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Appalachian Studies Association Honors Dwight Billings

by Keith Hautala

(April 21, 2014) — The Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) recently awarded its highest honor for service to the field to Dwight Billings, a University of Kentucky professor in the Department of Sociology and on the Appalachian Studies Program faculty.

Billings, who has made many significant contributions to the field of Appalachian studies throughout a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, received the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award at the association's 37th annual conference, held March 28-30 at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. The award is given annually to an individual who has made "exemplary contributions to Appalachia, Appalachian Studies, or to the Appalachian Studies Association."  

"Dwight has done all three, making him a triple threat," said colleague Shaunna Scott, associate professor of sociology, who presented the award.

Scott said it was especially meaningful to her to present the award to Billings, who served as ASA president before she did, and who served as editor of the Journal of Appalachian Studies, the leading scholarly journal in the field, which Scott edits currently.

"His scholarship and service have extended the reach of Appalachian studies to national and international scholarly audiences in the social sciences, social and critical theory, and neo-Marxian and feminist studies," she said.

Billings has written groundbreaking works on Appalachia, including the book "The Road to Poverty: the Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia," for which he and co-author Kathleen M. Blee received the Weatherford Award in 2000. The book he co-edited with Katherine Ledford and Gurney Norman, "Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes," has been a widely used resource in challenging stereotypes of Appalachians. He has been active in the Appalachian region and community, and he has served as a mentor to many in the field of Appalachian Studies.

Throughout his career, Billings has worked to foster cross-institutional and academic/community collaboration. He was one of the founders of the UK Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program, working with colleagues to secure funding for these initiatives from the Rockefeller and Mellon Foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has served terms as research director of the Appalachian Center and as director of Appalachian Studies in the course of his career at UK.

Ann Kingsolver, director of the UK Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program, says it was especially significant that the career award Billings received was named the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award, since Billings has worked to honor the legacy of James S. Brown.

Brown was a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky who did groundbreaking research in Appalachian studies from the 1940s to the 1980s in Eastern Kentucky communities where Billings has also done research and has mentored student research. Billings has been a generous mentor to many new faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and he worked to establish the James S. Brown Graduate Student Award at UK, which funds graduate student research in Appalachia each summer.

“Professor Billings has always been committed not to building an individual career, but to building an intellectual community,” Kingsolver said. “He has contributed his keen eye for structural inequality to making sure the national Appalachian studies conversation remains inclusive and relevant, welcoming artists, activists, community members and scholars alike.”

Billings’ work appears in American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Social Problems, Sociological Quarterly, Current Perspectives in Sociological Theory, the Annual Review of Sociology, the Journal of Appalachian Studies and other journals. He is currently working on a book-length analysis of class and culture in the Appalachian region. His research and teaching interests include social inequality, Appalachian and regional studies, poverty, sociological theory, and the sociology of religion.

Raised in Beckley, W.Va., Billings earned his bachelor's degree in sociology from West Virginia University in Morgantown. He earned both his master's degree and doctorate in sociology from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.