Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

An Unexpected Legacy: Women, Early Rural Sociological Research, and the Limits of Linearity

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

An Unexpected Legacy: Women, Early Rural Sociological Research, and the Limits of Linearity

Article excerpt


We often think of history in linear terms: past as prologue, one event following another, one year leading into the next. In a Rostowian-styled model of development, this kind of linear progression prefigures not only conceptualizations about the past, but also assumptions about the present. This paper reexamines the unexpected appearance of women and women's lives embedded in early rural sociological research to consider how implicit assumptions about the past prefigure what we expect to "see" and influence the way we make sense of it.

How do we engage the past?1 Is it something that exists far back in time separating us from a long ago yesterday? Does the way in which we conceptualize the past affect how we think about our intellectual heritage? With the recent commemoration of the Rural Sociological Society's 75th anniversary in 2012 and the 100th anniversary of the American Sociological Association (Blasi 2005; Calhoun 2007a), questions such as these hold particular relevance.

By establishing and/or reinforcing a particular past as shared, collective commemorations such as anniversaries play important roles in identity formation, solidarity, and group boundaries (Assmann 2008; Assman and Czaplicka 1995; Jansen 2007; Jedlowski 2001; Schwartz 1998). In other words, the manner in which the past is recounted reinforces a particular collective identity. As a result, moments of collective remembering can raise questions about how we view and engage our history. Do we leave it to the past or do we see memory not as something retrieved, but as something that is constructed, as Halbwachs argued ([1925] 1992; Maier 1999; Pléh 2000)?

When it comes to thinking about the past, while it is not the only framework, conceptualizations of linearity and progressive development are often implicitly employed.2 We can see them at work in some of our symbolic representations of the past such as chronologies and times lines. Embedded within representations like these can lay implicit assumptions that the linearity also represents progressive development. For disciplines, the past is often seen as moving from the simple to the more complex by overcoming the shortcomings of the past.

Yet linear frameworks of progression not only affect how we see the past. They also frame our assumptions about the present. Having overcome or addressed previous shortcomings, the present is assumed to be more developed than what came before. For disciplines and disciplinary history, it assumes an accumulating nature to the field's theory, methods, and knowledge.

Once we assume that our theoretical models and methods of analysis have overcome earlier shortcomings, they are often seen as more mature and more developed than those that came before. Bounded by echoes of evolutionary models, in this approach previous achievements become viewed as outdated, with little relevance and little bearing on what we do today. Inconsequential for how we engage the contemporary world, the past becomes constructed as a historical object disconnected from the present - a kind of archeological landscape consisting of dates to be recalled and artifacts to be displayed, particularly at times of commemoration.

Using research conducted on the USDA's Division of Farm Population and Rural Life (DFPRL), the following analysis examines how assumptions about the past can prefigure and delimit what we see and how we interpret it. To do this, the unexpected discovery within our history is used: the appearance of women and women's lives embedded in some of our early research. While the USDA's DFPRL has been considered elsewhere (Larson and Zimmerman 2003; Zimmerman 2008), the following draws from the more detailed analysis in Zimmerman and Larson (2010) to approach the work from a different perspective and it includes details not included in the original work.


In the late 1980s, former members of the unit's professional staff Olaf F. …

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