Research & Publications


Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice
Shannon Elizabeth Bell, 2013, University of Illinois Press.

*Winner of the Association for Humanist Sociology Book Award, a silver medal from the Nautilus Book Awards, and a Runner-Up for the Green Book Festival*

Personal stories of women's environmental activism in Central Appalachia

 "A groundbreaking collection of life stories from women in the struggle against mountaintop removal. These extraordinary stories are luminous with the courage and moral passion of these women as they struggle to protect their communities, families, land, and cultural heritage."  --Betsy Taylor, coauthor of Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice

 "Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed substantially contributes to our understanding of grassroots activism and gender roles. Bell charts new ground with her extension of the 'motherhood effect' in grassroots environmental mobilization to the 'protector identity' motivated by an appreciation of nature. This book will be useful and attractive to scholars, students, and general readers." --Sherry Cable, author of Sustainable Failures: Environmental Policy and Democracy in a Petro-dependent World

 Motivated by a deeply rooted sense of place and community, Appalachian women have long fought against the damaging effects of industrialization. In this collection of interviews, sociologist Shannon Elizabeth Bell presents the voices of twelve Central Appalachian women, environmental justice activists fighting against mountaintop removal mining and its devastating effects on public health, regional ecology, and community well-being.

 Each woman narrates her own personal story of injustice and tells how that experience led her to activism. The interviews--a number of them illustrated by the women’s  “photostories”--describe obstacles, losses, and tragedies. But they also tell of new communities and personal transformations catalyzed through activism. Bell supplements each narrative with careful notes that aid the reader while amplifying the power and flow of the activists' stories. Bell's analysis outlines the relationship between Appalachian women’s activism and the gendered responsibilities they feel within their families and communities. Ultimately, Bell argues that these women draw upon a broader "protector identity" that both encompasses and extends the identity of motherhood that has often been associated with grassroots women’s activism. As protectors, these women challenge dominant Appalachian gender expectations and guard not only their families, but also their homeplaces, their communities, their heritage, and the  endangered mountains that surround them.


Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. Fighting King Coal: The Barriers to Grassroots Environmental Justice Movement Participation in Central Appalachia.
Forthcoming in Spring 2016 with MIT Press (Urban and Industrial Environments Series).


Guest Co-Editor (with Richard York).  December 2012. Special Issue on Coal and the Environment. Organization & Environment.


Bell, Shannon Elizabeth, Alicia Hullinger, and Lilian Brislen. 2015. "Manipulated Masculinities: Agribusiness, Deskilling, and the Rise of the Businessman-Farmer in the United States." Rural Sociology.  Early View DOI: 10.1111/ruso.12066


In this study we examine how the agribusiness industry works to manipulate conventional farming masculinities in the United States to facilitate agricultural deskilling, a process that has serious implications for the future of sustainable agriculture uptake among American farmers. Through analyzing one year’s worth of advertisements in three conventional farming magazines and through conducting participant observation and interviews at the second largest indoor farming show in the United States, we examine the ways in which agribusiness companies, such as chemical, seed, and farm machinery manufacturers, represent farmers and farming masculinities in their advertisements and marketing materials. We observe a shift occurring among certain agribusiness sectors away from representations of a rugged, strong, solitary farmer, who dominates nature through his manual labor, to depictions of a “businessman” farmer, who farms in collaboration with certain qualified partners (i.e., company representatives). We ultimately argue that these new representations of farming masculinity aim to more deeply entrench conventional farmers’ dependence on chemical inputs and agribusiness products by promoting a process of deskilling, effectively alienating the farmer from the land.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth and Richard York. 2010.
Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia.” Rural Sociology. 75(1):111-143.
  • Received the inaugural "Best Scholarly Paper Award" from the Rural Sociological Society in 2011.
  • Received Honorable Mention for the 2011 Allan Schnaiberg Outstanding Publication Award from the Environment and Technology Section of the American Sociological Society.
Economic changes and the machinations of the treadmill of production have dramatically reduced the number of jobs provided by extractive industries, such as mining and timber, in the United States and other affluent nations in the post-World War II era.  As the importance of these industries to national, regional, and local economies wanes, community resistance to ecologically and socially destructive industry practices threatens the political power of extractive corporations. Here we argue that to maintain their power (and profits) as their contribution to employment declines, extractive industries have made increasing efforts to maintain and amplify the extent to which the “economic identity” of communities is connected with the industry that was historically an important source of employment.  We fit this argument within the neo-Marxian theoretical tradition, which emphasizes the role ideology plays in maintaining elite rule.  We illustrate this theorized process by analyzing the efforts of the West Virginia coal industry, which, through its (faux) “grassroots” front group “Friends of Coal,” attempts to construct the image that West Virginia’s economy and cultural identity are centered on coal production.  Our analysis relies on content analysis of various sources and experience in the field.  We find that key strategies of the Friends of Coal include the appropriation of cultural icons and efforts to become pervasively visible in the social landscape.  These findings have implications for how industries around the country, and the world, work to maintain their power through ideological manipulation.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth and Yvonne A. Braun. 2010. "Coal, Identity, and the Gendering of Environmental Justice Activism in Central Appalachia.Gender & Society. 24(6): 794-813.
  • Featured in “Discoveries: New and Noteworthy Social Research” in the Summer 2011 issue of Contexts,  the American Sociological Association’s public outreach journal.
Women generally initiate, lead, and comprise the rank-and-file of environmental justice  activism. However, there is little research on why there are comparatively so few men involved in these movements. Using the environmental justice movement in the Central Appalachian coalfields as a case study, we examine the ways that environmental justice activism is gendered, with a focus on how women’s and men’s identities both shape and constrain their involvement in gendered ways. Our analysis relies on 20 in-depth interviews with women and men grassroots activists working for environmental justice in the coalfields of Appalachia. We find that women draw on their identities as “mothers” and “Appalachians” to justify their activism. While women’s shared identities function as “resources of resistance” (Krauss 1993) for their activism, our data suggest that the hegemonic masculinity of the region, which is tied to the coal industry, may have the opposite effect on men, instead deterring their environmental justice activism. We explore the implications of these findings for the future of the environmental justice movement in the coalfields.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. 2009. “‘There Ain’t No Bond in Town Like there Used to Be’: The Destruction of Social Capital in the West Virginia Coalfields.” Sociological Forum. 24(3): 631-657.

There is a paucity of research focusing on the circumstances that cause or contribute to a decline in social capital within communities. Furthermore, relatively few researchers employ qualitative methods in their studies of social capital, despite the multi-dimensional and many-layered nature of this concept, characteristics which make social capital well suited for qualitative analysis. To address these two gaps in social capital research, I explore the mechanisms that have led to a depletion of social capital in the southern coal-producing region of West Virginia. I examine whether the coal industry, which has caused bitter conflicts among residents over environmental degradation and union loyalties, has also undermined social capital in the region. My principle data include 40 semi-structured, face-to-face interviews with randomly selected individuals in a coal-mining town and a demographically similar non-coal-mining town in West Virginia. I analyze the experiences of residents in each town, assessing the qualitative differences in community and personal life associated with social capital. I find that the loss of social capital in the coal-mining community has arisen through a combination of depopulation and the community-wide conflict that arose when an anti-union coal company bought out the union coal mine at which many in the community worked, challenging the union identity so engrained in this community.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. 2008. “Photovoice as a Strategy for Community Organizing in the Appalachian Coalfields.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. 14(1-2):34-48.

The effects of powerlessness and depleted levels of social capital in coalfield communities make community organizing a particularly daunting task. Any organizing effort, if it is to be successful, must overcome these two major barriers to mobilization. In this paper, I present the participatory action research methodology of “Photovoice” as an underutilized strategy for community organizing that has the potential to both address the consequences of long-term powerlessness and low social capital within the coalfields of Central Appalachia. Photovoice is a methodology, most notably used in public health, which involves using participant-produced photography as a means of giving voice to marginalized persons in the community. Community member participants receive cameras to record images that “tell the story” of their community and then come together for regular group reflection sessions to discuss their photographs and the underlying issues represented in the images. At these reflection sessions, participants write short narratives to accompany the pictures they deem most important, creating “photostories.” Outcomes from the Cabin Creek Photovoice Project are presented as evidence of the possibilities that this methodology holds as a tool for organizing for change in Central Appalachia.

Book Chapters:

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth.2014 . “Energy, Society, and the Environment.” Forthcoming. In Kenneth A. Gould and Tammy L. Lewis (Eds.) Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology, Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. 2014
“‘Sacrificed So Others Can Live Conveniently’: Social Inequality, Environmental Injustice, and the Energy Sacrifice Zone of Central Appalachia.” In Claire M. Renzetti and Raquel Kennedy Bergen (Eds). Understanding Diversity: Celebrating Difference, Challenging Inequality. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Boudet, Hilary Schaffer and Shannon Elizabeth Bell. 2014. “Risks and Social Movements: Examining the Role of Communication.” Chapter 25 in Hyunyi Cho, Torsten Reimer, and Katherine McComas (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Risk Communication. Sage Publications.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. 2011. “The Southern West Virginia Photovoice Project: Community Action through Sociological Research.” In Kathleen Odell Korgen and Jonathan M. White  (Eds).  Sociologists in Action.  Sage Publications.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. 2009. “‘Coal is all West Virginia’s Got’: The Coal Industry’s Propagation of a False Ideology.” Forthcoming book chapter in Shirley Stewart Burns, Mari-Lynn Evans, and Silas House (Eds.).
Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining. Sierra Club Books/Counterpoint.

Bell, Shannon. 2004 “The Jolo Church of the Lord Jesus.” Pp. 194-199 in Mari-Lynn Evans, Robert Santelli, and Holly George-Warren (Eds.) The Appalachians: America’s First and Last Frontier. New York: Random House.