My research interests are varied and based on three primary fieldwork sites and experiences. The fieldwork sites I detail here are vastly different. Two are located in the United States and consider present-day transnational social and structural transitions through exploring the impact of socioeconomic change on working families and their communities. The other site is island Southeast Asia and deals with issues of cultural and identity politics, ethnicity, post-colonial nationalism, and nation building in a multicultural society through study of a government program relocating mostly landless poor from urban to rural areas. Although different, these projects share important traits which express enduring intellectual interests including my desire to conduct community-based research with a focus on issues of migration, community building, personhood and place, narrative constructions and identity, and negotiations between work, family, and self in different social and historical contexts. In addition to graduate work, my undergraduate education in human ecology was instrumental in developing an appreciation for applying a range of methods and explanatory models in the effort to understand complex and interconnected social and environmental problems. I continue to develop my appreciation for mixed-method and interdisciplinary approaches.
For over a decade here in West Virginia, I have been applying my research experience in Indonesia and Michigan to explore related themes in Appalachia. Positioned at the fuzzy edge of what is known as the “Rust Belt,” a term used to conjure an image of decaying industrial places from another economic era, West Virginia has played a significant historical role in the railroad industry, natural resource extraction, and labor organization. During the second half of the 20th century, however, the state has suffered a great deal of out-migration as a greater variety of opportunities have beckoned in other areas. Young people in particular have abandoned the industries of their forebears that once defined entire communities. Since 1950, West Virginia has experienced a net outmigration of 40%. As most out-migrants have been young adults, the State’s population has been ranked the nation’s oldest.
Like Michigan communities where I have worked, in the shadow of Detroit manufacturing, many parts of West Virginia are faced with increasing uncertainty and instability within the context of ongoing deindustrialization. Communities find themselves adrift in a competitive, globalizing world in which they are required to aggressively attract both physical and social capital in order to succeed. What strategies will they follow to recovery, if any? Despite a recent history of often bleak economic conditions, Tri-State communities are, in many ways, perfect places to conduct research on new forms of work, entrepreneurship, community building, and the marketing of place according to emerging cultural and economic models that may stand in sharp contrast to prevailing images of Appalachia as uneducated and backward while they challenge the dominant socio-economic order of the Industrial Era. At the same time, many West Virginia communities remain tied to extractive and other industries that expose people to significant, ongoing risk through economic as well as other dependencies. Thus, we find considerable tension between well-established and politically powerful models and those that challenge that status quo. This dependency can, as I have suggested, manifest in real hazard as many communities have ongoing contamination events that lead to prolonged toxic suffering.
The predominant model for encouraging investment, in-migration, and population retention has for some time relied on rolling back taxes and providing cheap land and labor in an attempt to entice a single large employer in what has been called “smokestack chasing.” Increasing numbers of local activists, such as those forming the group “Create Huntington,” reject longstanding assumptions. Following alternative approaches, they advocate for preserving or enhancing quality of life in order to attract entrepreneurial migrants, the so-called creative class, interested in pursuing particular lifestyle choices which emphasize quality of life and livability. Building on prior experience in thematically related international and domestic research, this project uses ethnographic methods, including participant-observation and in-depth interviews to document emergent cultural meanings and social behaviors in the everyday lives of community activists and others in Appalachia.
My previous ethnographic fieldwork project was in the rapidly growing lakeside communities of Northwest Lower Michigan. The project explored non-economic, urban to rural migration of middle-class families that has led to the sudden, often unexpected population growth. This relocation is a manner of negotiating building tension between personal experience with material demands in pursuit of a livelihood within the flexible, contingent new economy and cultural conventions for the good family and community life as a basis for defining individual character. This fieldwork considered how accounts of these migrants are part of a larger moral story of what constitutes the good life when basic social categories and cultural meanings are shifting. I argue that this migration is a continuation of long-standing American traditions of starting over rooted in a belief that we can remake ourselves through sheer force of will. At the same time, it is also a uniquely modern expression as people respond to challenges and opportunities of a flexible economy based increasingly on contingent work. Their accounts are narratives of travel and conversion where downshifting and displaced workers pass through a period of liminality in an attempt to redefine themselves through relocation to places believed to provide refuge for the discovery of an inner, authentic self.
Many middle-class families become sophisticated consumers of place where residential choice becomes part of a self-conscious construction of identity through life-style. Pursuing personal images of the good and seeking to find greater balance and integration across domains of work, family and community, migrants attempt to feel greater personal control by relocating away from lives that become incompatible with their sense of a potential self. Many migrants describe feeling like refugees who cannot be at home in a corporate world of work based on ideas of contingency and flexibility. The life-style migrants reveal how social and structural changes present not only challenges but also opportunities for redefining work and family while emphasizing personal fulfillment and well being.
A related, short-term post-doctoral project considered forms of ‘New Work,’ alternative arrangements of work and family life, explored by so-called free-agents of the post-industrial economy. This project revealed how some individuals and groups explore a kind of frontier of social and economic arrangements and thus help redefine the meaning, purpose and place of work in personal and community life. While working in Michigan, I also developed an area of research built on my longstanding interest in the anthropology of space and place. I connected this interest directly to emerging areas of inquiry in the fields of public health and health geography. This project entailed examining how different community design reform movements from the 19th century “moral treatment” approach in asylum care to today’s new urbanism attempt to use the spatial order as foundation for a new moral order. From built form to landscape, I looked at the therapeutic use of place not only for planned treatment of individual disease/disorder, as in moral treatment, but also the intent to offer remedies for perceived ills of the collective through alternative spatial and social arrangements within purposive community.
A project began much earlier is sited in Sulawesi, Indonesia. This long-term research was conducted in four relocation settlements developed as part of the government’s “transmigration” program, which began during the final period of the Dutch colonial presence. In this community-based work, I employed both qualitative and more survey-based approaches. I concentrated my participant-observation, in-depth interviewing, and social-surveys in a single village as a primary fieldsite. In order to assess my early findings through comparison with other cases while considering ethnographically interesting similarities and differences with other locations, I extended data collection into three other nearby settlements. Each of these places possesses a unique set of circumstances for their establishment and continued growth as communities. Every one of thousands of settlements established wholesale from the ground up over the past century represents a unique confluence of people, places, and a wide range of social and structural factors. Each settlement is faced with its own particular challenges and opportunities. At the same time, they also share a certain degree of input by virtue of the fact that they have emerged from the program’s bureaucratic and ideological framework. At the most basic level, the program involves a struggle of power and identity between two quite different intents.
On the one hand there are the deliberate objectives of the State to create and maintain an “imagined community” of unified Indonesians on a national scale through the medium of the program’s design and implementation. On the other hand, there are the more immediate and frequently less coherent aspirations of the settlers themselves as individuals, and to varying degrees as groups, to succeed in establishing socially, economically and ecologically viable communities in a particular time and place. These places exist as contested socially constructed spaces linking the imagined community of Indonesian nationalism, the specific site, and the local social and physical conditions which interpret and shape how an engineered national culture is not simply reproduced but rather may be challenged in different ways within the context of community building.
I value the depth and breadth of my research interests and experience. I continue to work with data from my research in Indonesia as I present to professional societies and publish in this area. At the same time, with presentations and publications I have established a strong presence in the anthropology of work in the United States. This varied experience has given me valuable opportunities. My work with Indonesian transmigrants offers insight into how I might interpret the experiences of relocating professionals in the life-style migration project. Specifically, transmigrants spoke of how they used their relocation to selectively edit out or enhance certain personal characteristics and even distinctive cultural elements that defined their ethnic group. I was able to reveal a similar process of editing among life-style migrants who relocated in order to bring about what they felt was a necessary break from established ritual and routine. They used relocation to redefine priorities and, in many cases, to get in touch with what they describe as a true self. The value of ethnographic research conducted in a variety of social, cultural, and physical contexts is that it encourages me to be open to possibilities and to imagine new ways of thinking. This is another reason why I value the ethnography of everyday life. It is in neglected details of day-to-day life that real insight into the meaning of important social and cultural change is most powerfully and relevantly expressed in lived experience.
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