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Habitus and Ethnicity in the Upper South: To Enslave or not to Enslave

From: Southeastern Geographer
Volume 42, Number 1, May 2002
pp. 94-113 | 10.1353/sgo.2002.0004



The antebellum South exhibited a great deal of internal variety in agricultural practices, ethnicity, and slaveholding patterns. Geographers and historians have argued that planters and farmers predicted their decision on whether or not to own slaves on either ideological or economic grounds. A given agent's response to the question of slaveholding in the Upper South was as much an unconscious decision employed in the social game as it was a rational economic or ideological decision. Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus emphasizes the unconscious nature of everyday practices including the accumulation of both material and symbolic capital. The Great Appalachian Valley was settled by two distinct groups from different source regions, each with its own habitus people from the Pennsylvania Culture Hearth who were strongly influenced by German ethnicity, and settlers of primarily English descent from the Tidewater Culture Hearth. I submit that people were disposed to embrace or eschew the practice of slaveholding according to their habitus, and the use of free or slave labor was bound up with a number of related economic, religious, and agricultural everyday practices

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