This exploratory and inductive study was designed to provide a better understanding of, and ability to measure, the impacts of traditional community arts and other culturally significant activities on local community development and well-being. Tо accomplish this, multiple research sites in southern Appalachia were studied.
To achieve our research goals, a case study approach utilizing a mixed methods research framework consisting of three major steps was conducted (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998; Yin, 2003). The southern region of Appalachia served as the geographic focus of this research. Included were communities in southwestern Virginia, central/eastern Tennessee, and eastern Kentucky. This geographic area presents a mixture of diverse remote and urban proximate rural communities. This region was selected because of its history, presence of cultural preservation organizations, and a cultural heritage that is rich in music, storytelling, and other culturally significant activities.
In our exploratory fieldwork, we were particularly taken by the significance of storytelling in one community, Cowen Creek, located some five miles from Whitesburg in southeast Kentucky. At the local community center, the Cowan Creek Community Action (CCCA) group has been involved in storytelling and music projects that involve both older and younger members of the community. Similarly, the non-governmental organization, Appalshop was focused on. Also located in Whitesburg, this organization was formed during the War on Poverty years of the 1960s. It is one such organization that has utilized various media—documentary film-making, theatre, music, radio—to involve its diverse local population in creating a positive sense of identity and awareness and continuing a strong heritage of traditional music, craft, and culture. While its involvement in some issues has not always created cross-community consensus (such as mountain top removal), it has certainly continued what Eller describes as Appalachian consciousness routed in principles of social justice and equity that emerged in the 1960s (Eller, 2008). This period spawned much local collective action in response to natural resource management issues and local development strategies.
A series of steps were taken to gather information relevant to the role of traditional arts in the development of community and well-being of local residents. Included was a thorough review and assessment of current academic and rural development research literature. This included fields of study representing sociology, community development, and performing arts. In addition, local/ regional newspapers, websites, research reports, newsletters, and newspaper articles related to the cultural heritage of Appalachia were reviewed. Next, data was collected through a series of key informant interviews and focus groups to document the role of culturally significant activities in social, cultural, and economic development within the region.
Key Informant Interviews and Focus Groups
Initial onsite research and primary data collection took the form of key and action informant interviews and small group discussions with local residents, program directors, grassroots activists, and community development agents. Key informants are individuals who, as a result of their knowledge, experience, or social status in a community, can provide insights and access to information valuable in understanding the issues, problems, and needs of a local society (Elmendorf & Lulo, 2001; Krannich & Humphrey, 1986; Schwartz et al., 2001).
During August 2008, 26 key informant interviews and three informal focus group discussions were conducted. These individuals consisted of public officials, program managers, nonprofit organization representatives, activists, residents, local business members, and rural development agents. These individuals were identified in directories, suggested by community members, and mentioned by members of formal and informal organizations. Key informants were identified based on their involvement in local development, the arts, nonprofit organizations, and local government. Additional interviewees were identified through “snowball sampling,” a technique where each key informant was asked to identify other knowledgeable individuals to interview. Snowball sampling is appropriate when a study is primarily explorative, qualitative, and descriptive (Atkinson & Flint, 2001).
A series of open-ended questions were used in all interviews. These general questions focused on the central conceptual areas identified in the review of literature. Questions included the importance of the arts in fostering personal and emotional expression, how such activities facilitate social interaction and participation, and the emergence of intergenerational relationships and genera- tivity as a result of involvement in traditional arts. Additional questions explored how these concepts shaped interpretations of local life/history and transformed “personal” to “community” narratives. Finally, questions were asked to explore how all of the above contributed to community agency, and ultimately the emergence of community.
Responses were assembled and analyzed by compiling all responses to specific questions; identifying key phrases, words, and concepts; and summarizing emerging themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As themes emerged, the information or views obtained were not attributed to specific stakeholder groups. Similarly, cross-case and within-case analyses were used to determine social networks, common issues/context, and time order events that shaped local responses to resource management (Miles & Huberman, 1994).