The Hillbilly and the Cowboy: How Identities are Made

Dec 3, 2019 8:45:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf explains the construct of identities and how communities unite individuals who share their values. He also shares insights on how students will encounter and can react to identity challenges abroad.

Finding Community

I recently explored the way in which our loyalties signal something of our individual identities and point to the communities which we identify. In this discussion, I want to go beyond the question of choice. We are not solely responsible for how we are perceived. The impact of globalization on many of our lives has also rendered identity problematic. Answering the question “What do you do?” is relatively simple. In response, we describe our functions in the world: I’m a barber, banker, writer, educator and so on. “Who are you?” is a far more challenging question that asks us to choose an identity or identities. It asks us to locate the communities within which we function. However, it also includes the unstated qualification—who do others think you are?

In education abroad we teach about the analysis and exploration of communities abroad. That is not without problems not only because communities do not necessarily define themselves but also because they have become more elusive, fragmented and fragile in the worlds most of us inhabit. One of the costs of mobility is that in all the coming and goings of urban life nobody stays anywhere long enough to be a part of the neighborhood—wherever that is.

By way of a personal example, in my apartment block in London I don’t know anybody who lives there except in the most superficial manner. The few who are identifiable have become so because of their eccentricities or anti-social proclivities. There is the ancient woman (whose black clothing is an objective corollary of her soul) who expresses deep dislike of every person regardless of race, creed, or color. She does this through muttered Greek imprecations that draw, I suspect, upon classic insults such as "throw yourself to the crows" and "I will tattoo you with the white-tusked boar." Then, there is the husband and wife who are bound by a loud hatred of each other. Without this terrible bond you know they would suffer terrible loneliness.

This is a random set of individuals not, in any recognizable sense, a community. The notion of community, as this rather random example indicates, is problematic but the world of education abroad is nevertheless rooted in the idea that students should explore these entities even when they are increasingly difficult to locate. We invite them to engage in an act of metaphorical archeology: to uncover remnants of atypical community in minority groups who cling defensively together in alien spaces, or in those still connected by creed or ideology.

There are more readily identifiable community identities, but they are no longer defined by proximity. The most obvious example is the virtual community of Facebook where friendship is not dependent on personal contact. When international educators gather at one or other of the annual conferences, they also represent a community that transcends geographical space.

However, we are not only that which we seek to be. We are also the product of those who have imagined us. In the militant parochialism which increasingly dominates the current political agenda, the stranger is frequently dehumanized by myth and stereotype; constructed as “them” which empowers the dominant” we” to see them as outside of the acceptable norm; thus, not worthy of equality or, at worse, an unhealthy, undesirable element that needs to be cleansed: a problem requiring a solution. Historically, this reductive tendency led inexorably and terribly to concepts such as the Jewish Problem or the Gypsy Problem. This was a road that led to Auschwitz.

If students learn that identity is not an objective reality but a construct, they are somewhere along a road along which they may discover the distortions of bigotry. The processes by which identities are invented can be demonstrated to them in the more familiar context of the USA through the figures of the hillbilly and cowboy.

The Hillbilly and the Cowboy: Iconic Figures in the Construction of America

Reality is not revealed only by history. This is exemplified in the iconic figures of the Appalachian hillbilly and the Western cowboy. Together these have occupied American consciousness, and the consciousness of America in worlds elsewhere. That these figures have been subject to distorted and selective inventions in no way diminishes the powerful impact of symbol and myth on the popular imagination. The process of deconstructing these identities offers a methodology that is applicable to other groups at home and abroad. Ideas of collective identity are rarely constrained within national boundaries.

Grand Canyon

The figures of the hillbilly and the cowboy are, thus, not solely American inventions; indeed, the first usage of the term cowboy originated in Ireland. The iconic status of these figures also derives from the ways in which Europe has imagined America. They are rooted in narratives of virgin space and frontier, myths of American origin. They inhabit an elegiac narrative.

Despite clear differences between cowboy and hillbilly, there are many points of similarities. Both figures are unconstrained by social norms of developed settlement and resist the laws and regulations that enforce those conventions. They reside, therefore, ethically and geographically beyond the spaces most of us inhabit; in dreamed landscapes unconstrained by the burdens we carry. They symbolize national myths of individualistic freedom.

In popular culture, they are almost always male and white. The substantial presence of other ethnic groups in Appalachia has been obscured. Additionally, the notion of a Black cowboy is a comic device in, for example, Mel Brook’s film Blazing Saddles. The comedy derives from the fact that the figure runs counter to identities embedded in American myth.

This popular image of the cowboy does not align with historical sources as Katie Nodjimbadem demonstrates in The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys:

Few images embody the spirit of the American West as well as the trailblazing,
sharpshooting, horseback-riding cowboy of American lore.
And though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black.

Emily Raboteau adds that:

Many others were Mexican, mestizo, or Native American—a far more diverse group than Hollywood stereotypes of the cowboy would suggest. Bass Reeves, a black lawman who had a Native American sidekick, is thought to have served as a model for the Lone Ranger. Britt Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by Comanches, in 1865, partly inspired John Ford’s classic film “The Searchers,” almost a century later. [2] 

These hidden histories indicate a didactic approach to the study of collective identity. A deconstruction of narratives reveals a complex conjunction of history, popular mythology, misdirection, invention, and stereotype.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the impact of popular mythologies. Realities are not made in objective space. The figures of the hillbilly and cowboy are part of the construction of an American identity that has resonance and persistence. They are outriders and potentially outlaws in so far as they function beyond traditions of urban development. They embody a form of individualism that conflicts with industrialization, technology and land enclosure.

In short, these figures contrast with notions of progress expressed for example in the great iconic railway stations of the USA, such as Grand Central in New York or Union Station in Washington. This was behind part of the argument I presented in When Progress Died in June 2014:

The great stations of New York, Grand Central and Washington D.C. Union Station, look, after all, very much like cathedrals… In Grand Central Station our eyes are drawn away from the disorder of New York’s rush hour towards the painted blue Zodiac on the high ceiling, towards, metaphorically at least, the heavens… These are cathedrals to a secular God and were emblematic of the emergence of a new deity. All of these stations were built between 1852 and 1910—most in the last decades of the nineteenth century. What these great edifices represented was a new faith in technology and in the idea of progress. [3] 

These railways represent a version of mobility that disrupts the mobility of the cowboy. The railways enabled the taming of wilderness and brought structure into virgin space. Enclosures, farms, towns, and cities were built by the people who followed the train tracks into the West. They brought with them law and some form of order.

Featured ImageThe 'Wild' West 

The hillbilly and the cowboy represent alternative values. The codes of behavior through which they operate are generated by themselves, not imposed upon them by conventions. Eric Hobsbawm’s definition of cowboy identity is applicable equally to the hillbilly: “The ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority.” [4]  As a consequence, both figures conflict with settlement institutions; cowboys clash with ranchers and with the enclosure of open spaces. The railway opens up access to spaces that can then be owned, tamed, enclosed. Both the cowboy and the hillbilly are undone by development, but their values remain, at some level, emblematic of a form of heroic individualism. They resist the authority of the state and stand outside of the norms and social conventions that define the lives of most of us.

Therein resides a critical ambiguity. Both the hillbilly and the cowboy represent a form of potentially violent primitivism; Appalachia is represented in the popular imagination by blood feuds, dangerous isolation and so on. The cowboy’s habitat is the “Wild” west: lawless and mostly unrestrained by the conventions of control. Instead, an alternative moral code governs behavior. They are semi-citizens. Nevertheless, both figures are romanticized and simultaneously feared. They belong to versions of pre-industrial, pre-modern Arcadia. They represent an ambiguous myth of American origins in which innocence coexists with violence.

There are, of course, significant distinctions. Critically, the cowboy belongs to the past in history and, more or less, in popular culture. The cowboy as hero, in the shape of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or even Clint Eastwood, has substantially disappeared from the cinema and television except in the form of nostalgia or parody. In contrast, the figure of the hillbilly, ambiguous and paradoxical, still resides in constructed versions of Appalachia.

Cows in Arizona_JG


In the popular imagination, the hillbilly is also defined by stereotypes of idleness and stupidity whereas the cowboy is, in one way or another, a productive, sometimes heroic, agent in the environment even if that productivity is ultimately doomed to succumb to modernity, and cannot be measured by conventional standards of material acquisition.

The mythical power of the cowboy resonates with ideologies based upon nostalgia. In contrast, the hillbilly is part of a stereotyped present; a figure shaped by the imagination of others. Together, they represent formative icons in the construction of nation; the persistence of frontier values is critical in the paradox of American identities. They are both ultimately victims of notions of progress that dominated ideologies of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century.

Conclusion: Building Communities

The hillbilly is a paradoxical construct: a figure of fear and ridicule, simultaneously corrupt and innocent, tenuously connected with the political and social realities of Appalachia. There is a sense in which these constructs are both true and untrue, real and fantasy.

The manner in which identities, communities and nations are constructed offers students a mechanism through which they may better understand the making of reality at home and abroad. It may also give them a consciousness of those aspects of community identities that are rooted in prejudicial stereotype: a capacity to resist judgments based upon ridicule, hostility, or paternalism.

Students will inevitably encounter examples of groups of people subject to vilification or ridicule abroad. In Europe they may encounter racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Roma rhetoric, gender discrimination, etc. They will also encounter collective privilege. If they are taught to ask questions that reveal the interactions of histories, myths and popular images, they will recognize the mechanisms that distort our complex realities. To learn that collective identities do not define individuals is a big step towards resisting the rhetoric of bigots.


[1] Katie Nodjimbadem. The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys. February 13, 2017.  
[2] Emily Raboteau. “Black Cowboys, Busting One of America’s Defining Myths.” The New Yorker. January 22, 2017.   
[3] When Progress Died: On War and Education Abroad. June 11, 2014.  
[4] Eric Hobsbaum. “The Myth of the Cowboy.” The Guardian. Wednesday, March 20th, 2013.  


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education