Struggling to Resist: Cultural Matching and the Fight over Mountaintop Removal

By Daniel Escher

An airplane flight over eastern Kentucky, or a satellite map of southern West Virginia, reveals a strange sight—vast tracts of disturbed earth stretching for hundreds if not thousands of acres at a time. This is mountaintop removal mining, a method of extracting coal from the surface. It involves removing vegetation, blasting rock, extracting coal, and then attempting to reshape the rock back into a mountain again. Although this form of surface mining began in 1970, it began attracting sustained attention from environmental activists in the late 1990s as mine sites grew rapidly in size. Small mines are about the size of a hundred football fields; large ones sprawl across 15 square miles.

For activists, the ad campaigns practically write themselves. Through this method, coal companies have buried over 2,000 miles of headwater streams and destroyed 1.5 million acres of forest. Even after reclamation, the sites do not match the deciduous hardwood forests they replace (Palmer et al. 2010). Those living in counties with mountaintop mining face shorter life spans, increased birth defects, and higher cancer rates than their neighbors in counties without it—even after controlling for confounding factors like poverty and obesity (e.g., Ahern et al. 2011; Hendryx and Ahern 2008).


We would expect to see environmentalists passionately opposing mountaintop mining. Indeed we do. Various organizations provide all manner of resources to the campaign—money, meeting space, and media documentation of attention-grabbing arrests. Close to twenty groups work to abolish it, including national ones (e.g., Sierra Club), regional ones (e.g., Appalachian Voices), and local ones (e.g., Coal River Mountain Watch, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth). A number of books chronicle the efforts of a small, core group of truly courageous activists, such as Maria Gunnoe, Chuck Nelson, Wilma Steele, and the late Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson (e.g., Bell 2013; House et al. 2011; McNeil 2011).

By focusing on these highly visible activists, though, we overlook that the majority of participants in collective action against mountaintop removal—from contentious events (such as marches or protests) to meetings to service projects—are “outsiders” in residents’ eyes, and not just because the coal companies say they are. Most participants are visitors to the region who join the movement temporarily for a weekend, a week, or a summer, or are people who have spent significant amounts of time away from the region before returning (e.g., Bell and Braun 2010; Shapiro 2010).

We also overlook the fact that local residents overwhelmingly avoid these groups, even though involving them is top priority. It is not because community members support mountaintop removal. Only a third of West Virginians and Kentuckians view it favorably. And it is not because they have nothing to complain about. Since 2000, over 20,000 distinct coalfield residents have called their state government to complain about blasting, dust, contaminated well water, discolored creeks, and damage to their houses caused by surface coal mining. Yet they keep these grievances hidden and individual, instead of acting on them collectively. Why do so few residents act collectively to resist mountaintop mining?

Thirty years ago, John Gaventa’s fascinating examination of mining communities in eastern Tennessee asked a similar question. A host of visible and invisible barriers prevented community members from acting collectively, such as coercion, manipulation of information, anticipation of defeat, and economic dependence on mining. Building on his work, we can understand social movement failure by examining where other barriers may exist—that is, the space between the structural potential for social change and actual micro-mobilization of groups and individuals.

Cultural matching

In this space, opponents of the status quo (environmental activists) and proponents of it (the coal industry) both attempt to attract the support or participation of community members. In a time of declining economic dependence on mining, and in a place with a long history of exploitation and repeated defeat, community members look to someone they feel comfortable around, someone who understands them. They look to someone they can trust. Establishing trust is crucial to linking clear structural opportunities with collective action, to forming shared understandings, and to constructing a sense of togetherness. Residents must trust that the activists who want to help them also understand and appreciate their problems and way of life.

One key to establishing trust, and creating solidarity, is cultural matching (Collins 2004; Rivera 2012; Turner and Stets 2006). A cultural match consists of commonalities in certain key areas between activists and residents. These may include similarities and differences between residents’ long-held, fundamental values (such as their belief in liberty or in preserving family), their more situationally variable priorities (such as promoting economic development or protecting masculinity), and their views on styles (such as dress and how to make claims). Each of these areas serves as the basis for including or excluding people from a group.

Thus, even when other key conditions for collective action are present, a cultural match between activists and residents does not always exist, and a mismatch may be an insurmountable obstacle to mobilization.

Careful listening to community members in the coalfields reveals that many activists do not feel a sense of solidarity with environmental activists. Many feel like activists do not understand them or work to help them. They feel like they do not fit in, and they feel like environmentalists come in to impose their own agenda. Most activists, meanwhile, rarely make sustained efforts to shed their “outsider” status. Cultural matching requires far more than a training seminar on “cultural sensitivity.” True cultural matching requires repeated, intentional, long-term conscious effort to align activist groups closer to residents (e.g., McAdam 1988, 66–115).

The coal industry, of course, is not going to end mountaintop mining without a fight. Proponents of coal engage in cultural matching and attract residents because of it. They carefully emphasize how coal mining maps onto residents’ important values such as liberty, family, and heritage. They sponsor sporting events, auto fairs, disaster relief, and other civic activities to become seen as community assets and to overcome residents’ insecurity, vulnerability, and defensiveness. This is a far cry from coal companies’ efforts early in the twentieth century to directly supplant and denigrate local culture. These days, they elevate local culture in an effort to match culturally with community members.

Successful groups

When activists do make a sustained effort to understand and match residents’ culture, they learn what potential participants are comfortable doing and not doing as tactics. They learn that residents pay attention to far more than the “messaging” of their group: Community members observe the trustworthiness and reputation of group members; they evaluate the appropriateness of their tactics. Physical appearance and comportment becomes a cognitive shortcut in their minds for who belongs. In turn, activists deploy the appropriate values, symbols, and narratives to the extent that they themselves understand what community members experience.

Stories of success in fighting mountaintop removal by involving residents are rare. However, a few groups have earned the trust, support, and even participation of residents. These groups share key features in common: 1) They recognize the importance of cultural matching as a key to success in their efforts, and thus they place local residents in key organizational positions. 2) They make an effort to understand residents and their history. Because of their rich understanding of the region’s history, they do more than talk about the need for economic diversification and make efforts to achieve it. 3) They focus on making small, obtainable goals, rarely challenging coal mining directly, but (in some cases) make it more expensive and thus less feasible.

In sum, one reason social movements sometimes fail to mobilize community members—even when clear structural opportunities are available—is that organizations and potential sympathizers or participants do not match culturally. Groups that pay cultural matching lip service or reduce it to a quick “sensitivity” seminar will fail to gain the trust of residents. The movement may expand and attract widespread attention and resources, but it will attract very few community members, which the organizations seek to represent and empower in the first place.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

4 responses to “Struggling to Resist: Cultural Matching and the Fight over Mountaintop Removal

  1. This is an insightful piece. Indeed, I see similar processes at play in my own research on the anti-fracking movement in rural Pennsylvania. However with the MTR example in particular, I am compelled to push this further. Here, I’m thinking of Rebecca Scott’s insights in Removing Mountains about the consequences of union busting and union decline in these areas. Doesn’t cultural matching just scratch the surface? Aren’t there other questions about about economic justice and cross-movement cooperation and adaptability lurking just beneath the surface?


    • Amanda, your comment gave me a lot to think about – thank you. You’re quite right: a long history of three-dimensional power (Gaventa 1982), union busting (Bell 2009; Scott 2010), failed development schemes (Eller 2008), and prior co-optation of a local movement by national organizations (Montrie 2003) sets the context for collective action today. One consequence of these historical events and present-day realities is the fact that community members are rightly suspicious of well-intentioned groups trying to help. Collective memory is long in the coalfields, and many have felt misunderstood and overlooked. Building trust between residents and environmental groups is crucial to facilitate collective action. One of the ways successful organizations build trust is by matching culturally in certain key areas, thus demonstrating that they understand what is important to residents and that they understand their history and current structural reality.

      You are also quite right that organizations in the coalfields are cooperating with other organizations, sometimes in relatively distant places like Arizona or Alberta or Wyoming. For me, questions of cross-movement/organization cooperation, diffusion, adaptability, and so on are important questions for those who are already involved in the movement. My project examines one (or two) steps prior, asking what prevents community members from being sympathetic toward local environmental organizations, let alone wanting to join them in the first place.


  2. Dan,
    Like Amanda, I think this is a really interesting & insightful post. I wonder what some of the cultural subgroups of activists that you’ve looked at are, and whether organizations composed of particular subgroups are more likely to form effective ties with community members? For example, many of the most tactically “radical” environmental activists I’ve encountered are often anarchist in their cultural and political orientations. Which might present a challenging cultural framework for local community members to embrace.


  3. Peter, exactly. Two prominent groups (Mountain Justice and RAMPS) have become the archetypes or stereotypes in the minds of residents for people fighting mountaintop removal. These groups have learned and changed somewhat in their messaging and tactics in the past several years; however, as a whole they are fundamentally quite different from residents in their values, priorities, and styles. Many, but not all, are anarchist and/or anti-capitalist, dress and behave differently, prioritize stopping environmental destruction and give little real thought to economic development (aside from mentioning it), and so on.

    It is the more culturally similar groups that don’t usually make headlines that succeed in attracting residents for small, obtainable goals (e.g., Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, ACLC, OVEC). No organization is perfect, but they understand how important cultural matching is, and the challenge of building trust, and thus they frequently put those who look/talk/think like local community members and have a long history in the area in key positions.


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