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rural geography

  The study of people, places and environments in rural areas, with special reference to society, economy, politics and culture in the developed world, although such study can also be applied to Third World contexts. Rural geographers have widely differing interests, and are often closely associated with interdisciplinary research in rural areas with sociologists, economists and agricultural specialists. Indeed, in the USA there is little evidence of a specific sub-discipline called \'rural geography\'.

Rural areas have traditionally been important to geography. The studies of rural settlement patterns by Paul Vidal de la Blache and Albert Demangeon, and the ensuing concern for agricultural land use and settlement systems, stemming in part from the classical models of von Thünen and Christaller, ensured that most human geographers would be familiar with aspects of rural space (see von Thünen model).With the demise of regional geography, however, rural areas were relatively neglected in geography until a distinctly demarcated subject area of \'rural geography\' emerged in the 1970s. Prompted by Hugh Clout\'s (1972) book Rural geography: an introductory survey, the agricultural focus of rural work was expanded to cover aspects of society, economy and land, and the literature of rural geography burgeoned in the 1970s and 1980s; covering, for example, accessibility, agriculture, employment, housing, land use, recreation and rural planning (see Cloke, 1985). Initially, there was a phase of resurgence for rural geography, particularly in parts of Europe, Canada and Australasia, but by the 1980s the band-wagon was again losing momentum. The general appetite for new information on the changing rural milieu had been satiated, and new challenges were required in order to generate fresh energy. In particular, rural geographers were urged to be more policy-orientated and more theoretically informed.

During the early 1980s much of rural geography was characterized by a form of \'applied positivism\'. In this way rural geographers began to tackle issues relating to problems of policy and planning in rural areas, and yet were unwilling to replace their technical role with one which engaged directly with politics and ideology. In some cases, rural geography was therefore seen to be \'broadly theory-free\' (Gilg, 1985, p. 172), while others saw the sub-discipline as \'tinkering with existing socio-economic conditions in order to weaken the impress of malevolent trends [while failing] to recognise that the process which brought about current maldistributions … are inherent in policy procedures\' (Hoggart and Buller, 1987, p. 267).

This perceived bankruptcy of explanations of change grounded in neo-classical economics and positivist recording of trends provided a significant impulse to the wider acceptance of political-economic concepts in the understanding of socio-spatial phenomena. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the strong backing of progress being made by critical rural sociologists, there was a greater willingness to develop a research agenda founded on a series of key themes: the role of economic restructuring in bringing about uneven development; the recognition that restructuring does not occur in a social vacuum and that social recomposition occurs both as a shaping mechanism for restructuring, and in response to it; the equally valid — yet less publicized — recognition that economic restructuring and social recomposition do not occur in an environmental vacuum, and that environmental recomposition is also relevant; and the role of the state in mediating or organizing change (see Cloke, 1990). With this agenda, rural geographers began to address several crucial questions: How attractive are particular areas to capital accumulation under contemporary modes of regulation? How and why are particular areas attractive to people seeking a \'rural experience\', and how does the structuring and experience of rural lifestyle differ according to gender, age, ethnicity and localism? What public intervention is necessary for conservation purposes in processes of environmental recomposition? How and why does the state intervene to make rural places more attractive? These themes encompass both the traditional emphasis of rural geography on the agricultural sector (dealing particularly with issues of pluriactivity, diversification, environmental and landscape impacts, the international food chain and policies of deregulation) and the broader task of bringing together a range of economic, social and political considerations in rural areas (including industrialization and the service sector, commodification, privatization, settlement rationalization, counterurbanization, gentrification, poverty, accessibility and citizenship).

Most recently, geographers have been seeking to bring postmodern, post-structural, and a-modern understandings of society-space, structure-agency, nature-society and self-other to bear on rural issues. Rurality is increasingly being recognized as a series of socio-cultural constructs, with \'rural\' thus being increasingly interpreted as a world of social, moral and cultural values in which both rural dwellers and others participate. Social spaces of rurality are no longer seen necessarily to overlap with geographical spaces of rurality, as cultural constructs of the rural pervade various aspects of representation and consumption in wider society (Halfacree, 1993). This bifurcation has been regarded by some as constituting a \'post-rural\' condition (Murdoch and Pratt, 1993).

Equally, there has been a championing of difference within these rural worlds, with a particular focus on rural others (Cloke and Little, 1997; cf. other/otherness). There has, however, been considerable disagreement over how to handle the identity politics of otherness in rural areas, with the wish for other voices to \'speak for themselves\' being set against a wish to identify and challenge the power relations which bring about political and cultural discrimination against others (see Philo, 1992, 1993; Murdoch and Pratt, 1993, 1994). The cultural turn has brought many new insights to rural geography, but there remains a strong inclination to set these insights alongside political-economic understandings of marginalization and social exclusion. (PJC)

References Cloke, P. 1985: Whither rural studies? Journal of Rural Studies 1: 1-10. Cloke, P. 1990: Rural geography and political economy. In R. Peet and N. Thrift, eds, New models in geography, vol. 1. London: Unwin Hyman. Cloke, P. and Little, J., eds, 1997: Contested countryside cultures: otherness, marginalization and rurality. London: Routledge. Clout, H. 1972: Rural geography: an introductory survey. Oxford: Pergamon. Gilg, A. 1985: An introduction to rural geography. London: Edward Arnold. Halfacree, K. 1993: Locality and social representation: space, discourse and alternative definitions of the rural. Journal of Rural Studies 9: 23-38. Hoggart, K. and Buller, H. 1987: Rural development: a geographical perspective. London: Croom Helm. Murdoch, J. and Pratt, A. 1993: Rural studies: modernism, postmodernism and the post-rural. Journal of Rural Studies 9: 411-28. Murdoch, J. and Pratt, A. 1994: Rural studies of power and the power of rural studies: a reply to Philo. Journal of Rural Studies 10: 83-8. Philo, C. 1992: Neglected rural geographies: a review. Journal of Rural Studies 8: 193-208. Philo, C. 1993: Post-modern rural geography? Journal of Rural Studies 9: 429-36.

Suggested Reading Cloke, P. 1997: Country backwater to virtual village? Rural studies and \'the cultural turn\'. Journal of Rural Studies 13: 367-76. Flora, C.B., Flora, J.L., Spears, J.D., Swanson, L.E., Lapping, M.B. and Weinberg, M.L. 1992: Rural communities: legacy and change. Boulder, CO: Westview. Ilbery, B., ed., 1998: The geography of rural change. Harlow: Longman. Marsden, T., Murdoch, J., Lowe, P., Munton, R. and Flynn, A. 1993: Constructing the countryside. London: University College London Press. Phillips, M. 1998: The restructuring of social imaginations in rural geography. Journal of Rural Studies 14: 121-53.



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