Paradoxes of social capital: mobility and access in an Appalachian community
Zimpfer, Mariah Jade
Appalachia can be both exquisitely breathtaking and socially tragic, it’s a place to which many Americans trace their ancestry, and yet also it often seems forgotten. In the 1960s, the region was a major target area of the US government’s War on Poverty. Once highly noted for its tremendous post-industrial era contributions to the world’s timber and coal industries, subsequent changing economic demands and industry closures in the region have left many still living in a state of unforgiving poverty. The prevalence of counties living at or below the poverty rate, as estimated by the Appalachian Regional Commission (2015), has dropped from 295 counties in the 1960s to 90 in a 2009-2013 report. Despite this drop the region still greatly suffers due to high concentrated poverty, inadequate health care access, and unemployment. Poverty still demands attention, and scholars must understand its persistence. Many note the consistent lack of access to resources, both economic and social, as primary factors (Saegert, Thompson and Warren 2001; Blakeney 2006). Therefore, I draw on social capital and its underlying relational, social engagements as my main theoretical frame. I explore some of the sociological dynamics underlying Appalachia’s persistent poverty. Through an artifact-based ethnography in a rural eastern Kentucky community, this thesis argues that the current understandings of social capital – as a mechanism to gain social or economic resources – is greatly influenced by the presence of stigma and this is most notably manifested through the readings of cultural artifacts. This thesis’ empirical data draws on ethnographic fieldwork that also included participant observation and 45 semi-structured interviews. I tried to understand the operation of social capital through the lenses of three key artifacts that seemed to me to capture elements of poverty dynamics in the region: home, ‘welfare check’, and glucose meter. These artifacts were chosen because they allowed me to understand how mobility, access, acquisition, utilization, boundaries, and the role in which stigma affects all of these areas is presented. The fieldwork and interview data was understood and supplemented by examining official statistics, government documents, and literature focusing on the emergence and maintenance of the artifacts. The thesis articulates the complicated notions surrounding social capital and how it is manifested through the usage and reading of these objects. Furthermore, this project illustrates how actors within and outside of the community affect the reading of the objects that results in the construct of physical and social boundaries. The findings for this thesis indicates the way in which individuals in communities and external agents understand resources and interact with potential resources for impoverished individuals in providing them access is negated by their reading of objects surrounding them and is affected by the stigma attached to such objects. Chapter 4 on the home examines the concept of rootedness and social mobility; how the strong kinship ties are both a response to and protection from the effects of poverty and stigma in the region. Chapter 5 on the ‘welfare check’ illustrates further the effect that strong bonding ties can have on impeding the development of bridging ties – most notably how fear or people’s reactions, are a response founded in stigma, potentially leads to the heavy reliance on an object which arguably perpetuates poverty. Lastly, Chapter 6 uses the glucose meter to examine the effect that stigma can have internally and externally to a community, thus resulting in inadequate access to health care. The thesis’ key theoretical contribution lies in an attempt to develop an understanding of some of the paradoxical ways in which social capital operates in an impoverished community, and more especially in a theorization of the role that stigma plays in our understanding of social capital. In order to explore this further, the thesis relies heavily upon the utilization of Robert Putnam’s understanding of social capital and loosely on Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of inequality and its influence on social capital. Erving Goffman’s notion of stigma is used to contextualize the conceptual employment of social capital and its relationship with the artifacts. Current social capital literature uses the presence of, or lack of, bonding and bridging capital in order to illustrate the amount of social capital a community has. However, I illustrate that this is heavily influenced by the presence of stigma.