Factions and corporate political strategies in Harlan County, Kentucky: Implications for community sustainability

Amy Rebecca Winston, Purdue University


The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the effects that corporate political strategies have on a community's shift from extractive industry (coal mining) to a more sustainable economic base. My hypothesis is that the strategies that extractive labor communities evolve for coping with the decline of extractive industry and its consequences parallel the closed corporate community features elaborated by Eric Wolf, including such features as shared power, economic egalitarianism, and a pronounced degree of community integration. To test this, I went to Benham and adjacent towns in the mountains of Harlan County, in rural southeastern Kentucky, where a coal mining operation recently ceased production. There, I found that economic development efforts involve a revitalization movement that stresses community autonomy and grassroots leadership. Struggling to overcome the economic strain of the decline of coal mining in the region, the eastern Kentucky community of Benham has been successful in large part due to the efforts of a cadre of women who came to activism in 1992. Known collectively as the Petticoat Mafia, they first organized as the Benham Garden Club. Their combined efforts are one reason that Benham stands out among communities in Harlan County, set on a course for sustainable development. Their participatory, egalitarian political approach is revitalizing and diversifying the town's long-restricted opportunity structure tied to coal, sex, race, and class status.




Blanton, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology

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