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  • From the Mountains to the MidwestObservations on Appalachia, Regionalism, and Regional Studies
  • Phillip J. Obermiller (bio)

Reflections on Regionalism

The concept of region lies at the heart of regional studies, yet neither the Encyclopedia of Appalachia nor The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia has an entry for “region,” while both treat “regionalism” simply as a subgenre for literature and the arts. The Oxford English Dictionary is a bit more helpful: The Latin root indicates regions have existed at least as long as kings, implying a political nuance to the term. Regions are now defined as places distinguished from adjacent areas by various characteristics such as government, topography, climate, economics, and so forth.1

Regionalism is a much more modern term connoting the grouping of jurisdictions such as counties, states, and even countries for political, economic, or administrative purposes. In the first half of the twentieth century, regionalism in the US often referred to the expansion of metro areas to include their adjacent “hinterlands,” for example, the establishment of city/county governments. After the Second World War, regionalism became a political concept in which regions were considered developmental waystations on the path to a more integrated form of global organization.2

So what is a region today? Appalachia and the Midwest simultaneously enjoy and suffer from federal definitions based on metropolitan areas, counties, and states. Useful economic, social, and health indicators can be derived from census and other data using these geographic units of analysis. Aggregating these statistics into a regional perspective often generates new insights. For instance, the health status of Appalachians is distinctly different from that of non-Appalachians in the same states and that of non-Appalachians in areas abutting the region.3 [End Page 55]

A key aspect of being a federally-designated region is that the definition is arbitrary, making regional boundaries ever changeable. Since the inception of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in the 1960s, Appalachia has grown from 297 counties to a net (some counties have opted out) of 420 counties lying across portions of twelve states and all of West Virginia. Do the thirty-two ARC counties in eastern Ohio belong in Appalachia or in the Midwest? These “edge” issues help us understand that our definitions must be flexible, that bright-line boundaries depend on the purpose and perspective of those drawing them, and that Appalachia and the Midwest are susceptible to a variety of definitions.4 Although some regions may be plagued by definitional issues, folks in Appalachian studies don’t lose much sleep over them. Our regional definitions are usually pragmatic, most often emerging from a specific research interest. Most in the field have gotten past striving for a single acceptable definition of the region and now spend time trying to understand Appalachia in terms of race, place, class, and gender.5

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Fig. 1.

Courtesy of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Although it may seem a bit naive now, mid-twentieth century commentators encouraged social scientists to quit defining regions and simply take them as a given:

Regionalism . . . is no longer a subject for conjecture or controversy. In fact this stone, once rejected by many, may become the cornerstone of the edifice. Its existence required its acceptance. Its acceptance predestines its continuance. New regional arrangements are bound to arise.6

One of those “new regional arrangements” within Appalachia, for instance, came from the Midwest. Senator George Norris of Nebraska spear-headed the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest regional [End Page 56] development effort prior to the founding of the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is noteworthy that about as many Appalachians blessed Senator Norris for electrifying their homes as those who cursed him for flooding them out of their homesteads. Regional development schemes are always a mixed blessing.

A final note on regionalism: Regions are a part of the social GPS that keeps us from being lost. It challenges the destructiveness that comes from considering place an interchangeable commodity. It’s also an antidote to the academic geophobia displayed on campuses dedicated to creating anodyne “citizens of the world” who are often more attuned to their careers than to the places in...