Rural Society

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Rural Society

The meaning of rural

Social change in rural society

Contemporary rural-urban comparisons


The scientific study of rural society as a specialized area of sociology is a development of the twentieth century and prior to World War II had its growth principally in the United States. Since 1950 such study has developed institutional support in many countries. The central concern in the sociological study of rural society is with its social organization—the social systems (or subsystems) and their interrelationships within rural society, with urban society, and within the total society. This study has been approached with ecological, cultural, and behavioral emphases. Demographic analysis has had an important place. Some areas of rural sociological analysis are closely related to the concerns of other social science disciplines; for example, settlement patterns with human geography and land tenure with agricultural economics. The adoption and diffusion of technological innovations is one of the areas to which rural sociologists have given special attention.

Sociological investigation of rural society may be classified into four broad categories: studies using rurality as the independent variable; comparative studies of rural societies; studies for which rural society is the setting within which family systems, ecological systems, cultural systems, personality systems, and other phenomena are analyzed; and studies of social change within each of the previous three categories.

A major attempt to generalize on rural-urban differences that are repeated in time and space was made by Sorokin and Zimmerman in 1929, drawing upon the comprehensive compilation of then existing knowledge and theories and research in European, Asiatic, and American scientific literature represented in A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology (Sorokin et al. 1930–1932). They hypothesized that the differentiation between rural and urban does not tend to increase perpetually but, rather, that the historical curve of the differentiation shows something similar to a parabolic curve without complete obliteration of all differences (Sorokin & Zimmerman 1929, pp. 608-636).

No comparable comprehensive compendium of the much more numerous and more sophisticated studies completed since the 1920s is currently available. Summarizations for major substantive areas of sociological research are represented for North America by the papers given at the 1961 annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society (Copp 1964); for the major regions of the world by the papers prepared for the First World Congress for Rural Sociology (1964); and by monographic studies, such as those on the adoption and diffusion of ideas in agriculture (Lionberger 1960; Rogers 1962).

Importance of rural society. Despite the ever-accelerating rate of urban growth throughout the world, especially of large cities, since 1800, a majority of the world’s population is rural and a majority of the nations of the world have predominantly rural populations. The percentage of the world’s population living in localities of less than 20,000 was 97.6 in 1800, 95.7 in 1850, 90.8 in 1900, and 79.1 in 1950 (United Nations, Bureau of Social Affairs, 1957, pp. 111-143). For major world areas, the estimates of the percentage of the population living in places of less than 20,000 in 1950 were: Africa, 91; Asia, 87; Central America, 79; South America, 74; U.S.S.R., 69; Europe (excluding the U.S.S.R.), 65; North America, 58; and Oceania, 53 (Joint UN/UNESCO Seminar on Urbanization in the ECAFE Region, Bangkok, 1956, 1957, p. 98). This percentage decline in rural population has been accompanied by an increase in the number of persons living in localities under 20,000; the estimated number was 1,897.8 million in 1950, compared with 1,460.1 million in 1900. In the majority of the less-developed countries, the rural population has continued to grow in numbers, whereas in the higher-income countries the pattern has varied in recent decades.

The following illustrations use individual countries’ definitions of rural and urban. In England and Wales, which became less than half rural by 1851, the equilibrium at about 20 per cent rural maintained since 1921 is associated with some increase in the number of rural residents because the total population has grown (Saville 1957). In the United States, which became less than 50 per cent rural by 1920 and was 30 per cent rural in 1960, the rural population continued to grow in numbers until 1940 and since then has remained relatively constant, despite the reducing effects of changed statistical procedures. In Brazil, which contains one-third of all the people of the 20 Latin American countries, the percentage rural decreased from 68.8 in 1940 to 54.9 in I960; at the same time, the number of rural people increased by more than 10 million (Miro 1964). In India, although the urban population has grown at an accelerating rate, 82 per cent of the total population was rural in 1961; the rural population increased by 61 million during the preceding decade, whereas the urban population gained 16 million (Taylor et al. 1965, pp. 104-105). The concentration of rural population in low-income countries and the importance of rural society in plans for economic and social development give added significance to understanding rural society and its interrelationships with urban society.

The functions of rural society. The production of food and other raw materials is a basic function of rural societies; indeed, in modern society the survival of the urban sector is dependent upon the effective conduct of this function. Historically, rural society has also functioned as a supplier of people to the city; the relative importance of this rural-to-urban migration is probably greatest in societies that are undergoing modernization. A third distinctive function of rural society is its custodianship of natural resources. Fourth, modern rural societies increasingly serve a residential function for persons with urban-centered sources of livelihood. Finally, in times of societal crisis, there has been a tendency for rural society to perform a “security” function, as represented by urban-to-rural or postponed rural-to-urban migration. In addition, economic functions ancillary to or independent of the primary or “field” activities are characteristically found in rural areas in some form and in some degree but are not considered as distinctive functions of rural society. Rather, the type and extent of these nonprimary functions vary widely among countries and over time.

The meaning of rural

A uniform definition of the concept “rural” is crucial if sociological analysis is to result in valid generalizations. In the past decade, increased attention has been given to considering the minimum and essential criteria of rural society. Recent research has found that some characteristics once advanced as attributes of rural society may also be found in the city; close personal primary-group relations are one example. The interchange of people between rural and urban areas through large-scale migration, the influence of urban-centered mass media, greater interdependence of rural and urban economies, and other types of increased systemic linkage are believed to have reduced rural-urban differences. Also, research revealing the diversity within both rural and urban societies has led to a re-examination of the rural concept.

Although there is a broad general consensus that the term “rural” refers empirically to populations living in areas of low density and to small settlements, there are wide variations in the cutting point used operationally to distinguish rural from urban. There is even less agreement on the qualitative attributes that distinguish a rural from an urban community or society. “Rural” has been defined in terms of one or more empirical attributes, as a constructed type with qualitative attributes, and by the two in combination. The methodological and theoretical problems in the definition of the concept “rural” are similar to those in the definition of “urban” and in the use of constructed types in general. Occupational, demographic, ecological, social organizational, and cultural characteristics have all been used as defining attributes.

In the highly influential formulation by Sorokin and Zimmerman (1929), the principal criterion was occupational—the collection and cultivation of plants and animals. They argued that from the agricultural occupation there followed a series of other relatively constant qualitative and quantitative differences between rural and urban communities, most of which were causally connected or interrelated. The use of occupation as the defining criterion for rural society has not found general acceptance by sociologists. Widespread social changes have frequently resulted in farmers living intermingled with residents of the countryside who follow nonfarm occupations at urban places of work, even to the extent that farmers are a minority within their local rural community. Also, the farm operator or members of his household may have a nonfarm occupation. Sociologically, the use of occupation as the criterion leads to a greater interest in the aggregate of individuals than in the properties of a social system.

The most general current practice is to use two demographic variables—absolute size and density of settlement—in defining “rural.” In most countries the dividing line between rural and urban is set at population aggregates of somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. There is a high level of agreement that the conditions of social action and social organization set by low population density and small size of community have the following effects. First, the pattern of social interaction involves relatively few contacts per individual in a given unit of time and provides relatively little opportunity for personal anonymity; second, there is relatively little division of labor, as there is a restricted range of occupations and a limited variety of social roles; and thus there is relatively little heterogeneity at the community level as compared with urban society. Social roles tend to be more diffuse and less segmentalized, along with being less impersonal. Moreover, social class identification at the community level has a tendency to be based more on ascribed and personal attributes than on general and achieved attributes; from this fact and that of the limited variety of occupational and social roles, it follows that the limits of social mobility are more restricted within rural society. Finally, because of less anonymity, normative deviancy within the rural community tends to be less frequent than in the city.

The evidence that there are universal differences in cultural characteristics associated with differences in density and size is not convincing. An alternative proposal is that “rural” be defined in terms of a particular pattern of value configurations or some other cultural attributes (Bealer et al. 1965). However, since such a construct would make rural society independent of a specific territorial space, it has had little application. Still other suggested criteria for characterizing rural society include: relative size and density rather than arbitrary limits; the ecological notion of relative isolation from or accessibility to larger population centers, expressed by Stewart (1958) in terms of a social network map deriving the proportion of urban contacts from objective indices; and another ecological alternative whereby people engaged in “field” activities would be classed as rural and those engaged in “center” activities would be termed urban. “Field” activities are considered those involving the production of foods, fibers, ores, and raw materials and requiring high man-land ratios (Loomis & Beegle [1950] 1955, p. 204).

The statement by Hatt and Reiss ([1951] 1957, pp. 19-21) that “there are considerable differences among the criteria and the ease with which they can be used in research, the degree to which they provide meaningful theoretical and empirical differentiation, their constancy in time and space, their cultural relativity, and their causal connection or interrelationship” applies to both rural and urban communities. The size and density criteria can be applied if the focus of analysis of rural society is on demographic variables or on social organization. Dissatisfaction with these two criteria seems to be associated particularly with attempts to generalize about cultural systems, including values, and about personality systems.

The idea of a rural-urban continuum is now generally preferred to a rural-urban dichotomy. In research operations, however, particularly for population analysis, the use of a dichotomy is a common practice. Or, as in the procedure followed by the United States Bureau of the Census, a trichotomy may be set up by dividing the rural into two parts— farm and nonfarm. That the rural-urban continuum concept may need to be reinterpreted is suggested by the Duncan and Reiss finding (1956, p. 40) that, for 11 size-of-community groups, equal differences in the numerical size of two communities were in no case associated with equal differences in the index of any of the population characteristics examined. It may be that unequal rather than equal size-of-community intervals may more closely approximate the threshold of significant differences [seeCommunity-society Continua].

Within rural society there are wide variations in social organization and in cultural systems. Such types as “primitive,” “nomadic,” and “peasant” are illustrations. Feudal social organization has been identified as rural and also has been advanced as an ideal type opposed to both rural and urban (Sjoberg 1952). A number of constructed typologies of societies have been formulated, such as “Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft” and “sacred-secular,” which have mistakenly been used as synonymous with rural-urban. Such constructed typologies may, however, be appropriately understood as intersecting the rural-urban typology.

The traditional-modern construct, as advanced by Lerner (1958) and adapted by others (Larson & Rogers 1964), seems to have particular promise for the analysis of contemporary rural society. The crucial point here is that members of modern social systems view new ideas more favorably than do members of traditional systems; that is, they differ in their empathic capacity. In addition, modern social systems are characterized by a relatively highly developed technology with a complex division of labor, a high level of literacy and formal education, cosmopolitan social relationships, a relatively large proportion of secondary social relationships, and an emphasis upon economic rationality. Further, the modern society has a high level of development of communication media, which give access to the cumulative pool of knowledge of the larger society and provide a comparatively high degree of linkage and articulation among the subsystems in relation to the societal system.

Social change in rural society

The trend toward modernization of traditional rural societies, which has been under way for well over a century in North America, Great Britain, and western Europe, has accelerated and become more pervasive during the twentieth century, especially since World War n. Rural societies of the modern type are so interlinked with their national systems and the international system that the changes in their social organization are highly similar in many respects. Traditional-type rural societies are generally moving toward the same type of linkage. The process by which a traditional, largely isolated and segmented, rural society becomes a modern-type rural society integrated with the national society is a special case of the more general process of societal change.

Although there are complex theoretical and methodological problems involved in the analysis of social change, there is considerable agreement about the direction and universality of major changes that have been under way in social and cultural systems. These major changes have been expressed in such highly general terms as increased structural differentiation, or specialization, of social systems; more universalistic norms; and the growth of a rational orientation (Moore 1963; Parsons 1964). This discussion of social change will focus on the following selected factors, which have special significance for the rural social changes of the present century: the growth and application of technological and scientific knowledge; the increase in urbanization; the growth of the money-and-mar-ket economy; and the increase in purposive innovation, reflecting rationality and a favorable attitude toward change. These factors may operate partly independently and partly in association and may be in part and in some ways circular in their effects. In large measure, they operate generally as external forces for change in rural societies and their social systems. The changes which these forces generate within rural communities in turn produce additional internal community changes.

Empirical data for use in describing the current situation, measuring changes, and making comparative studies are most adequate for the more modern rural societies, such as those in North America, western Europe, and Japan, but even for these there are major deficiencies. In general, the available information on the rural societies of the world is less complete regarding social organization and the different categories of social systems than it is for population, technology, physical resources, and production, although these data may be reflective of social organization variables.

Technological and scientific advances

Agricultural production technology offers some of the most dramatic examples of the social consequences of technological change through major innovations and improvements (Moore 1963, p. 77). The extent to which technological advances and science-based practices have been diffused and adopted varies widely from country to country. Even in the most modernized nations, survival of traditional methods may be found in some local areas. It is estimated that about 90 per cent of the power used on the world’s farms is still supplied by human beings and animals.

In 1953 the Woytinskys estimated that more than half of the world’s labor force was engaged in agriculture (Woytinsky & Woytinsky 1953, p. 364). The proportion so engaged ranged from about 5 per cent in a modernized food-importing nation, such as Great Britain, to more than 80 per cent in more traditional societies. The general trend is for the proportion of the labor force engaged in agriculture to decline; for example, in the 20 Latin American countries the percentage fell from 61 in 1936 to 47 in 1960 (United Nations, Economic Commission for Latin America 1964, p. 23). The percentage decline may be accompanied by an increase in the number of persons in agriculture, as in Latin America, or by a decrease, as in the United States.

The effects of the application of technological and scientific knowledge in the rural sector of a modern society can be seen in the United. States. Trend data for 1870–1960 show that productivity per worker in agriculture and per man-hour increased rather regularly at slightly less than 1 per cent per year until the mid-1930s, after which it increased at the accelerated rate of 4 to 5 per cent annually (Meiburg & Brandt 1962). Between 1940 and 1959, while total farm production increased by 52 per cent, the proportion of land allocated for farming and the number of harvested acres changed only slightly and the number of farm workers and aggregate man-hours of farm work declined to less than half of the peak reached prior to 1920 (Larson & Rogers 1964). The farm population correspondingly declined to less than half of its peak number and became a minority within the rural population. Increased worker productivity was accompanied by fewer but larger farms. The number of farms per 1,000 acres of land decreased from 7.5 in 1880 to 3.3 by 1959. Such a reduction led to a decrease in population density in all areas where farm population losses were not offset by growth of the rural nonfarm population. At the local level, the territoriality and size conditions for many rural social systems were changed as a consequence of the series of changes in farming.

Modern transportation has served to increase the frequency of rural-urban interchange and to facilitate the use by rural people of a network of centers with specialized functions. Technological developments in communication also have a major influence in the modernization process by greatly enlarging and facilitating access to the pool of knowledge. They support the linkage of the rural community and its subsystems into a network of systems that may cross national boundaries, support centralization of decision making, foster a broader “world view” on the part of the rural resident, and change the nature of the interaction process in communication from oral, direct, and two-way to mediated or one-way. For example, the adoption of radio has been rapid since 1950, even in the isolated areas of the more traditional societies (United Nations, Bureau of Social Affairs, 1957, p. 79). The mass media are largely urban centered and urban controlled, extending their influence without requiring the rural resident to make physical contact with the city. To date, studies of the diffusion of new ideas that may be adopted by individuals voluntarily, such as farm practices, indicate that the mass media are important in creating awareness and interest but that personal contacts are a more important information source at the adoption stage (Bohlen 1964, pp. 281-283). Furthermore, different types of adopters make differential use of mass media; the innovators make the most use of it, whereas the slow adopters place more reliance on personal and primary-group information sources.


In recent decades the rate of urbanization has been declining in the more modernized societies, where urbanization is now greatest, and generally increasing in more traditional rural societies. In the latter, the rapid urban expansion not only reflects the normal “pull” factors but also is the consequence of powerful “push” factors in rural areas with heavy population pressure on land resources and limited nonagricultural development (United Nations, Bureau of Social Affairs, 1957, pp. 124-125). The extent to which a high level of urbanization may provide an outlet for excess rural population is suggested by the estimate of Beale et al. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic and Statistical Analysis Division, 1964a) that as of 1958 in the United States about 63 per cent of the farm-born adults were nonfarm residents.

Net rural-to-urban migration is selective as to who leaves and who remains. Migration to cities tends to select young adults, although there may be instances where such selectivity does not hold (Davis & Golden 1954–1955). Generally, in the more modernized societies relatively more females than males migrate from rural areas; in the more traditional societies, more males leave. However, there are exceptions to this sex selectivity pattern. In a country as modernized as Japan, relatively more rural males than females go to the city; whereas in the Latin American countries, rated as more traditional on the whole, the opposite holds true.

Money-and-market economy

The Woytinskys estimate that in the world as a whole not more than one farmer in five is engaged in commercial farming, producing largely for the open market; the balance are subsistence farmers, producing mainly to meet their own needs (Woytinsky & Woytinsky 1953, p. 452). In the countries with more traditional societies where Western colonization occurred, the development of large-scale commercial agricultural production and exploitation of mineral and oil resources for the world market has produced a form of dual economy [seeEconomy, Dual].

In the modernized societies the money-and-market economy puts a premium upon rationality and efficiency, which has led to increased specialization of agricultural enterprises by areas and by individual farmers, an increased reliance on purchased inputs in farm production, the development of new types of credit systems for farmers, the growth of farmers’ marketing and purchasing cooperatives, and major changes in the marketing system for farm products.

Planned change

During the present century, and especially during the past two or three decades, national governments have had a conspicuous role in beginning innovations. The United Nations complex of international organizations and such regional arrangements as the Organization of American States, as well as the United States—and more recently a few other national governments— have developed extensive programs aimed at helping the underdeveloped nations to speed up the modernization of their traditional rural societies. Practically all nations with quite modernized rural societies have undertaken a wide range of activities to equalize social conditions. Illustrations are price and income support programs for farmers, the development of infrastructure (improved roads, electric power lines, telephones, and water supply systems), rural mail delivery, improvement of rural educational facilities, and special programs for library service, medical care, and hospitals. Action for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening the national system ranges from relatively limited land reform, resettlement, and land consolidation in such countries as Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden to attempts at inclusive restructuring of rural society in the U.S.S.R. and mainland China.

In at least the more modern societies, the net effect of these and related factors is to bring several of the social systems of which rural people are members under heavy pressure to restructure, both horizontally and vertically. The rise in standards and levels of expectation shared by rural people affects both “public” and “private” systems. Realignments are required in order to provide the necessary population and financial base for supplying the more specialized services at reasonable cost. Thus, the territoriality of systems providing education, health care, local government, and numerous economic functions for rural people is under strain to readjust to the patterns made possible by new transportation technology. The reduction of the number of public school districts in the United States from 127,000 in 1932 to 49,000 in 1958 through consolidation is illustrative (R. M. Williams 1964, p. 23). There is an over-all trend toward mutual interdependence among locality groups, with different functions located at different centers, with rural families using a number of centers for services, and with each type of economic and social service tending to have its own unique service area. An increase in the heterogeneity of the rural community results from the decrease in the percentage of the population engaged in farming or in other “field” activities, the separation of place of work from residence for the commuting nonfarm workers whose employment is outside the community, and—in some instances —the increase in seasonal residence by urban dwellers.

Urban-centered and rural-centered systems are increasingly in contact, either cooperating formally or informally with greater systemic linkage or in conflict to maintain system boundaries. Urban expansion puts especial pressure on rural areas at the growing edge of the city.

Many of these social changes occur unevenly, even within countries. There tend to be regional differences, community differences, and variations by class status and by culturally deviant groups. Rural communities with expanding populations have been shown to have adjustment problems different from those with stable or declining populations (Larson & Lutz 1961).

Ecological spatial relationships possess a considerable degree of built-in structural stability; land use, field, and settlement patterns are not easily changed (W. M. Williams 1964). Outside the areas of wholesale land reform or new colonization, the spatial arrangements in rural areas have changed more slowly than technology or some of the social systems. However, there have been several notable ecological changes: land consolidation programs and limited transfer of farmers from villages to dispersed farms in western Europe; enlarged farms generally and some shift of farmers to villages in the Great Plains wheat belt of the United States; and the thickening of settlement within the commuting area of urban centers.

Contemporary rural-urban comparisons

The pattern of higher fertility in rural than in urban areas is observed in practically all countries for which data are available, although it seems generally to be least marked within the most traditional societies. The differentials have been persistent, even in the more modernized nations. In 1960, the number of children ever born per 1,000 rural women aged 35-39 years in the United States was more than one-fifth larger than for urban women; in none of the 50 states was the urban fertility as high or the average size of family as large as the rural (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic and Statistical Analysis Division, 1964). Because of the heavy out-migration of the rural born, the annual rate of growth is higher for the urban than for the rural population in nearly all nations for which data are available for the most recent decades.

The combined effects of differential fertility and differential migration leave the rural areas with a disproportionate burden of dependents, especially children, and a relative shortage of persons in the productive adult years. With the exception of certain Asian and African countries, rural areas have more males than females—particularly at the younger adult ages—because of the selective factor in net migration. These differences in sex ratios reflect the difference in work roles. In the most modernized countries, the greatest opportunity for gainful employment for females is in nonfarm work; the “field” activities are predominantly men’s work.

In a modern society, the rural-farm sector is the only one in which place of work, place of residence, occupation, and family are so tightly wrapped together. Sorokin and Zimmerman’s generalization (1929, p. 334) that the rural family is more stable than the urban family has been supported by some recent studies in the United States (see Burchinal 1964, pp. 177-178). However, in some instances, as for Panama and Venezuela in 1950, a significantly higher proportion of consensual unions exist in rural areas (Miro 1964). That role performance by sex and age differs between rural and urban families in some respects is suggested by research on the United States; however, according to Burchinal (1964), there is evidence that rural and urban family organizations in the United States are becoming more alike.

There are major gaps in comparative rural-urban cross-national research on most of the social subsystems and particularly in group-level research that uses the concrete social system—such as the school or the church—as the unit of analysis. However, to some extent, inferences about these systems may be derived from the more available demographic, occupational, and similar census-type and aggregate data. The high association of illiteracy with rurality in national comparisons and the fact that the pattern of fewer years of school completed by rural adults has persisted in a nation such as the United States suggest rural-urban differences in the systems of formal education. The evidence shows quite consistently that, at a minimum, educational and other social-service type systems in rural areas tend to be smaller in size and less specialized in function. The extent of the structural influence of the conditions for social action in rural society is hinted at by research showing that youth clique groups are smaller in rural than in urban areas (Hare 1962, p. 225).

The occupational influence of agriculture contributes to the persistence of distinctive characteristics in rural society. The alliance of occupation, residence, and family has already been noted. In addition, although there are areas where large estates, concentrations of ownership, or large-scale state or collective units may be found, farming generally is characterized by small units of operation, with the management and worker roles combined in the farmer and with the work performed primarily by the farmer and members of his family; so the ratio of independent to other workers is in sharp contrast to that in the nonagricultural pursuits. Occupational self-recruitment is greater for farming than for the other major occupational categories; that is, a higher percentage had fathers in the same occupation. Finally, studies covering both Western and non-Western countries, some over several decades, show that income of farmers is consistently and persistently below that of nonfarmers (see Bellerby 1956).

A number of studies have shown that demographic, graphic, occupational, and economic factors have a gradient pattern in relation to large urban centers, varying quite consistently with distance. Thus, the youth dependency ratio and the fertility ratio in the white rural-farm population rose regularly and consistently with increasing distance from the nearest standard metropolitan statistical area in the United States in 1960 (Beegle 1964).

Rural-urban differentials in modernized societies have been greatly reduced or even eliminated in many respects. Although an increase in cultural homogeneity is suggested, differences in social organization persist. The several theories about community growth, center functions, and social differentiation generally support the proposition that the conditions of social action result in the persistence of rural-urban differences in scale and complexity over a wide range of social systems. Purposive action is directed at minimizing the differences in those systems vested with public concern.

Olaf F. Larson

[See alsoAgriculture; Modernization; Population, article onPopulation Distribution.]


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