John Gaventa

John Gaventa was born in Tennessee in 1949. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1971, was a Rhodes Scholar, and received his doctorate from Oxford University. In 1976, Gaventa began a grassroots adult educational program at Highlander Research and Education Center. He received a MacArthur Award for this work in 1981.

In 1982, Gaventa published his groundbreaking book, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, a study to uncover the “hidden faces of power” in the Clear Fork Valley in Central Appalachia. The research documented how an absentee British company owned much of the land in the valley and how it extracted resources and wealth without benefitting the region.

Gaventa served as director of Highlander Center from 1993 to 1996. From 2011-2014, he served as the director of the Coady International Institute and Vice-President of International Development at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. As of January 2022, he lives in England, where he is the Director of Research at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

Related Content:

“That kind of learning does not come from a text book.”

[Story contributed by Dr. Brent Blue, February 2016] I remember I took these photos when I was first introduced to Jess and Steele. I believe John Gaventa was with us. The Huddleston’s freely admitted that due to my long hair,… Continued

John Gaventa Papers, W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection, Appalachian State University

The John Gaventa Papers include materials generated and collected during Gaventa’s career as a political sociologist, educator, author, and civil society practitioner. This includes correspondence, day planners and calendars, journals, materials from conferences, and papers, reports and studies written by… Continued

On SOCM’s early days and development as a threat to strip mining

John Kennedy elaborates on Heleny Cook’s and Jane Sampson’s role with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), their organizing efforts having grown directly out of John Gaventa’s strip mining research and related work about the American Association. For more information on… Continued

Key issues tackled by ETRC

John Williams and Neil McBride share a list of the East Tennessee Research Corporation’s range of legal issues addressed between 1974 and 1977, including but not limited to: coal industry regulation, industrial development, environmental litigation, barriers to independently-run rural health… Continued

The “Appalachianization” of rural America and around the world

John Gaventa discusses the “Appalachianization” of rural America, a trend of rising inequality, poverty, environmental damage, and deficit of public services across the U.S. No longer the exception, Gaventa emphaszies injustice in the Clearfork Valley as being relevant to the… Continued

On paternalistic industrialism: Alexander Arthur and the American Association

John Gaventa describes the British paternalism characteristic of late 19th-century industrialists, a philosophy that harnessed absentee land ownership in pursuit of capitalist economic gain. He references Alexander Arthur, Scottish-born entrepreneur, engineer, and president of the American Association, the British investment… Continued

Context behind and origin of the 1971 land ownership study

John Gaventa delineates the context and probing question behind his earliest research into land ownership in Appalachia, as proposed in collaboration with Bill Dow: why are some of the wealthiest, natural resource-rich counties in East Tennessee also the poorest (in… Continued

Jack Beckford on the Student Health Coalition Legacy Fund

Jack Beckford offers insight into the role the Student Health Coalition Legacy Fund has played in uncovering and supporting ongoing work on issues in Appalachia related to the SHC’s activism in the 1960s and 70s. He lists Appalshop, the Highlander… Continued

Participatory action research in practice: who owns Appalachia?

John Gaventa recaps and differentiates between two related studies concerning land ownership in Appalachia. The first was conducted during the summer of 1971 across several East Tennessee counties. It affected Gaventa’s pursuits over the next 50 years, including publication of… Continued

Rethinking quiescence: “hidden transcripts” of community agency

John Gaventa reflects on his early conclusions about the role of quiescence in the Clearfork Valley, recognizing now that he may have under-appreciated ongoing forms of resistance, such as through storytelling, music, and other invisible acts. He pulls on political… Continued

Mo & Boomer

On strip mining, community organization, and “[having] fun while trying to change the world.” Interview with Maureen O’Connell and Charles “Boomer” Winfrey, recorded at a May 2013 reunion of the Student Health Coalition (SHC) in Nashville, Tenn. Continued

On mutual aid, solidarity, and different interactions of power

John Gaventa describes the concepts of mutual aid and solidarity as exemplified by different interactions of power. He explains that action against injustice is built from the coalition of power within ourselves and power with each other. Together, these fuel… Continued

On the role of corporate land ownership in rural land settlement patterns

Following a 1977 flood in central Appalachia that left many people displaced, John Gaventa and others at the Highlander Center organized a study to counter conclusions by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which failed to consider the role of corporate… Continued

Reflections on the SHC’s approach to community healthcare

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey and Maureen O’Connell consider what set the Student Health Coalition (SHC) apart from other community development efforts in the Appalachian region of East Tennessee. Boomer focuses on the Coalition’s and Save Our Cumberland Mountains’ (SOCM’s) value of… Continued

Empowering others to conduct own research

John Gaventa highlights the value of empowering others–locals in the community–to conduct their own research and act on their own knowledge against injustice. Follow this link for access to the full-length interview. Recorded October 2021. Continued

Article: “Higher Appalachia Coal Taxes Asked,” from the New York Times

Stuart, Reginald. “Higher Appalachia Taxes Asked.” New York Times, June 22, 1974. Read article online. Continued

Nancy Raybin on Bill Dow’s visionary leadership and other prominent figures in southwest Virginia

Nancy Raybin describes Bill Dow’s visionary leadership, highlighting his role in securing funds for the Coalition’s varied projects. But given her placement in St. Charles and being so far removed from SHC happenings in East Tennessee, Raybin speaks more to… Continued

Perry Steele on the summer of 1972

[Story contributed by Perry Steele, 15 May 2017]  I was finishing my sophomore year at Vanderbilt. Nixon hadn’t drafted me. For some reason Professor Scott suggested I could be a community organizer. Having no other plans for the summer, I… Continued

The power cube

John Gaventa elaborates on his previous discussion of quiescence and the three dimensions of power with an introduction of the power cube, a rubik’s analogy he and his colleagues developed to illustrate even more dimensions at play. He explains that… Continued

The Appalachian Land Ownership Study: an emblem of citizen-driven participatory action research

John Gaventa further describes how the 1977 flood mobilized citizens toward supplementary research into the inequities connected to land ownership, taxation practices, and other local power dynamics. They requested funding from the ARC for what over time developed into the… Continued

On the interplay between land ownership and mineral rights

John Gaventa clarifies the interplay between surface land ownership and the exploitative acquisition of below-ground mineral rights by large coal companies in Appalachia. He cites The American Association, a British company that at one time owned 80,000 acres across Clairborne,… Continued

Findings of the 1971 land ownership study and subsequent legal action

John Gaventa elaborates on initial findings from the 1971 land ownership study and what transpired in response. With documented evidence of inequitable corporate control over land and natural resources (due in large part to unfair property taxation practices and the… Continued

Interview with Kate Bradley and J.W. Bradley by Evangeline Mee, 29 May 2012, Southern Oral History Program, UNC Chapel Hill

Topics discussed in this interview with Kate Bradley and J.W. Bradley include: birth in Petros, Tenn.; life history overview; coal mining father; history of Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM); women’s role in SOCM; relationship of Vanderbilt University medical students; Student… Continued

Margaret Ecker reflects on unique nature of the Coalition’s power

Margaret Ecker reflects on the power of the Coalition, however invisible at the time, and its success in changing institutions, unconventional and inchoate though it was. She brings John Gaventa’s conclusion on the matter, as further detailed in his book… Continued

What is quiescence?

Seeking to frame the role of quiescence in unjust sociopolitical structures, John Gaventa delineates the intricacies of power across three different dimensions. He cites his Oxford mentor Steven Lukes, author of Power: A Radical View, as a purveyor of the… Continued