The discipline of rural sociology addresses how communities and areas with few people are socially and economically organized, what patterns of social interaction occur among residents within these areas and elsewhere, and why and how communities change over time. Its early practitioners were active members in the rural sociology section of the American Sociological Society (later renamed as the American Sociological Association) until 1937. In that year, they founded the independent Rural Sociological Society (RSS) to promote teaching, research, and extension outreach. Since then, membership in the Society increased from seventy-nine to slightly less than one thousand academic scholars, professionals, and students in the new millenium. The first newsletter of the rural section appeared in 1925. The RSS published the newsletter as Newsline from the 1970s through 1980 and subsequently as The Rural Sociologist with the purpose to spread news about the vitality of rural sociology among its practitioners and others interested in the discipline.
Rural sociological scholarship has a long tradition involving people, communities, and natural resources due in part to its location in the university land-grant system. In 1997 Norwood Kerr discussed the founding of the American land-grant university system by the Morrill Land-Grant College Acts of 1862 and 1890, the latter for traditionally black institutions in southern states. These acts introduced the movement led by Connecticut and thirteen other states to establish agricultural experiment stations to specifically address the development of practical agricultural information for rural farmers and ranchers through scientific investigations. The movement culminated in 1887 with the passage of the Hatch Act that forged the federal-state partnership for funding “scientific agriculture.” The public service counterpart to the Hatch Act followed in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. It assigned to the new cooperative extension service the task providing to ordinary people access to their state universities for assistance regarding a broad array of issues affecting themselves, and their families, businesses, and local governments. Early rural sociology programs and their research were and continue to be mostly affiliated with institutional partnerships between universities and agricultural experiment stations along with cooperative extension both at the state level and with counterparts in the United States Department of Agriculture.
Following the pioneering the work of sociologists such as W. E. B. Du Bois and F. H. Gidding, rural sociology was significantly influenced by the Country Life Commission that was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Commission’s 1909 report on twelve rural communities pointed to problems of poverty, crime, population change, and governance that many rural communities were experiencing at that time and revealed the need for the land-grant system to devote social science expertise to solve these problems. Funding for conducting this research languished for a while, but passage of the Purnell Act of 1925 expanded federal commitment to experiment station research by funding studies in agricultural economics, rural sociology, and home economics. As documented by Olaf Larson and Julie Zimmerman in 2003, this commitment was extended in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Division of Farm Population and Rural Life, where rural sociologists such as Charles Galpin, Carl Taylor, and others pioneered national-level studies on social trends and conditions in rural areas. These studies were followed by more locally oriented studies conducted by academic rural sociologists such as Paul Landis, Carle Zimmerman, and Dwight Sanderson. Founded in 1936, the journal Rural Sociology became the flagship for reporting much of this research.
During the next quarter-century, the importance of rural sociology to the public policy process and programs diminished with the dismantling of New Deal programs in the 1940s and the Division of Farm Population’s successor, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), in 1953. The USDA no longer favored what it termed “cultural surveys” nor did it receive well Walter Goldschmidt’s study of two rural California communities in 1944 wherein he reported that rural well-being was negatively affected by large farms and powerful farmers. Trends of an increasingly more urban and industrialized U.S. population in the post–World War II (1939–1945) era were among other factors that contributed to rural sociology’s loss of stature.
Interest renewed in rural sociology in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Researchers continued their traditional interests in rural communities, population change, rural poverty, and social inequality. They rejuvenated work begun in the 1950s on the adoption and diffusion of agricultural innovations. In 1983 Everett Rogers, one of the foremost leaders of this area, reported that the number of empirical studies grew from a total of 405 in 1962 to slightly more than 3,000 twenty years later. The “sociology of agriculture” became the new label that drew on this research history. It also staked out new areas regarding the social significance of women in agriculture, new biotechnologies, the expansion of industrialized agriculture and agribusiness, and the globalization of agro-industrialized systems. In their 1988 book, Rural Sociology and the Environment, Don Field and William Burch Jr. recognized important connections among agricultural sociology, human ecology, and natural resource sociology. They termed the intersection of these research venues as “agro-ecology” (p. 114) and proposed that it serve in the broadest sense as a definitive guide for rural development and a critical component of applied environmental sociology. The most comprehensive inventory of rural sociological concepts, subject matter, and knowledge about American rural life appeared in 1997. Gary Goreham’s The Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People includes articles by prominent rural sociologists and other scholars on 232 topics that vary from agriculture and other rural industries to rural youth, the elderly, women and minority groups, crime, culture, technology, and natural resources and the environment.
Community and economic development continue to be important research and policy issues that confront and connect rural communities and rural scholars in America and abroad. Economic globalization has stressed and challenged rural communities everywhere. While many businesses and manufacturing companies seek out lower-cost production areas and lucrative markets, rural communities strive to find ways to overcome infrastructural, capital, resource, and policy obstacles to promote development and competitiveness. In 1962 U.S. and European rural sociologists convened at the annual meeting of the RSS in Washington, D.C., to form the Committee for International Cooperation in Rural Sociology to address these issues.
After three world congresses, the Committee organized the International Rural Sociology Association (IRSA) in 1976 to spearhead concern and attention involving the impacts of globalization and rural development. The IRSA is a federation of regional rural sociological societies devoted to foster the development and application of rural sociological inquiry to improve globally the quality of rural life. In addition to the RSS, the Association includes the Australian and Oceania Network, the Asian Rural Sociological Association, the Latin America Rural Sociological Association, and the European Society for Rural Sociology. The IRSA met at the XI World Congress in 2004 in Trondheim, Norway, to explore the unevenness, risks, and resistance related to the globalization of production and to the identification of rural economies’ and societies’ agency to manage change in this process. IRSA congresses are held every four years.
SEE ALSO Sociology
Buttel, Frederick H. 1997. Rural Sociology. In Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People. Vol. 2, ed. Gary A. Goreham. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Buttel, Frederick H., Olaf F. Larson, and Gilbert Gillespie Jr. 1990. The Sociology of Agriculture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Field, Donald R., and William R. Burch Jr. 1988. Rural Sociology and the Environment. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Fuguitt, Glenn V., and Alvin L. Bertrand. 1999. IRSA History. International Rural Sociology Association. http://www.irsaworld.org.
Goldschmidt, Walter R.  1978. As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. Mortclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun.
Goreham, Gary A., ed. 1997. Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Green, Gary. 1999. Development, Community, and Economic. In Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People. Vol. 1, ed. Gary A. Goreham. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Kerr, Norwood Allen. 1987. The Legacy: A Centennial History of the State Agricultural Experiment Stations, 1887–1997. Columbia: University of Missouri.
Larson, Olaf F., and Julie N. Zimmerman. 2003. Sociology in Government: The Galpin-Taylor Years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
McDowell, George R. 2001. Land-Grant Universities and Extension: Into the 21st Century. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Rogers, Everett. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations. 3rd ed. New York: Free Press.
RSS Historian’s Report. 2005. The Rural Sociologist 25 (1): 24–25.
John K. Thomas
"Sociology, Rural." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/sociology-rural
"Sociology, Rural." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/sociology-rural
Such ideas provided the basis for an empiricist rural sociology, notably in the United States, where it supported state policies legitimated by a Jeffersonian conception of rural life. Much rural sociology consisted of community studies, effectively fact-gathering exercises to assess just how close the community came to exhibiting the ideal-typical rural way of life, and what was eroding this idyllic vision in practice. After 1945, and especially through its influence on international bodies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, this approach spread beyond America. However, its main concern remained that of rural development in advanced industrial countries. Major advances in the analysis of Third World rural change came more from the sociology of development and peasant studies. In state socialist countries, rural sociology was also relentlessly empiricist, although here it served policies of rural transformation rather than preservation.
By the 1960s these ideas about a rural way of life could no longer be sustained. Oscar Lewis, Ray Pahl, and other had shown that the countryside is as much characterized by allegedly urban as by supposedly rural forms of social association, conflict, and cohesion. However, much mainstream rural sociology remains obstinately wedded to the old paradigm, or is little more than abstracted empiricism.
In the 1970s, there was promising new work on the nature of capitalist agricultural production, and its social consequences for rural populations and the wider society. The emergence of a new sociology of agriculture occurred alongside a similar transformation of urban sociology. This paradigmatic shift opened up many new areas of research, for example regarding the peculiar nature of land as a factor of production, the role of differing patterns of land-ownership, and the study of rural power structures and social stratification. However, much of this work was deterministic, merely a reading off of the social consequences of rural change from the presumed logic of capitalist agricultural development.
Later studies move beyond these simplicities, exploring the historically and geographically variable nature of agricultural production, and its social consequences. Conceiving agriculture as a complex process of commodity-production, research topics include globally organized ‘food regimes’, the role of agribusiness (including its relation to state policies and use of new technologies), and agricultural credit systems. Theories derived from peasant studies and the sociology of development have also been influential. Topics such as environmental issues and the non-agricultural rural economy appeared in the 1980s, widening the research agenda still further. A good bibliographical essay is Howard Newby 's ‘Rural Sociology’ (Current Sociology, 1980
"rural sociology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rural-sociology
"rural sociology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rural-sociology