Reinvention and Revisioning in an Appalachian Industry Cluster

Christine Z. Miller, Professor, Graduate Program in Design Management Savannah College of Art and Design
Stokes Jones, Principal, Lodestar

This paper draws on ethnographic research of a former mill town in the Appalachian foothills to consider the way historiographical frames like Evolution/Revolution are imposed on human events. The town is credited with surviving beyond the textile era because it “reinvented itself” by creating new marketspace from embedded competencies that allowed local manufacturing to expand. The result was a very successful homegrown “industry cluster” where a product category’s manufacturing system “is organized around the region and its professional and technical networks rather than around the individual firm.”(Saxenian, 1994) (Porter, 1998). During our research, however, shifts in consumer taste were resulting in falling sales leading many to believe the town’s industry needed to be “re-invented” again - this time by importing ‘Design’ and ‘Creatives’ (Florida, 2003). This paper explores how ‘Innovation’ often carries an ideology that biases actors toward epochal breaks as the most successful strategies. Alternatively, we examine how ethnography can aid communities to re-connect with potentials inherent in their continuity (especially when these embrace sources of dynamism like those which gave rise to this cluster) leading to visions of more achievable reinvention.