Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Energy and the Rural Sociological Imagination

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Energy and the Rural Sociological Imagination

Article excerpt

Ultimately, society and possibly our species will succeed or fail based on how we deal with three basic human needs, food, water and energy. The overall success or measure of society should be of significant concern to rural sociologists. After all, our task is to study human society-its organization, its functioning, its transformation of material and space. We study the application of human labor to various purposes, issues of equality and inequality, social stratification, power and governance, ownership of and access to critical natural, social, and economic resources. To date, the dominant tradition in rural sociology has involved a detailed examination of social dimensions of our food system, particularly food production. This has been an appropriate line of enquiry as food is a critical resource to the reproduction and flourishing of human society and one that occurs primarily in rural space. A rural sociology of water, I believe, could be another fruitful line of enquiry, but that is a topic for another day. To date, the attention rural sociologists have paid to food and agriculture is grossly disproportionate to the attention paid to energy. A rural sociology of energy, I believe, could be a boon to the discipline and a boon to rural-themed social science journals. Whether we ultimately choose to study the phenomenon more intensively or not, energy issues will continue to have profound effects on rural lives and rural places.

The purpose of this manuscript is to provide an overview of past contributions that rural sociologists have made in rural-themed journals to our understanding of the social consequences of energy generation and development, energy transmission, and energy consumption. These aspects of energy have shaped rural life and dramatically altered rural landscapes but to date have not received much scholarly attention in journals devoted to rural social science. The primary focus of this manuscript is inattention to rural energy themes in the United States and Canada, though I review several international journals as well. The decline in farm population (Dewar, Tait, and Wang 2009; Dmitri, Effland, and Conklin 2005), and "traditional rural culture" in Canada and the United States has led to periodic crises for North American rural sociology, in part because the discipline has been closely tied to one sector, agriculture. Attention to energy extraction, production, transmission and distribution as a social and economic driver in rural places could add some thematic diversity and be a boon to the discipline. Energy social science is growing in leaps and bounds and my sincere hope is that the scholarship devoted to energy impacts on rural places is held in journals and conferences devoted to rural scholarship.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that rural sociologists have and are making important contributions scholarship at the intersection of energy issues and sociological phenomena. My argument is that until very recently, these contributions have been made by mavericks seeking opportunities outside the main rural social science journals. I suggest that our collective attention to energy issues in rural social science journals have been scant relative to the opportunity that exists. The social impacts of current and forthcoming energy transitions, whether unconventional oil and gas development, renewable and/or distributed energy systems, will be profound for rural places and rural people. Traditional occupations will change. Communities will need to respond to a changing climate and changing policy and investment trends. All these developments present an opportunity to the discipline.

The title of this manuscript pays homage to C. Wright Mills (1959) who popularized the idea of the sociological imagination. It is a term interpreted in many ways, but at its essence it refers to taking a broad view of societal phenomena. It suggests a nonexclusive brand of scholarship that combines history, politics, economics, psychology, and sociology to examine how things are, what happened in the past to make things the way they are, and ultimately to imagine how things might be different. …

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