Rural Sociology

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Rural sociology is the study of social organization and social processes that are characteristic of geographical localities where population size is relatively small and density is low (Warner 1974). Thus, rural sociology can be defined as the sociology of rural society. Since rural societies do not exist in isolation, rural sociology also addresses the relation of rural society to the larger society. Therefore, it deals also with spatial organization and the processes that produce spatial allocations of population and human activities (Newby 1980; Newby and Buttel 1980).

There is a temptation to equate rural sociology with American rural sociology because the latter is most thoroughly institutionalized and there are more practitioners in the United States than anywhere else in the world. While rural sociology, in its institutionalized form, originated in America, it has flourished in other regions of the world, especially since the end of World War II. No doubt this is due in large part to the "modernization" efforts in the many nations that gained independence since 1950. Outside North America, sociological investigations of rural society often are referred to as peasant studies, development studies, or village studies rather than rural sociology (Newby 1980). Moreover, some aspects of rural sociological analysis are closely related to other social science disciplines, such as settlement patterns with human geography, family and kinship systems with social anthropology, and land tenure and farming systems with agricultural and land economics.


Although the subject matter of rural sociology has been of keen interest to social thinkers for centuries, its treatment by the major nineteenth-century classical theorists led to a polarization that continues today (Duncan 1954; Hofstee 1963; LeFebvre 1953; Mendras 1969). Two points of view, both deeply embedded in the social thought and literature of Western culture, and both quite limiting if not erroneous, have predominated. The first tradition, an image drawn from the Arcadia of Greek mythology, has been the glorification of village life for the supposed pastoral virtue of its people. The second tradition has been that of the Enlightenment and modern Western rationalism, which viewed the technological and organizational character of urban industrial forces as being superior to the alleged backwardness of rural areas.

These two traditions were ultimately embraced in major nineteenth-century social theories (Nisbet 1966). Some theorists, typified by Emile Durkheim and by Karl Marx to a lesser extent, viewed the urban industrial complex as the center of a new civilization emerging from the social transformations of the industrial revolution. Rural society, in this perspective, was regarded as a residual of preindustrial society and increasingly to be relegated to a secondary status. Other theorists, such as Toennies [1887] (1957) and early-twentieth-century interpreters of Toennies (e.g., Sorokin and Zimmerman 1929), viewed the emergent cities of industrial capitalism as monuments to the degradation of civilization. Both points of view are deeply imbedded in the social thought of Western culture and continue to shape the perspectives of rural sociology as a scientific enterprise.


The roots of rural sociology in America lie in the social and political turmoil associated with America's version of the Industrial Revolution, which followed the Civil War. As industrial capitalism made its great surge, urban America was on the move, quickly surpassing earlier achievements of European nations—yet in the midst of obviously rising affluence there existed a paradoxical injustice of poverty and inequality, especially in rural areas (Goodwyn 1978). William Jennings Bryan was defeated in 1896 as the Populist Party candidate for president, but the political unrest in the countryside continued to be a source of concern to urban industrialists, who depended on farmers to provide a stable supply of cheap food for the growing army of industrial workers.

The Country Life Movement emerged at the turn of the century as an urban-sponsored alternative to the radical economic proposals of the rural Populists (Bowers 1974; Danbom 1979; Swanson 1972). It was a social, cultural, and moral reform movement that adopted the view that rural society was backward, lagging behind the evolution of an advanced urban society. The problems of rural people were viewed as stemming from a lack of organization, failures of rural social institutions, inadequate infrastructures, and technological backwardness, rather than from the failures of the industrial capitalist system, as the Populists claimed.

In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt gave legitimacy to the reform movement by appointing the Commission on Country Life. Spurred by the President's Commission and the Country Life Movement, Congress in 1914 passed the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service to modernize rural America (Hooks and Flinn 1981). In 1925 Congress passed the Purnell Act, which provided colleges of agriculture and agricultural experiment stations with funds to support rural sociological research. Shortly thereafter, departments of rural sociology began to emerge within universities, often separated from departments of sociology (Sewell 1965). The institutionalization of rural sociology was given further impetus in 1936, when rural sociologists established their own journal, Rural Sociology, and during the following year, when they divorced themselves from the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association) by forming the Rural Sociological Society. During the Depression, rural sociology received substantial support for research regarding the socioeconomic status of farm families and the effectiveness of various New Deal federal programs (Larson et al. 1992).

Because of its historical roots, rural sociology has been an active participant in two conflicting social policies derived from the opposing views of rural society in social thought. The institutional separation of rural sociology from sociology, its organizational location in colleges of agriculture, and its functional integration with cooperative extension have given American rural sociology a strong attachment to technologically driven modernization. For many of its institutional sponsors, whose primary goal has been the technological advancement of agriculture, the predominant justification for supporting rural sociology research has been its presumed ability to enhance the process of modernization of rural society.

Two important consequences have followed from this sponsorship. First, the research agenda of rural sociology has been significantly influenced by politicians and administrators of colleges of agriculture and agricultural experiment stations. Thus, American rural sociological research has tended to be driven primarily by the need to be "useful" in solving practical problems involved in transforming rural society. Second, theoretical development within rural sociology has atrophied. Theoretical work that may contradict the prevailing social policy dogma and thereby threaten its financial and institutional support has been particularly uncommon. Thus, the practice of American rural sociology has been part of an explicit social policy of transforming rural society (Newby 1980).

The opposing cultural theme portrays rural society as a way of life that is superior to existence in the cities and threatened by urban industrial capitalism (Sorokin and Zimmerman 1929). It has protagonists within rural sociology and in society for whom the problem is how to preserve the wholesome qualities of rural society against the encroachments of urban industrial capitalism (e.g., how to avoid community disintegration, loss of local autonomy, the collapse of the family farm, the decline of the traditional rural way of life, degradation of the rural landscape, and depletion of nonrenewable natural resources). These Jeffersonian values of community, individualism, family entrepreneurship, and grass-roots democracy inspire private and public sponsorship of many rural sociological endeavors (Gilbert 1982). Thus, American rural sociology has been significantly involved in two explicit and conflicting social policies. First, it has contributed to positivistic social science by providing the basic descriptive information about rural populations, institutions, and social processes that have guided the development of programs to transform rural society. Second, it has served those committed to preserving selected elements of rural society, a practice that often is perceived by agricultural administrators and proponents of technological innovations as creating barriers to progress.


Within the context of these conflicting and vacillating social policy orientations, rural sociology in America has generated a substantial body of research. Some research topics have emerged principally in response to the social policy of transforming rural society and have followed the paradigm of positivism. Other topics are associated more clearly with the preservationist policy orientation and the paradigm of critical sociology. While the alignment of social policy and scientific paradigms is not perfect, there is a clear pattern of association. Both sets of orientations have existed within rural sociology since its inception, with the modernization-positivism orientation clearly dominating the research enterprise until recently.

Modernization-Positivism—Oriented Research. One of the primary concerns of the Commission on Country Life was the lack of complete and accurate information about the conditions of life in rural America. Thus, study of the rural population was one of the first research topics to emerge (Brunner 1957). Initially research was devoted primarily to description of the rural population, not only in an effort to provide more accurate counts of people but also to report on their characteristics in greater detail and to describe demographic processes more accurately. Population studies continue to be extremely important in providing the basic descriptive information about the rural population that is needed to guide the development of programs to transform rural society (Fuguitt et al. 1989; Garkovich 1989).

To the extent that rural population studies depart from purely demographic analyses and venture into sociological investigations, they are usually guided by the systemic perspective of human ecology (Hawley 1950, 1986). In this more sophisticated systems model, population size and density are treated as interdependent with the environment, the level of technology, and the social organization of a locality. It is presumed that population size and density will expand to the maximum possible within the constraints imposed by the other components of the system, especially the technology of transportation and communication. While the perspective offers promise of merging social and spatial analysis, the results have been only partially successful. Rural population studies cum human ecology have yet to integrate the social and spatial levels of reality.

As more information about rural populations became available, comparisons with urban populations became possible, and there followed a prolific production of research to examine the belief that population size and density set the conditions of social action and social organization. This was a fundamental premise of the romanticists among the classical sociological writers noted earlier, and it was translated sociologically into the "rural-urban continuum" of Sorokin and Zimmerman (1929) and later the "folk-urban continuum" of Redfield (1947). The evidence that there are universal differences in the cultural and social characteristics that may be derived from differences in population size and density has not been convincing (Pahl [1966] 1970). Thus, while comparisons are drawn between rural and urban populations, the causality argument associated with the rural-urban continuum has been discarded by most rural sociologists.

Rural sociologists have conducted hundreds of community studies that serve as a major source of information for the design of community development programs (Bell and Newby 1972; Summers 1986, Luloff and Swanson 1990; Wilkinson 1991). From Galpin's pioneering study in 1915 until the mid-1960s, the study of community was almost synonymous with rural sociology in the United States. By that time the rural-urban continuum, which was the chief frame of reference for many investigators, was falling into disrepute (Pahl [1966] 1970). Their studies were being criticized for their impressionistic methodologies and their excessively descriptive nature (Colin Bell and Newby 1972). Moreover, proponents of the mass-society thesis argued that communities had been eclipsed by the forces of urbanization, bureaucratization, and centralization (Stein 1964; Vidich and Bensman 1958; Warren 1963). Community was alleged to be no longer a meaningful locus of social decision making. It was presumed that the increased presence of extralocal forces in the community (vertical integration) had destroyed the horizontal integration of communities and rendered small rural communities powerless in the face of broad and powerful forces of mass society. Although the tradition of holistic community studies has not returned to its former status, evidence clearly supports the argument that increased vertical integration does not necessarily destroy horizontal integration (Richards 1978; Summers 1986). Rather, it is more consistent with the empirical data to view local autonomy as a variable, and the impact of changes in vertical integration as varying according to a complex matrix of variables characterizing the external agent and the community.

In 1897, W. E. B. DuBois began a series of analyses of economic conditions among rural black groups and their relation to agriculture (DuBois 1898, 1901, 1904). Indeed, as we will stress later, since the turn of the century rural sociologists have been studying the "sociology of agriculture," although that expression did not come into use until the 1970s (Buttel et al. 1990). Land tenure and types of farming enterprises were studied to understand the relations of farming and agriculture-based businesses to the conditions of rural living. The methodology of these studies was often that of the community survey, and consequently there was much overlap with population and community studies. Most of these studies were descriptive in nature, and they generated taxonomies of farming enterprises, which provided further refinements of farm family and farming community characteristics. The resulting social maps of farming communities provided detailed information to guide modernization programs, especially those of the Cooperative Extension Service, with its offices in virtually every rural county in the United States.

Although technological innovations have been occurring in agriculture for centuries, technological change was revolutionized with the introduction of hybrid corn (Ryan and Gross 1943). With this innovation, adoption and diffusion research became a new research field led by rural sociology. The first research focused on identifying which farmers had the highest rates of adoption of hybrid corn and how the adoption process was diffused to other farmers. Soon the research encompassed other innovations and spread to other countries with the modernization era at the end of World War II (Rogers 1995; Fliegel 1993). The basic processes of adoption and diffusion are now reasonably well understood, and training programs based on this knowledge are being implemented worldwide in areas of human behavior that reach well beyond farming practices to include health and nutrition, resource conservation, business management, and many other areas.

Preservationist–Critically Oriented Research. By the 1960s there was a strong and growing disillusionment with the societal consequences of positivistic social science and the absence of a structuralist perspective (Newby and Buttel 1980). It was claimed that theory and research had become uncoupled, with theory being excessively abstract and research exhibiting a mindless empiricism. Several rural sociologists involved in international development research offered challenges to the Western development orthodoxy by claiming that modernization was serving the interests of the powerful and wealthy rather than improving the social and economic well-being of peasants and poor people (Havens 1972; Havens and Flinn 1975; Thiesenhusen 1978). In North America and Europe similar claims were being expressed in the environmental, civil rights, and other social justice movements of the late 1960s. The emerging research topics in rural sociology manifest the intellectual ferment of a more critical perspective on existing public policies, especially in relation to established institutions of agricultural and rural research and programs claiming to improve rural communities and institutions. The emergent critical perspective incorporates a diversity of theoretical views that recognize the active role of the state in public policy and argue that it is subject to the influences within society of powerful interest groups that often are formed along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, or gender. Thus, the contemporary theoretical debates within rural sociology draw heavily on neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian orientations, with the result that rural sociology and sociology are closer intellectual partners today than at any time in the past fifty years. Although virtually all facets of rural social organization and processes are subjected to the emergent critical perspective, some areas have received more attention than others.

As we note below, the most distinctive feature of this "new rural sociology" (Newby and Buttel 1980) was the prominence of Marxist and neo-Marxist interpretations of the social differentiation of agriculture. This critical new rural sociology was applied most extensively to understanding the paradox of the growth of large-scale capitalist agriculture accompanied by the persistence of the small-scale family or subfamily farm. Efforts to understand this duality of agricultural structure has led to sharp debates about the barriers to capitalist transformation of agriculture, the role of small-scale and part-time farms in a functionally integrated capitalist industrial and agricultural system, and the role of the state in promoting capitalist agriculture. These critical perspectives have also been directed to understanding the social significance of the research apparatus of the land grant university system itself, particularly as to whether land-grant agricultural science has essentially served as a state policy that has helped to underwrite the growth of large-scale capitalist agriculture (Busch et al. 1991; Goodman and Redclift 1991; Kloppenburg 1988).

Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, rural sociology's contribution to the sociology of development was confined largely to adoption-diffusion research related to new agricultural technologies in Third World countries (Hoogvelt 1997; Toye 1987; Webster 1990). Shortly thereafter, following on the growing disillusion with adoption-diffusion research, development-related inquiry in rural sociology shifted dramatically. Much of the impetus behind criticism of the adoption-diffusion approach came from rural social scientists who did Third World research and who became acutely aware of its shortcomings as a vehicle for understanding agricultural change in the developing countries (Havens and Flinn 1975; George 1976; Lipton 1977; Flora 1990). The theoretical ferment in rural sociology in the 1970s and 1980s was to a large extent derived from new concepts in the sociology of development, such as the "development of underdevelopment," "dependent development," "core-periphery relations," and "capitalist world-system," which were developed as critiques of modernizationism as applied to the developing world.

The "post-diffusion" phase of the sociology of development has led to a far more diversified program of rural sociological research on development processes in the Third World. Although rural sociologists who do sociology of development research tend, not surprisingly, to give particular stress to agricultural development and its environmental implications, increasingly rural sociologists in the United States and other advanced countries do research on development processes that is often indistinguishable from that conducted by scholars who are not identified as rural sociologists. Also, as noted earlier, in many developing countries rural sociology is virtually synonymous with sociology of development, development studies, peasant studies, village studies, and so on.

To a certain extent this emerging research area overlaps the political economy of agriculture with its emphasis on technological change and its effects of distribution of ownership and control of resources, as well as equity in the distribution of benefits of new technologies (Field and Burch 1988). There is the additional concern with the depletion and pollution of nonrenewable resources (Schnaiberg and Gould 1994; Bell 1998). Social and economic impact assessment has emerged as a research activity that often is characterized by its critical perspective (Freudenburg 1986). A comprehensive theory has not yet emerged that links technological change in natural resource industries to the full range of its ramifications for the environment, its socioeconomic impacts, and its associations with industrial structures. However, the magnitude of its potential impacts and the associated public concern suggests that this area of research has a viable future (Freudenburg 1992).

Since the 1920s, agriculture and natural-resource-based industries have been declining as sources of employment; the rate of decline accelerated dramatically after World War II. For a brief period during the 1970s manufacturing was a major source of employment growth in rural areas as industries sought cheaper land, lower taxes, and a nonunion labor force willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. Although this process continues, service industries have emerged as the major source of employment growth (Brown et al. 1988). These shifting labor demands have been accompanied by high unemployment in rural areas and a growth of temporary and part-time work, with resulting loss of wages and increasing levels of poverty. Rural labor market analysis has emerged as a new research area in rural sociology as a consequence (Summers et al. 1990). Much of the research is devoted to describing more precisely the nature and extent of rural unemployment and underemployment. However, the theoretical interpretations generally are sensitive to the linkages of rural labor markets to broader issues of economic restructuring. While labor demand–oriented and human capital explanations persist, there are attempts to understand the functioning of rural labor markets within the context of capitalist market institutions in a manner that is reminiscent of institutional labor economics.

Gender studies are not new to rural sociology; the role of women in farming has been a subject of research for at least a quarter-century (Haney and Knowles 1988). However, the past decade has witnessed the emergency of theoretical and empirical studies that attempt to explain how the institutions of capitalism, patriarchy, and the domestic ideology influence the work roles of men and women. A major focus of these recent studies has been the nature and extent of farm women's involvement in farm, household, and off-farm work. The rich descriptive detail of gender-based allocations of labor is being integrated into more comprehensive theoretical interpretations of structural changes in both agricultural and nonagricultural industries (Beneria 1985; Leon and Deere 1987; Sachs 1996).

For the past twenty-five years the United States has pursued a variety of programs and policies intended to alleviate poverty (Sanderfur and Tienda 1988; Snipp 1989; Wilson 1987). In spite of these efforts, poverty persists at rates that are higher in rural areas than in urban areas, and the difference is increasing. Moreover, rural poverty is disproportionately concentrated in minority populations. Within the critical perspective it is argued that past and present institutional barriers limit the access of minority populations to the means of economic well-being. Persons of working age are disproportionately handicapped by deficiencies of human capital and discriminatory practices in the labor market. Moreover, these failures have produced a generation of elderly persons who are denied access to important public insurance programs such as Social Security because they were excluded from the labor market in years past or were employed in industries that were not covered by such programs. Thus, the state is called into question for its poor performance in developing and implementing adequate public policies, a failure that is alleged to benefit the interests of the wealthy and powerful classes of society (Summers 1991).


As social scientists and historians have begun to reflect on the momentous and often convulsive changes that have occurred during the twentieth century, many have noted that the most far-reaching social change of the century has arguably been the rapid decline of peasantries and of farm life, particularly since World War II (Hobsbawm 1994). The "depeasantization" of the advanced industrial countries has proceeded the farthest, but the very rapid decline of the peasant societies along with massive streams of rural-to-urban migrants that is now occurring in the developing world is, if anything, more stark (Araghi 1995).

The manner in which rural sociologists have conceptualized the processes and the significance of social-structural changes in agriculture has involved not only debate between the two overarching theoretical positions that have long characterized rural sociology, but also political and ideological positions on agriculture in society at large. Thus, on one hand, theories in the sociology of agriculture tend to fall within either the modernizationist tradition (e.g., adoption-diffusion) or the critically oriented tradition (e.g., Lenin's and Kautsky's theories of capitalism and rural differentiation; see Goodman and Redclift 1982) discussed earlier. Over and above the differences and debates across theoretical traditions are changing sociopolitical views about agriculture and food.

We noted earlier that, from the beginnings of rural sociology around the turn of the twentieth century, agriculture was one of its most central subject matters. But what was considered interesting or important about agriculture has changed dramatically over time. Early rural sociology was largely focused on the sociology of agricultural communities. Rural sociology was later dominated by the adoption and diffusion of agricultural innovations. While these two traditions differed in their views of what it was about agriculture that was most worthy of study, both were modernizationist perspectives that tended to see the decline of family farming and restructuring of agriculture as being natural components of rural (and overall social) development.

The term "sociology of agriculture" can be best understood as a movement among rural sociologists in the mid- to late 1970s in reaction to two related but distinct components of modernizationism. The sociology of agriculture was, in the first instance, a reaction against rural sociological theories which, at least implicitly, accepted the inevitability and desirability of the demise and destruction of peasantries in the developing world and family farming in the industrial world. What Newby and Buttel (1980) meant by the notion of the "new rural sociology" was that a more adequate rural sociology required a more critical theoretical view about how and why farmers and other rural people were witnessing disintegration of their ways of life. The second defining feature of the new rural sociology was that it sought to take seriously the growing public and social movement concerns about the loss of family farms, the problems faced by agricultural communities, and the role of land-grant universities and public research.

The pattern of farm structural change that has occurred in the United States is not entirely typical of that of the rest of the industrial world, but the past century of changes in the American structure of agriculture typify the theoretical and broader social issues at stake in the sociology of agriculture. In 1940, there were about 7 million American farms, home to about 30 million people (or about 25 percent of the U.S. population). By the end of the century there were only about 1.8 million farms, and the farm population (which numbered a little less than 7 million people) was less than 2 percent of the U.S. total. Even more striking is that fact that the last Census of Agriculture in the twentieth century (the 1997 Census) showed that a mere 26,000 farms with gross annual sales of $1,000,000 or more (representing only 1.4 percent of the total number) accounted for about 42 percent of gross farm sales; by contrast, less than twenty years earlier, farms with gross annual farm sales of $200,000 or more represented 3.3 percent of farms and about 44 percent of total sales (according to the 1978 Census of Agriculture). Thus, American farming has become increasingly concentrated. U.S. farm structure has also become highly dualistic; a handful of very large farms account for the bulk of output, while roughly 1.2 million small, "subfamily" (mostly part-time) farms account for the bulk of the farm population but very little of the output. In between, the middle stratum of farms—the prototypical medium-sized full-time family farm—has declined in numbers and percent of farm sales as the dualism of agriculture has been continued apace. Despite the rapid restructuring of agriculture from 1940 to the end of the century, nearly 95 percent of American farms continue to be family-proprietor or partnership farms. Thus, family farming—even if many of the largest and smallest family operations bear little resemblance to the traditional notion of a family farm—has persisted in the midst of otherwise convulsive change in agriculture and rural America.

The new rural sociology of agriculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s therefore ironically had two very different problematics—the decline/differentiation and the persistence of family farming—on which to focus its research. The new rural sociology drew on three major early-twentieth-century classical theories in focusing on these two problematics. V. I. Lenin tended to be the principal classical antecedent of theories of rural class differentiation (e.g., de Janvry 1980; Friedland et al. 1981; Havens et al. 1986), which tended to foresee agriculture undergoing differentiation into capital and labor, in much the same way that had occurred in nonfarm industry. A. V. Chayanov and K. Kautsky were most influential in the work of scholars who sought to explain the persistence of family farming. Theories of the persistence of family farming generally explain the phenomenon in terms of the obstacles or the forms of resistance that exist to the development of capitalist agriculture (e.g., how the seasonal-biological nature of agriculture makes farming unattractive for large-scale investments [Mann 1990] or how independent commodity producers exhibit different rationalities [Mooney 1988] or enjoy certain advantages over capitalist producers [Friedmann 1978]).

While the agrarian differentiation/persistence debate dominated the sociology of agriculture through the early 1990s, the sociology of agriculture has made two significant shifts—toward studies of farming styles, on one hand, and the globalization of agriculture, on the other—over the last decade. The most recent versions of the sociology of agriculture have been partly a response to the current era of "globalization," trade liberalization, hypermobility of financial capital, World Bank–International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposition of structural adjustment reforms on the developing world, the rapid industrialization of certain sectors of farming (especially livestock and fresh fruits and vegetables), and the remarkable pace of concentration in the agricultural inputs and agro-food industries. It also became apparent to many scholars that most of the theories that dominated the sociology of agriculture in the 1970s through the early 1990s had two possible weaknesses: First, "new rural sociology" theories tended to be somewhat economistic and deterministic. Second, these "new rural sociology" theories tended to locate the dynamics of agricultural change largely, if not entirely, within agriculture itself. These theories tended to give short shrift to the off-farm components of agro-food systems and to the global political-economic environment of agriculture.

The second generation of the sociology of agriculture can be understood as being a response to these two shortcomings of new rural sociology theories as well as to the intellectual and policy challenges posed by globalization. The first response has been the "farming styles" research tradition, and is often referred to as the "Wageningen School" approach because two of its most prominent researchers (van der Ploeg 1992; Long 1992) are located at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The Wageningen School perspective is a neo-Weberian or "actor-oriented" approach which stresses how diverse rural cultures interacting within diverse national economies and natural environments tend to give rise to diverse "farming styles." Thus, it is argued that there are multiple sources of diversity in farming structures, technologies, rationalities, and practices that serve to obviate the otherwise powerful political-economic processes of globalization and homogenization.

The second, and most influential, new approach in the sociology of agriculture—the agro-industrial globalization tradition—reflects a conviction that chief among the factors propelling agricultural change are matters such as national political-economic processes, the world economy, and geopolitics which lie outside of the realm of agriculture per se (see Friedmann 1982; Friedmann and McMichael 1989). Many scholars working within this new agro-industrial globalization tradition have emphasized the growing ascendancy on the part of agribusiness multinationals as post–World War II protectionist institutions and regulations have been dismantled. Studies in this genre emphasize how private firms are increasingly assuming the standard-setting and regulatory functions formerly undertaken primarily by governments, and how large corporations are playing a growing role in shaping the structure and performance of agro-commodity chains (e.g., Bonanno et al. 1994). Other scholars stress how the emerging structure of the new world food order reflects the growing role of monetary instability and Third World debt. Monetary disorder and debt have created the political-economic conditions for the liberalization of agricultural trade through international regimes such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). For example, by serving to justify structural adjustment policies which require that development countries adopt agro-food export policies and reduce food subsidies in order to repay their loans, monetary disorder and debt have been crucial factors in the late twentieth century restructuring of food systems (Friedmann and McMichael 1989; McMichael 1994). These new global food systems contrast sharply with the postwar national-type food order in which world nations tended to control their own agricultural systems and food supplies through national food regulations and domestic agricultural policies.


These emergent research topics have not displaced those of an earlier period of rural sociology; they coexist. In doing so, rural sociology continues to serve two conflicting social policy agendas that reflect divergent views of rural society. The field has not escaped its origins in the social thought of nineteenth-century Europe. It does appear to be renewing its intellectual kinship with sociological theory.

The future of rural sociology as a research domain and as an intellectual endeavor appears to be very promising. Only a decade ago some observers were predicting its demise on the grounds that agriculture was declining as a source of employment and urbanization was continuing on a worldwide scale. However, predictions of the death of rural sociology seem to have been premature. The majority of the world population still lives in rural areas, and agriculture still plays a major role in the economies of most nations of the world. The globalization of food systems remains one of the most critical determinants of human well-being (Goodman and Watts 1997). The ending of the Cold War and the opening of the Eastern Bloc to greater scientific and intellectual exchanges create a vast new market for rural sociology, since all of these nations are predominately rural in composition. Finally, rural sociologists are expanding the scope of their work to include a much broader array of social phenomena and accepting the challenge of building the theoretical and empirical bridges between rural and urban aspects of society.

The growth of rural sociology professional associations is further evidence of its good health. In addition to the Rural Sociological Society, which was created in 1937, there are now the International Rural Sociological Association and independent associations in all the world's regions. Membership in all these associations is increasing; the Rural Sociological Society remains over 1,000, and annual meeting attendance has been in excess of 500 for most years in the 1990s.

(see also: Agricultural Innovation; Community; Human Ecology and the Environment; Population)


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Gene F. Summers
Frederick H. Buttel

Sociology, Rural

views updated May 18 2018

Sociology, Rural





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 Commissions 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 Populations 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 Goldschmidts 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 postWorld War II (19391945) era were among other factors that contributed to rural sociologys 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 Gorehams 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.

Goldschmidt, Walter R. [1947] 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, 18871997. 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, 19191953. 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 Historians Report. 2005. The Rural Sociologist 25 (1): 2425.

John K. Thomas

rural sociology

views updated May 21 2018

rural sociology Rural sociology has been powerfully influenced by anti-urbanism, producing a stereotypical view of rural society as stable and harmonious. The claim that certain social characteristics were typical of villages rather than towns was made by Ferdinand Tönnies in his discussion of the Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft distinction between different forms of social association. Later, Robert Redfield and others adopted a more simplistic view, claiming that rural (folk) societies were inherently characterized by (for example) traditional and close-knit family social networks, consensus rather than conflict, and ascribed not achieved statuses.

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