Social movements have catalyzed change in the U.S. legal system by demanding more stringent enforcement of existing laws, the repeal of laws, and the creation of new laws. Much less research, however, has approached the interplay of law and social movements from the opposite perspective, that is, examining how the creation of law affects social movements. This research aims to shed light on these dynamics by examining how the movement opposing surface mining in Appalachia has evolved since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). The significance of SMCRA cannot be overstated, as the act called for the federal regulation of surface mining, headed off the growing movement calling for the abolition of the practice, and also legitimated the controversial extraction method known as mountaintop removal.

The researchers approach this social movement as a network, aiming to understand how the relationships between anti-surface mining social movement organizations changed, and continue to change in response to legal engagements. Engagements include the tactics used, as well as the ways they frame the problem of surface mining and the goals they seek. Network analysis allows the researchers to correlate the network positions of individual social movement organizations with their legal stances. Interviews with organizational leaders allow the researchers to garner insider assessments of how the law influences intra-movement dynamics and how movement dynamics influence the law.

Project Report

In the last half-century, social movements have reordered the social fabric of the United States. For instance, the Civil Rights, Women's and LGBT movements helped create a society largely unimaginable to most pre-World War II Americans. One unifying feature of these movements is the critical role the law played in catalyzing action and directing movement tactics. Indeed, the constitutive relationship between the law and social movements is increasingly clear, but little research has examined this relationship, while even less has focused on how the law affects the inner dynamics of social movements and the networks of which they are composed. This dissertation used the case of strip mining resistance in central Appalachia to shed light on the factors that bring social movement groups together in collaborative relationships, and conversely, the factors that can inhibit such partnerships. Coal mining has long dominated the economy, politics and culture of the region, but more recently a shift towards a form of large-scale strip mining called mountaintop removal has stimulated much resistance. Although the process is economically efficient, the ecological disturbances generated by this extraction method are great and numerous studies have linked negative health and social outcomes to the practice. I used social network analysis and semi-structured interviews with movement participants to bring these collaborative mechanisms into focus with special attention paid to their legal dimensions. My first major finding highlights the influence of law on social movements and vice versa, as the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) had a general deflating effect on the movement. Conversely, amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 accelerated the use of mountaintop removal mining (MTR) and catalyzed resistance to the practice. My second major finding was that the different ways groups chose to engage the law, whether that be litigation, lobbying, and/or direct action, significantly influenced their propensity to forge alliances with other groups within the movement. These findings suggest that legal tactics and the law more generally will continue to play critical roles in the struggle for environmental justice in the Appalachian coalfields. Moreover, the outcomes of this struggle will have broader effects on U.S. energy policy, which in turn will have significant impacts on the vast number of American citizens who receive their electricity via coal combustion. These findings are being shared with Appalachian social movement groups, policy makers and other interested parties, and are also being disseminated through publication in scholarly journals. In sum, this research took up key questions of how the legal stances of anti-surface mining groups influenced their tactics and prospects, and how these decisions will ultimately affect the political economy, environment and economic opportunities of the Appalachian region and beyond.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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susan sterett
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University of Florida
United States
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