Rural Geography Research Paper

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While it is widely accepted today that those working in the rural context can make a significant contribution to the theory and practice of human geography more broadly, this has not always been the view. At times rural geography has been regarded as a poor relation of modern geography, (see Cloke 1980) trailing behind the ‘real’ intellectual advances in the discipline and generally presenting a largely traditional and often atheoretical perspective on key debates. Moreover, the very existence of a sub-discipline of geography defined according to a set of shifting, obscured, and contested spatial boundaries has been questioned at times, particularly in the context of geographers’ interests in national, international, and global systems and processes. This review of rural geography will focus on how the sub-discipline has developed and, in particular, how its various phases have been influenced by broader theoretical and conceptual ideas within geography as a whole.

1. From Regionalism To Political Economy

The regional approaches that dominated geography before 1960 favored rural spaces and places. Descriptive studies of land use frequently focused on the countryside, while work on population change and settlement also tended to be approached from a rural perspective. Such dominance was put down to the importance of agriculture as a land use and to the emphasis that regional approaches placed on describing identifiable physical characteristics. The demise of regional geography in the 1960s, however, shifted attention away from the countryside; new directions in human geography saw the introduction of more ‘relevant’ approaches in which the sheer size and visibility of urban problems ensured that they received most attention. During the next 15 years interest in rural geography declined while the work that did continue became:

entrenched in its agricultural roots and seemingly oblivious to the theoretical strides being achieved within urban studies (Cloke 1989 p. 65).

Following this rather fallow period, rural geography experienced something of a resurgence during the 1970s (particularly in Britain, Canada, and Europe). Textbooks specifically devoted to rural areas emerged (for example, Clout 1972) claiming that the urban emphasis of recent geographical research had resulted in an imbalance in terms of wider geographical inquiry and a profound absence of knowledge about rural places and people. This renewed focus on rural geography yielded a large amount of data on the countryside in developed countries, but rural studies at this time continued to follow a highly traditional pattern. Much of the research was descriptive, establishing rural areas as interesting places to study but lacking explanation and avoiding theoretical debate. Emphasis was placed on identifying the rural as different or unique (leading to rather sterile debates on the definition of ‘rurality,’ see Cloke 1977) rather than on showing how an understanding of patterns and processes operating in rural areas could inform human geography more broadly.

The willingness of rural geographers to engage with theory marks perhaps a key watershed in the development of the sub-discipline. During the mid 1980s those working within the rural context began to argue that rural research needed to be informed by theoretical approaches being developed outside the field and that a failure to locate studies within a broader theoretical and conceptual framework was seriously undermining their value. Although some reference was made through the 1960s and 1970s to debates taking place in radical rural sociology—especially the use of Marxist approaches in the study of agriculture—the theoretical concepts used were not generally taken up by rural geographers. It was thus only with the development of political economic approaches that the need to engage with theory outside rural geography started to influence its scope and direction to any significant degree. An awareness of the importance of processes of restructuring and capital accumulation to rural economies and societies had begun to demonstrate to rural researchers the relevance of macroeconomic and political transformations to the detail of change within the countryside. So, considerably later than their urban counterparts, rural researchers turned to political economy approaches to inform their analyses and explanations. Space is insufficient here for a detailed review of the nature and contribution of political economic approaches to the study of rural geography (but see Cloke and Little 1990, Marsden et al. 1986, Phillips and Williams 1984, Urry 1984). It is possible, however, to identify a number of key themes that emerged (and were sometimes transformed) through the use of such approaches.

2. Economic And Social Restructuring

During the 1980s changes in the patterns and processes of capital accumulation were visible in the transformation of agricultural production and shifts in the location of industry. Understanding changes in rural areas required grounding such changes conceptually within more global patterns of restructuring and capital accumulation, essentially within a political economy framework. Particularly important in this context were arguments surrounding the uneveness of restructuring and the ways in which global processes of transformation impacted differently on different places at different times.

The adoption of political economy approaches provided research on agricultural geography in particular with a rich and highly fruitful arena for debate (see, in particular, Buttel and Newby 1980, Goodman and Redclift 1985, Marsden et al. 1986) as studies sought to detail and explain the major shifts taking place in the agricultural and associated industries. Research concentrated initially on the capitalization of agriculture and on the implications of new technologies on the methods of farming and on the ownership of the means of agricultural production. Later, however, the debate expanded to consider the broader transformation of food production including issues such as the role of ‘downstream’ and ‘upstream’ industries together with the social relations of agricultural production (especially changes to the family farm) (Goodman et al. 1987, Whatmore et al. 1987). Although not all work on agriculture adopted an explicitly political economic frameworks (indeed some consciously rejected political economy perspectives), the influence on this aspect of rural geography was profound, providing a much more informed understanding of the changes taking place in rural areas and of their links with global patterns of economic change.

The application of political economy approaches to another major research direction in rural geography, the restructuring and relocation of industrial development, was also reflected in increased output (see, for example, Bradley and Lowe 1984). More importantly, perhaps, it encouraged research into the distributional impacts of shifts in the location of industrial capital, including a consideration of the effects on different sections of the labor market and the implications for the changing social structure of rural areas. Such issues were also incorporated in the second key theme to be highlighted in the discussion of political economy and rural geography, that of class and social inequality.

3. Inequality In Rural Society

The renewed focus on rural geography that took place in the 1970s and early 1980s, produced a number of studies from Britain and the USA on rural deprivation and ‘welfare’ issues, but it was only with the application of political economic approaches that such studies began to address issues of social inequality and to develop class-based analyses of the causes and effects of rural deprivation. For the first time research included not only an examination of the nature and extent of deprivation in rural areas but also the relationship between individuals and groups according to access to resources. A ‘service’ based model of rural deprivation in which the welfare of rural people was seen to be a function of the availability of certain essential public and private services, was gradually replaced (or in some cases augmented) by one that related deprivation to people’s personal access to resources in terms of income, property, status, and power (Moseley 1982, Newby 1979). Detailed studies of access to housing, employment, transport, health care, etc., emerged through which the inequalities existing in contemporary rural societies were highlighted (for summaries see Champion and Watkins 1991, Troughton 1995). Such studies were then used in the broader examination of access to the countryside and of the transformation of rural societies and the gentrification of rural communities (see Little 1987a, Marsden et al. 1993).

4. State–Society Relations

Political economy approaches highlighted the centrality of power relations to the composition and well-being of the rural population. While the class-based analysis of access to rural resources contributed to an understanding of rural residents’ personal power (especially financial but also in terms of status), the wider discussion of the structures and operation of power prompted researchers to explore the relationship between the state and the rural community (see Cloke and Little 1990). Importantly, this work drew on urban-based debates on the nature of the local state and on the changing mechanisms and practices of central government. At a time when the developed economies, particular the USA and Britain, were seeing attempts by the center to curtail the responsibilities of the local state, rural research began to investigate the implications for rural areas and to document the localized power struggles and resistance that accompanied the changing balance of power.

Political economy approaches to central–local relations provided a framework for the investigation of power in a variety of ways. Studies focused on inter agency relations, the changing role of the private sector, and the role of key actors, elites, and institutions within the policymaking process. An area of particular attention, (especially within British rural geography), was that of town and country planning, and a number of studies on the negotiation and distributional consequence of planning decisions contributed to the wider understanding of power relations and political control within the regulatory process in the countryside. One particular strand of such research sought to highlight the role and status of environmental pressure groups in an examination of the priorities of the dominant interests in the countryside. Much of this work revolved around a discussion of the changing status and power of agriculture and raised questions concerning the position of farmers and landowners in relation to other interests within both urban and rural communities.

Forms of explanation that originated beyond the rural led to questions concerning the validity of ‘the rural’ as a legitimate category of analysis or even subject of research activity (see Hoggart 1990). The spatial uneveness of patterns and processes of capital accumulation and the specificity of local level responses to economic and social restructuring were used in defence of a focus on the rural, but research moved away from attributing causal properties to rural areas in the explanation of issues such as population migration, inequality, and access to resources. As well as contributing in its own right to the development of rural geography, the adoption of political economy perspectives, it may be argued, helped to open up the subject to other theoretical approaches. Particularly important here was the emergence of feminist perspectives in rural geography in the late 1980s (see Darque and Gasson 1991, Little 1986,1987b, Whatmore 1991).

5. Feminist Rural Geography

The experience of women in the countryside were referred to fleetingly in the early development of rural geography, in, for example, the discussion of labour relations within family farm businesses (Sachs 1983, Symes and Marsden 1983) and the sociology of the rural community (see Davidoff et al. 1976). Only in the late 1980s, however, did a sustained attempt to incorporate explicitly feminist perspectives into the subject emerge. As with the adoption of political economy approaches, the introduction of feminist perspectives was a response to theoretical ideas being applied within other areas of geography and drew on a wide range of literature from urban social geography as well as from other academic disciplines such as sociology and women’s studies. It also reflected a need to go beyond the description of the constraints and opportunities experienced by women living in the countryside in explaining their position. Useful data on the detail of women’s lives had been collected in research on issues such as employment, access, and service provision (for a summary see Little 1991). Rural women in developed countries, for example, had lower activity rates than their urban counterparts and that their paid work was generally characterized by poor conditions and low wages. Women’s lives were also disproportionately constrained by limited transport and other public and private services. It was argued, however, that such work failed to go beyond the examination of women’s roles and that it provided little explanation for the basis of women’s inequality. Lacking alternative forms of explanation, such work was in danger of attributing ‘rurality’ with causal powers and identifying characteristics of rural economies and societies as wholly responsible for the experiences of rural women.

In keeping with work in other parts of the discipline, feminist rural geographers argued that studies of women needed to be located within a broader consideration of gender relations and their operation in the countryside. An understanding of women’s experiences in all areas from their contribution to the family farm to their access to child care, had to recognize, it was asserted, the underlying power relations that exist between men and women and needed to acknowledge the role of patriarchy as a fundamental element of social control in the countryside (see Little 1987b, Whatmore 1991). Having argued that the experiences of rural women needed to be conceptualized in terms of more universal patriarchal systems and gender relations, the research also sought to demonstrate the specificity of the experiences of rural women, showing how rural communities exhibited a particularly traditional form of gender relations and were dominated, as a result, by more conventional gender roles and attitudes towards gender equality. Women’s position was seen as a function of a particular view of rural communities, one in which the family, and women’s reproductive role within it, were central. Research also argued, in the discussion of the daily detail of women’s lives and experiences, that women’s ability to take part in paid work as well as their position within the rural community were very much shaped by this dominant understanding of the ‘appropriate’ role of women in the countryside.

Research on rural women and gender relations has continued to develop this theme and in so doing has drawn on and contributed to the ‘cultural turn’ within rural geography. More recent research has explored notions of gender identity in the context of the (re)construction of rural cultures, suggesting that certain aspects of women’s (and men’s) gender identities are prioritized within certain dominant cultural constructions of rurality within developed economies (see Hughes 1997, Agg and Phillips 1998, Little 1997). Again, such work has explored the implications of more traditional views of gender identity within rural culture for the reality of women’s lives. Furthermore, some researchers have shown how dominant constructions of the relationship between gender and rurality will be experienced differently by groups of women and men; such as gay men and lesbians (see Bell and Valentine 1995, Kramer 1995) or young women (Dahlstrom 1996). Increasingly, work on gender identity and on sexuality has led to a discussion of the construction of femininity and masculinity within a rural context (Brandth 1995, Woodward 1998).

6. Rural Geography And The Cultural Turn

Recent evidence of another ‘resurgence’ in rural geography (documented by Cloke 1997) has accompanied the adoption of cultural approaches in geography and the social sciences generally. Cloke maintains that three important foci of cultural studies have provided a particular impetus for the study of rural spaces and societies: landscape, the rural other, and the spatiality of nature. In addition, a willingness by rural researchers to engage with important theoretical dualisms such as society/space, nature/culture, self/other has brought rural studies back into the mainstream of geographical inquiry.

A widely quoted springboard for new cultural approaches in rural geography came in the form of Chris Philo’s 1992 article on ‘neglected rural geographies.’ In this short piece Philo challenged the implicit and explicit preoccupation of rural geographers with the experiences of ‘Mr Average,’ arguing that both the content and the practice of rural geography were dominated by middle-aged, middleclass, white, males. He suggested that this emphasis be redressed in the study of ‘other’ elements of the rural population and that in so doing researchers take on board the variety that exists in the composition and experience of the rural population. The fact that such variety has been ‘hidden’ from both academic and lay discourses of rural spaces reflects the dominance of particular constructions of rurality.

Following Philo’s article there has indeed been a concerted attempt by rural geographers to focus on the experiences of previously neglected, and frequently marginalized groups. Studies of, for example, young people (Jones 1999, Valentine 1997), black and ethnic minority people (Snipp 1996), New Age Travellers, (Halfacree 1996) have helped to increase our understanding of the diversity of rural lifestyles. Moreover, many studies of ‘other’ groups within rural society have attempted to locate their findings within a theorization of difference and in so doing to draw on critical debates in social and cultural theory. These attempts to theorize the experience of difference and diversity have demonstrated the existence of multiple ways of seeing rural spaces and drawn attention to the important power relations involved in the privileging of certain views over others. Thus, it has been argued that the experiences of groups such as the young or black people in the countryside are profoundly shaped by their (in)ability to be accommodated within dominant construction of the rural. This sense of being ‘out of place’ will influence their own perceptions or constructions of rural spaces and reinforce their marginalization.

An interest in the dominant, multiple, and contested constructions of rurality has led to (and drawn from) an interest in the different representations of the countryside. Studies have sought to demonstrate the various ways in which rural spaces and people have been represented in different arena, identifying the key signs and symbols that are selected to reflect rurality and exploring their cultural significance. Research has also attempted to show how these images have been used in particular situations and how they have contributed to the projection of idealized and sanitized rural spaces, masking the existence of poverty and marginalization and creating a sense of staged authenticity that differs drastically from ‘reality.’ Their ability to influence lived behavior at the local level in addition to some sort of wider notion of rurality has been a central concern of some studies as they investigate the circulation of symbolic meanings.

Debates surrounding the construction of rurality and the power relations bound up in the representation of rural spaces and people have raised questions about the role of human agency and the relationship between humans and non-humans in the control of the countryside. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the study of ‘nature’ and the direction of environmental change (see Murdoch 1997, Whatmore and Thorne 1998). While not confined to rural environmental studies, issues concerning the nature society dualism and the changing relationship between ‘humans’ and ‘animals’ have opened up major areas of research within rural geography from the development of food networks and the ‘quality’ of agricultural produce (Arce and Marsden 1995) to the role and purpose of different forms of landscape environmental protection (Winter and Gaskell 1998).

Exploring the different conceptualizations, structures, and mechanisms of power has once again highlighted the theme of policy and governance within rural geography. As noted above, political economy approaches encouraged the examination of both formal and informal structures of power and their operation within the policy process. Recently there has been a re-examination and development of such work in relation to a broader conceptualization of governance and to the changing social, economic, and cultural context of rural policymaking (see Goodwin 1998). Research has considered, for example, the changing practices and mechanisms of governance in rural areas in the analysis of partnerships and the growth of community participation. Such work has also been informed by cultural perspectives in the examination of the values and attitudes underlying shifts in the regulatory framework.

Clearly, the cultural turn in rural geography has had a major impact on the direction and content of research within the subdiscipline. It has also had a far-reaching influence on the methods employed by rural researchers; on the way data is collected, analyzed, and used. In common with other areas of geography, there has been a significant growth in the adoption of ethnographic methods in rural research and in the use of ‘grounded theory’ and while such approaches may have characterized some of the early rural ‘community studies,’ it is only recently that they have been more widely applied to a range of economic, environmental, and policy-based issues in rural studies. Those working on rural lifestyles and marginalization have argued, in particular, that a real understanding of the lives of those living in the countryside needs to emerge from the detailed analysis of their behavior, attitudes, and beliefs and that this can only be obtained through ethnographic methods. In addition, rural researchers have started to make use of a variety of other sources of data, drawing on art, literature, diaries, and other cultural artefacts, both historical and contemporary, in their work. With a shift in the methods used by (some) rural researchers has come something of a change in attitudes towards research. The sensitivity of work on marginalization and deprivation has opened rural geographers’ eyes to the potential dangers of research tourism and encouraged them to think more carefully about the way their work may be used to the advantage or disadvantage of particular groups at particular times.

7. Conclusion

This short article has highlighted some of the main ‘stages’ in the evolution of rural geography since the 1950s. The goal has been to identify key shifts in thought within rural geography and show how they have influenced the nature and direction of rural studies. An impression that the subject has moved smoothly from one dominant theoretical influence to another is inevitable but misleading.

Rural geography is in a buoyant period, having been theoretically invigorated by the application of perspectives from cultural and feminist studies. Rural researchers appear more open to the influence of perspectives from outside the narrow confines of the subject and the willingness to engage with and con- tribute to debates in other parts of academia as well as other areas of geography, has raised the profile of rural geography generally and ensured that the wider applicability of their arguments is acknowledged.


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