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  • "You Can't Put a Price On It"Activist Anthropology in the Mountaintop Removal Debate
  • Samuel R. Cook (bio)

On a late August afternoon in 1996, I pulled off Route 52 in Mingo County, West Virginia, into the tentatively defined gravel drive in front on my great uncle's house. I had watched the small house change over the years as the modest four-room company house with only a hand pump to provide water gradually accumulated additions and luxuries. While each visit throughout my life may have revealed some subtle change to the house and surrounding land, nothing could brace me for the shock I received upon rounding the hillside into the drive that summer day. Part of the mountain behind the house was missing.

The usual long embrace and salutations that accompanied my visits to Uncle Thurman's home were cut short by my dumbfounded statement. "What happened to the mountain?" was the only thing that I could manage to say with any degree of articulation.

"They're blasting it off and long-walling underneath us," responded Josephine, my great aunt. "If they don't blow us up, I reckon they'll sink us."

Admittedly, it had been two years since my last visit to their house. Graduate school had drawn me away from usual summer gatherings and family reunions; ironically, it also brought me back to this place to scrutinize the political economy of West Virginia for my dissertation (Cook 1997). However, this new, rude revelation changed the course of my studies. As the weekend on Pigeon Creek progressed, everything was changed. As usual, my uncle lifted his wiry frame off of his porch swing now and then to pump his Daisy BB gun and give his milk cow a friendly warning that she was too close to the road. As usual, the customary [End Page 138] corps of weekend house guests snored away in the spare room or on sofas as the police scanner buzzed with news of car wrecks and petty fires all night. As usual, Uncle Thurman pulled out the old photos of our great-great-grandparents and reinforced our knowledge of who we are. Unfortunately, the routine was disrupted by periodic blasts that shook the house so hard that the floors exhibited four or five inches of play and glasses toppled in the cabinets.

What was worse, the land that I had grown up knowing as a symbol of rootedness and family unity was going away. As I had grown older, Uncle Thurman's little six-acre tract grew proportionately smaller, but it never lost its situated charm. Somehow it extended beyond its legal boundaries into the mountains beyond, where I remember my cousins building the largest tree house—real or imagined—that I have ever seen, and where we used to chase Uncle Thurman's ponies with the understanding that we could ride them if we could catch them. Now on the mountain beyond, there was nothing to sustain so much as a rabbit. "He'd have to tote his dinner with him," my uncle remarked.

With this singular experience, my academic path changed profoundly and permanently. Here, I discuss that change and the existential factors that may drive academics (in this case, anthropologists) to assume a decisively activist role. Specifically, I discuss my own work as an anthropological activist in dealing with the mountaintop removal (MTR) surface-mining debate in the Appalachian coalfields and how that role has evolved to refine my understanding of collaborative theory and praxis. Notably, I assume the position of a "native" anthropologist trying to make sense of the balance between "scientific" research and moral obligation. Although a vital component of my decision to assume an activist position has been a personal attachment to place, it is difficult to articulate that attachment in a brief space without obscuring methodological arguments. Therefore, my primary focus is on the evolution of my approach to collaborative/activist anthropology and to expand on existing arguments concerning the potential contributions of such methodological pursuits to the discipline.

Activist Anthropologist or Anthropological Activist?

In 1977 Paul Rabinow prescribed a tenet that has become, at least in theory, a staple of anthropological practice today...


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pp. 138-162
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