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Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia

Authors

  • Shannon Elizabeth Bell,

    1. Department of Sociology
      University of Oregon
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    • An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco, August 2009. We are very grateful to Michael Schulman and the three anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of our paper and insightful suggestions for improvement.

  • Richard York

    1. Department of Sociology
      University of Oregon
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Abstract

Economic changes and the machinations of the treadmill of production have dramatically reduced the number of jobs provided by extractive industries, such as mining and timber, in the United States and other affluent nations in the post–World War II era. As the importance of these industries to national, regional, and local economies wanes, community resistance to ecologically and socially destructive industry practices threatens the political power of corporations engaged in natural-resource extraction. Here we argue that to maintain their power (and profits) as their contribution to employment declines, extractive industries have increased their efforts to maintain and amplify the extent to which the “economic identity” of communities is connected with the industry that was historically an important source of employment. We fit this argument within the neo-Marxian theoretical tradition, which emphasizes the roles ideology and legitimation play in maintaining elite rule. We illustrate this theorized process by analyzing the efforts of the West Virginia coal industry, which, through its (faux) “grassroots” front group “Friends of Coal,” attempts to construct the image that West Virginia's economy and cultural identity are centered on coal production. Our analysis relies on content analysis of various sources and on experience gained from field research. We find that key strategies of the Friends of Coal include efforts to become pervasively visible in the social landscape and the appropriation of cultural icons that exploit the hegemonic masculinity of the region. These findings have implications for how industries around the country, and the world, work to maintain their power through ideological manipulation.

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