Chapter 4: Understanding Community in Rural Society

In Chapter 4, “Understanding Community in Rural Society,” we discuss the different characteristics and roles of community in rural spaces. While some scholars have questioned if urbanization has weakened the bonds of community, this chapter argues that urbanization has simply transformed the nature of relationships and the kinds of spaces where community interaction occurs. When examining the nature of community, sociologists broadly use two complementary approaches—community as a field of social interaction and community as a social system. This chapter discusses the ways in which strong community organization contributes to personal and collective wellbeing.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. Does community only exist within a geographic context? How might genuine community exist outside of geographic space? In your opinion, to what extent does it make sense to consider virtual communities as legitimate community forms?

2. What is the difference between bonding and bridging social capital? Provide some examples of each. Discuss negative results of excessively strong bonding social capital. How might these communities be exploited?

3. Do you think there are fundamental differences between urban and rural communities? What do you think is the relationship, if any, between urbanization and community?

4. What are the various ways, both formal and informal, that community boundaries are created, maintained, challenged, and contested? What does this suggest about the relationship between community and power? Discuss how a “power elite” power structure diminishes local democracy.

5. What role does “community” play in both the larger political economy and in the daily lives of people?


1. Are Personal Identities Shaped by Place? This classroom exercise can be done in small groups or with the entire class, depending on class size. Ask students to write 5 personal attributes that define their identity on a piece of paper. Be careful not to use a leading question, such as: “What attributes of where you live are part of your personal identity?” However, one of the goals is to investigate how place attributes may contribute to one’s personal identity. Students should then share their identities. The discussion leader should verbally extract attributes that are associated with place of residence. How many class members included at least one place attribute as part of their identity? What attributes were identified? Why or why not? This will help illuminate how where one lives contributes to personal identity. Encourage discussion of why this might matter in regard to place attachment, the likelihood of becoming involved in local issues, etc.

2. Defining “Community.” Pass around index cards and ask students to spend 5 minutes composing a working definition of “community.” Either in small groups or as a whole class, share out definitions and identify the different elements of the definitions. Which elements were most often mentioned? Which were least mentioned? To what extent do definitions invoke place? To what extent do they reflect positive associations with community? To what extent do they suggest the way communities may exclude folks, thoughts, ideas, etc. (e.g., through boundary maintenance)?

3. Representations of Community in Art. This exercise is an adaptation of the exercise for Chapter 2 (Urbanization and Population Redistribution). This time, instead of identifying urban and rural themes in works of art, ask students to identify the various ways in which “community” is represented. As before, split the class into small groups. Take the class to a campus museum. If there is not a museum, go to the website of a major art museum. Walk through the museum together for 10-15 minutes so that students can get the lay of the land. Then, student groups should circulate on their own. Each group should identify at least two works that they interpret as representing different aspects of community. Encourage students not to restrict choice to representational pieces, or to paintings, drawings, and so forth. Sculpture, non-representational pieces, and performance art are all acceptable. Emphasize that this is interpretative—there is no “right” or “wrong.” What matters is what they see in the respective works. Each group should prepare a 1-page brief describing the community themes in the works and their logic in making their observations. Include the respective work’s artist, date made, location in the museum or website, and a photo of the piece, if allowed. In the next class, each group should present their report and engage in discussion.