The North Carolina Project

In 1996, Dorothy Holland, Donald Nonini, and Catherine Lutz received a National Science Foundation research grant for their project “Estrangement from the Public Sphere: Economic Change, Democracy and Social Division in North Carolina.”

Recently completed, the “North Carolina Project” centered on local democratic processes in five sites around North Carolina. Organized as a multi-site, comparative ethnographic team that included five research associates: Lesley Bartlett, Marla Franklin, Thad Guldbrandsen, Enrique Murillo, and George Baca, we studied local politics focusing on how people were drawn in or excluded from democratic participation and on how these democratic processes were being influenced by the processes of globalization, economic restructuring and governmental reorganization that have taken place in the last twenty years.

Publications from the Project:
Book manuscript submitted for publication:

Holland, D., C. Lutz and D. Nonini, L. Bartlett, M. Frederick, T. Guldbrandsen, and E. Murillo (fc) If This is Democracy: Local Democracy in an Age of Neoliberalism,

Journal and Chapter Publications

Bartlett, Lesley, Marla Frederick, Thadeus Gulbrandsen, and Enrique
Murillo. (In press) Marketing Schools: Public Education for Private
Ends. Anthropology and Education Quarterly.

Murillo, Jr. Enrique G. (in press) How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?: “Disciplining” the Transnational Subject in the American South. In Stanton Wortham, Enrique G. Murillo, Jr. & Edmund Hamann (Eds.) Education in the New Latino Diaspora: Policy and the Politics of Identity. Westport, CT: Ablex.

Holland, D., C. Lutz and D. Nonini (1999) Public Life, Public Good. Anthropology Newsletter 40 (3):1 and 4. Reprinted in Margaret Overbey and Kathryn Marie Dudley, eds. (2000) Anthropology and Middle Class Working Families: A Research Agenda. American Anthropological Association. Pp. 72-75.

Nonini, D. (fc) American neoliberalism, globalization, and violence: Reflections from the United States and Southeast Asia, in Jonathan Friedman, ed., Globalization and Violence, (submitted for review)

Major Findings Reported to NSF
(1) Neoliberalism is a major framework by which many local residents, particularly elites, in our five sites conceptualize the ideal relationship between the market and government. By “neoliberalism” we mean a discourse in which unregulated or “free” markets operated by entrepreneurial individuals are regarded as the optimal solution not only to economic, but also to social and political problems. This framework structures ideas about and the goals set for community development, definitions of the public good, and definitions of citizenship that create wider distinctions than before between the “deserving” or “super-” citizen, and the undeserving or “sub-” citizen. However, we also discovered powerful alternative definitions of what community development should consist of in our five sites, some of which involve critiques of individualism that one person we spoke likened to “crabs in a basket” as well as aspirations for new forms of community.

(2) In all of the “dramas of contestation” (issues attracting contentious public attention) we studied, we found important involvement by “public-private partnerships,” a hallmark of local politics based on neoliberal discourse. These partnerships were also prominent especially in recent activist activities recounted for us in the lifetime participation interviews. Increasingly, local political participants have been drawn into these partnerships.

We noted that such partnerships with local governments range from for-profit, or market-oriented partnerships that apply profit-centered criteria to the solution of problems they define to non-profit, or community-oriented partnerships many of which are oriented to community-based social criteria for judging and addressing social problems. Both types of partnership address local political issues that previously were more firmly associated with the public sphere and resolved by local government. These new formats, which we refer to in our book manuscript, as “government by proxy,” have both perils and promises. The former include a new lack of transparency of these institutional efforts and the absence of any guarantees that partnerships will emerge from segments of the population that have the most problems to solve. The promises of these partnerships include the encouragement of community- and movement-oriented groups, which provide important experiences with participatory democracy.

(3) The activist groups we studied were adapting to the new conditions for political participation by taking up increased opportunities for designing and providing services including health services, economic development, and monitoring of environmental quality. While some of these groups were engaged in protest activities, they were also expending considerable energy on providing public services and carrying out the bureaucratic tasks (e.g., filing 501©3 reports) that being partners with the government entails. Thus, we documented a face of activism quite dissimilar from the popular images of 1960s activism. As already mentioned, contemporary groups enact powerful definitions of what community development should consist of as well as aspirations for new forms of community and so constitute alternatives to the for-profit visions of the business-oriented partnerships prescribed by neoliberal thought.

(4) Given the rising importance of “public-private partnerships” in local governance, we paid as much attention to citizen participation in these groups and the activities they provide as to voting. Our survey in Chatham County, not completely analyzed as yet, gives some indication of the number of people involved in groups likely to have 501©3 status. To give the figures for the highest level of participation in a particular kind of group, 18 % of our sample report membership in local environmental groups. We intend to analyze the results further for the percentage of the population participating in any local activist group listed on the survey.

(5) The economic and political changes of the last 20 years have entailed increased rates of individual geographical mobility and several consequences were observed in our one hundred in-depth interviews including frustration over the transience, impersonality and fragility of social relationships that result and that have negative consequences for the political life of a community. The labor influxes associated with these changes have produced unaccounted and publicly unaddressed costs (e.g. in housing, schools, and health), as well as encounters between “natives” and “newcomers” which have engendered local political divisions and controversies. We found public relations campaigns and local elites celebrating corporate hyper-mobility and emphasizing only its positive consequences while public debate meanwhile confronted the challenges arising from the new demands on the local infrastructure. At the same time, neoliberal thought further holds that public funding of infrastructure is inappropriate.

(6) Through the interviews and the participant observation, we found both social-structural and individual barriers to participation in governmental decision making. Structural barriers included the difficulties of entry and input into the increasing number of hybrid institutions-the public-private partnerships mentioned in (2) above and the “task force,” as well as the continuation of older tactics such as exclusive networking, agenda-setting, and interpersonal intimidation to exclude persons from participation. Individual barriers to participation include fear (of shaming and violence), the use of a an individual-centered psychological paradigm for understanding pressing problems individuals face, as well as time constraints in individual lives related to the socioeconomic changes we focused on, particularly for the poor whose jobs often involve considerable physical challenges or even permanent debilitation. Both kinds of barriers are especially dense in cases of racialist and nationalist discrimination, which continue to be a fundamental barrier to full local citizenship, from elected officialdom through private citizens, and through the devices of subtle and unsubtle racism and nationalism as well as the economic disenfranchisement just mentioned.

(7) Methodologically, we confirmed the fruitfulness of multi-sited, comparative ethnographic research and noted the importance of our organization of training (two months preliminary training), ongoing discussion (six full team meetings during the ethnographic phase of the research plus onsite visits, email and phone discussion and supervision of field notes), the use of NUD*IST software for storage and retrieval of field material, and several months of analytic work following the end of the ethnographic phase. The organization enabled us to pool efforts of analysis and insight and as a result, we have a book manuscript fully co-authored by the co-PIs and the research associates.

As already stated, our combination of Lifetime Participation Interviews and the studies of dramas of contestation allowed us to research issues and participants of the public good that were 1) publicly debated and addressed in some fashion, 2) never publicly recognized or addressed, and 3) addressed, but in non-public venues. It was valuable to ask why, in these cases, a more fully democratic outcome did not occur. Finally, we found participant observation research to be especially useful for unearthing barriers to participation that were subtle and unlikely to be recounted in interviews.


Environmental Identities: In and Against the Environmental Movement

In 1996, Dorothy Holland received a National Science Foundation research grant for a three-year study of environmental action. Professor Willett Kempton simultaneously received funding for a companion project at the University of Delaware.

In its final stages, the project addresses the apparent contradiction in the U.S. between the public’s limited involvement in pro-environmental action and its widespread profession of pro-environmental sentiment. We proposed that the ongoing, changing environmental movement is the medium in which personal affect, understanding and especially action toward the environment, develop. Groups vie directly with one another and with anti-environmental groups for legitimacy and authority; they struggle indirectly, with the capitalist concerns that seek to appropriate environmental sentiment to sell their products. In the welter of environmental messages — put in words drawn variously from science, spiritualism or the common political discourse’s fears of “radicals” — environmental actions and actors are defined and depicted, some as significant and good, others as trivial and ridiculous. It is within such social and cultural contexts that persons develop, over time, a sense of themselves in the world of environmental action and a related ability to reorient their action and reorder their lives according to that sense of self.

In North Carolina and Delaware/Maryland, respectively, the two research teams undertook ethnographic study of twenty different sorts of groups (e.g., a political-action “environmental justice” group, a group designed to help members wean themselves from excessive consumer goods, a “property rights” anti-environmental group). The teams also conducted in-depth interviews (“involvement narratives”) with some 160 individuals who were within and outside (but reacting to) these groups. The purpose was to learn about the groups as contexts for both the construction of environmental action and the development of environmental identities. Beyond its contribution to anthropological theories about identity, specifically as mediating between collectives and individual action, the project was designed to be of use to governmental agencies and to those groups of activists who support environmental action. In order to accommodate these agencies’ familiarity with (and political preference for) survey research, and to learn more about different environmental groups around the country, the project also included a national survey, just completed this past summer. The survey was generated from the ethnographic phase of the study.

Selected Publications from the Project:

Kempton, W., Dorothy C. Holland, Katherine Bunting-Howarth, Erin Hannan & Christopher Payne
2001 Local Environmental Groups: A Systematic Enumeration in Two Geographical Areas.” Rural Sociology 66(4), pp 557-578.

ABSTRACT Local environmental groups, although acknowledged increasingly since the mid?1980s, have not been sampled systematically, have been reported to consist of only a few types, and are often considered to be of only minor political significance. In this study we systematically inventoried all local environmental groups in two U.S. geographical areas: the Delmarva Peninsula and the state of North Carolina. We found 566 local groups, seven to 20 times the number reported in the best published directory. Three?quarters did not fit the types most commonly characterized in the literature. Extrapolating from our study areas, we estimate that 16,000 to 30,000 local environmental groups are active in the United States. We find that these groups have a subset of “core” members, those active in organizing and local operations. We estimate the population of core members at 265,000 to 290,000, over 50 times the total of professional staff members of all U.S. national environmental organizations. These groups affect local and state environmental policy, enforcement of environmental laws, the shaping of environmental issues, and the social infrastructure for environmental behaviors.

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Guldbrandsen, Thaddeus, and Dorothy Holland
2001 Encounters with the Supercitizen: Neoliberalism, Environmental Activism, and the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. The Anthropological Quarterly 74(3):124-134.

ABSTRACT This paper argues that while new kinds of political activism are flourishing in local areas, increasing partnership with economic development interests poses serious challenges to the political efficacy of environmental activism. We examine the shifting terrain of local political activism within the context of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, a new federal program designed to facilitate environmental preservation, economic development, and cultural preservation along US rivers. This paper is based on research done along the New River in North Carolina and Virginia with a collection of local groups organized into a regional partnership. That partnership exemplifies emerging forms of local political action under new regimes of state power and hybrid partnerships. We argue that if hybrid forms of environmental activism spread, with their emphasis on neoliberalism and ecological modernization, they will likely pose challenges for grassroots politics and, as has been the case along the New River, blunt the critical edge of the environmental critique.

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Kitchell, Anne, Willett Kempton, Dorothy Holland, and Danielle Tesch
2000 Identities and actions within environmental groups. Human Ecology Review 7(2):1-20.

ABSTRACT Individuals’ self-described identities were hypothesized to change as a result of participation in voluntary face-to-face groups engaged in environmental action. Semi-structured interviews and a standard interview test of identity were conducted with 159 members of 20 environmental groups and 2 non-group comparison samples from North Carolina and the Delmarva Peninsula. In agreement with the theoretical literature, interview text suggests that individual identity forms and changes over time-we refer to these transitions as “reformulations.” Definitions of self that prevent the further development of an identity as an environmentalist, or that lead to an unwillingness to perform a particular environmental action, are here called “barriers.” Interviews were coded for identities, reformulations, barriers, and actions taken, revealing significant differences across types of groups. Although some of the variation among groups may be explained by prior individual differences leading a person to join a compatible group, the qualitative interview data suggest that many of the differences come about in the processes of participating in the group and carrying out actions encouraged by the group. This perspective on action, that it leads to identity formation, is in contrast to a traditional view that environmental actions follow from attitudes, values, or knowledge of environmental damage.
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Dorothy Holland is currently working on a book from the project, entitled: Earth’s PartisansUS Environmentalism, Activism and the Transformation of the Public. One or more colleagues from the project may eventually join her as co-authors.