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Sociology in the News

Enkeshi Thom wins prestigious NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant for research focused on African American experiences in Appalachia

Enkeshi Thom, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, received a prestigious NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant – a first for the department. Her project, Black Knoxville: At the Intersection of Race and Region, focuses on the experiences and identity formation of African Americans in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“Shortly after moving to Knoxville, I realized Knoxville didn’t feel like the South I had known growing up in Atlanta,” Thom says. “I could sense a difference in the culture and was curious about the racial dynamics in the city.”

Thom soon learned that Knoxville was also considered an Appalachian city, which was not a place she associated with African Americans, and wanted to learn more about the black Appalachian experience. Through her research, guided by her mentor and advisor, Michelle Christian, assistant professor of sociology, Thom discovered that compared to many other Appalachian cities, Knoxville’s black population was significantly greater, but there were a limited number of sources to learn more about the African American experience; their racial identity in the regional context of Appalachia, for example.

For her dissertation, Thom will conduct interviews with long-term African American residents of Knoxville from a diverse cross section of the population to identify central issues and themes from the participants’ experience.

“My hope is that my dissertation can give a voice to a black Appalachia community and contribute to the recent inquiry into Afrolachian studies, which seeks to claim a space within Appalachia for African Americans,” Thom says. “I hope to raise awareness of the issues that may affect black communities throughout Appalachia so that policymakers, governmental organizations, and non-governmental actors who create and implement services and programs for Appalachian people can do so in a culturally-competent manner.”

The grant provides funds for Thom to compensate participants for their time and afford transcription services, which will allow her to dedicate more time to gathering and analyzing data.

“Ms. Thom’s research is particularly pertinent because the history, experiences, and presence of African Americans in Appalachia is commonly downplayed or ignored,” Christian says.

Thom’s grant is also thanks to an effort by Stephanie Bohon, director of graduate studies in the department, who works with several graduate students on their proposals.

“The sociology program at UT is a perfect program for my research interests,” Thom says. “Even though the focus of my research shifted once I got to Knoxville and began to grapple with questions of race and place, this program is still the best fit for me.”

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