Reflexivity, Sociology and the Rural-Urban Distinction in Marx, Tonnies and Weber

By Bonner, Kieran | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Reflexivity, Sociology and the Rural-Urban Distinction in Marx, Tonnies and Weber


Bonner, Kieran, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


a . . . disquieting quality of modernism: its taste for appropriating or redeeming otherness, for constituting non-Western arts in its own image, for discovering universal, ahistorical "human" capacities. (Clifford, 1988: 193)

As we readily recognize from media coverage, the urban-rural distinction is alive in popular imagination. Television programs such as North of 60, Picket Fences, NYPD Blue and E.R. display a contrast in ways of living which rural and urban settings are said to represent. The debate in the Canadian parliament on the gun registration bill (1995) was said to have been organized on rural-urban lines. Surveys (e.g., Yerxa, 1992) and popular radio programs (such the CBC's Morningside) claim that a rural setting is often preferred for the superior "quality of life" it offers and for being a good place to raise children.(1)

The urban-rural debate has long been addressed in sociology. Yet, despite its place in popular culture, as a concept, the distinction is said to be sociologically irrelevant, at least according to Pahl (1968) and Gans (1968). The globalization (Giddens, 1991) and the mediatization (Meyrowitz, 1985) of modern society seem to have made the distinctions developed by the sociologists in the late nineteenth century irrelevant for the late twentieth century. Is the urban-rural distinction a modernist conceptualization which now has no relevance in these so-called postmodern times?

In this paper I will show that by making use of contemporary developments in sociology (phenomenology, hermeneutics, poststructuralism and dialectical analysis), the classic contributions of Marx, Tonnies and Weber can be analysed to show the way they participate in and foreshadow the modern and post-modern debate. The paper also argues that the most important contribution of contemporary theoretical developments to sociology is the recognition of the importance of the need to include reflexivity in the process of inquiry. This article, therefore, demonstrates how contemporary theoretical developments can be used to help understand the meaning that the urban-rural distinction had for Marx, Tonnies and Weber. Though written from a standpoint of familiarity with interpretive sociology (a familiarity shared by many Canadian sociologists), the subject matter (the classical tradition and the urban-rural debate) and the point (the need for reflexive sociology) are of concern for the whole tradition.(2)

While distinctions between city and country are almost as old as Western culture itself (Williams, 1973), it is the rise of modernity in general and of the Industrial Revolution in particular which generated the sociological debate about the positive and/or negative consequences of this new development. As Sennett remarks, "up to the time of the Industrial Revolution, the city was taken by most social thinkers to be the image of society itself, and not some special, unique form of society" (1969: 3). The country, whether in its pastoral (Theocritus) or agricultural (Hesiod) representation, was synonymous with nature, i.e., the fertility of spring and summer in contrast to the barrenness and accident of winter (Williams, 1973: 13-34). The rapid changes in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution focussed and organized the theorizing and research concerning urban-rural differences. In particular, the drastic shift in population from rural to urban centres meant that within a period of 100 years, many societies, that had been demographically rural for centuries, became demographically urban.(3) In turn, this change challenged social theorists to reflect on the meaning and influence of urban and rural social organization. For social theorists who sought to understand the transformation in urban and rural life initiated by the industrial revolution, the urban-rural distinction no longer referenced the difference between corruptness of society and the purity of nature (Rousseau) but rather presented social theorists with two different kinds of social organization. …

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