Tuesday, March 1, 2011

More thoughts on the foundation of rurality

Our class discussion today about metronormativity and the LGBT community left me thinking again about one of the underlying themes of this semester: What defines the rural? Is it simply a matter of spatiality (i.e., small populations relatively cut off from certain resources and services) molding social norms, or is there something unique about rurality that one might distinguish from the physical rural environment? Is there a “type” of person attracted to particular spatial challenges, and therefore a rural culture/psychology that chooses its space, rather than the other way around?

Such a choice between culture and space presents a largely false dichotomy. Neither the chicken nor the egg properly comes before the other; each inherits characteristics from its counterpart and introduces its own variations in the ongoing sequence of evolution. However, such a back-and-forth between two forces does not necessarily imply an equal balance of influence. In the case of rurality, I believe the balance between culture and environment tilts decidedly in favor of the latter. In the end, spatiality provides the most powerful constant behind what we would describe as rural.

I began by mentioning that the idea of metronormativity led me down this particular rabbit trail, so I should explain that term. As is relevant for this blog, metronormativity posits that rural communities are relatively hostile to the LGBT community, so the only true path to fulfillment as an LGBT person is to escape to urban oases of tolerance. See Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subculture Lives 34-37 (NYU Press 2005); Bud W. Jerke, Queer Ruralism, 34 Harv. J.L. & Gender 259 (2011).

However, as our discussion today brought up, recent studies indicate that hostility toward LGBT people is roughly proportional between rural and urban communities. In no sense are cities free of bullying and homophobic violence. Indeed, there are even decades-old lesbian and gay oases in rural communities that enjoy considerable tolerance (if not open-armed acceptance) from their supposedly intolerant neighbors, possibly due to the stereotypical rural respect for solitude and privacy.

Here, then, is another example – and a powerful one at that – of how deeply varied and complex rurality is. It can be amenity-rich and prosperous, or it can be barren of resources and steeped in poverty. It can revolve around agriculture, rustic tourism, or extraction economies. It can be comprised of a handful of families who have lived in the same area for generations, or it can consist of recent urban refugees bearing new money and gentrification. And last, it supports “values” that can lead to unspeakable violence or to acceptance of diversity.

Underlying these alternative manifestations of rurality, the only true constant is the physical environment. The people involved share similar space, but they vary wildly in the norms they have established within that space. In defining “rural,” then, the lodestar must be spatiality. There is no more reliable characteristic.


RH said...

Great post.

This isn't my idea, I think it was from one of the readings, but while I agree that the physical environment is the only constant feature of rural places, the physical environment doesn't explain, at least in my mind, why we should pay special attention to one place over another.

It seems to me that we have to look at the unique circumstances of an individual rural area and see how the people have been affected by their physical environment and other relevant circumstances in order to learn anything useful. For example, it would be silly (at least in my mind), to fund development of public transportation in rural areas, and only use spatial isolation as the criteria for what towns would be classified as "rural" and therefore qualify for funding. If the goal of the transportation program was to help poor rural people get access to faraway jobs, we wouldn't want those funds going to a rich but isolated resort community.

I guess I just think that attaching the "rural" label to a place doesn't really tell us much.

lauren said...

Thanks for the post. I think the more and more we read about rural issues, the further we move from being able to define what rural is. So in some ways I agree that the most closely held similarity between rural areas are the physical characteristics, or the lack of population density. That said, even commonalities with regards to physical characteristics do not allow us to really create a single definition. As we discussed earlier this semester, a rural definition depends on what issue you are examining. Our discussions and reading on metronormativity brought up still more possibilities of how to define rural. I had never heard about the radical faerie communities and thought it was extremely interesting.