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Rural sociology is a field of sociology traditionally associated with the study of social structure and conflict in rural areas. It is an active academic field in much of the world, originating in the United States in the 1910s with close ties to the national Department of Agriculture and land-grant university colleges of agriculture.
While the issue of natural resource access transcends traditional rural spatial boundaries, the sociology of food and agriculture is one focus of rural sociology, and much of the field is dedicated to the economics of farm production. Other areas of study include rural migration and other demographic patterns, environmental sociology, amenity-led development, public-lands policies, so-called "boomtown" development, social disruption, the sociology of natural resources (including forests, mining, fishing and other areas), rural cultures and identities, rural health-care, and educational policies. Many rural sociologists work in the areas of development studies, community studies, community development, and environmental studies. Much of the research involves developing countries or the Third World.
Rural sociology was a concept first brought by Americans in response to the large amounts of people living and working on the grounds of farms. Rural sociology was the first and for a time the largest branch of American sociology. Histories of the field were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.
History of European Rural Sociology
Though Europe included more agricultural land than the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, European rural sociology did not develop as an academic field until after World War II. This is partially explained by the highly philosophical nature of pre-war European sociology: the field’s focus on broad scale generalizations largely erased rural-urban difference. European sociology in the early 1900s was also almost entirely siloed within European academia, with little cross Atlantic pollination. Practical applications and research methods employed by Land Grant Colleges, the Country Life Commission, and early American rural sociologists like W.B. Du Bois  were also well beyond the strictly academic sphere in which European sociologists resided. The concerns of rural people, farmers, and agriculture were simply outside the attention of most European sociologists at that time.
Post war, European academic institutions began to understand that “there was something useful in the activities of those queer people who called themselves rural sociologists.”  Stronger relationships between American and European sociologists developed in the late 1940s, which was reflected in the Marshall Plan of 1948. The Plan formalized the United States as a source of information and economic guidance for postwar Europe and allocated the equivalent of 100B in 2023 dollars to help Europe rebuild, especially its food systems and machinery needed to expand agricultural production. With this aid came an infusion of empirical rural research designed to promote rural growth and agricultural success.
The United States’ influence was reflected in pedagogical changes to include rural sociological methods pioneered by American rural sociologists, particularly statistics. Education met increased government demand for sociological expertise brought by European reconstruction and a growing understanding of the importance of sociological understanding to policy making.
While the mid 20th century saw rural sociological research in most European nations driven by government need, rural sociology as an academic discipline was rare in general universities. This was due in part to the lack of university agricultural programs but also a general resistance to applied sciences. Where rural sociology classes did exist, an emerging divergence from the American model presented itself in European’s treatment of culture as an independent variable in rural sociological research. E.W. Hofstree, by all accounts the grandfather of European rural sociology, observed why cultural difference was of particular importance in Europe:
"In Europe, not only between the different nations but also between an infinite number of regional and even local groups within every country, there are differences in culture, which influence the behaviour of those groups considerably.... it will take a long time before Europe will show the same basic culture everywhere, and I must say that, from a personal point of view, I hope that it will take a very long time."
This departure from America’s more homogenous treatment of rural culture  grounded the field in methods that require community-level planning before technical change or community development can occur. These differences somewhat receded the 1950s and 60s, when European rural sociology shifted away from sociocultural study and towards the facilitation of modern agricultural practices. This shift was driven by government interest in policy change as well as the perception that “backward [European] farmers [are] backward not only socially and culturally, but also economically and technically.” 
After relatively united beginnings, European rural sociology faced internal disagreements about pedagogy, focus, and direction in the 1970s. Many felt the field had strayed too far from its sociocultural roots, become too empirical, and overly aligned with government. Critics were particularly concerned by the field’s seeming disregard for consideration of social interaction and culture, and encouraged a return to earlier modes of rural sociology that centered community structure. Ultimately, the field regained it balance between empiricism and sociocultural and institutional study in the 1980s. Considerations of European rural sociologists have since expanded to include food systems, rural-urban interface, urban poverty, and sustainable development.
Outside formal academic programs, rural sociology organizations and journals were founded in the 1950s, including Sociologia Ruralis—which still publishes today— and the European Society for Rural Sociology (ESRS). Founded in 1957 by E.W. Hofstee, the ESRS welcomes international membership, including professional rural sociologists as well as those interested in their work and holds regular congresses that promote cross boundary collaboration and the growth of rural sociology research. Its liberal internationalism and inclusivity makes it a unique interdisciplinary organization that stands somewhat apart from academia and splits its focus between theory and applied research. For example, in 2023, the ESRS’s congress included working groups on diverse topics, including rural migration, population change, place making, mental health, and the role of arts and culture in sustaining rural spaces.
Rural Spaces in Europe
The relevance of Rural Sociology to the European continent is undeniable. 44% of the EU’s total land is considered “rural,” with the Union’s newest countries including even higher percentages (upwards of 50%). More than half the population of several member states, including Slovenia, Romania, and Ireland, live in rural spaces.
While the definition of rurality in Europe has traditionally included all “non-urban” spaces academia’s definition of the term is in flux as more residents move to liminal spaces (sub-urban, peri-urban, ex-urban). Unlike the United States, European populations in urban areas are shrinking, with a noted uptick in migration back to rural and intermediary spaces over the last two decades, and especially since the end of COVID-19 lockdowns. These increasingly populated rural spaces are being met with greater economic development and tourism in the last two decades. As of 2020, 44% of Europe’s population was categorized as “intermediate”, and only 12% reside in urban space.
Despite these changes, focus on rural issues has been largely siloed within rural sociology programs. Between 2010 and 2019, the Council for European Studies hosted only one panel on Rural issues (Farm, Form, Family: Agriculture in Europe). There are signs this may be changing. Europe Now, a widely distributed mainstream academic journal, recently devoting an entire article to the intersection of European and rural studies, including articles challenging the continued applicability of the urban-rural dichotomy, land access, food, resource use disparity, and culture. This move towards interdisciplinarity reflects the human and topographical geography of Europe writ large, and foreshadows possible integration of rural sociology into mainstream academic discourse.
Australia and New Zealand
Rural sociology in Australia and New Zealand had a much slower start than its American and European counterparts. This is due to the lack of land grant universities which heavily invested in the discipline in the United States and a lack of interest in studying the “peasant problem” as was the case in Europe. The earliest cases of studying rural life in Australia were conducted by anthropologists and social psychologists  in the 1950’s, with sociologists taking on the subject beginning in the 1990’s.
Attempts were made between 1935-1957 to bring an American style rural sociology to New Zealand. The New Zealand department of Agriculture, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, tasked Otago Universities economist W.T. Doig with surveying living standards in rural New Zealand in 1935. The creation and funding of such a report mirrors America's Commission on Country Life. Additional Carnegie funds were granted to the Shelly Group who conducted the countries first major sociological community study and endorsed the creation of land grant institutions in New Zealand. Ultimately, these attempts to institutionalize rural sociology in New Zealand failed due to the departments lack of organization and failure to publish impactful survey results.
Early studies of rural sociology in the region focused on the influence of transnational agribusiness, technological changes effects on rural communities, the restructuring of rural environments, and social causes of environmental degradation. By the mid 2000's researchers focus had shifted towards broader sociological questions and variables such as the construction and framing of gender among Australian and New Zealand farmers, governmental policies impacts on rural spaces and studies, and rural safety and crime. Scholars have additionally focused on rural residents, particularly farmers, opinions of environmentalism and environmental policies in recent years. Such a focus is particularly salient in New Zealand where livestock farming has historically been a major national source of income and environmental policies have become increasingly strict in recent years.
Though early scholars of rural sociology in Australasia tout it for its critical lens, publications in the 2010’s and 2020’s have accused the discipline of omitting the experiences of indigenous peoples, failing to account for class based differences, discounting the importance of race and ethnicity, and only recently incorporating in studies of women in rural places. Work on rural women in the region has often incorporated white feminism and used a colonial lens. As a response, scholars, particularly in New Zealand (Aotearoa), have begun to focus on the experiences of the Māori in rural areas, while likewise shifting from solving issues of farmers to rural residents. A few scholars in Australia have likewise begun to incorporate the experiences of Aboriginal peoples into their scholarship, some of whom are indigenous scholars themselves. In particular, Sandy O'Sullivan, Chelsea Joanne Ruth Watego, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson  have risen to prominence in recent years, though the later two identify more as indigenous feminist scholars then rural sociology scholars.
Today many prominent scholars do not belong to a department of rural sociology, but rather related disciplines such as geography in the case of Ruth Liepins, Indigenous Studies in the case of Sandy O'Sullivan, or Arts, Education, and Law in the case of Barbara Pini. Today courses in the discipline can be studied at a small number of institutions: University of Western Sydney (Hawkesbury), Central Queensland University, Charles Sturt University, and the Department of Agriculture at the University of Queensland. Additionally, academics who publish in the discipline, such as Ann Pomeroy, Barbara Pini, Laura Rodriguez Castro, and Ruth Liepins, can be found at University of Otago, Griffith University, and Deakin University.
The beginnings of rural sociology’s development in Latin America began in 1934 under the research of Commission of Cuban Affairs of the Foreign Policy Association member Carle C. Zimmerman. As a North American rural sociologist, he conducted a study in Cuba comparing the wealth and conditions of cane workers to that of colonizers. The results of this work ultimately resulting in a demand of rural life studies expanding to Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico largely for the sake of materials to fuel the quality of the United States’ performance in World War II.
In the midst of the war, other rural sociologists were exploring the rural life of other countries. Dr. Olen Leonard assisted in the establishment of Tingo Maria’s Agricultural Extension program, the study of which was published in 1943. While in Ecuador, Leonard attempted to establish a similar program in the Hacienda Pichalinqui region by identifying how locals gathered, the value and meaning of possessions, and the attitudes of those in the area. His work in Guatemala consisted of assisting public officials develop a long term plan for agricultural education; in Nicaragua he participated in the development of a general and agricultural population census. Glen Taggert (El Salvador), Dr. Carl Taylor (Argentina), and T. Lynn Smith (Colombia, El Salvador) all also took part in advancing Agricultural Extension programs in Latin America. Taylor’s work in particular inspired the Argentinian Institute of Agriculture to create the Institute of Rural life.
The Caracas Regional Seminar on Education in Latin America of 1948 established fundamental education as a system that would be “specifically attending to native groups in such a way as to promote their all-around development in accordance with their best cultural traditions, economic needs, and social idiosyncrasies”. This establishment catapulted a pilot project that would be explicitly tailored to the education of adults in rural communities. By the Fourth Inter-American Agricultural Conference in 1950 Montevideo, the United Nations departments of Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Organization were given the responsibility of becoming more involved in those activities that would benefit rural welfare. As a combined force, they were also tasked with requesting that studies be performed on conditions of social, economic, and spiritual nature as they pertain to the well-being of rural communities.
There are five ways in which Latin American rural communities are differentiated from North American rural communities in 1958:
- Village Community: Rural communities in Latin America are much more likely to be established around village communities. This type of community showed the highest prevalence in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. This is due to these countries having stronger aboriginal elements where the villagers own the land.
- Church and State: At this point in time, Latin American countries were reported as having a government with stronger ties to religion, ideals and decision-making processes falling in line exactly with the church parish. In this same vein, municipalities are drawn almost exclusively to account for the social and economic factors of the region in an attempt to create a more natural social environment.
- Social Organization: The rural experience of Latin America is much more closely knit. Rather than being familiar or having some sort of affiliation with the entirety of the area in an “everyone knows everyone” manner, the social organization here reflects a more contained approach to relationships. Social circles extend strictly to those with which they have daily interactions, hardly straying outside. This approach means that if these few relationships do not produce a particular set of goods, then the group must go without.
- Trade and Commerce: Keeping in line with the established relationship between church and state, the portions of a rural area that would be considered the trade center in North America are referred to as “ceremonial” or “church” centers. Bartering was the dominating form of economics among Latin American countries.
- Stable Environment: Latin American rural communities did not face much in the way of threats against the sustainability of their lifestyles. Hardly any boundaries—administrative, legal, judicial, fiscal, or otherwise—obstructed the ability to maintain natural rural areas and the lives of the residents settled in them.
Mobilized peasants of the 1960s and 1970 attracted scholars to perform more in-depth studies on Latin American rural life. Conflict struck between the Marxist lean of social science and neoclassical domination of economics. Rural class structure, agrarian reform, and capitalist modes of production were all topics of discussion as the peasantry navigated their revolutionary status. The turn of the 21st century introduced the concept of “new rurality”. The shaping of Latin America’s rural economy had finally become entrenched in the newfound neoliberalism and globalization of the 1980s and 90s. Researchers claim that this has been expressed through embracing non-farm activities, feminization of rural work, growing rural-urban relations, and migration and remittances. Though some argue that no change has occurred because social ills (e.g., poverty, social injustice) prevail.
Early studies of rural sociology in Asia appear to first occur and be written about in the mid 19th and early 20th century, though the records of ancient thought on the matter of agriculturalists and peasants in rural spaces appear much earlier. India was a focus of many sociological studies in rural areas, with Henry S. Maine writing Ancient Law (1861), which studied some elements of Indian rural society. Similar texts from around that time were written by those with connections to the East India Company. Holt Mackenzie and Charles Metcalf both wrote about village communities and village life in India, and the East India Company published general reports on Indian territories like, for example, the Punjab territories from the mid 19th and early 20th century.
India, however, was not the only focus of early sociological literature on rural life in Asia. A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology by Pitirim A. Sorokin was published in 1930 and focused on European, Asiatic, and American literature and thought on rural sociology . Sorokin outlines ‘Ancient Oriental Sources’ from Assyro-Babylonia, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Palestine, and Persia. He argues that caste is important for understanding agriculture in ancient India, and that the government and its structure can be used to explain the importance of agriculture and rural life in China. Sorokin makes these conclusions by drawing on records from these countries, which indicate study and thought about the sociology of early agriculturalists and those in rural areas. The excerpts and records used “give the ancient evaluation of agriculture as being a means of group subsistence as compared with other occupations; they reflect the society’s view as to the relative rank of the cultivators in the social order; they depict ancient opinions concerning agriculture as an economic basis for the moral and social well-being of a society, as well as sever similar points. In addition, they depict in detail various laws concerning agriculture, much of the technique of ancient agriculture, the forms of ownership and possession of land, and, finally, the numerous rites and ceremonies connected with agriculture”.
It was not until later, often in the mid to late 20th century, that rural sociology as a systematic branch of academia and study appeared in Asia.
In India, the rise of rural sociology was, in part, due to the country’s gaining of their independence in 1947. The government needed rural sociology to aid in its understanding of “the problems of extreme poverty of the people, overpopulation and general under-development of the economy”. Studies focused on the changing nature of the role of towns, rural-urban actions since independence, rural change and what might be driving it, demographic research, rural development, and rural economies. In 1953, A. R. Desai published the first edition of Rural Sociology in India. The foreword of the book underlines the importance of understanding each aspect of society so that the Indian government could create “a uniform line of action for building a better social milieu”. Due to the popularity of Desai's work and the expansion of the study of rural sociology in India, second and third editions of Rural Sociology in India were published in 1959 and 1961 to better represent new study foci and methodologies in this emerging field. Other popular researchers during the mid-20th century include S. C. Dube, M. N. Srinivas, and D. N. Majumdar. In India, rural sociological research and policies continued to be connected into the 21st century.
Before 1949, China’s rural sociological studies focused primarily on the rural class and power structures. Community studies by prominent sociologists like Fei Xiatong (Fei Hsiao-tung) were influenced by American rural sociology and were also popular in mid and early 20th century China. All sociology programs in China were terminated in 1952 by Mao Zedong. It was not until 1979, when the Chinese Sociological Association was reestablished, that sociological studies in China began again. Influences from American sociologists were welcomed during this time and continued to impact Chinese rural sociological studies into the 21st century. However, there have been pushes from contemporary Chinese rural sociologists like Yang Min and Xu Yong to reconsider this western lens.
Though rural sociology is thought to have an earlier origin in Japan than in the United States, it was not until the end of the 1930s that sociologists in the country were introduced to the methods and viewpoints of American rural sociologists. This introduction was primarily made by Eitarō Suzuki, who is considered one of the pioneers of Japanese rural and urban sociology. Other prominent Japanese rural sociological researchers of this time include Kitano Seiichi, Kizaemon Ariga, and Yozo Yamamoto. The rapid decrease in farming populations in Japan in 1955 shifted the focus of rural sociological studies in the mid 20th century to second jobs among farmers, farming cooperative associations, and the impact of community development policies on villages. Hiroyuki Torigoe of Kwansai Gakuin University was the leader of the Asian Rural Sociology working group, which was established in 1992 and later led to the development of the Asian Rural Sociological Society.
The mission statements of university departments of rural sociology have expanded to include more topics, such as sustainable development. For example, at the University of Missouri the mission is:
"The Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri employs the theoretical and methodological tools of rural sociology to address challenges of the 21st century – preserving our natural resources, providing safe and nutritious food for an expanding population, adapting to climate changes, and maintaining sustainable rural livelihoods."
The University of Wisconsin set up one of the first departments of rural sociology. It has now dropped the term "rural" and changed its name to the "Department of Community and Environmental Sociology." Similarly, the Rural Sociology Program at the University of Kentucky has evolved into the. "Department of Community and Leadership Development," while transferring the graduate program in rural sociology to the Sociology Department. Cornell University's department of rural sociology has also changed its name to the department of Development Sociology.
Scholarly associations in rural sociology include:
- The Rural Sociological Society (RSS), of the United States, was formed in 1937 after years of discussion as a spinoff of the American Sociological Society. It publishes the scholarly quarterly journal Rural Sociology. The full run of back issues is online from 1936 to 1989 through Cornell University Library's program of putting online core historical resources in rural sociology.
- The European Society for Rural Sociology (ESRS) was founded in 1957. It says it is "the leading European association for scientists involved in the study of agriculture and fisheries, food production and consumption, rural development and change, rurality and cultural heritage, equality and inequality in rural society, and nature and environmental care."
- The International Rural Sociology Association (IRSA) has as its mission, to "foster the development of rural sociology; further the application of sociological inquiry to the improvement of the quality of rural life; and provide a mechanism whereby rural sociologists can generate dialogue and useful exchange." It published the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food.
- The International Association for Society and Natural Resources (IASNR) publishes the journal, Society & Natural Resources.
- Asociación Latinoamericana de Sociologia Rural (ALASRU) as an organization founded in 1969, much of the rural sociology findings that come out of Latin America today is the work of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Sociologia Rural (Latin American Rural Sociological Association). With a combined effort of inter- and non-governmental organizations, the ALASRU aims to “promote rural development in the region; foster the dissemination and advancement of rural sociology; support the creation of national centres to carry out research in the field.”
- The Asian Rural Sociology Association (ASRA) was established in 1996. Their mission is to “cultivate the development of the science of rural sociology, to extend the possible application of results of scientific inquiry to the improvement of the quality of rural life, and to exchange and generate meaningful scientific founding for the rural development in Asia. As a non-profit organization, ARSA strives for scientific and educational purposes only”. ASRA hosted their first council meeting in Seoul, Korea in 1997 from March 7 through the 9th. It was at this council meeting that the ARSA ratified the constitution and made the decision to hold the First International Conference of ARSA in Thailand in January 1999. The overarching theme of this first conference was “Globalization and Rural Social Change”; 200 participants from 11 countries attended, and 33 papers were presented and subsequently published in the society’s first volume of the Journal of Asian Rural Sociology. The society has hosted six total conferences, with the last one in 2018 focusing on food systems. The journal has continued to publish twice a year in January and July.
Several academic journals are published in the field of (or closely related to) rural sociology, including:
- Agriculture and Human Values
- Journal of Agrarian Change
- Journal of Asian Rural Studies
- Journal of Peasant Studies
- Journal of Rural Studies
- Rural Sociology
- Society & Natural Resources
- Sociologia Ruralis
- Food studies
- Highland Clearances
- Regional science
- Rural development
- Rural ghetto
- Rural history
- Sociology of disaster
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