Rural sociology is a discipline that examines the social and economic organization, evolution and interaction among residents of communities containing a small percentage of a national population. The primary aim of rural sociology is to generate an improvement in the social and living conditions of the people inhabiting the land. Rural sociology originated as a discipline in teaching and research as a part of the general desire to improve American agricultural life. A large proportion of the subject matter is based on the statistical analysis of farm and rural populations created during field studies.
Rural sociology's early practitioners were active members of the American Sociological Society, later renamed as the American Sociological Association; 1937 saw the founding of the independent Rural Sociological Society (RSS), which promoted teaching, research, and outreach. The university land-grant system, founded by the Morrill Land-Grant College Acts of 1862 and 1890, was brought in to benefit and enhance the study of rural communities. The creation of these acts allowed Connecticut and thirteen other states to establish agricultural experiment stations to specifically address and investigate the development of practical agricultural information for ranchers and rural farmers.
The movement culminated in 1887 with the passing of the Hatch Act, which forged the federal-state partnership for funding agricultural science. This was followed by the 1914 Smith-Lever public service counterpart act. These acts provided ordinary people with access to their state universities for assistance and advice. Early rural sociology programs and their research were and continue to be mostly affiliated with institutional partnerships between universities and agricultural experiment stations along with cooperative extension both at the state level and with counterparts in the United States Department of Agriculture.
Following the pioneering the work of American sociologists WE.B. DuBois and F.H. Gidding, rural sociology became significantly influenced by the Country Life Commission created by President Theodore Roosevelt. A 1909 report by the commission looking at twelve rural communities highlighted problems of crime, poverty, and population change. The governance of many rural communities at that time revealed the urgent need for a land-grant system in order to devote social science expertise to solve these problems. The 1925 creation of the Purnell Act expanded federal commitment to experiment station research by funding studies in agricultural economics, rural sociology, and home economics. Trends became increasingly urban and industrialized in the post–World War II United States, leading to rural sociology's loss of stature. The public policy process and programs diminished with the dismantling of New Deal programs in the 1940s and the Division of Farm Population's successor, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, in 1953.
The final quarter of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in rural sociology. In 1976 the first committee meeting organized by the International Rural Sociology Association (IRSA) was held to draw attention to the impact of globalization on rural development. The association has networks and branches in every continent, and holds a congress every four years. Sociology of agriculture became the new label that drew on this research history. As part of this development, new areas of research began to include the social significance of women in agriculture, new biotechnologies, the expansion of industrialized agriculture and agribusiness, and the globalization of agro-industrialized systems. In their 1988 book Rural Sociology and the Environment, Don Field and William Burch Jr. recognized important connections between aspects of agricultural sociology, natural resource sociology, and human ecology. They termed this research field "agro-ecology", and proposed it serve as a definitive guide for rural development and as a critical component of applied environmental sociology.
Gary Goreham's The Encyclopedia of Rural America (1997) is considered to be the most comprehensive inventory of its kind, containing articles by prominent rural sociologists and other scholars over the course of 232 topics which vary from agriculture, rural industries, rural youth, the elderly, women and minority groups, crime, culture, technology, and natural resources and the environment. Community and economic development continue to be important research and policy issues. Economic globalization challenges rural communities everywhere. While many businesses and manufacturing companies seek out lower-cost production areas and lucrative markets, rural communities continue to seek ways in which to overcome infrastructural, capital, resource, and policy obstacles to promote development and competitiveness.
Rural sociologists are called on by others to research and assist in action programs because it is believed that they will maintain a high degree of objectivity. People preparing for professional work in rural areas such as teachers, ministers, and even lawyers and physicians, now study rural sociology as a part of their professional training.