Rural, Definition of
Tracing the source of the word “rural” to its historical origins leads to the Latin word rus, which is interpreted as meaning “the country,” the Indo-European word rewos meaning “space or wide,” and the Gothic word rums meaning “room or space.” Other words that often are used to specify rural areas or people include bucolic, pastoral, rustic, and provincial. Although the idea of “rural” has widespread intuitive understanding, as with many scientific concepts, attempts at articulating a precise meaning have led to a tangle of arguments and counter-arguments concerning the utility of a given definition. The major point of agreement among those involved in the debate has been that there is no singular or multifaceted definition that will suffice to satisfy the research, programmatic, and policy communities that employ the concept. With this unsettled situation in mind, this discussion summarizes the origins of the concept, the interface of the concept of rural with the concept of urban, and, finally, the issue of the dimensions of rurality and the current efforts to articulate the meaning of the concept.
The Rural-Urban Dichotomy and Continuum
A key consideration in the concept of rural is the recognition of an explicit or implicit definition or a delineation of the concept of urban. Louis Wirth’s (1938) classic work Urbanism as a Way of Life is perhaps the most widely cited binary juxtaposition of urbanism and ruralism. In this work, the rural way of life was characterized by stability, integration, and rigid social stratification. Urbanism, on the other hand, was seen as dynamic and unstable, fluid in terms of social stratification, impersonal, with specialized social interaction, and compartmentalized employment and family. Wirth’s perspective was one of many that used societal level studies to describe and explain social changes as the country and the world became more industrialized and urbanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other perspectives, including the societal contrasts of Emile Durkheim (mechanical and organic solidarity), Ferdinand To¨nnies (Gemeinshaft and Gesellschaft), Georg Simmel (emotional and blase´), Max Weber (rational and traditional), Pitirim Sorokin (familistic and contractual), and Ernest Becker (sacred and secular) have been used to differentiate rural and urban ways of life.
Attempts to use rural and urban ways of life as empirical illustration of these grand theories of societal change quickly proved that such binary juxtopostions were overly reductionist and inadequate to capture the diversity that exists within a society. Thus, led by the work of Redfield (1947), researchers proposed a continuum that arranged communities according to levels of rurality and urbanity. At one end of the continuum were very isolated, remote rural areas, and at the other extreme were large cities, with transitional areas in between. The idea of the continuum provided a useful mechanism to empirically document differences and similarities between people and places in the U.S. However, the findings have been mixed in documenting meaningful differences and, while the corporeality of the continuum is generally accepted, some regarded the importance of the differences as trivial (Dewey, 1960) or incontinuously distributed across population aggregates (Duncan, 1957).
Dimensions of Rurality
Inherent in the efforts to contrast rural and urban life has been the need to identify the dimensions along which distinctions are made. Although the specific delineation of rural populations varies depending on the research topic or the agency or institution that gathers the data, three dimensions—ecological, occupational and sociocultural—have been core to both historical and more contemporary definitions of rural (see Sorokin and Zimmerman, 1929; Bealer et al., 1965).
The ecological component points to relatively sparse populations and relative isolation from urban areas. This spatial apportionment of the population has been the foundation of most academic and policy designations of rural and urban. The importance of rural as an ecological characteristic lies in the cost of space (Kraenzel, 1980), where distance and population sparsity are extraordinary factors in the availability and access to and costs of needed services and goods. Further, smaller size and relative isolation impact both inter- and intra-locality personal contacts.
As for the occupational dimension, rurality historically has been associated with the predominance of extractive and production-type industries, including agriculture and ranching, forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and natural resource-based tourism. This dimension then has focused on the articulation of distinct occupational and economic activities that occur outside of urban areas. Whereas the rural areas of the U.S. have a diverse occupational structure when considered in the aggregate, local economies of rural areas are likely to be much less diversified.
The sociocultural dimension of rurality, the most complex and least well articulated, generally refers to value structures or shared ideals that serve as the fundamental underpinnings of patterned interactions. Rural culture has been variously described as socially conservative, provincial, fatalistic, traditional, hesitant to change, independent, prejudiced, ethnocentric and intolerant of heterodox ideas (England et al., 1979; Glenn and Alston, 1967; Loomis, 1950). However, empirical research has not served to substantiate these elements of the sociocultural domain as capable of distinguishing between rural and urban populations, and has shown that heterogeneity of values rather than homogeneity characterizes rural America.
The matter of the dimensions of the rurality concept has a temporal aspect. It can be argued that development and population increases and dispersal limited the utility of certain components of the concept of rurality, particularly when time is included as a variable. When time is considered, the ecological approach to defining rural has proven the most enduring in research and policy matters in that distance and relative isolation, unlike the occupational and sociocultural components, are less temporal-centric. In the past, rurality may have been highly correlated with such sociocultural characteristics as traditionalism and social conservatism, but changes in society, such as improved telecommunication and transportation and greater homogeneity in education, weakened the association. Similarly, in the past, rurality was highly correlated with an agrarian/extractive occupational structure. However, decentralization of industry and mechanization and concentration of agriculture weakened the epistemic correlation between the rurality concept and an agricultural occupation structure. Although some sociocultural differences may remain and agricultural occupations still employ rural residents, some argue that the most salient contemporary differences in rural and urban areas are primarily a consequence of the spatial organization of the U.S. population (Wilkinson, 1984). The implied correlate of a temporal dimension of the concept relates back to efforts to articulate the societal continuum( s) between rural and urban components. Specifically, the applicability of the dimensions of rurality (ecological, occupational and ecological) may prove effective in delineating populations in areas that have not experienced the same level of development in contact technologies and socioeconomic change as has been seen in Western societies. Thus, while occupational and sociocultural dimensions have diminished definitional utility in more technologically advanced regions of the world, they may remain valid in less technologically advanced areas of the world.
While the utility of the multidimensional conceptualization of rural has been the source of substantial debate in scholarly and policy applications, this is not the case in the mind’s eye of the general public. Research has indicated there are general images that are conjured up when people are asked about their perception of rurality. In general, the research shows that “rurality” invokes highly positive images of areas that are distinct from urban areas. The image of rural areas are characterized by being places with agriculture dominating the economy, it being family oriented with strong religious founding and self reliance, set in a bucolic environment with beautiful vistas, and generally being better places to raise families in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere (Kellogg, 2002). This positive constructed image of rural America has been variously termed as the rural mystique (Willits and Bealer, 1992), the rural sentiment (Park and Coppack, 1994), and the rural idyll (Bunce, 1994). Thus, much of recent effort directed toward understanding rurality in contemporary society has not focused on trying to identify certain sociocultural characteristics, economic or occupational structures, or spatial distinctiveness. Instead, it takes a social construction approach that examines the images, ideas and symbols that are developed when people think about “the rural.” This social representativeness implies that there is not a singular rural place or people or characteristic, but rather a broad array of constructed or imaginary rural places and social conditions (Wood, 2005). From this perspective, “what or who is rural” is a function of the forces that shape an individual’s formation of the concept. As individuals are exposed to images of “rural” through the mass media, literature, poetry and individual experience, the idea is constructed. These images then are filtered through the individual’s values, beliefs and knowledge to define rurality. Heuristically, this approach stresses the primacy of examining the symbolism representing rurality, the sociocultural import attached to perceived dynamics in aspects related to the concept, and perhaps most importantly, the value structure within society that serves to reinforce the symbols and meanings attached to the idea of “rural.”
— Frank L. Farmer
- Community; Rural Demography; Rurality, Measures of; Rural Sociology; Town-Country Relations; Urban-Rural Economic Linkages; Urbanization
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