The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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chapter 33
Rural Sociology
Stewart Lockie, Lynda Herbert-Cheshire and
Geoffrey Lawrence

Where is rural Australia and what is rural sociology?

There are many ways in which it is possible to define the rural, but in many respects it is defined most powerfully by what it is not the urban. The rural is something of a leftover category for whatever we find outside the metropolis. When we think of rural Australia we think of small towns, agriculture, isolation, forestry, mining, Indigenous communities, rodeos, utes and 'B&S' (bachelors' and spinsters') balls; a mishmash of demographic, spatial, economic and cultural concepts and symbols with little in common at times other than an abiding sense of their non-metropolitanness.

The same is at least partly true of rural sociology. As a broad discipline, sociology grew out of a preoccupation with the massive social transformations of the industrial and French revolutions. The rise of the industrial working, capitalist and bureaucratic classes became the principal objects of sociological analysis, while the rural was either ignored or dismissed. Although Marx's argument that rural activities such as agriculture would gradually be subjected to the same processes of industrialisation and capitalist development as elsewhere stimulated spirited debate with writers such as Kautsky over the long-term fate of peasant farming (the 'agrarian question'), such debate failed to establish for rural sociology a unified set of research foci and questions. Instead, rural sociology came to embrace sociological endeavours as diverse as studies of community power, agrarian restructuring, natural-resource management, rural cultures, gender and race relations, global food systems, human-services provision and local governance. Despite the danger that embracing such a broad range of foci may have led to 'rural sociology' becoming a meaningless catch-all category for all sociological research that was not explicitly urban, the concept of rurality has provided a useful basis for integration across these seemingly disparate topic areas. Indeed, as argued by Bourke and Lockie (2001), it is impossible to come to a comprehensive understanding of the contemporary experience of rural Australians without understanding changes in rural communities, environments and industries, as well as the relationships between these sectors.

The rest of this chapter traces the development of rural sociology in Australia, and the emergence of four dominant themes within the literature: farm and rural restructuring; food production and consumption; natural-resource management; and rural

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