The Sociology of Rural Life

The Sociology of Rural Life

The Sociology of Rural Life

The Sociology of Rural Life


Foot and mouth disease and BSE have both had a devastating impact on rural society. Alongside these devastating developments, the rise of the organic food movement has helped to revitalize an already politicized rural population. From fox-hunting to farming, the vigour with which rural activities and living are defended overturns received notions of a sleepy and complacent countryside. Over the years "rural life" has been defined, redefined and eventually fallen out of fashion as a sociological concept--in contrast to urban studies, which has flourished. This much-needed reappraisal calls for its reinterpretation in light of the profound changes affecting the countryside. First providing an overview of rural sociology, Hillyard goes on to offer contemporary case studies that clearly demonstrate the need for a reinvigorated rural sociology. Tackling a range of contentious issues--from fox-hunting to organic farming--this book offers a new model for rural sociology and reassesses its role in contemporary society.


This text offers a critical introduction to the sociology of the rural. It draws upon classic and contemporary UK rural literature and the theoretical and methodological approaches dominant in each. As a means to ground the discussion, three case studies of three contemporary rural issues are explored. The approach applied across the book is one that is informed by interactionist theory and ethnography, building upon the rising status of qualitative methods in rural geography, and offers an alternative to the popular approaches of political economy and postmodernism.

The emergence of rural sociology lies with the origins of the discipline of sociology itself towards the end of the nineteenth century. The charge to explain the impact of profound structural changes upon social ties and networks meant that the first sociological accounts were not merely rural, but urban and rural–the two dimensions went hand in hand. Hence Tönnies's (1955)–the founding father of rural sociology–twin concepts of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (community and association) were just that: defined by the very distinctions between them. Whilst Tönnies's contemporary, Geog Simmel, moved to address the emerging phenomenon of the industrial city (Simmel 1971), they faced similar theoretical challenges. Centrally, this was to explain the implications of tremendous technological advances and to translate the impact of profound economic restructuring upon human associations.

One hundred years on, rural sociology is now quite different and far less prominent within the parent discipline (Hamilton 1990). The text unravels the process by which this decline or marginalisation occurred to see if there is a future for a rural sociology and in what directions useful rural sociological work may be pursued. Such a task has long been perceived to be highly problematic:

There has been an ultimately futile search for a sociological definition of 'rural', a
reluctance to recognize that the term 'rural' is an empirical category rather than a soci
ological one, that it is merely a 'geographical expression'. As such it can be used as a
convenient short-hand label, but in itself it has no sociological meaning.

(Newby 1980: 8)

Newby sought a sociology of the rural that was also engaged with the business of theorising as 'there can be no theory of rural society without a theory of society . . .

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