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UK Doctoral Student Conducts Research on Rural and Appalachian Identities by Studying Rural Artists in the City 

By A Fish 

Photo of a student
Jimmy Robinson

LEXINGTON; Ky. — University of Kentucky Sociology doctoral student Jimmy Robinson wants to know what happens when a rural Appalachian artist leaves Appalachia. UK’s Appalachian Center in the College of Arts & Sciences has provided him with a grant to begin his research project titled “Taking the Rural with you: Rural Artists in the City.”  

Part of his research involves exploring just what “rural” means. People who leave a rural area still may seem themselves as rural as part of their identity. 

“This project is taking a different look at rurality than what you normally see,” he said. “A lot of research regarding rurality treats it firstly as a spatial material concept, meaning only the people who live in rural areas are counted as rural under most metrics that people use. There is, however, another way to approach rurality, more symbolically or as an identity. That's what I'm getting at with this idea of taking the rural with you.” 

And to that idea of “rural” he’s adding “Appalachian” as an identity as well — and how artists who are both rural and Appalachian engage with these aspects of themselves when living in a city.  

“We're looking at both of these aspects of identity and the reason that it's an interesting approach is we're looking at artists who are originally from rural Appalachia, but they now live and work in the city, but incorporate rural or Appalachian themes in their artwork,” he said. “That's the reason for bringing art into this study. It provides a simultaneously concrete and symbolic way of demonstrating that continued engagement with identity.  

“If you look at the more traditional framing of ‘rural,’ these artists would not be considered rural or Appalachian. They would just be considered urbanites. Because they are directly engaging with these aspects of themselves in their work, however, their art symbolically demonstrates that what it means to be rural or Appalachian is not limited to the place of rural Appalachia.” 

Robinson recently gained UK Human Research/ Institutional Review Board  approval to begin this project, and he is eager to move forward with the next steps of this journey. 

“I have conducted one interview thus far and am currently in the process of recruiting other study participants,” he said. “My hope is that I will be able to do a chain sampling approach where, ideally, initial participants will know other potential participants and can ask them if they are interested in participating in my project.” 

Robinson said his project will be small: He’s looking for five to 10 participants, and he is confident in his ability to find this small number of Appalachian artists to participate. He’s from Bath County in Eastern Kentucky, so he sympathizes with artists who struggle with "fitting into" the art world, as he has had a similar experience in academia. 

"Academia can be a bit similar to this art world in that a lot of times you can be at a disadvantage in fitting in if you come from that sort of rural Appalachian background,” he said. “There are all these stereotypes around how an accent will come off and trying to navigate that. I don't worry so much about it now, I own the way I speak and whatever drawl I have, but there have been times in the past where I have tried to sound smarter and move away from using my accent to sound more ‘proper.’ There's that personal stake in this research.”  

People who may be eligible and interested in participating in this project may email Robinson at for more information. 

Robinson graduated from Centre College in 2018 with a B.A. in sociology and started graduate school at UK in 2021. He specializes in rural sociology and is writing, along with his wife and fellow Ph.D. student Margaux Crider Robinson, a book chapter tangentially related to this project, titled “The Urbanormative Discipline of Rural Bodies.”