Chapter 1: Rurality in Metropolitan Societies

In Chapter 1, “Rurality in Metropolitan Societies,” we introduce the intellectual legacy of rural studies before embarking on our discussion of the reasons why rural people and places matter in contemporary society. Given the ambiguous definition of rural, this chapter examines two rural definition approaches that will guide our discussion—the locational, or place-based, approach and the social constructivist, or symbolic, approach. This chapter also begins to examine how pro-rural/anti-urban imaginaries are created through the rural mystique or the rural idyll. After giving a brief overview of the chapters that follow, this introduction sets the intention of encouraging the reader to take rural people and communities under consideration within a wide range of social, economic, and environmental discussions at all levels of society—situating rural as still relevant in the modern age.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. How would you know if you were in an urban or a rural area? For example, if you were driving for several hours, what aspects of the landscape would you be looking for to determine whether you were in an urban or a rural place?

2. Do you think there are specific urban and rural identities? Do you think people tend to think about themselves as urban or rural with regard to their personal identities? Why or why not?

3. As discussed in this chapter, urban and rural are social constructs that can be approached as either material constructions defined by concrete place-based attributes (locational) or sets of cultural elements that affect how persons imagine community (social). Why might it be important to use both constructs when thinking about the future of rural populations, communities, economies, and institutions?

4. What might be missed if only one construct is used in isolation? What challenges in policy and practice may arise due to the multi-dimensional definition of rural?

5. Why is it important to define rural by what it is, rather than by what urban is not?


1. Determining Urban & Rural Places. Go to a site like Pexels,which contain public domain images, and identify 8-10 images of landscapes from across the rural-urban spectrum that include human habitation. Ask students to determine by vote which images are rural, which are urban, and which are ambiguous. After you have reviewed all images, as a group, discuss the differences. Which images are unanimously determined to be urban or rural? Which images are more difficult to identify as either urban or rural? Why is this the case and what criteria do we use to identify what is urban and what is rural? Discuss.

2. Defining Rural. Prompt the students to share what rural means to them: “What is the definition of rural?” Have them discuss, either in pairs or groups, and share with the group. List the responses where the class can see them (e.g., a whiteboard) and categorize the definitions into material or social definitions. Which definitions define rurality as residual, what is left over once urban is accounted for?

3. Socialized into Beliefs About Rural & Urban Places. How do people learn about what is urban and rural? How are people socialized to understand the nature of urban and rural spaces? Identify a variety of experiences and sources of information people use to make these distinctions. Which judgments are based on actual firsthand experiences (e.g., with family, schools, peers) and which are based on indirect information (e.g., from the media, music, and other arts)? What are the implications that are associated with both positive and negative stereotypes?

4. Imagining Rural. What can we learn about the way that people understand and imagine what rural is, how it’s constituted, and who rural people are based on cultural constructions of rural? The following video clips can be understood as cultural constructions that employ rural imaginaries—albeit with very specific differences. While they may be understood as cultural constructions, they nonetheless speak to (and reinforce!) already existing ideas about rural people and places. Nonetheless, they are powerful fictions that have different kinds of cultural resonance. What are the imaginaries of rurality that these video clips reference? Can you categorize them? What are the similarities, if any, and how can the contradictory ways in which rurality is represented be explained?

Cultural Production 1: The dueling banjos scene from the movie Deliverance

Cultural Production 2: Paul Harvey’s “God Made a Farmer” as a 2013 Superbowl advertisements for Dodge Ram trucks

Cultural Production 3: Excerpt from an Appalshop documentary on Mabel Parker Hardison Smith