Rural Sociology Research Paper

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Rural sociology has traditionally been defined as the study of social organization and social processes that are characteristic of geographical zones where population sizes and densities are relatively low. Rural societies, however, do not exist in isolation or a social vacuum, and thus the subject matters of rural sociology increasingly reflect the larger processes of the regional differentiation and allocation of populations and economic activities, and of social relations within a society as a whole (and, increasingly, within global economy and society).

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Perhaps the single most crucial fact about this field is that, as a formal sociological specialty, rural sociology is largely US in its origins, and that rural sociology emerged within the land-grant agricultural college system and in close association with major US historical trends in agrarian politics. In this research paper I will begin with the history of US rural sociology, particularly in relation to major contemporary emphases within the field. In the second section I will focus on the major branches of contemporary rural sociology, and especially on the significance of the ‘new rural sociology’ during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

1. The Origins Of Rural Sociology

In a sense rural sociology, much like the discipline at large, has had very strong roots in nineteenth century social thought. Many of the major issues of concern to the classical theorists were in some sense germane to rural sociology, and have remained important to the subdiscipline a century later. Among the most important of the preoccupations of nineteenth century social theory was whether village and farm life was more socially cohesive than, or morally or socially superior to, metropolitan life, and whether rural social relations would be resilient in the face of capitalist industrialization. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Karl Marx (1818–83) both argued that urbanindustrial capitalism, the advancing division of labor, and modern technologies and/organizational practices were inexorable—and, on balance, progressive— social forces that would eventually supersede or supplant rural social forms. Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936) concurred that urbanization and industrial capitalism were tending to lead to the decline of intimate village communal bonds, though Tonnies was more optimistic than Durkheim and Marx that rural social relations could be sustained. For most of its history, rural sociology has reflected these nineteenth century debates over the desirability and resilience of traditional rural social organization.

It is now generally agreed that the pioneering rural sociological studies in the USA were those by W. E. B. DuBois in the late 1890s on the social consequences of the post-bellum crop-lien system in Southern plantation agriculture. But while DuBois was the pioneering American rural sociologist and there were several prominent nonland grant rural sociologists (e.g., F. H. Giddings of Columbia University) in the field’s early years, the character of rural sociology in the twentieth century was largely shaped by its articulation with the land grant college system. Rural sociology as a recognized subdiscipline largely had its origins in the preoccupation of land grant college leaders with the challenge of Populism. Founded and funded by industrial and other elites after the turn of the century, the Country Life movement promoted the view that the problems of rural society were not due to the shortcomings of industrial capitalism as the Populists had held. These problems were rather seen to be due to a lack of organization, poor infrastructure, and technological backwardness in rural areas, which in turn led rural society to lag behind urban USA.

In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt recognized this reform movement by appointing a Presidential Commission on Country Life. The next six decades of US rural sociology were largely prefigured by the County Life Commission Report, which was published in 1909. The Report did acknowledge many of the social problems of rural USA (e.g., the inequities of the crop-lien system, widespread tenancy, land speculation). But the dominant thrust of the Commission Report was the case it made that an expanded effort to modernize rural USA technologically and structurally was integral to improving the condition of rural USA. The Commission recommended the harnessing of the social sciences, particularly agricultural economics and rural sociology, to support the technological modernizationist vision for rural America. The land grant colleges responded to the Country Life Commission Report by hiring rural sociologists and establishing rural sociology units or departments. Rural sociological studies in land grant colleges of agriculture were seen to be important in order to help remove social barriers to technological modernization and to stabilize rural communities.

Sorokin and Zimmerman’s (1929) influential treatise Principles of Rural–Urban Sociology exemplified the first three decades of US rural sociology. Principles synthesized the European classical tradition (particularly that of Tonnies) and land grant technological progressivism with the emerging empirical tradition of research on rural people and communities. The Sorokin–Zimmerman perspective was essentially a theory of rural–urban continuum, in which the character of social relations was posited to be shaped by the size, density, and related parameters of settlement patterns.

Very soon after Principles was published, rural sociology would be confronted with the Great Depression and rural squalor, and most rural sociologists embraced New Deal reformism. The Great Depression and the fashioning of the Depression-era New Deal opened up vast opportunities for rural sociological scholarship on rural communities and peoples which was closely linked with the New Deal reform agenda (e.g., land tenure reform, encouragement of cooperatives, commodity programs) (see the summaries in Buttel et al. 1990, Chap. 1, Larson et al. 1992).

Reform-minded rural sociology, however, was short lived as a result of the ideological shift to the right that had largely swept away most New Deal rural programs by the mid-1940s (Larson et al. 2000). The jettisoning of the New Deal rural programs induced the land grant colleges to refocus their efforts on the technological upgrading of the countryside. In the late 1940s and early 1950s a handful of prescient rural sociologists developed the diffusion of innovations perspective on agricultural innovation and change which provided sociological support to the land grant technological project. The diffusion of innovations perspective was a social-psychological perspective on farmer technology adoption behavior that posited that innovative and progressive technologies and value orientations tend to diffuse from metropolitan institutions to rural people and localities, and that persons with more modern orientations are most likely to adopt improved metropolitan-developed technologies and practices (see Rogers 1995 for a contemporary summary, and Fliegel 1993 for a historical perspective and sympathetic critique). Shortly thereafter the social psychology of farm practice adoption, and of related rural behaviors such as educational aspirations, provided a comfortable niche for rural sociology within the land grant college system.

Rural sociology now exists in dozens of world nations. Much of the impetus for the global spread of rural sociology was due to the missionary zeal of US rural sociologists who from the 1940s through the 1960s sowed the seeds of US-style rural sociology across an impressive range of countries across the globe. Since the 1970s, however, rural sociology has become increasingly diverse and less influential globally. US rural sociology increasingly borrows from the ideas of European and Third World scholars (e.g., Goodman and Redclift 1991, Llambi 1990, van der Ploeg 1992), and is sometimes criticized for its parochialism and quantitative emphasis.

2. The Major Focuses Of Contemporary Rural Sociology

Rural sociology has increasingly become a less coherent subdiscipline, and more of an ‘umbrella’ for an assemblage of research, much of which no longer pertains primarily to rural people or rural social relations. Rural sociology now has six major branches: rural population, rural community, natural resources and environment, agriculture, sociology of international rural development, and sociology of agricultural science and technology.

From the very inception of rural sociology, sociological analysis of rural population and rural community dynamics through census and social survey data has been central to the field. In the early days of rural sociology, rural population and rural community studies were very closely articulated. In large part this was because census of population data for counties and rural places were the most accessible data sources for characterizing rural communities and farm structures. Even by the end of the twentieth century there remains a significant relationship between rural population and community studies (see, e.g., Fuguitt et al. 1989, Garkovich 1989).

While there has been a continuing basis for articulation between rural population and community studies, these areas of work have become increasingly differentiated so that they are now seen as quite distinct specialties. The use of census and survey data to document rural–urban differences, as in Sorokin and Zimmerman’s (1929) Principles, fell into disrepute, and the rural–urban continuum perspective was slowly but surely undermined empirically (Newby 1980). Rural population research has followed the larger subdiscipline of demography in becoming more quantitative, while the rural sociological analysis of communities, though it has a strong quantitative wing, has continued to have a significant cadre of researchers who use qualitative or field methodologies ( Wilkinson 1991). Studies of regional and labor market inequalities (Lyson and Falk 1993, Lobao 1990), rural poverty dynamics and racial inequalities ( Duncan 1999), and rural gender inequalities (Sachs 1996) have complemented the traditional rural sociological emphasis on community studies.

While there has been a long and significant tradition of rural sociological scholarship on the relations among people, communities, and natural resources (Field and Burch 1988), the sociology of natural resources and environment in the contemporary sense did not emerge until the early 1970s. Rural sociology pioneered in development of the larger subdiscipline of environmental sociology and natural resource sociology. Rural sociologists have figured prominently in both environmental sociology (Redclift and Woodgate 1997) and the more management-oriented field of the sociology of natural resources (Field and Burch 1988).

As noted earlier, many of the most prominent US rural sociologists of the post-World War II period devoted major segments of their careers to encouraging the diffusion of rural sociology across the globe, particularly in the developing world. Part of the early impulse for elaborating an international rural sociology was the intellectual one of wanting to promote a comparative approach to understanding rural social organization. But equally important was the fact that the postwar period was an emerging era of ‘developmentalism’ (i.e., an era of faith in the efficacy of planned social change and development in the decolonizing world, see McMichael 2000). Rural sociologists trained in the adoption-diffusion tradition were particularly well represented among the first cohort of international rural sociologists (see Fliegel 1993, Rogers 1995). Scholars adhering to the diffusion of innovations perspective found their work very compatible with modernization theory, the dominant theory at the time in the sociology of development. This modernizationist develop mentalist tradition of rural sociology predominated for nearly three decades, but ultimately it would be undermined as a result of critical assessments of the Green Revolution experience and of the role of rural sociology in international assistance (e.g., Koppel 1995).

Of all the major rural sociological specializations, the sociology of agricultural science and technology is, in one sense, one of its oldest, and in another sense, rural sociology’s newest major speciality area. There were significant studies of technological change and labor displacement in Southern plantation agriculture during the 1930s through the 1950s. And, as noted earlier, the diffusion of agricultural innovations predominated in US rural sociology from the late 1940s through the late 1960s (see the summaries in Buttel et al. 1990 and Fliegel 1993).

Diffusionism, however, declined for three main reasons, each of which corresponded with an important new dimension in sociological research on agricultural science and technology. The first reason, as suggested earlier, was the growing criticism of the ability of the technological modernization project to generate equitable social benefits. This criticism was originally focused on the shortcomings of the Green Revolution, but was soon extended to the publicly funded agricultural-technological project in the advanced countries as well (see Newby 1980). Second, beginning in the late 1970s the Busch–Lacy group drew on world systems theory and the sociology of science to develop an influential critical perspective on the social causes and consequences of technological change in agriculture (Busch and Lacy 1983). Busch and Lacy’s approach to the sociology of agricultural science demonstrated that social factors shape the content of new technologies, that new technologies tend to have social costs as well as benefits, and that rural sociologists need to take a more agnostic position toward new technologies than was generally the case among diffusionists. Third, in the 1970s and 1980s US rural sociology was increasingly influenced by the rise of Marxism in sociology at large. Neo-Marxism played a particularly prominent role in the sociology of agricultural science and technology (Kloppenburg 1988, Goodman and Redclift 1991). The neo-Marxist literature on agricultural science focused sociological attention on the class character of agricultural research institutions and agricultural technologies, and in so doing was often critical of diffusionism for having obscured how agricultural research is implicated in class and power relations.

It was noted at the outset of this research paper that rural sociology’s history has been one of alternating between opposing views about the distinctiveness and resilience of traditional rural social structures. Rural sociology came into its own during the post-World War II era when it rejected rural romanticism and transcended New Deal reformism by embracing the technological modernizationist assumptions. In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, the balance between these two views would be equalized to a degree. As noted, emerging controversies over agricultural technologies and their social and environmental impacts removed some of the luster from the technological-modernizationist perspective in rural sociology. In addition, the 1970s were a period of ‘rural renaissance’ in the USA, as the population of nonmetropolitan counties grew faster than that of metropolitan counties due to net metroto-nonmetro migration (Fuguitt et al. 1989).

These new realities of rural USA during the 1970s, along with the growing popularity within sociology of various ‘critical’ theories, led to what is often referred to as the ‘new rural sociology.’ These new theories were actually quite diverse, drawing heavily from neoMarxism but also from neo-Weberianism, the peasant studies literature, and critical theories drawn from hermeneutics and related traditions (e.g., Mann 1990, Friedmann 1978, Friedland et al. 1981). To the degree there was a coherence within the new rural sociology, it was its critique of modernizationism and diffusionism within rural sociology, and its insistence on spotlighting the role of class and power relations. The ‘new rural sociology’ was originally most prominent in the sociological literature on agricultural change (see the summary in Buttel et al. 1990), but most recently it exhibited a major shift toward research on cross-border agricultural commodity chains and on the globalization of agri-food systems more generally (Bonanno et al. 1994, McMichael 2000).

Perhaps the clearest indication of the importance of this new scholarly tradition was that even scholars who have been ambivalent about the new rural sociology have been obliged to address its premises and hypotheses (van der Ploeg 1992). The new rural sociology has also directly or indirectly influenced most other areas of rural sociology (see, e.g., Lyson and Falk 1993, Lobao 1990). But despite the fact that the new rural sociology is the most pervasive new trend during the last quarter century of rural sociology, rural sociology remains highly diversified. The new rural sociology, even in its heyday of the 1980s through the mid-1990s, did not come close to dominating the field in the way the diffusion paradigm did in the 1950s.


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