April 30, 2004

New Book Looks at Changing Rurality in America

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A new book, Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century, co-edited by Prof. David L. Brown, development sociology and Prof. Louis Swanson, chair of sociology, Colorado State University, addresses the challenges faced by a changing rural America in the new millennium.

The book investigates the changing rural populations, economy and development of policy that affects these areas as well as their natural resources, say Brown and Swanson in the book’s introduction. The book reviews the sweeping changes which have occurred in the last 20 years, Swanson said.

“Rurality is a very multidimensional concept. [It] has to do with populations, [it] has to do with economy, [it] has to do with institutions,” said Brown, also director of the Polson Institute for Global Development at Cornell. “[It] has to do with social cultural dimensions.”

The book is a compendium of short pieces written by experts in different fields relating to the topic of rural America, with over 50 authors contributing to 30 chapters.

“This being a new millennium, [the book] became even more appropriate,” Swanson said.

The book, sponsored by the Rural Sociological Society at Pennsylvania State University, is third in a series that occurs every 10 years about public policy and rural issues. As past presidents of the Rural Sociological Society, Brown and Swanson were asked to edit the book.

Published as part of the societies’ Rural Studies Series, “the intent [of the book] was to take stock of where we have come in the last 10 years of rural sociological research,” said Prof. Leif Jensen, rural sociology, Pennsylvania State University, director of the Population Research Institute and editor of the Rural Studies Series. “These volumes tend to be attentive to issues of policy.”

There are many ways to define rural America, Brown said. Most of the chapters in the book use the official statistical definition used by the United States government, which differentiates between urban and rural, metropolitan and non-metropolitan.

“It’s an undifferentiated residual,” Brown said, commenting on the official statistical definition of rural America. “My objection is that rural America is quite diverse. And those statistical systems really ought to recognize that diversity.”

Swanson said that it is important to address the challenges of rural America “because rural people are inherently important to the rest of society.”

“Regardless of how you divide up the pie, rural America accounts for about 55 million Americans, and that’s about 20 percent of our population,” Brown said. “20 percent is a large minority, however you look at it.”

Additionally, Brown said that the economic conditions and natural resources of rural America add to the importance of addressing its challenges.

“We’ve had a pattern of uneven development in the United States,” Brown said. “There are about 3,000 counties in the United States. Over 500 of those counties have had a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher since 1960, and all of them are rural counties.”

As a rural resource, “about 79 percent of the nation’s land area are located in rural areas,” Brown said.

“People consistently over time say they care about rural areas in this country,” Brown said, based on the results of dozens of attitude surveys done in the United States.

Brown said that those surveyed indicate that they are willing to spend public money to help rural communities, and that shapes public policy.

According to Brown, the book was written at a level that would be useful to policy makers as well as for use in the classroom.

“One of the things that’s nice about this [book] is that there’s a mix of established rural scholars and also a lot of younger scholars who were involved in writing the individual chapters,” said Jensen.

Six Cornell development sociologists also wrote chapters in the book, according to a Cornell press release. Prof. Angela A. Gonzales, development sociology; Prof. Thomas A. Hirschl, development sociology; Prof. Thomas A. Lyson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Rural Sociology; Prof. Philip McMichael, chair of development sociology; Prof. Mildred E. Warner Ph.D. ’97, city and regional planning and senior research associate Nina Glasgow, development sociology.

The Rural Studies Series “produces volumes that focus on issues of concern to rural people, communities [and] also agriculture. The volumes can be both domestic in focus and international in focus. Most of the volumes have a domestic focus,” Jensen said. “The purpose [of the series] is to basically draw on the research and expertise of rural sociologists and other rural social scientists to inform a wider audience of the circumstances of rural life today.”

Archived article by Michelle Seo
Sun Contributor