Hillbilly women, Affrilachians, and queer mountaineers: Belonging and mobility among young adults in rural communities

Open Access
Terman, Anna Rachel
Graduate Program:
Rural Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 09, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Dissertation Advisor
  • Diane Krantz Mclaughlin, Committee Member
  • Kai Arthur Schafft, Committee Member
  • Ann Rachel Tickamyer, Committee Member
  • Appalachia
  • intersectionality
  • rural sociology
  • women's studies
  • youth
  • community
  • belonging
  • class
  • mobility
Rural communities in the U.S. are struggling to survive and thrive as processes of deindustrialization and globalization lure youth away to urban areas. Meanwhile, young people who do reside in rural places struggle to negotiate the parts of their identity that are connected to place and their gender, race, and sexuality, which can often seem at odds with the norms of their community. Sociologists have shown that these societal patterns help create and reinforce economic, educational, and class-based inequalities among rural and urban places. Feminist theorists have developed the concept of intersectionality to better understand how the multiple identities that people embody can obscure the ways gender, race, sexuality, class, and other forms of identity contribute to inequalities. In my dissertation, I apply an intersectional approach to the experiences of young, college-educated people in rural places to understand if and how they are able to reconcile their identities in order to create a sense of belonging and how this affects their physical and social mobility and participation in their communities. I argue that sexism, racism, and heterosexism alienate young people from communities but that negotiating the intersections of identity creates space for belonging and engagement between young people and place. I use a theoretical framework based in both sociological understandings of education, mobility, and community and feminist understandings of identity and power to ask three research questions: 1. In what ways do young people negotiate a sense of belonging in rural places through the intersection of their identity and place? 2. How are these experiences of identity and belonging relevant to young people’s mobility? 3. In the context of belonging and mobility, how are young people oriented toward rural places and communities? In order to answer these questions, I used a combination of qualitative data in the form of focus groups and semi-structured interviews with current college students and recent college graduates living in West Virginia as well as quantitative migration data from the American Community Survey. I also apply an intersectional approach to the methodology of this project in order to “center” the experiences of marginalized people and to circumvent the “insider/outsider” dichotomy present in much of the literature about the relationships of people to place. In all, I conducted seven focus groups with a total of 65 current college students active in student groups among three universities in West Virginia and 27 individual interviews with college graduates under age 40 living in the state. I divide the dissertation findings into three chapters. The first two chapters are an analysis of the intersectional experiences of young adults across gender, race, sexuality, class, and place. In the third chapter, I apply this intersectional analysis specifically to the tensions between mobility and community for young people in rural communities. In the first findings chapter, I analyze qualitative data from the focus groups and interviews to examine the ways youth negotiate multiple aspects of their identity in order to find a sense of belonging. The analysis from this chapter yields evidence of a “dialectic of belonging” and confirms that many young people do feel alienated toward place through sexism, racism, and homophobia, but also that the intersection of place and identity can be an avenue to belonging for young men and women, youth of color, and LGBT youth. In the second findings chapter, I analyze these qualitative data in the context of class. The prominence of class as a relevant identity for college-educated youth was an unanticipated finding, and I show that intersections of gender, race, and sexuality with class and place can lead to reconstructions of identity and alliances across class. In the third findings chapter, I use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to examine the physical and social mobility of young people as well as the roles that college-educated youth take on as community leaders despite their high mobility. This final chapter places the experiences of the young adults in my sample in the broader context of rural youth out-migration and community sustainability. The title of my dissertation refers to “hillbilly women, Affrilachians, and queer mountaineers,” all of which are terms that reappropriate and reconcile the sometimes mutually exclusive identities of gender, race, sexuality, class, and place. The dissertation findings reveal the extent to which these intersectional identities are accessible and the way these intersections impact the role of young people in rural communities. This research contributes important information about the struggles and perseverance of young people in marginalized places who have the potential to help create a more sustainable and just future.