Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts: Reflections on John Shelton Reed

cover image of resilience of southern identity by cooper and knottsToday we welcome a guest post by Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, authors of  The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People. The American South has experienced remarkable change over the past half century. Black voter registration has increased, the region’s politics have shifted from one-party Democratic to the near-domination of the Republican Party, and in-migration has increased its population manyfold. At the same time, many outward signs of regional distinctiveness have faded—chain restaurants have replaced mom-and-pop diners, and the interstate highway system connects the region to the rest of the country. Given all of these changes, many have argued that southern identity is fading. But Cooper and Knotts show how these changes have allowed for new types of southern identity to emerge. For some, identification with the South has become more about a connection to the region’s folkways or to place than about policy or ideology. For others, the contemporary South is all of those things at once—a place where many modern-day southerners navigate the region’s confusing and omnipresent history.

In today’s post, Cooper and Knotts relate how their study of southern culture has been influenced by the work of sociologist John Shelton Reed.


Reflections on John Shelton Reed

Fans of UNC Press are likely familiar with the name John Shelton Reed. Reed was a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1969-2000, where he taught and wrote about the American South. He was also director of the Odum Institute for Research and Social Science, creator of the Southern Focus Polls, and co-founder of Southern Cultures, an academic quarterly published by UNC Press.

In our new book, The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People, we revisit and update a few of Reed’s key findings about the South. We focus particularly on the question of southern identity, exploring the powerful connection between southerners and their region.

Following Reed’s Model in Southerners

Though Reed’s body of scholarship is quite extensive, we build most directly on his book Southerners: The Social Psychology of Sectionalism (UNC Press, 1983). In this book, Reed focuses on the social psychological connection people have with the South. He argues that identifying as a southerner is a choice, and uses a 1971 survey of North Carolinians to explore the determinants of regional consciousness.

Like Reed, we attempt to write for both academic and non-academic audiences, while also drawing on our training as social scientists. In fact, we analyze Reed’s Southern Focus Polls, conducted between 1992 and 2001, to provide a baseline for our more recent findings.

Diverging from Reed’s Model

Though we rely extensively on Reed’s findings and approach, our strategy differs from Reed’s work in a few key ways.

First, we have the benefit of time. Reed began writing about the South not long after the modern Civil Rights Movement; his major books on regional distinctiveness and identity drew on surveys from the 1970s. Our work draws on data we collected between 2011 and 2015. The South is a different place today than it was in 1972.

Second, we use a mixed methods approach in our book. Like Reed, we employ quantitative methods to analyze surveys and a dataset of “Dixie” and “Southern” business names. But we also utilize qualitative research techniques. For example, we devote a chapter of our book to report findings from focus groups of southerners.  Two of our focus groups consisted of white southerners and two were made up of black southerners.

Finally, the connection between black and white southerners is a central part of our argument. In Southerners: A Social Psychology of Sectionalism, Reed focused almost exclusively on the opinions of white southerners.  As he noted in the introduction of his book, “we (like most other Americans, I believe) constructed ‘Southerners’ to mean white Southerners, and it struck us as possibly puzzling or offensive to ask black respondents some of our key questions.” Reed regretted the decision to focus only on white southerners and in the same introduction said that, “I now believe our decision was a mistake.”

New Findings on Race and Southern Identity

One of the central findings in our book is that whites are no more likely than blacks to identify with the South, even after controlling for a host of other factors. We investigate the connection between race and southern identity in considerable detail, exploring the similarities and differences in how blacks and whites connect to the region.

In sum, we are indebted to John Shelton Reed for showing us (and many other researchers) that there is a place for a social scientific approach to understanding the South. By applying the methods and approaches of Reed, and those who came after him (Larry Griffin and Derek Alderman come immediately to mind) we are able to find some signal through the noise that is the modern South.

Christopher A. Cooper ( is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.  H. Gibbs Knotts ( is a professor of political science at the College of Charleston. They are co-authors of The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People (2017) and co-editors of The New Politics of North Carolina (2008).