rural sociology

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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 along-side 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).


Subjects: Sociology.

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