state authorities should not turn a blind eye to the seriousness of a growing sense of Hogra among the area’s youths as the growth of the phenomenon represents a social malaise that undermines young people’s trust in their country’s political institutions.

Last, but not least, social inclusion and participation is paramount to unleashing the enormous capabilities of the young people of the region. Their possibility is not fulfilled solely through education and employment, but also enabled through volunteering and the work of civil society organizations. Needless to say that engagement is not inherently positive, but it represents a potential to be a significant force for civic stability and deepening democratization.


The term Hogra is difficult to translate because it embodies feelings attached to the violation of human dignity. Pertaining to young people, Hogra depicts a reality in the MENA region that helps to underscore the imperative need to ensure effective youth social and economic inclusion in MENA countries. The fast-growing cadre of young people in the MENA nations represent tremendous potential, but unless the area’s governments address the root causes of Hogra successfully, that possibility may never be realized.



[1] The MENA region, as defined here, includes Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.


Boudarbat, B. & Ajbilou, A. (September 2007). Youth Exclusion in Morocco: Context, Consequences, and Policies. Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper No. 5

Fuller, Graham E. (2004). The Youth Crisis in Middle Eastern Society. Clinton Township, Michigan: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Gallup, Inc. (2009). The Silatech Index: Voices of Young Arabs

Lin, Yifu J. (May, 1st 2012). Youth Bulge: A Demographic Dividend or a Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries?  Accessed November 5th, 2016, from:

OECD. (2016). Youth in the MENA region: How to bring them in. Accessed November 5th, 2016:

United Nations Population Division. (2011). Youth Population and Employment in the Middle East and North Africa: Opportunity or Challenge?. Accessed November 5th 2016:

World Bank. (2007). Youth-An undervalued asset: Towards a new agenda in the Middle East and North Africa – Progress, Challenges and Way Forward. Washington, DC: World Bank. Accessed November 4th, 2016 from:

World Bank. (2007). The World Development Report 2007 on Development and the Next Generation. Accessed on November 6th, 2016 from:


nada-berradaNada Berrada is an ASPECT (Alliance for Social Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought) Ph.D. student. She previously earned an M.A. in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and a B.A in Political Science and Economics from Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie de Rabat (EGE) in Morocco. At Virginia Tech, she teaches for the Political Science Department.

Nada acquired interdisciplinary experience working at The Coca-Cola Company HQ, German Marshall Fund, UNDP and Foundation Orient Occident. This summer, she served as a Teaching Assistant for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth at Princeton University. Nada also served as a Moroccan UN Youth Delegate during the 70th UN General Assembly.

Her research interests are centered on youth in the MENA region, particularly Morocco, and their prospects for employment, education and civic engagement. Her research is guided by the firm belief in the power of young people in shaping the destiny of the MENA countries.



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America’s Recent Military Actions in the Middle East

Plan for war, but do not plan for anything after that

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be considered Hawks when it comes to the United States’ (US) role in the Middle East, as Clinton’s policy stances and actions and Trump’s militaristic language warrant that label. As a Senator from New York, Clinton voted for the war in Iraq, followed by the later commitment of a “surge” of US troops. She was also a proponent of American intervention in Libya. Trump, although short on foreign policy credentials, has routinely used bellicose rhetoric promising to “bomb the s—t out of ISIS” and to send 30,000 additional US ground troops to Iraq (Engel 2015). These policy stances concerning the Middle East are in keeping with a recent trend in American efforts in the region: undertaking military action in the area without planning vigorously for what may follow thereafter. The US has deployed military force three times in the region since September 11, 2001 (9/11), and in each case, has done so without a clearly defined objective or plan for what should happen once that action was complete. This failure to define post-conflict objectives has created power vacuums that actors hostile to the US in Iraq and Libya have filled. This essay will discuss America’s use of military force in Iraq in 2003, in Libya in 2011 and again in Iraq in 2014, detailing how the US failed to plan appropriately for what would happen after its initial intervention. I will also argue that whoever is elected president on November 8 will not only inherit the problems now afflicting Iraq, but will also likely make the same mistake of employing military force in the region without planning adequately for what should occur afterwards.

Winning the Fight, Losing the Peace Since 2003

This disposition to deploy military forces without careful attention to the consequences of such action originated in recent years with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. From a conventional military standpoint, the conflict was a resounding success, as American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in less than a month. The pre-war military planning was meticulous, consuming nearly 15 months, but Department of Defense and White House officials did not give the question of what should occur after hostilities had ended the same attention. The US failed initially to have a robust plan in place to anticipate and coordinate post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In order to help stabilize the nation, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was quickly created and President Bush named Paul Bremer to lead it. Bremer saw himself as the President’s “personal envoy” in Iraq, believing he had a mandate to make sweeping decisions in the country (Bremer 2006, 4). In an effort to tighten United States’ control in Iraq and purge any remaining authoritarian elements from its government, Bremer issued CPA orders 1 and 2. CPA order number 1 implemented de-Ba’athification, essentially removing all members of the Ba’ath party (Hussein’s party) from their positions in government and barring them from service in the public sector in the future. Given the size and the scope of the Ba’ath party in Iraq, this meant a large portion of the population was now comprised of individuals officially considered personae non grata. CPA order number 2 disbanded the Iraqi military, relegating the members of that once proud force to unemployment. As both of these institutions were Sunni Muslim dominated, CPA orders 1 and 2 alienated large swaths of that group’s population, making them vulnerable to recruitment by groups such as al Qaida that were now flowing into Iraq. These American-led steps helped create a viable insurgency in the country, further fragmented the nation along sectarian lines and led to the violence between Sunni and Shia Islamic groups that persists in Iraq today.

President Barack Obama’s decision to support a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya followed a similar pattern of failure to develop a strong post-war plan. In an effort to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from “commit[ing] atrocities against his people,” the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011; a no fly-zone barring all fights over Libya, except for humanitarian purposes (Obama 2011). The US then “led a coalition in launching air and missile strikes against Libyan forces” beginning on March 19 of that year that cost approximately $1.1-billion and avoided any NATO force casualties (Daalder and Stavridis 2012). However, while the operation was billed as an initiative to save civilian lives, it morphed into an effort to secure regime change. Eventually, the NATO actions helped lead to Qaddafi’s removal from power. Once again, however, American officials painstakingly planned the military operations, but gave little attention to what should happen after regime change had occurred. President Obama was determined to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor by not committing a large occupying force to Libya, and therefore ceded much of the responsibility for nation rebuilding to NATO and the UN (Goldberg 2016). However, post-Qaddafi regime assistance from NATO, the UN and the US did not focus on building a viable security structure. Instead, those organizations and Libya’s transitional leadership focused on “preparing the country to vote for a national legislative assembly” just 240-days after liberation (Wehrey 2016). The choice to focus on elections rather than security allowed competing militia groups within Libya to grow unchecked and these eventually helped deepen factional divides within the country.

Instead of Qaddafi’s removal resulting in improved conditions, Libya has become a failed state characterized by various highly armed factions, “leading to deadly turf battles between rival tribes and commanders.” (Kuperman 2016). Worse yet, Libya now serves as a haven for radical Islamist groups affiliated with ISIS and al Qaeda.

The US’ third recent attempt to employ military action in the Middle East, President Obama’s decision to redeploy American troops to Iraq to help combat ISIS, has followed a similar pattern. In this case, US deployment steadily evolved, resulting in significant mission creep. The Administration’s initial plan in June 2014 called for deployment of a few hundred Special Forces troops, but that total has since climbed to approximately 5,000 (Cooper 2016). As the number of US troops has grown in Iraq, the scope of their mission has increased subtly as well. To be fair, American forces in Iraq are far from carrying out full-fledged counterinsurgency operations, but they are deployed close to the battlefield and have even engaged in direct action raids at times.

The Obama administration’s plan to combat ISIS in Iraq has proven successful during the last two years, resulting in the terrorist group losing nearly 50 percent of its territory in Iraq. Some of this change has arisen as a result of the efforts of Iraqi forces supported by US advisors and airpower. Additionally, the State Department’s Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said in June that the number of ISIS(L) fighters inside Iraq and Syria had shrunk to as few as 18,000-22,000, a sharp decrease from the 33,000 combatants that organization commanded in those two nations in 2014 (Hudson 2016). All of this news about tactical success on the battlefield should be welcomed, but should not be a surprise. American led coalitions easily overthrew Hussein in 2003 and Qaddafi in 2011. Although United States troops are not doing most of the ground fighting today, American airpower has proven an undeniably dominant variable in ISIS’ recent defeats.

Nonetheless, as in Libya and Iraq (circa 2003), the US does not appear to be formulating a clear plan for what happens when ISIS is pushed out of Iraq. Even as Iraqi forces retake Mosul as this is written, the same social and political problems that gave rise to that organization’s emergence are no closer to being solved. Iraq is still fractured along sectarian lines, Sunnis are still distrustful of the government in Baghdad and Shia militant groups are as strong as ever. Moreover, US training and mentoring of Iraqi Security Forces since 2014 has yet to make that military group strong enough to fill the power vacuum ISIS will leave. Additionally, the Iraqi government has not shown that it can provide social services, such as needed food, water, trash collection and even a police force in the area ISIS is vacating, responsibilities at which the terrorist group has proven surprisingly effective during its occupation of the area.

Plus ça Change?

The challenges of a post-ISIS Iraq are already beginning to emerge as the US presidential election looms. This fact may actually prove beneficial, as new administrations often bring fresh ideas, which might just be what American policy for a post-ISIS Iraq needs. Unfortunately, however, assuming past trends hold, regardless of who is elected on November 8th, Americans can still expect their next president to use military force in the Middle East, without planning adequately for what comes afterwards.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, and even if she continues to pivot American foreign policy toward China, she will still have to address problems arising in the Middle East (Clinton 2011). President Obama was determined to end America’s costly involvement in Iraq, but an unsuccessful withdrawal from Iraq and the unexpected Arab Spring taught America that getting out of the region might prove an impossible task.

If Donald Trump is elected president, he will face the same challenges. Moreover, Trump will have a much steeper learning curve than Clinton, given his lack of knowledge of the Middle East. Examples of this ignorance include confusing Iran’s Quds forces for the Kurds, incorrectly claiming Kuwait does not pay for US protection (Ghabra 2007, 341) and being unable to differentiate between Hamas and Hezbollah (Collins 2016). In addition, despite Trump’s on-again, off-again opposition to war in Iraq in 2003, he has indicated at times during this campaign, as noted above, that he would commit substantial numbers of American ground troops to Iraq to combat ISIS. However, the GOP presidential nominee’s policy flip-flops and his dearth of knowledge of the Middle East along with his bellicose rhetoric suggest that he is even more likely than Clinton to call for military action without sufficient planning for what should occur following such engagement.


Bremer III, Paul L. My Year in Iraq. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Clinton, Hillary. “America’s Pacific Century.” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011 Accessed
October 19, 2016.

Cooper, Hellene. “U.S. to Send 600 More Troops to Iraq to Help Retake Mosul From ISIS.” The
New York Times, September 28, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2016.

Collins, Eliza. “Trump fumbles Hewitt question on terror leaders.” Politico, n.d. Accessed
October 21, 2016.

Daalder, Ivo H., and James G. Stavridis. “NATO’ s Victory in Libya.” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 2
(March 2012). Accessed October 20, 2016.

Engel, Pamela. “DONALD TRUMP: ‘I would bomb the s— out of’ ISIS.” Business Insiders,
November 15, 2015 Accessed October 20, 2016.

Ghabra, Shafeeq N. “Closing the Distance: Kuwait and the United States in the Persian Gulf”. In
The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007.

Goldberg, Jeffery. “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic, April 2016 Accessed November 1,

Hudson, John. “Top U.S. Official: Islamic State Has Lost 47 Percent of its Territory in
Iraq.” Foreign Policy, June 28, 2016 Accessed October 12, 2016.

Kuperman, Alan J. “Obama’s Libya Debacle.” Foreign Affairs, March 2015 Accessed October
14, 2016.

Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on the Situation in Libya.” the White House.
Accessed October 12, 2016.

Wehrey, Frederic. “Why Libya’s transition to democracy failed.” the Washington Post. Accessed
October 20, 2016.

joe-karle-picJoseph “Joe” Karle is A PhD candidate in Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He earned a BS in Political Science from Central Michigan University (2010) and an MA in International Affairs (2016) from Texas A&M University.
He is interested in U.S. nation building efforts in the Middle East since 9/11, particularly the way interactions between American personnel and local leaders (governmental and military) affect the development of governance and security structures.
Joe served as a paratrooper in the .US. Army’s 3/509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012.

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Globalization and Sustainable Development

This article illustrates the variety of impacts and significance of globalization for the daily lives of individuals throughout the world. It also briefly examines the challenges the phenomenon presents, in order to highlight the ways that governance reforms may help public officials develop more sustainable forms of democratic political and economic development.

Defining Globalization
Sparke (2014) has argued that globalization may be viewed as both a set of interconnections among economic, political and social factors, and as a buzz word. The first perspective suggests that globalization is a set of ties that are currently getting stronger and more influential in such domains as finance, transport and health. The second description suggests that although globalization consists of many relationships, it is also now used broadly rhetorically simply to suggest the reach and power of businesses and markets.

With these descriptions in mind, one may define globalization as the extension, intensification and acceleration of consequential international connections. According to Sparke (2014), this definition implies that individuals throughout the world are tied to globalization as citizens, workers, consumers, managers or shareholders involved directly or indirectly with transnational corporations, international institution or governments.

Sparke (2014) has argued that globalization began in earnest with the advent of neoliberalism, today’s dominant public philosophy that advocates assigning as large a role as possible to markets in social decision-making and all segments of the political economy. Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Von Hayek and American President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) aggressively advocated and popularized this view. As it has been adopted ever more fully in the U.S., Europe and beyond, neoliberalism has resulted in dramatic changes in virtually all dimensions of democratic governance as well as in family and community life.

Although individuals throughout the world may be touched by globalization’s impacts directly or indirectly, Park (2013) has contended that the analytic challenge is to identify how those ties, and the public policies aimed at regulating them, affect those they touch. According to Sparke (2014), globalization is influencing people’s everyday experiences by its direct application in different sectors, including:

• Reshaping the organization of how goods and services are consumed, produced and exchanged throughout the world, especially by globalizing production and consumption of many goods and services.
• Revolutionizing financial arrangements tied to global trade agreements.
• Reconfiguring the roles of government and governance by changing how policy is imagined and by creating global interconnections that often constitute forms of political and economic control that influence and shape citizens’ lives.
• Restructuring global health due to the effects of climate change and international economic growth.

Although globalization affects the daily lives of individuals in nations throughout the world, how countries respond to it as a phenomenon remains a challenge. Indeed, some analysts have suggested that the ongoing globalization of travel and commerce will ultimately result in the erosion of national sovereignty itself by accelerating economic inequality and threatening genuine representation of citizen views.

Globalization and its Challenges
The fact that globalization ultimately is a negotiation in which some players are more powerful and influential than others (Heshmati, 2004), makes it harder to understand how to approach international free trade agreements objectively without being influenced by the interests of the most dominant actors in the domain. Given these realities, Sparke (2014) has argued that it is essential that national and local governments focus on efforts to ensure opportunities for the exercise of democratic voice by means of guaranteeing affected populations’ their human rights.

Additionally, since globalization generates profits (which usually go overseas) for multinational corporations (MNCs), it is important that developing nation governments ensure that those firms are fairly taxed on the earnings they obtain from operations in their countries. This step ensures a more equal distribution of income while acknowledging the value created by the labor of those working for the corporations in affected nations. Park (2013) has argued similarly that a share of the profits of MNCs should be redirected via taxation to the populations helping to create them.

Haskel et al. (2012) have likewise noted that famed economist John Maynard Keynes, and later, financier and philanthropist, George Soros, have both highlighted the fact that although globalization can provide cities and countries opportunities, it can also create and increase income and wealth inequality within their populations as some profit from firm activities and others do not.

Schuftan (2003) has illustrated how economic globalization is contributing to growth in income inequality in the United States with the following example: Multi-national corporations shift their production to other countries to take advantage of lower land acquisition prices and pollution standards as well as wages, resulting in significant cost savings and higher profits. However, this trend has reduced the relative number of such manufacturing positions available in the U.S. labor force, resulting in economic hardship for those individuals directly touched and ripple effects for all living in the affected communities.

According to Heshmati (2004) globalization directly benefits those corporations that can pursue it by way of the profits it generates for their managers and shareholders. Meanwhile, competing firms with less capital may be driven out of business and whole communities severely negatively affected by off-shoring decisions. Sheng (2015) has argued that this cycle is a primary cause of the significant and growing revenue and profitability gap between large transnational corporations and businesses unable to operate globally. Many manufacturing MNCs have been able to increase their profits while their line workers have either lost their employment or have faced increased competition from other production sites abroad (Azzimonti & Quaduni, 2014).

As Haskel et al. (2012) have observed, another illustration of globalization’s often adverse income equality effects is the difference between the compensation that CEOs of America’s largest corporations are paid on average versus the wages of their firms’ typical employees. Thirty years ago that gap was a multiple of 20 while today that product is more than 400 times higher. As Sheng (2015) has contended, current wealth disparities across nations do not necessarily mean that individuals within them are earning less money, but that the salaries they earn are being distributed differently. This is a brief for sustained efforts to include and/or expand human rights and social justice in local and national policy agendas.

What is Next?
As globalization continues to grow and large transnational corporations expand and earn higher profits, inequality in national populations is also likely to rise unless steps to stop it from doing so are undertaken. Although these trends are alarming, they may be viewed as an opportunity to develop appropriate policies that support economic growth without creating such vast economic inequalities among citizens.
While globalization has many complex layers, its ill effects are neither inevitable nor unstoppable. Developing nation governments must recognize that without efforts to promote adequate political representation and equitable wealth distribution within their countries, the current global economic structure will continue to create and deepen wealth and income disparities while eroding national sovereignty.
Azzimonti, M, Quadrini, V. (2014). “Financial Globalization, Inequality, and the Rising Public Debt,” American Economic Review, 104(8), pp. 2267-2302.

Haskel, J., Lawrence, R., Leamer, E. & Slaughter, M. (2012). “Globalization and U.S. Wages: Modifying Classic Theory to Explain Recent Facts,” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 26(2), pp. 119-140.

Heshmati, A. (2004). “The Relationship between Income Inequality, Poverty and Globalization”. Zunkunft der Arbeit Institute for the study of labor.

Park, H. (2013).“Economic Globalization and Income Inequality in the United States.” International Research Journal of Applied Finance,” 4(1), pp. 15-34.

Schuftan, C. (2003). “Poverty and Inequity in the Era of Globalization: Our Need to Change and to Re-conceptualize,” International Journal for Equity in Health, Vietnam.

Sheng, L. (2003). “Theorizing Income Inequality in the Face of Financial Globalization,” The Social Science Journal 52(3), pp. 415–424.

Sparke, M. (2014). “Introduction to Globalization: Globalization and You [Video],” University of Washington. Retrieved from: 09/28/2016.


vanessa-guerra-m-photoVanessa is a doctoral student in the Planning and Environmental Design program at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include: sustainable development, city planning, slums clearance, transportation, urban renewal and public space.  She earned a master of Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne-Australia and a bachelor in Architecture at USFQ University in Quito-Ecuador. Prior to Virginia Tech, Vanessa participated with the University of Melbourne in the project “How Sustainable Transport Networks Build Great Cities” at Munich and Zurich; taught at USFQ University in Quito, and co-founded LIGNUM in Quito, an architecture and urbanism firm.  She is currently researching Quito’s urban form and the existing disconnection between peripheral areas and the inner city, as well as investigating transport interventions as potential contributions to poverty reduction.


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What is Special about Paralympic Volunteering?

I am delighted as editor of the RE: Reflections and Explorations series to welcome Dr. Lyusyena Kirakosyan back to its pages this week. Dr. Kirakosyan first proposed this series while a doctoral student at Virginia Tech and provided the leadership to ensure its successful launch. We are much indebted to her creative drive and vision. Her essay addresses a vital topic during these turbulent times for the world’s democracies; the question of empathetic imagination. Her lens to consider this critical concern is her recent experience at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


The importance of volunteers at sport mega events has increased during the last several decades as athletics have risen in social importance and generated ever higher levels of popular participation and expectation (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Moragas, Moreno & Paniagua, 2000). As Green and Chalip (2004) have pointed out, not only have volunteers become vital to the success of the events they serve, but also to the broader economic and social development to which those occasions are expected to contribute. The growth of the Olympic and Paralympic Games since the 1980s, and the broader media coverage that their increasing scope and size have spawned, has made volunteers essential to their success (Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kellett, 2008; Rönningen, 2000).

Indeed, many analysts consider the Olympic Games the apex of mega events due to their ability to provide excitement, prestige and numerous social benefits to athletes, audiences and volunteers alike (Kellett, 2008). A growing literature specifically examines the history and different dimensions and factors affecting Olympic volunteering (see Bladen, 2010; Carnicelli-Filho, 2014; Chalip, 2000; Green & Chalip, 2004; Kemp, 2002; Lynch, 2001; Moragas et al., 2000; Pound, 2000; Rönningen, 2000, among others), but there is little empirical research on these issues as they are evidenced in Paralympic volunteering (Kellett, 2008). Among the few who have treated the topic, Kellett (2008) has suggested that the experience of volunteering at the Paralympic Games differs from that of engagement with the Olympics. This brief essay outlines my understanding of the unique ways that the Paralympic context can elicit volunteer motivation and provide personal satisfaction.  I draw on my own experiences as a 2016 Paralympics volunteer in Rio de Janeiro and the reflections of several of my peers who share their insights in the video accompanying this essay.

The history of Olympic volunteering dates to the Games held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912, at which only six volunteers assisted (Lynch, 2001). By 1956, however, when Melbourne, Australia served as host, about 500 volunteers supported the event (Ibid).  Some 70,000 volunteers worked behind the scenes at the Olympics in London in 2012, while the recent Rio event saw 50,000 individuals so serve. The Official Report of the Barcelona, Spain Olympic Games of 1992 was the first formal document to define explicitly the Olympic volunteer: “the volunteer is a person who makes an individual, altruistic commitment to collaborate, to the best of his/ her abilities in the organisation of the Olympic Games, carrying out the tasks assigned to him/her without receiving payment or rewards of any other nature” (cited in Moragas et al., 2000, p.134).

The available literature on volunteer motivation across different event contexts provides insight into building and maintaining commitment among those individuals. Scholars have identified both personal and social factors that motivate people to serve as Olympic volunteers. For example, Moragas et al. (2000) have outlined the following as key incentives for Olympic voluntarism:

  • The spirit of solidarity and peace enshrined in the Olympic philosophy;
  • Commitment as citizens, members of an association or nation;
  • Individual challenge;
  • Belonging to a group;
  • Identification as a member of that group;
  • Various forms of individual gratification (p.147).

Another study by Green and Chalip (2004) highlighted such motivating factors as a desire to help, opportunity to socialize with people sharing common interests, meeting new people and becoming friends with them, recognition of shared purpose and common identity, sense of excitement, celebrity atmosphere and learning, among others. Indeed, those who volunteered at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, whose reflections are compiled in the video shared here, uniformly described their volunteer experiences as extraordinary. As a group, their reasons for volunteering were quite similar to those discussed in the literature. My peers indicated that they were motivated to volunteer by a genuine desire to be helpful, the opportunity to meet new people, becoming friends with other volunteers, special possibilities to broaden their horizons, the chance to be a part of the excitement of a global sporting event, by the sense of community they gained from engaging with other volunteers, spectators and athletes, and by opportunities to gain and share knowledge.

These volunteers also articulated what made their Paralympic volunteering experience distinct, and the theme of mutuality echoed across their testimonies. Jordan (1986) has argued that mutuality depends on interaction, interest in and appreciation of the other, a capacity for empathy, emotional availability and responsiveness. She has argued that mutual empathy involves both an acknowledgment of sameness in the other and an appreciation of the difference of the other’s experience. Mutual empathy contains opportunity for shared growth and impact. The Paralympic volunteers came to understand that their experience involved more than simply making it possible for the athletes to perform their best, as challenging as that could be at times. Those with whom I spoke came to realize that assisting others had encouraged them to change and grow in often unforeseen ways. Paralympic athletes inspired and touched volunteers as they witnessed their triumphs and travails, and changed volunteers through their interactions with them, as those “helping” learned to value and encourage the athletes’ distinct capacities. In short, the Paralympic experience encouraged a deep empathy among the event’s volunteers. As Jordan (1986) has observed, as we reach out to understand the experience of the other, something new grows in us. This encouragement of empathetic imagination applied to the Paralympic volunteering experience, as volunteers became more aware of the limiting power of labels and came to value the unique identities of the remarkable people with disabilities competing in the Games’ various events.

In conclusion, at their best, both Olympic and Paralympic volunteers provide an example of solidarity and selfless work that not only assists the Games, but also provides manifold opportunities for each participating volunteer to grow personally as well.  Moragas et al. (2000) have argued that the importance of the Olympic volunteer movement lies in the following:

  • From the political point of view, it represents the uniting of individual energies into a common project, a new form of participation and the expression of a great public momentum;
  • From the economic point of view, the Olympic volunteers lead to a major reduction in salary costs and, if adequate training is provided, the result can also be a more-highly qualified population;
  • From the cultural point of view, volunteerism involves basic education in multi-culturalism and solidarity (p.151).

These positive characteristics are equally applicable to the Paralympic volunteer movement. But, drawing on my experience, I would add that from a moral perspective, Paralympic volunteerism goes to the heart of our mutual understanding of one another and contributes to our sense of a shared humanity.


Bladen, C.R. (2010). Media representation of volunteers at the Beijing Olympic Games. Sport in Society, 15(5), 784-796. doi:10.1080/17430431003651024.

Carnicelli-Filho, S. (2014). “Emotions and the Olympic Games: The emotional management of volunteers.” In K. A. Smith,  L. Lockstone-Binney, K. Holmes & T. Baum (Eds.), Event Volunteering: International Perspectives on the Event Volunteering Experience. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 140-153.

Chalip, L. (2000). “Sydney ‘2000: Volunteers and the Organisation of the Olympic Games: Economic and Formative Aspects.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.205-214. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Green, B.C. & Chalip, L. (2004). “Paths to volunteer commitment: Lessons from the Sydney Olympic Games.” In R.A. Stebbins and M. Graham (Eds.), Volunteering as Leisure. Leisure as Volunteering. An International Assessment. Wallingford: CABI Publishing, pp. 49–67.

Jordan, J.V. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Paper presented at a Stone Center Colloquium. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Kellett, P. (2008). “Volunteerism and the Paralympic Games.” In K. Gilbert & O.J. Schantz (Eds.), The Paralympic Games: Empowerment or Side Show. Maidenhead, UK: Meyer & Meyer, pp.176-183.

Kemp, S. (2002). The hidden workforce: Volunteers’ learning in the Olympics. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26(2/3/4), 109-116. doi:10.1108/03090590210421987.

Lynch, B. (2001). “Lessons from the Olympics.” In J. Noble & F. Johnston (Eds.), Volunteering Visions. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, pp.70-75.

Moragas, M., Moreno, A.B., & Paniagua, R. (2000). “The Evolution of Volunteers at the Olympic Games.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.133-154.

Pound, R. W. (2000). “Volunteers and the Olympic Movement: Past, Present and Future.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp.223-230. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from

Rönningen, P. (2000). “Lillehammer ’94.” In M. Moragas, A. B. Moreno & N. Puig (Eds.), Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, pp. 183-187. Retrieved October 15, 2016 from


lyusyenaLyusyena Kirakosyan currently serves as a Senior Project Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and a governance and development consultant for nongovernmental organizations. Her research interests include disability and human rights issues, community development and democratic citizenship. She recently volunteered for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and is at work on a book on the Paralympics legacy. Since January 2016, she has been a research member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy that focusses on inquiry into paralympic sports in Brazil. The Academy is formally a part of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee.

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Who is Talking? Paradigm Shifts, Knowledge-Power and the Aquatic Ape

One cannot help but notice an ongoing tension in academia between the active pursuit of new knowledge and a tendency to cling to old ideas and theories. Kuhn (1970) wrote about the resistance of academic disciplines to change, coining the phrase “paradigm shift,” which embodies, rather than a simple series of logical/rational decisions, a number of political considerations, social factors, issues of identity negotiation and elements of culture. But what does a paradigm shift look like in “real time”? And, just because we understand Kuhn’s idea, does that make it any easier to recognize a new knowledge claim as a new paradigm (or part of one), or something that is just “out there,” given that we each have our constructed understanding of knowledge, which, in the case of the academy, is considered to be legitimate, vetted and valorized in society? Using the intriguing example of the aquatic ape hypothesis of human evolution, I explore paradigm shifts in the academy in this article, and how they are intertwined with social and cultural factors.

In 2002, while studying Biology at Longwood University, I enrolled in a Human Evolution class. The beloved professor leading that course, Lynn Ferguson, who was known for his love of creepy crawly cave insects and his tangents about banjo playing, had us read about the “aquatic ape hypothesis,” a little-known idea that suggests that humans may have evolved on the water’s edge as semi-aquatic marine mammals (see Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011). I was very interested, but my life and studies led me elsewhere and the construct became an occasional fleeting fancy on which to muse when on a beach vacation.

Flash forward to last summer, when I attended a seaside wedding, where I met a doctoral student of anthropology, studying human evolution. Whether it was the sound of the surf, the crying gulls or the champagne, I dared to ask her whether she had studied the aquatic ape hypothesis. Her reaction was unexpected. She seemed suddenly cagey and offered only a few ambiguous remarks about how that theory was “a little out there” and her professors “didn’t really believe in it.” She explained that “no one really talks about it.” I was a little surprised, thinking the idea to be a fascinating hypothesis concerning human evolution, one that surely, in the decade and a half since I learned of it, scientists had sought to develop or debunk. I was again intrigued, this time less about the theory itself, and more about the question, what is it about academics that makes us resist new ideas and change? To paraphrase ethicist Paul Thompson (2015), social critics should learn a little something about the things about which they theorize. In that spirit, I briefly describe the aquatic ape hypothesis before discussing knowledge politics more broadly.

In 1970, Elaine Morgan, an educated—but nonacademic—BBC journalist in Wales, read a then-popular book, The Naked Ape (Morris, 1967), which briefly mentioned Sir Alister Hardy’s (1960) little-known theory that humans evolved as semi-aquatic. She was captivated by the concept and researched and compiled evidence of the aquatic ancestry of modern Homo sapiens. Soon, she was attending academic conferences to present the idea to trained anatomists and evolutionary biologists. Indeed, she wound up writing several books on the subject (Morgan, 1973; 1982; 2011).

Lest you think the theory does not “hold water,” allow me to explain a few key points. As the argument goes, early hominids probably spent much of their time at the water’s edge (near a wooded saltwater marsh, perhaps), swimming and diving for fish and shellfish. Since our closest relatives are chimpanzees, we can compare our differences with those primates to lend insight into what may have changed to create conditions to develop humans as a new species. Unlike chimpanzees, we are strictly bipedal, with our lower limbs in line with a flexible spine, an arrangement that makes us good swimmers. Human infants instinctively hold their breath and kick to the surface under water, unlike baby chimps, who do neither as a matter of course. Unlike chimps, we can control our breathing and hold our breath, and that capacity makes complex speech possible. Unlike land animals, we lack the ability to conserve salt (like marine mammals, we sweat it out, whereas salt is scarce on land) and we need to drink more water each day than do most terrestrial species. Like marine mammals, we are largely hairless, and instead, even the thinnest of us has a layer of insulating fat just below the skin (think blubber). This fat layer provides excellent insulation in the water, but its weight and heat-trapping abilities are disadvantages on land. Many other explanations exist for why humans differ so greatly from chimpanzees (involving weapon/tool use, thermoregulation, ability to run, sexual behavior, etc.), but they have all been dismissed by evolutionary biologists/anthropologists. So, the aquatic ape hypothesis is a fascinating notion that seems promising.

Despite the intuitive appeal of the evidence she had amassed, however, when Elaine Morgan presented her ideas at academic conferences, she was openly ridiculed by members of the scientific establishment (Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011). So, why did researchers initially largely ignore, deride or dismiss her work? In fact, in recent years, scientists have begun to take Morgan’s ideas more seriously (Foley & Lahr, 2014; Kuliukas, 2014; Rae & Koppe, 2014; Rhys-Evans & Cameron, 2014; Tobias, 2002; Vaneechoutte, 2014; Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, & Verhaegen, 2011; Verhaegen, 2013), and she has recently been awarded two honorary doctorates. These facts beg the question of why it took the scientists in her chosen field so long to examine her hypothesis.

Indeed, only one peer-reviewed critique had been published concerning the aquatic ape hypothesis until recently. That article became well known, and even years later, Morgan was repeatedly informed that her theory had been debunked. In his critique, John Langdon (1997) argued:

Umbrella hypotheses ranging from mainstream science to the paranormal maintain their popularity among students, general audiences, and scholars in neighboring disciplines. One reason for this is that simple answers, however wrong, are easier to communicate and are more readily accepted than the more sound, but more complex solutions (p. 479).

However, Langdon’s appraisal did not seriously consider the basic arguments of the aquatic ape hypothesis and misunderstood those contentions in any case.  Kuliukas later criticized Langdon’s effort as “based on cursory and superficial comparisons” (Kuliukas, 2011, p. 213). Given this reality, it appears fair to ask what scientists saw as so compelling about his article.

Williams (2011) has observed that the history of the aquatic ape hypothesis reveals much about the “constructions of scientific authority and knowledge” (p. 199). Langdon’s (1997) language concerning “umbrella hypotheses” that amount to “simple answers” constituted a strong rebuke to any student or more junior researcher/faculty member who might otherwise have found the argument interesting. Also, this rhetoric clearly drew a line at the boundaries of the discipline (biology), by suggesting the hypothesis was popular among “students, general audiences, and scholars in neighboring disciplines.” A mention of students, the lowest rung on the academic ladder, signaled that your status as a scholar would be compromised if you found the hypothesis intriguing. Langdon’s language also suggested that even if scholars from other fields might be interested, they were not members of the club with purview of the topic. And so, Langdon drew a line in the sand: his critique clearly communicated that serious consideration of the hypothesis should be off-limits for card-carrying members of the evolutionary biology field.

Nowadays, as a student of social theory, the aquatic ape hypothesis has come to represent a perfect example for me of knowledge politics in action. The history of this idea reminds me of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning theory, which explains how a community of practice forms as a group mutually engages in a joint enterprise over time. A community of practice emerges around the teaching, learning and research activities in any university department or field of study, such as evolutionary biology—which is why we call it an “academic community.”  Lave and Wenger contended that repeated social interactions foster common cultures among participants, complete with rules of engagement, social norms and boundary objects that govern who is “in” and who is “out.” Newcomers in a field must negotiate this identity and follow the rules that existing members have created to become “experts” in the community. Unfortunately, such behavioral norms are notoriously tacit in character (Collins, 1970). Nonetheless, this system builds knowledge via the social interactions and learning of its participants.

Lave and Wenger (1991) were careful to point out that the experts in a community are likely to mount a powerful defense when the existing rules and social norms governing their work are challenged. As I mentioned above, Kuhn (1970) famously argued that such calls for basic changes in an academic group’s self-understanding may constitute a “paradigm shift.” He suggested that such changes were fraught with political dimensions, including the vagaries of scholarly careers and other social and cultural factors, not to mention power considerations linked to academic institution status and roles. Foucault (1980) famously argued that knowledge claims cannot be divorced from power, since we, as humans, balance our perceptions of the world against what we find to be socially acceptable, in line with our ideas of cultural norms and socialized identity. Our ideas of social acceptability come from our sense of who we are, how we have been acculturated, and the coded behavior of the symbols with which we surround ourselves. For example, what is socially acceptable for a particular woman is not always socially appropriate for a man, or for an individual from a different background or status (Fausto-Sterling, 2008).

Humans build new knowledge by viewing it through their existing paradigms. The problem is, individuals often forget that those ways of knowing are guiding their understanding. That is, the assumptions underpinning those frames very often go unexpressed or are taken for granted to the point that they become invisible to those embracing them. As Gramsci (1995) observed, certain ideas attain cultural hegemony. These concepts are constantly reinforced, reified and ultimately reproduced through a multitude of unnoticed and unacknowledged actions. Bourdieu (1977) has similarly theorized that societies reproduce ideas, identity and social behavior (including academic research, teaching, learning and writing) by means of cultural symbols and coded behavior, of which individuals are not often cognizant.

Knowledge generated and vetted by academics is the most important knowledge there is, at least as far as individuals in our society are acculturated to believe (Giroux, 1992). Part of producing scholarship accepted by others involves speaking, acting and writing using accepted symbols and coded language that result in positive responses from those audiences, whose members are recognized in their fields. Some of this process of legitimation makes sense (such as when the peer review process works), and some of it does not (such as when a dazzling presentation at a conference leaves everyone initially satisfied, but further reflection reveals a lack of originality or substance). So, if one can successfully engage in the rules of the game and (re)create an acceptable symbolic interaction, one can produce a perspective that is acknowledged and venerated by those engaged in one’s field of social action.  But, if this is so, that fact implies that the rules of the game may be stacked against all but the relatively few who are able to discern them and act in acceptable ways.

In light of this argument, please imagine Elaine Morgan, an intelligent and thoughtful journalist, but also a mild-mannered country woman, daughter of a coal-miner and evidencing a strong Welsh accent, presenting on the aquatic ape hypothesis at an academic conference of mostly English male scientists in the 1970s. Her profession, look, demeanor and gender were all unlikely to result in her inclusion in the prevailing community of practice to which she was appealing. By her symbolic and coded behavior, she likely violated the rules of engagement and social norms of the field to which she was seeking to contribute. She also lacked the accepted boundary object—the “entry card” to the club—a doctoral degree in the discipline. Moreover, the substance of her ideas was far different from the usual, and her language was that of a writer, not a trained scientist. In short, she lacked the correct codes and symbols to demonstrate her compliance with the rules of the game, the long accepted hegemonic assumptions of evolutionary biologists. As a result, powerful experts in the field did not grant her or her work legitimacy (Langdon, 1997).

The result was a marginalization of Morgan’s ideas. Now, however, because her arguments truly were arresting and original, they are slowly being considered seriously by evolutionary biologists and anthropologists. But for a baffling forty years, were these ideas rejected simply on the basis of “who” was talking, or how it was said? And are we comfortable with such factors shaping our collective understanding of the origins of humankind?

I think of my own discipline, agricultural and adult education, and wonder what new radical, profoundly different and at first apparently strange ideas have been pushed aside by the academic community, who carefully guard and protect the holy grail of professional legitimacy. I would like to think that academia is changing, breaking boundaries and embracing new forms of knowledge. But, perhaps, our collective grasp of reality is actually so tenuous that we become sufficiently distracted by the socialized symbols and coded language surrounding new knowledge that we reject fresh ideas that do not accord with our prevailing assumptions and frames. I end with this uncertainty and promise myself that I will listen, really listen, to the intellectual substance of (what seems to be) the next wild idea I encounter, whether in conversation or at the next academic conference in which I participate.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16).Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, H. (2010). Tacit and explicit knowledge. Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press.

Foley, R., & Lahr, M. M. (2014). The role of “the aquatic” in human evolution: constraining the aquatic ape hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews23(2), 56-59.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2008). Myths of gender: Biological theories about women and men. New York: Basic Books.

Giroux, H. (1992). Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education. New York: Routledge.

Gramsci, A. (1995). Further selections from the prison notebooks. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hardy, A. (1960). Was man more aquatic in the past? The New Scientist. 7, 642-645.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press.

Kuliukas, A. (2011). Langdon’s Critique of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis: Its final refutation, or just another misunderstanding? In Vaneechoutte, M., Kuliukas, A., & Verhaegen, M. (Eds.). Was man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Alister Hardy-Waterside hypotheses of human evolution. (pp. 213-225). Beijing: Bentham Science Publishers.

Kuliukas, A. V. (2014). Removing the “Hermetic Seal” from the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis: Waterside Hypotheses of Human Evolution. Advances in Anthropology2014.

Langdon, J. H. (1997). Umbrella hypotheses and parsimony in human evolution: a critique of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Journal of Human Evolution33(4), 479-494.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Morgan, E. (1973). The descent of woman. New York: Bantam Books.

Morgan, E. (1982). The aquatic ape. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House.

Morgan, E. (2011). The aquatic ape hypothesis. London: Souvenir Press.

Morris, D. (1967).  The naked ape: A zoologist’s study of the human animal. New York: Random House.

Rae, T. C., & Koppe, T. (2014). Sinuses and flotation: Does the aquatic ape theory hold water?. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews,23(2), 60-64.

Rhys-Evans, P. H., & Cameron, M. (2014). Surfer’s Ear (Aural Exostoses) Provides Hard Evidence of Man’s Aquatic Past. Human Evolution29,75-90.

Thompson, P. B. (2015). From field to fork: Food ethics for everyone. New York: Oxford university Press.

Tobias, P. V. (2002). Some aspects of the multifaceted dependence of early humanity on water. Nutrition and Health16(1), 13-17.

Vaneechoutte, M. (2014). The origin of articulate language revisited: the potential of a semi-aquatic past of human ancestors to explain the origin of human musicality and articulate language. Human Evolution29, 1-33.

Vaneechoutte, M., Kuliukas, A., & Verhaegen, M. (Eds.). (2011). Was man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Alister Hardy – Waterside hypotheses of human evolution. Beijing: Bentham Science Publishers.

Verhaegen, M. (2013). The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions About the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Human Evolution28, 237-266.

Williams, T. (2011). Just Add Water: The aquatic ape story in science. In Vaneechoutte, M., Kuliukas, A., & Verhaegen, M. (Eds.). Was man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Alister Hardy-Waterside hypotheses of human evolution. (pp. 199-212). Beijing: Bentham Science Publishers.


lorien thumbnailLorien MacAuley has worked in Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington State in programming and evaluation for community food, environmental education, public recreation facilities and community gardening. She is currently a PhD candidate in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and works for the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition. Her research interests are centered on agricultural education and extension, community viability, community development programming/planning, alternative agrifood movements, food ethics, performative food practices and knowledge politics. Her dissertation focuses on on-farm apprenticeships as they relate to alternative agrifood movements.



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The Unnoticed Contextual Realities of Hillbilly Elegy

At any site on the landscape, multiple definitions of a place are continually in play among those who reside or visit there, sometimes convivial and sometimes antagonistic. Ideas of property, of homeland, of natural resources, of infrastructure; of city, county, school district, economic development zone, environmental hazard; of shit-hole, unspoiled paradise, dullsville; of wildness and weirdness and domestication and discipline–all swirl and interconnect and contend and contest in any given space (Powell, 2012, 5).

I have wanted to read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance for a few months. Almost weekly a new review or blog appears concerning this volume, which has become a national best-seller. Because of its personal, memoir nature I found its appeal interesting. I was careful not to read the reviews too closely, but found comments such as “he gets it” or “this is an insider perspective” alluring. While teaching “Introduction to Appalachian Studies” here at Virginia Tech I often work through the local color fiction movement[1] and think, how did people not respond? How did journalists and correspondents for the New York Times as well as scholars not catch these acts of generalizing and aggrandizing on behalf of elite readers and metaphorical fulfilments of the American dream? How did we trade in the breadth of diversity the region has to offer for one view? While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I thought, here is how. This is how places and people become caricatures of themselves, ourselves. It is not my interest in Vance’s writing or personal plight that kept me reading his self-celebratory personal narrative. No, it is knowing that this text is approachable, available, and popular, consumed by many much as Deliverance, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, The Beverly Hillbillies, and local color fiction have been before. Vance’s personal and unquestionably political narrative is an important read in understanding the ways in which societies recreate people, places, and feelings about ideologies.

Reading the first few pages and reviewing the acknowledgements of the thirty-one-year old’s memoir, it is obvious Vance did not write this text as an Appalachian Studies student. Once one has read the first few chapters, it becomes painfully clear that Vance knows very little about regional history. He supports essentializations with personal stories, focuses on micro-oppressions rather than the legacies of hope and historically unaccounted for diversity of the region. Rather than celebrate the legacies of resistance and innovation in Appalachia or offer new knowledge, he continues to reproduce Darwinian notions of a land engulfed in a culture of poverty. So why read the book? I finished this volume for several reasons. First, it is being discussed. Second, it is being accepted by some, even some from the region. Third, Vance relies in part on the controversial theorizations of pseudo-political scientist Charles Murray, and that fact intrigued and concerned me.  Fourth, I continued to read because in the current political climate it has become increasingly clear that affect trumps truth and this book is a brilliantly positioned example of when emotions—those of an accomplished, cis-gendered, heteronormative, white man—matter to the public and are validated by political rhetoric. Fifth, I continued reading because, as someone from the region, I believe the area’s residents have yet truly to address the problematic ways in which we make, recreate and perform one another and for one another and the places for which we allow ourselves to speak.

To be clear, the insider/outsider politics that continue to police place-based discussions of Appalachia are largely revisionist and exclusionary. We have yet to respect and understand the scale of oppression within the region. We have yet to develop the imagination for dialogues of rebuilding rather than rage. We have yet to engage critically with the stereotypes that occupy the region in the national psyche.

Finally, I finished this book because many of my challenges as an educator were apparent within its first few pages. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a student astutely responded to questions I had posed concerning the award winning film, Stranger with a Camera. We were discussing the power of photography to “shoot” subjects and how to weigh long-term representational violence against physical violence. The student responded, with a question (creating questions is a very important goal of the course) “How can facts be unethical? How can facts have ethics?” I was thrilled to enter this line of discourse. How can facts—experiences—and the sharing of those have ethical consequences. Moreover, how are they overtly political? These are the questions that guided my reading of Vance’s personal story. The fact that his narrative is being read as “the hillbilly story” and seen as one explanation for Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump’s success in the region was also not far from my mind.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Vance’s narrative captures a life experience not unlike that of many with which I was familiar as I grew up in western North Carolina. However, just because it relates to the experiences of many from the region—or from any poverty stricken area—does not mean, and should not imply, that it represents the story of all of Appalachia. Vance’s narrative does not explain the region’s systemic or structural inequalities and it certainly does not engage with the power that put them in place. These are just a few of the unnoticed contextual realities of the region that are not addressed by Vance’s “elegy.” The enthusiastic acceptance of a (neoliberal) “pull yourself up by your bootstraps like I did” narrative and the continuous mentioning of “hillbilly justice” among many of the book’s conservative-leaning reviewers speaks to larger racial, economic, gendered, societal issues that have erupted across the national landscape in recent months. Nonetheless, it is clear that Vance’s story of “beating the odds” does not provide a solution or plan to better the lives of the oppressed or impoverished of the region.

In this reflective, exploratory engagement with the text, I address alternative births, regenerative hopes, and regional reincarnations that lie outside the scope of Vance’s lament, while highlighting some of the dangers his work presents to those who consume it and those it represents. This is my initial response. There will be more to come, I am sure.

But Who is Dead?

It is perhaps most straightforward to begin with the title of Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, elegy being a sorrowful song for one who is dead. Yet, Appalachia is not a person, but a place, a place created (like others) through a web of relationships. We read what we assume to be Vance’s swansong to a personification of a particular set of characteristics, a trope of a place, an identity; a hillbilly. Vance emphasizes his sorrow over the death of “a hillbilly.” Indeed, his text reads at times as eulogistic: praising his pistol packin’ cussin’ Mamaw, who in his view, literally saved his life. His book is a lament to “a hillbilly,” a beloved grandmother, a family, and a culture. Death is a strong term. In order to be determined dead, all biological functions that sustain an organism must end. There ceases to be life. In my view, what is lost in Vance’s life as he recounts his experiences does not connote death, but instead transition—and not necessarily a totalizing one. Yes, coal is leaving the region (something Vance does not discuss in depth), and yes, drugs are rampant, but there is something else happening, too. There is a resurrection of local foods, economies, and arts in the region. There is also critical work being done on and within Appalachia—with which Vance seems to be largely unacquainted.

There were additional initial questions for which I wished to obtain answers while I read this book—things I would hope to offer the reader of this reflection, but I cannot, since the author did not address them. For instance, what does Vance mean when he says “hillbilly?” What are the origins of his apparent obsession with “the American Dream?” And has he considered the limits of such a desire? Further, what does Vance see as his relationship to place? He clearly feels he owes his “hillbilly heritage” for his successful career and he claims to love his family’s “home” community, but he does not seem to indicate the need to re-invest in the region. Rather, he passes along the advice that “worked” for him, or “Appalachian Values” as he calls them: loyalty, honor, and toughness (66). That is, if you work hard, good things will come your way. 

A Hillbilly Mythology

In my view, rather than bidding a fond farewell to his home, Vance is participating in the recreation and performance of the social tropes expected to accompany his identity. He articulated prevailing myths or essentializations within the region within the current political climate through his own family stories, while employing existing stereotypes. Family stories are powerful. Regional agents, such as the Highlander Center in Tennessee and Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, have proven the power of personal narrative. However, Vance’s stories do not highlight structural inequalities and issues. Instead, as he presents his experience, issues and solution are rooted in individuals. In this way, he embraces a neoliberal moral of his story that accords with prevailing extreme representations concerning the region. Myths can be healthy, as they allow for a shared understanding of a culture and often of rituals within it. [2] But here, I use “myths” to suggest the ways in which stereotypes and generalizations work. The “myths” on which Vance relies (which are widely believed) are detrimental to truly understanding the poverty of the region because they pretend that they are the product of individual behavior alone and can be addressed by the same.

Hillbillies are white men. This is perhaps the most blatant “myth” Vance reinforces, and the easiest to discredit. Vance self identifies as a “Scots-Irish Hillbilly at Heart.” One long-standing misrepresentation of the region has been that Appalachian people are “Mountain Whites.”[3] The erasure of people of color from this story is important. The ways Vance treats race are important (see his comments on why he does not relate to President Obama (Vance, 2016, 191)). This myth—that Appalachia is a totalizing white space—is untrue. Movements such as the Affrilachian Poets as well as Black Lives Matter and Indigenous studies have all revealed the roles of people of color in the region’s history, and the erasure of these roles in prominent works of historical scholarship.

Intersectional critiques are not a consideration in Vance’s text. The role of gender in the plight and death of the hillbilly does not enter his account. As he observed when discussing the characteristics of his hard-living uncles, “I was in love with the Blanton men” (16). While his Mamaw was an important factor in his life, the work done by women, or the potential work by women goes largely unnoticed. While, yes, she was very important, Vance does not address her labor and the labor divisions (which cannot be separated from regional poverty) her life revealed. Labor and laziness are gendered issues and the solution, if Vance can be said to offer one, is dangerously gendered and simple; “Men need to work.” For instance, he laments,

Too many young men are immune to hard work. Good jobs are impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance . . . this is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America (Vance, 2016, 97).

I am not convinced it is that simple, nor should it be. Appalachia is not distinct from the larger landscape of America, rather the region is deeply connected. Further, the labor of the “wife-to-be” is never discussed. Vance is apparently unaware of the gendered divisions of labor Rebecca Scott has so carefully analyzed in her scholarship. The alternative economies within the region and Vance’s own situation and privilege—especially among his summer co-workers—go unquestioned.

Finally, Vance’s unquestionable “You are the answer” mantra reinforces currently prevailing individualistic social norms. Or, in the words of Vance’s Mamaw, “[D]on’t be like these f—–g losers who think the deck is stacked against them … [y]ou can do anything you want to” (Vance, 2016, 36). That is the advice Vance recalls from his Mamaw and that is exactly the neoliberal sentiment so dominant today that discredits structural (read, governmental) assistance or restructuring efforts in areas in which capitalism fails or which the market abandons. This directly influences policy which directly influences the lives of the working class.

The neoliberal dream is complicated and Vance is not the only popular culture writer to cling to it. He advances a perspective that can only be understood within its own structures and systems, which, because they are so dominant in our current culture, we have a difficult time imagining could be otherwise: “It’s [Appalachia is] unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work” (Vance, 2016, 21). Vance misses an opportunity to make an important connection between “interest in honest work” and the environmental and historical context of labor of the region. Environmental waste scatters the countryside precisely because of the jobs available in the area.  Those responsible for that waste (largely coal companies) are not held accountable, rather such a landscape is seen as a reflection of those who have to often been treated as “by-products” by the companies for which they work.

When discussing his upbringing and his own positionality, Vance looks to his grandparents as sources of strength. “Both did their part to ensure that I had the self-confidence and the right opportunities to get a fair shot at the American Dream” (Vance, 2016, 23). Vance also acknowledges education as a critical factor in his own ability successfully to realize the “American Dream,” but he does not address structural issues that often limit opportunities for others in the region (including his mother). As he noted, “[T]oday people look at me, at my job, and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today” (Vance, 2016, 2).  Being a white, cis-gendered-heterosexual-het man who, whose family for at least for a period in his life, enjoyed an income of more than $100,000 did make me wonder whether Vance’s ascent was truly as extraordinary as he appears to believe. A law degree from Yale is a great accomplishment and Vance has much of which to be proud, but he did not realize those accomplishments solely on the basis of his personal capacities. We live in a social system that caters to the success of men like Vance … even those who come from Appalachia. While we are in a patriarchal capitalist economy, we also are living in a time when the dominant social frame systematically blames poverty on the impoverished. That is what is exceptionally strange about this story—Vance’s lack of attention to systemic and structural inequalities.

Given this reality, it is important to explore the ways in which Vance understands the neoliberal system that now dominated the United States and how individuals and communities function within it. In lieu of acknowledging that overarching set of claims and its roles in he conditions that Appalachia’s residents confront, Vance contends, “To these folks, poverty is a family tradition” (Vance, 2016, 3). Time and again, Vance embraces notions of a “culture of poverty” in his memoir. Poor people beget poor people and poverty is their culture of choice seems to be his logic. This proposition is nothing new and it surely reflects and perpetuates a social stereotype of the poor in the United States, but is has also been disproven repeatedly as economists and analysts have learned about how capitalism and varying methods of economic oppression work. Vance’s use of fatalism (“it is no surprise that we are a pessimistic bunch” (4)), depiction of the region and his evocation of those with a “hillbilly identity” as constituting a pre-modern space, and his continual (and repetitive) invocation of “hillbilly justice” (read: violent stories of his uncles beating men unconscious (Vance, 2016, 14, 17)) are all long-lived stereotypic generalizations that Appalachian Studies educators work against daily. These claims are nothing new, and they are certainly not the future of Appalachia. Rather, the future is being built by activists, scholars, farmers, preachers, lawyers, yogis, filmmakers, artists and others who reject such misleading characterizations as they search for possibilities to survive and thrive together in the region. 

Why these myths? Why these stories?

These stories are tired, but they are known. Such generalizations (the region’s supposed violence, whiteness, overwhelming poverty and rurality) allow Vance to identify with Appalachia in an essentializing and comfortable way. One quick glance at the “Appalachian Americans” Facebook page and it is clear that the relationships people build with one another, which allow them to self-identify and be a part of a place, are often reliant on dominant stories and value systems, or at least on a common rhetoric and vocabulary. As Powell has observed, “[r]egions are not so much places themselves, but ways of describing relationships among places” (Powell, 10, 2012).   The ability to re-tell accounts of such ties and his willingness to relate these dominant social generalizations of Appalachia constitute Vance’s “membership” in the region for his readers in a way that accords with stereotypes, rather than revealing the inspiring solutions and alternatives now in play across Appalachia. It is easier to draw on a stereotype than to imagine a different way of knowing.

In this way, Vance’s account of his life to date finds Appalachia again serving dominant social, cultural and political forces, rather than being explored as the vital and diverse region it is. For Vance, Appalachia is the setting – a relatable and believable one, in his presentation—in which white patriarchal heteronormative capitalist dreams may be born. As he frames his experiences, Vance is a wonderful poster child for the individualistic myth many have adopted in a neoliberal age.

Too often we miss the hidden resistances, the hidden structures of privilege and disenfranchisement because “the story” of Appalachia has been the story of “mountain whites” specifically, white men from the mountains. This makes invisible the diversity and many of the radical movements which the region should be celebrating. For example, how different would this story be if Vance were a woman? Queer? A person of color? Dis/abled? And how different would this story be if we were to think beyond capitalism? These questions and alternative avenues for exploration require an acknowledgement of privilege, which, indeed, is one productive conversation that could possibly come from discussions of this book.

What do we actually learn from this narrative?

Human beings generalize. We essentialize in order to understand, and in doing so, too often learn very little. Our performative self-construction is not questioned in a productive way. We validate our “Appalachian-ness” through the thickness of our vowels and through the food we make and surely this is a dangerous practice. In performing an “authentic” identity, privilege and discussions about intersectional struggles are lost in the dominating myths of what it means “to be” from this region. Vance does this through erroneous contentions, such as the claim that “[W]e do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the importance lies in how they look, how they act, or how they talk” (Vance, 2016, 3). But who is “they” and who are “we” and how do we deal with shifts in these seemingly concrete identities?

Shak’ar Mujukian recently published a brilliant blog post, “The Queer Poor Aesthetic,”  not in response to Vance’s text specifically, but to address stereotypical performances of identities and shared experiences without shared socio-economic positionality:

Class is powerful for another reason: it shapes how we view and in turn treat groups of people. Class structurally disenfranchises and criminalizes marginalized communities: it’s how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, transphobia, misogyny, and nearly every other kind of oppression legally operate and take real form.

That’s why it’s necessary to treat class how we treat race, color, gender, and sexuality. But first, we need to start by talking about it. (Checking your class privilege once is like saying ‘I’m a white male—I have privilege,’ and stopping there.) We need to have an ongoing, honest conversation and not abuse the ways in which we self-identify for our own benefit.

Our community has a phobia of privilege—especially when it’s ours. Because privilege isn’t cool anymore, we’re taking great measures to downplay ours and only selectively highlight the ways in which we’re oppressed. Because class is relatively invisible and awkward, it’s easiest to hide—especially when we’re marginalized in other ways. . .

If we are participating in this movement to destroy and bring visibility to all forms of oppression, we have to stop glamorizing the queers who are highest on the food chain and listen to and empower those who are most marginalized. We have to deconstruct the fucked up, invisible ways that we’ve been programmed to think and feel. And we must start by being honest about ourselves, our privilege, and our politics (

Hillbilly Elegy may be Vance’s honest account of his life to date, but it is a cripplingly limited gaze. Historically and culturally it is not a full picture of Appalachia.  Perhaps Vance is unaware of the powerful movements in the region. Perhaps he is unaware of Appalachian Studies. Affect and somatic modes of intellect are integrated in the neoliberal era. We no longer distinguish the difference between fact and feeling. So what is clear by the book’s number 9 debut on the New York Times bestseller list is that Vance is an author who has found a hungry audience, weaving the stories readers need to hear in a time of affect driven politics; politics not about policy, but about representation of who we want to be and the power we are afraid we are losing. It is a story that celebrates a few individual success stories amidst widespread systemic inequality and fails to acknowledge how we are all deeply connected.

To return to the quotation with which I began this essay:

At any site on the landscape, multiple definitions of a place are continually in play and at work, sometimes convivial and sometimes antagonistic. Ideas of property, of homeland, of natural resource, of infrastructure; of city, county, school district, economic development zone, environmental hazard; of shit-hole, unspoiled paradise, dullsville; of wildness and weirdness and domestication and discipline–all swirl and interconnect and contend and contest in any given space” (Powell, 2012, 5).

The Appalachian story is not given room to swirl, interconnect and contend in Vance’s narrative. The hillbilly is not afforded space to be characterized fully.  With statements such as, “Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people” (Vance, 2016, 21), it is difficult to illuminate legacies of resistance or place-based oppression.  “Hillbilly values,” as Vance describe them, are tired stereotypes. What Vance does get correct is that migration and intertextual exchanges (horror films, music, cinema, and memoirs) have spread those characterizations and given them an undeserved place in the nation’s social psyche. At any rate, to assume people from the region have similar values requires a grand level of essentializing. To assume that these values are something spread like an infectious disease is classist and class-phobic.

Vance concludes his introduction with the assertion that there are “no villains in this story”—just a “ragtag group of hillbillies” (Vance, 2016, 9). But there are indeed villains. The power to name such rogues represents the potential for change and here, in a critique of place, a celebratory song for the death of a region, authors and storytellers such as Vance are indeed villains—their “swansongs” are simply recreations/reincarnations of the structures that support systemic oppression and challenge transformation in the region. In lieu of embracing dominant neoliberal tropes and blaming those victimized by such thinking, analysts must identify the systemic oppressive self-governance of capitalistic systems as the actual “villain” in Appalachia’s complex story.

While I value the power of affect, which Vance’s memoir surely represents, what is missing from his story of “death” are the many births of alternative economic structures, creative place-making initiatives, and grass roots campaigns unfolding in the region every day. Indeed, ultimately what is missing from Vance’s memoir is the strength and diversity of the region.

If you would like to learn more about regional scholarship, the Appalachian Studies Association national conference will be held at Virginia Tech in March 2017. Details may be found here:


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Anchor Books: New York, NY, 1991.

Shak’ar Mujukian, “The Queer Poor Aesthetic”

Powell, Douglas Reichert. Critical regionalism:  Connecting Politics and culture in the American Landscape.  University of North Carolina Press Books, Chapel Hill, N.C. 2012.

Vance, JD. Hillbillty Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY,2016.


Foot notes

[1] Local Color fiction refers to the post-Civil War literature movement which highlighted extreme characterizations of various localities in the United States. Appalachia was by far the most highly written about region.

[2] Joseph Campbell has perhaps most famously written on the topic in The Power of Myth.

[3] See “Whitewashing Appalachian Diversity” by Rachel Ellen Smith for more on this.


jordan-laney-picJordan Laney is a first generation college student completing her dissertation, which addresses bluegrass festivals, in the innovative ASPECT doctoral program.  She previously earned an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University and a B.F.A in Creative Writing from Goddard College. At Virginia Tech, she teaches for the Department of Religion and Culture. She serves as the co-chair of YALL (Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners) and as a Founding Fellow for the Virginia Tech Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence. Biking, walking dogs, sewing, yoga, and attempts to learn banjo tunes take up most of her free time. Her current work can be found here:

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