Social Capital, Solidarity, and Cohort Effect

The following paper by Feng Hao won the $500 "Best Paper" prize at the 2011 Appalachian Research Community Symposium.

Social Capital, Solidarity, and Cohort Effect

Analyze the Production of Social Capital among Union Miners in Harlan County


At present, the coal industry maintains a pervasive influence on the mining communities even though it exerts enormous damages to the environment and makes limited contributions to the employment. One explanation for this paradox is the depletion of social capital within coalfield residents, including miners. This condition makes the mobilization of opposition an intimidating task. In a study of variation in social capital, Shannon Elizabeth Bell speculates that union cohort bears a stronger collective identity than non-union miners and their families. This research aims to interpret how solidarity felt by union miners might have translated to social capital on the community level, and how the union was able to generate solidarity and foster social capital of miners and their families. Among the variety of definitions, most scholars agree that social capital is a socially embedded resource that individual draws upon through social ties. The notion of solidarity emphasizes the degree of trust, bonding relations, and sense of involvement in a collectivity. Through an in-depth analysis of oral history interviews with aged miners, this research finds that the union is both a creator and preserver of social capital. The coalfield residents demonstrated high social capital in terms of intimate network, strong sense of reliability, and dedication to collective activity. In addition, union’s strategy of holding regular meetings, organizing large-scale strikes, securing public benefits, and electing charismatic leaders were of great significance for social capital production.


        Theoretically speaking, coal should be a boon for the local economy because it stimulates employment, improves infrastructure, attracts investment and provides “spin-off benefits in everything from more jobs for maintenance workers to an increase in coffee sales at the local diner” (Goodell 2006:31). However, rather than being a blessing for Kentucky, the third largest coal producer in the United States, the mining industry brings everything but wealth. After billions of tons of coal have been extracted in the past thirty years, Kentucky remains one of the poorest states in the United States. Based on data provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, per capita market income of Kentucky is less than one half of the national average; the unemployment rate is the highest in Appalachia (2002-2011); and the high school and college completion rates fall far behind those of the majority states (1980,1990,2000). In addition to economic poverty, coalfield dwellers also suffer from various kinds of environmental pollution and degradation caused by unconstrained mining (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2005).

Nevertheless, the coal industry still maintains pervasive influence and most of the affected populations do not participate in the opposition movements, which makes “community organizing a particularly daunting task” (Bell 2008:34). The calculated efforts of ideology manipulation conducted by coal companies can be an explanation for the paradoxical phenomenon that “communities continue to support industry, even though industrial practices have detrimental social and environmental effects” (Bell and York 2010:116). Earlier research also suggests that social capital depletion, i.e., the lack of solidarity among miners and their families, is the principal obstacle to mobilization (Gaventa 1980). 

In order to reverse that situation, various tentative approaches have been proposed for social capital reconstruction. Based on the Photovoice project enacted in the coal-mining town of Cabin Creek, West Virginia, Bell witnesses the improvement of civic engagement and reinforcement of social cohesion among community members. The participatory method “empowers participants and builds social capital within the group” (2008:38). In another study of variation in social capital, Bell indicates that the union cohort enjoy higher social capital compared with the younger, non-union miners. At the end of her paper, Bell speculates that the transformation of survival from “the survival of ‘us’ to the survival of ‘me’ exemplifies the difference between union work and nonunion work” (2009:655).

At present, confronted with the enormous damages caused by Mountaintop Removal (MTR), it becomes increasingly important to summarize effective strategies for reuniting miners to fight against employment decline and environmental pollution. Therefore, through an in-depth analysis of interviews with aged miners, this research adopts the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) as a case and intends to examine the following two questions:

  1. How the solidarity of the union miners translated to social capital on the community level?

  2. How the union intentionally generated social capital and strengthened solidarity within miners and among communities?

II. Social Capital and Solidarity

1. Definition of Social Capital

Social capital is an elastic term with different definitions in multiple fields and is conceived as both a cause and an effect (Resnick 2001). Although researchers define it in many ways, most of them agree that social capital consists of “socially embedded resources that actors draw upon through their social ties for instrumental purposes” (Haynes and Hernandez 2008:60). Putnam states that social capital is “the level of connectedness, involvement, and trustworthiness among people” (1995:67). Being a notion that is both cultural (cognitive perceptions) and structural (objective networks), social capital is summarized as a collection of resources located in the structure of relationship, which can be mobilized for certain purposes (Lin 1982; Norris and Inglehart 2004; Uphoff 1999). The explanation is promoted by Paxton who conceptualizes social capital as a subjective type of tie embedded in the objective networks (1999).

2. Components of Social Capital

The objective network is an association linking separate individuals to a connected space. Based on Putnam’s categorization, it consists of both bonding, which engenders a sense of belonging and usually applies to a limited number of individuals, as well as bridging, which refers to a wider outreach and involves a large number of people (2000). The social network is an important component in social capital since “social capital inheres in the structure of relations between actors and among actors. It is not lodged either in the actors themselves or in physical implements of production” (Coleman 1988:98).

The subjective ties are constituted by certain elements including mutual trust and social norms. As “a lubricant that eliminates the need for third-party insurers or enforcers” (Paxton 1999:101), trust can promote collaborations even without rewards and penalties (Onyx and Bullen 2000). Reciprocity refers to “norms of cooperative behavior whereby people are inclined to support and help each other” (Ahern and Hendryx 2003:1196). Taylor depicts it as “a combination of short-term altruism and long-term self-interests” (1982:28) where people give benefits to others in return for benefits received. Another important social norm is civic participation which is considered by Putnam as a significant component of social capital. He claims that the process of working collaboratively with groups of people is favorable for solidarity improvement, especially for people who are affiliated through either geographic proximity or similar interests (2000).

3. Solidarity and its Connections with Social Capital

Solidarity focuses on the degree of trust, sense of familiarity, and bonding relations between individuals and the collectivity (Carpiano 2006). Durkheim describes solidarity as “the totality of bonds that bind us to one another and to society, which shape the mass of individuals into a cohesive aggregate” (1984:331). Collins considers solidarity is an outcome of shared commitments and involvement obligations resulted from repeated social actions (1990). By holding communities together, strong solidarity is conducive to the mobilization of collective actions for addressing common issues (Sarason 1974).    

Solidarity is a concept that enjoys close relationship with social capital (Bell 2010). On the one hand, social capital is a term inherits the central meaning of social integration and social solidarity since Durkheim’s study of anomie over a hundred years ago (Lochnera, Kawachia, and Kennedyb 1999). On the other hand, social capital bears a similar function to solidarity for encouraging participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives and address common issues (DeGraaf and Jordan 2003). There is thus an intimate relationship between these two concepts. Social capital serves as a stock of solidarity to promote cooperation and the bonds of solidarity contribute to building of reserves of social capital that can be used to facilitate access of aggregate resources (Mladovsky and Mossialos 2008; Molm 2010).

4. Organization and Social Capital Production

While many descriptive studies have documented the positive correlation between social capital and a range of economic and cultural outcomes, few emphasize assessment of whether and how social capital can be intentionally generated. Tönnies argues that a closely connected community Gemeinschaft rather than an impersonal society Gesellschaft is beneficial for the growth of solidarity (1957). That perspective coincides with Durkheim who contends tightening and strengthening the public fabric to promote the vitality of organizations is an effective way to build social capital (Durkheim and Halls 1997).

The cognizance of organizations’ significance for social well-being is inherited by modern researchers. Putnam considers social organization as a platform to encourage “coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (1995:67). At present, a variety of organizations are active throughout the world and “represent a significant countertrend against declines in social capital and civic engagement” (Walker and McCarthy 2010:315). All those attempts are based on certain kinds of coalitions that understand and respect differences while pursuing common objectives. The coalitions are able to get people united through either formal or informal ways and cultivate collective consciousness. Schwalbe defines such consciousness as a culture of solidarity and argues its size and strength are essential to build social capital (2008).

III. Method

1. Data Description

The data set for this research is a portion of more than one hundred and fifty interviews conducted by Alessandro Portelli with people from Harlan County, Kentucky. Those interviews finally compose his book They say in Harlan County (2011).  I selected sixteen interviews based on the following criteria. Firstly, all the interviewees are either union miners or being connected with the UMWA through local networks. Secondly, the audio recordings of the interviews are archived in Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at University of Kentucky that I can get access to. Thirdly, almost all of the interviews have transcripts for me to code and make narrative analysis.

Most of the selected interviewees were born at the beginning of the twentieth century and the interviews were conducted in the 1990s, at a time period when some interviewees were in their seventies. Thirteen of them are males who worked as miners, union organizers, or union activists. Three female interviewees either worked in the coal mine or had a family member who did. During the interviews, they talked about the beginning of mining industry in Eastern Kentucky, the development of the UMWA, the evident changes brought by the union, and etc. Detailed information about the sixteen interviewees is attached in the end as an appendix.

2. Data Analysis

I adopted qualitative narrative analysis to interpret the transcripts of sixteen interviews. Two major coding approaches, directed coding and summative coding, were employed for analyzing the context.

With a directed approach, the analysis begins with prior research or existing theory as guidance for clarifying key coding variables (Mayring 2000). Since social capital is mainly constituted by objective network and subjective tie, the initial coding scheme includes social network, mutual trust, norms of reciprocity, and civic engagement. Furthermore, I created an additional category of solidarity to code the text that consists of more than one item of social capital. The summative approach starts with identifying and quantifying certain words that can reflect the research subject. For this research, the occurrence of specific keywords that could indicate the high social capital or strong solidarity, such as brotherhood and union man, were separated and calculated. Since this approach goes beyond mere word counting and includes latent context explanation, I also examined the words to reveal their underlying meaning such as “close network”, “shared obligation”, and “dedicated commitment” (Babbie 1992).

The interpretive analysis was an iterative process of decontexualization and recontexualization (Ayres, Kavanaugh, and Knafl 2003). Beginning with the largely undifferentiated mass of information found in the interview transcripts, the data were sorted and organized after comparison, contrast, and labeling. The detailed coding scheme is attached to this paper as an appendix.

IV. Results

Strong Collective Identity on the Community Level

1. Intimate Network

The first indicator of union miners’ collective identity was their close connections with the union cohort. Most of them described the “intimate network” with coworkers either through easily mentioning a number of names or recalling stories that happened several decades ago. When talking about Italian immigrants, Ben Campagnari said “we had Vincent Bellati, Joe Bellati, and Mike Miller, (who were) the strongest union men.” Hugh Cowans could remember almost all the early UMWA organizers in Kentucky and he said “I can recall George Tinder, Terran Blazer, and Ralph Bunts and Virg Hampton, Martin Herd, Napoleon Hayes, Wash Hall.” The clear memory of former colleagues suggested that they might have been linked together either as miners or union participants. The influential role of UMWA and the occupational homogeneity of miners all contribute to building intimate networks among coalfield residents (Harrison 1978, Kerr and Siegel 1954).

Jeff Tipton stated the extensive union linkages as “we think here everybody got some UMWA ties, grandma, granddad, brother, sister, or something.  It goes all the way back to the early nineteen hundred.” Bulmer indicates that the overlapping ties of work, leisure, and neighborhood were conducive for the development of a special bond of solidarity that was reflected in their unions (1978). Consequently, the interconnectedness of the various facets of mining life formed close-knit communities which highly strengthened the solidarity among the residents, both miners and their families (Bulmer 1975).

2. Spirit of Mutual Trust and Reciprocity

In addition to memberships in objective networks, miners also demonstrated the union cohesion by displaying the “spirit of mutual trust and reciprocity”. James Below recalled he “prayed a million times” for his partner George Hobbs when he was leaving. Tillman Cadle described his experience of defending one black buddy’s dignity when the superintendent refused to talk to the African American and would not let the African American talk to him. As one of the union representatives, Tillman Cadle argued “as long as they won’t talk to Tom Long (the black miner) there, I don’t want to talk to them.” The sense of reliability lasted until recently when the union endures diminishing influence and deducting membership. Some retired miners expressing understanding of and confidence in President Richard L. Trumka and Hugh Cowans said his “heart goes out to Trumka” and was ready to do anything if he needed.

Hugh Cowans offered his understanding of reciprocity as “we all give out support one to another”. Jeff Tipton, a union organizer worked in the mine for fourteen and a half years, depicted the norms of reciprocity as an image of people try their best to help each other and “work hand in hand” while confronting with setbacks and difficulties. Under that situation, the unique spirit was not merely limited to miners but extended to the general public of the whole community. 

3. Enthusiasm and Dedication to Union Activities

Another expression of the collective identity among community people was their “enthusiasm and dedication to union activities”. They took the participation in strikes or marches as a great honor and considered those experiences as valuable memories to their lives. Sudie Crusenberry said she enjoyed the strike and “feel like it is justice.” While talking about the strike for the African Americans, Tillman Cadle described how the organizers went to seven local mines and successfully mobilized all the miners. Ben Campagnari recalled the five-hundred people march towards the commissary when three union people were killed in an earlier strike. Some of the participants were not union members or even not miners, but they joined the strike to express support to the collective activities. This was one evident incidence to illustrate how the community bore high social capital based on the initiation of union miners.

The attitudes towards union actions gradually formed a local culture best described by James Below as “Harlan County People fought for what they got”. Jeff Tipton also said “union means a lot more” to local people and “when you took the obligation, it meant something to you.  That’s because people had to fight for everything.” Warwich and Littlejohn view such essential cultural beliefs as a kind of capital which consolidates collectivity and “is transmitted and sometimes modified from generation to generation” (1992:85).      

Union’s Strategies for Social Capital Production 

1. Hold Regular Meetings

Through analyzing the function of ritual gatherings to renew solidarity, Durkheim concludes that “people’s commitment to shared values requires periodic revitalization” (Crow 2002:20). Therefore, in order to strengthen social relationships and construct collective identity, the union also “held regular meetings” in which miners could discuss issues concerning public benefits such as medical condition and pension policy. The interviewees had deep memories of these reunion events. Tillman Cadle recalled “mass meetings in Pineville” and Hugh Cowans narrated the rallies held in Verda after the early union organizers came to Kentucky.           

Those meetings provided sparks to the UMWA officials to initiate new drive for organizing Harlan County through establishing local unions and recruiting new members. Taylor records that more than six hundred miners joined the union after the Verda rally (1990). Ultimately, the sense of togetherness is cultivated when people assembled together in a same place and “unloading of the burden of individuality” (Bauman 1995:47).

2. Organize Collective Actions

The second approach employed by the union to produce social capital was to “organize collective actions” such as strikes, marches and protests. Through those collective activities, miners were brought together to protest against mining companies’ exploitation and strive for the benefits of union membership. Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti have contended that involvement in collective activities is a critical feature of social capital (1993).

Successful fighting not only brought material advantages such as wage increase but also psychosocial influences. Dennis, Henriques, and Slaughter state that “common memories of past struggles have undoubtedly helped to bind a community” (1969:14). The interviewees demonstrated their confidence and expectation for being involved in such activities. Hugh Cowans considered it important “to be organized because there is strength in unity” and Jeff Tipton stated that “we should work hand in hand with different groups (and) everybody working together you can get a lot accomplished”.

Durkheim considers strong solidarity to be a product of the “shared existence of actions and reactions called into play between the consciousness of individuals” (1982:56). Therefore, the union contributed to the production of social capital not only by physically bonding miners together, but also by cultivating conscience collective among people from the whole community.

3. Secure Benefits  

As Hevener states, the Harlan miners’ struggle for unionization is “an attempt to remedy unsatisfactory working conditions” (1978:14). Through “secure benefits” of miners, the union consolidated their loyalty and dedication, which contributed to the production of social capital.

Jeff Tipton summarized union’s objective as that “we are in here trying to bring people standard of living up; we are in here trying to help people from being threatened; and we are fighting for them every day.” Therefore, the intention to escape from a powerless life dominated by the coal companies promoted the massive miners to support unionized efforts. Hugh Cowans said “I see some good in there” and Parris Burke indicated that getting something better and helpful was a primary impetus for him to join the union. Such kind of feeling also showed up in the interview with Mickey Messer who considered “the union’s been good to me and my family” and Ray Ellis who stated there was a hope for living improvement while adhering to the union.

4. Select Charismatic Leaders

The leader’s behavior is closely related to the collaborative group relationship, which can engender the vigor of individual members (Carmeli, Ben-Hador, Waldman, and Rupp 2009). Within coalfields, union leaders emphasize on destructing coal operators’ paternalistic control and promoting liberty among miners. During the interviews, the name of John L. Lewis has been mentioned for many times by the miners. Hugh Cowans considered it was the “lord bless us and sent the man along in ’37, ’38”; Donald described Lewis as the miners’ savior who “brought them out of darkness”. One anonymous interviewee even said that “we baptize you in the name of the father, the son, and John L. Lewis.”

Portelli summarizes that “the large-than-life image of John L. Lewis…meshed with the miners’ own culture, their religion, and their company-town experience to shape a projective identification with the leader” (2011:227). Such kind of shared feeling facilitated the transmission or replacement from the paternalism of the coal camps to the paternalism of the union. That attitude was further reinforced when the union brought benefits with many journal covers displayed poor miners received checks from Lewis or Lewis signed relief documents. Consequently, it glued miners together and contributes to the construction social capital (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006).

V. Discussion

In recent years, the union has experienced constant changes and challenges, some of which exceed its ability to manage. Consequently, the union gradually lost influence in the mining community and the ability to organize miners to strive for their benefits. Meanwhile, the increasingly prevalence of MTR has resulted in severe consequences of unemployment and environmental pollution.

Under that situation, a summarized approach conducive for union miners and their families to experience high social capital might be of great value for current organizers. In addition, the modern environmental movement organizations perform a similar task with the union of protecting public benefits. Currently, those organizations have enjoyed prosperous development in the last decades with an exploded membership growth from 125,000 in 1960 to 6.5 million in 1990 (Bosso 1995; Mitchell 1992). Therefore, what lessons can be drawn from the union’s past to form new alliance; whether those approaches are applicable to today’s situation; and how to employ them or alternatives to mobilize local residents’ fight for better working conditions and living environment are subjects that need further examinations in the near future.  


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Appendix 1 Interviewees’ Information


Date of Birth



Interview Date

Below, James



Coal Miner, Union Organizer

Aug.28, 1991

Burke, Parris



Coal Miner

Aug.25, 1991

Cadle, Tillman



Coal Miner, Union Organizer

Nov.20, 1989

Campagnari, Ben



Union Miner

Oct.28, 1988

Cowans, Hugh



Coal Miner, Union Organizer

Sep.28, 1983

Cowans, Julie




Sep.28, 1983

Crusenberry, Sudie



Coal Miner, Union Activist

Nov.23, 1989

Davidson, Bobbie



Union Miner

Nov.2, 1990

Deaton, Junior



Coal Miner

Union Organizer

Aug.15, 1991





Aug.25, 1991

Ellis, Ray



Union Miner

Sep.9, 1993

Johnson, Mossie




Oct.11, 1993

King, Otis



Union Miner

Dec.23, 1989

Messer, Mickey



Union Miner

Nov.3, 1988

Tipton, Jeff



Coal Miner, Union Organizer

Oct.24, 1988

Whitfield, Bryan



Coal Operator

Nov.1, 1990

Source: Alessandro Portelli (2011)

Appendix 2 Coding Scheme

       Social Capital

Social Network


  • Familiar colleagues mentioned and close personal-relationship described during the interview.
  • Various forms of organizations initiated by the union that connect miners together to cultivate friendship and membership.

Mutual Trust


  • Stories and labels that display reliability and confidence on union cohorts.


  • Comments that suggest constant trustworthiness and support to the union when confronting with setbacks and difficulties.

Norms of Reciprocity (NR)

  • Stories of receiving assistance from union miners when confronting with difficulties.
  • Stories of giving assistance to others who need support and encouragement.

Civic Participation (CP)

  • Attitudes towards union activities such as marches and strikes.
  • Union’s role to encourage and promote active engagement.



  • Comments that express strong cohesion, both physical and cultural, among union miners.
  • Comments that indicate miners’ sense of belonging and voluntary dedication to union’s enterprises.


  • Attitudes towards scabs.

Certain Terms

Brother (hood); Union Man; Union People; My Boy; We; Us; Our; Together; John. L. Lewis; Strike; March.


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