Rurality in Post Industrial Society

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Paper prepared for the conference ‘New Forms of Urbanization: Conceptualizing and Measuring Human Settlement in the Twenty-first Century’, organized by the IUSSP Working Group on Urbanization and held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, 11-15 March 2002.

Paper 14

David L. Brown and John B. Cromartie∗ Draft 2/15/02

INTRODUCTION Urbanization is a dynamic social and economic process that transforms societies from primarily rural to primarily urban ways of life (Hauser, 1965). Few would dispute this definition, but how useful is it for examining the spatial reorganization of population and economic activities in postindustrial societies where a large majority of people, jobs, and organizations are concentrated in or dominated by urban agglomerations? The essence of this question hinges on our ability to differentiate between what is rural and urban in postindustrial societies. While this may have been a relatively straightforward task during the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, it has become an exceedingly complex question in the context of postindustrialization.

We acknowledge the helpful comments of Calvin Beale, Kai Schafft, Laszlo Kulcsar, and the conference organizers Tony Champion and Graeme Hugo. Brenda Creeley prepared the manuscript.

Early social scientists saw urbanization and industrialization as being reciprocally related. One process could not proceed without the other. While most scholars understood that urban and rural were not entirely discrete categories, relatively clear lines could be drawn to distinguish urban from rural communities and distinct ways of life associated with each. In addition, early social scientists were convinced that the transformation from rural to urban-industrial society would be accompanied by a wide range of negative social outcomes. In fact, this concern is generally credited with motivating the rise of the new discipline of Sociology (Marx, 1976; Durkheim, 1951; Weber, 1968; Wirth, 1938). The social and economic organization of community life has been thoroughly transformed by technological and institutional changes since the mid 20th century. Accordingly, notions of what constitutes urban and rural communities that grew out of the era of industrialization may no longer offer a reliable lens with which to view contemporary settlement structures. They may no longer provide a reliable delineation of what is urban and what is rural, and consequently we may not be able to determine whether the level of urbanization is advancing, declining, or remaining constant. As a consequence, our analyses of population redistribution may bear little connection to the reality of spatial reorganization. The large literature on counter-urbanization, to which we are both contributors, may be missing the mark because it depends on data systems and geo-coding schemes that reflect a prior era of socio-spatial organization. Hence, our purpose in this paper is to propose a multidimensional approach for conceptualizing rurality that reflects the demographic, social, economic and institutional realities of postindustrial society. We agree with Halfacree (1993: p.34) that “…the quest for an all-embracing definition of the rural is neither desirable nor feasible,” but we believe that social science can and should develop conceptual frameworks and geo-coding schemes to situate localities according to their degree of rurality. Since rurality is a multidimensional concept, the degree of rurality should be judged against a composite definition that includes key social, economic and demographic attributes. This approach rejects the notion of rural as a residual (after urban has been measured). The operationalization of rurality should be flexible enough to differentiate urban from rural, while recognizing and appreciating the diversity contained within each category. Our approach to...
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