Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wrestling with rural identity

One of the most fundamental elements of the academic discussion on “ruralism” includes the struggle to define “rural,” and the stereotyping of the rural that goes along with the its various definitions. In Professor Pruitt’s Gender, Geography and Rural Justice, she compares some of the standard definitions of the rural (some are by population, others are by geographic region or industry), yet notes that rurality is rarely “the sole dimension of identification,” and should be defined broadly.

However, city dwellers may think defining the rural is an easier feat from their “outsider perspective.” If you ask urbanites what they think about when imagining the rural, a common response might be to link the rural with farming and agriculture. While much of rural America does thrive on the agricultural industry, farming is not always a complete picture of the rural. Many rural towns are heavily dependent on extraction or other industries, and farming may seem like a world away. Perhaps the “rural farmer” is the more prominent image to come to mind (rather than “the miner” or “the driller”) because it is the traditional definition. Or, perhaps the farmer model fits more easily within the stereotype of the rural idyll, conjuring an image of purity and tranquility.

Stephanie Larsen, the Assistant Director for the Center for Rural Affairs in northeastern Nebraska, would oppose this automatic linkage of the rural with farming. Although she identifies as a “rural person” who has recently taken up farming as a hobby, she wrestles with whether she is, in fact, a farmer. In her recent article for Grist Magazine “I’m Coming Out—As a Farmer," Stephanie grapples with what exactly being a “legitimate” farmer depends on: Is it the percentage of your income that comes from working the land? Is it the number of hours you devote to the land? Is it how much you know about gardening and livestock?

It’s fascinating to look at some of the reader comments on Larsen's article. One reader says it depends on whether Larsen conducts herself as a business, taking stock of the market prices for products and responding accordingly. Another reader says it simply depends on her state of mind—does she intend to be a farmer? Like the definition of “rural,” it seems “farmer” is also a broader term than one might think.

Even though scholars tend to agree that the meaning of “rural” is multi-dimensional, it appears that narrowing the definition to account for particular characteristics of the rural, such as the occupational identity of “farmer” and the like, may not be sufficient. While a singular definition of “rural” might never be possible, it does seem important to strive for at least a range of widely-recognized meanings. For one thing, an accurate portrayal of the rural might make it easier for Larsen to identify her own role in her community. Additionally, and importantly, defining the rural accurately could have various social implications. By raising awareness of the realities of the rural, an accurate definition could increase social visibility of rural areas, and perhaps even contribute to a more equitable distribution of resources.

1 comment:

Chez Marta said...

One problem with the definition of anything is that we either can define ourselves, or let others do the defining for us. I am not sure which way to go: is the definition of rural livelihood that it is associated with the farmlands, living at or near the farmlands, living at a place below a certain population - but not in a suburb or exurb of a major metro area? Who knows, but more importantly, who really cares how the farmer defines herself, when we can comfortably sit back and continue to ignore them in our policies, in our division of labor, in our disbursement of funds?