In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rural Sociology

  • Introduction
  • Books
  • Journals
  • Community Studies and Community Development
  • Diffusion of Innovations

Sociology Rural Sociology
Nick Garcia, Linda Lobao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0154


Rural sociology is a unique area of sociological inquiry. Its institutional development leaves it perhaps the most independent of all sociological subfields. Rural sociology in the United States emerged in the early 20th century when federal funding was earmarked to the land grant universities (public universities) to study and assist the farm population. Separate “rural” sociology departments appeared gradually within colleges of agriculture that paralleled the substantive areas found in general sociology departments. Thus, one finds in rural sociology a replication of many core areas in general sociology but with a rural twist—inequality, demography, work/labor markets, race/ethnicity, gender, community, and so forth. Over time, additional rural-oriented specialty areas emerged, notably the sociology of agriculture and natural resource/environmental sociology. Rural sociology has also expanded globally. As a consequence, the substantive scope of contemporary research is large and varied. What knits the work together is a focus on the geographic periphery, that is, the places, populations, and forms of social activity found in rural areas globally which has provided boundary and meaning to the field. In addition to its broad substantive scope, rural sociology is characterized by a distinct research approach. Research tends to be comparative: rural places and populations are often set in contrast with regard to their urban counterparts to ascertain similarities and differences. In this way, rural sociological research is often said to challenge the urban bias of general sociology. Disciplinary practice is also distinct. While there are few departments with rural sociology in their name today, courses and specializations in the field are found across many land grant universities. There is a long tradition of cross-disciplinary linkages particularly with agricultural economics, the environmental sciences, and more recently geography. Rural sociologists have been highly active in federal, state, and local public policy circles and in public sociology efforts that contribute to community development, sustainable agricultural and food systems, and social and environmental justice. In terms of work in the profession, rural sociologists also work outside of colleges of agriculture, within government agencies, international development agencies, and across governmental and non-governmental institutions. Although rural populations will continue to decline globally, there is reason to think that rural sociology will have broad influence in the future because the research areas it encompasses are of growing interest to social scientists, policymakers, and the public at large. Issues addressed by rural sociologists pertaining to the sustainability of the food system, climate/environmental change, and rural poverty are among the most pressing public concerns today.


The Rural Sociological Society presents a Rural Studies Series to publish research in areas of significant interest. The decennial volumes in this collection, Brown, et al. 2003 and Bailey, et al. 2014, are edited by presidents of the Rural Sociological Society, soliciting expert analysis on selected topics. Shucksmith and Brown 2016 is an international volume that is responsive to global perspective on rural sociological topics. Finally, Brown and Schafft 2011 presents a current overview of rurality and community that would be appropriate for classroom reference.

  • Bailey, Connor, Leif Jensen, E. Ransom, and Rural Sociological Society. 2014. Rural America in a globalizing world: Problems and prospects for the 2010s. Morgantown: West Virginia Univ. Press.

    Released as part of the Rural Studies Series of the Rural Sociological Society, provides scholarship from a collection of over eighty prominent rural sociologists as they explain challenges and social changes in the 2010s. The collection is organized into five core areas of rural sociological study, including the changing structure of agriculture, natural resources and environment, population change, racial and ethnic diversity, communities and quality of life.

  • Brown, David L., and Kai A. Schafft. 2011. Rural people and communities in the 21st century: Resilience and transformation. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    Brown and Schafft examine environment, economy, and demography through a community framing. This provides a helpful overview of core topics within rural sociology, connecting literature and theory with descriptive examples throughout.

  • Brown, David L., Louis E. Swanson, Alan W. Barton, and Rural Sociological Society. 2003. Challenges for Rural America in the twenty-first century. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

    Released as part of the Rural Studies Series of the Rural Sociological Society, provides scholarship from a collection of over fifty prominent rural sociologists. In this collection, authors reflect on changes to rural America through the 20th century and emerging areas for public policy in the 21st century. Population change, rural families, rural economic restructuring, rural community, environment, and development are each addressed.

  • Dillman, Don A., and Daryl J. Hobbs. 1982. Rural society in the U.S: Issues for the 1980s. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    The first of four decennial volumes commissioned by the Rural Sociological Society, this collection is aimed at informing policymakers and researchers of emerging issues for rural America that arose during the 1970s. Rural migration, the energy crisis, and social impacts of farming scale are highlighted as major “intrusions” in need of further study and policy action.

  • Flora, Cornelia B., and James A. Christenson. 1991. Rural policies for the 1990s. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    The second of four decennial volumes commissioned by the Rural Sociological Society, this collection expands research and policy to offer greater attention to development, poverty, race, and environmental problems facing rural America.

  • Shucksmith, Mark, and David L. Brown. 2016. Routledge international handbook of rural studies. London: Routledge.

    Collected volume offering an interdisciplinary approach to social problems and change. Spans demographic, economic, and governmental changes in domestic and international settings. Includes detailed analysis of food systems, environmental practices, and gender.

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