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

  • Introduction

Anthropology Rural Anthropology
Sarah E. Cunningham, Nancy R. Rosenberger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0077


Anthropologists have long examined rural problems and issues. Although much of life today is defined by the urban context, the ability of the urban to define the rural has limits. Rural anthropology is significant because it meets the challenge of analyzing the vexing problems and complex issues of the rural. It highlights important differences and parallels that occur along a rural–urban continuum of geography and culture as well as the particular problems rural communities face and the particular solutions they find, which may have very little to do with the urban. Rural anthropology is a particularly appropriate lens through which to explore the uses and limits of concepts that often guide social science and popular discourse, especially ideas about socially constructed difference, place, tradition and modernity, community, and identity. This article considers the conceptual and practical contributions of rural anthropology, its historical roots and development through peasant and communities studies, from a rather more limited focus on a particular community to an emphasis on local communities in relationship to common global problems. It explores diversity within rural communities along lines of class, race, and ethnicity; between landowners and those who work their land; along gender lines; and as results from experience with poverty and food insecurity. It also focuses on topics relating to land use that further our understanding of rurality, including land tenure and reform, natural resources, agriculture, and the impacts of climate change. Finally, a discussion of neoliberal globalization spotlights the interrelationship of the rural with migration and development and particularly the ways that indigenous peoples and youth experience and respond to current global influences. Rurality and encounters with it raise important questions that anthropologists can help to answer as they cast their gaze on the details of diverse local experiences and the link between these and larger forces. What will become of rural areas? What will rural come to mean? Who has claim to it? What will our relationship to it be? In short, place matters. Local culture matters. Rural matters in its own right.

Place and Meaning

Rurality is a geographical place that is saturated with multiple meanings. Both place and meanings maintain continuities yet shift over time, developing fascinating and often difficult contradictions. Because the rural is often understood in relation to the urban and its assumed modernity, dichotomies of rural–urban and traditional–modern often bedevil rural anthropology. Here we prefer to deal with these as continuums that are always in question for any time and place. Although rurality certainly includes an element of the traditional, tradition is not stagnant but subject to change, as is modernity. The rural can be simultaneously modern and traditional. Because the rural is flexible and changing, rural anthropology reverberates with questions concerning the concepts of community and identity, often idealized and frozen as bounded relations within assumptions about rurality. Community and identity, sutured and anchored as they are across multiple contexts, offer areas for rural anthropologists to explore. In the cases of community and identity, tradition and modernity, and the rural–urban dichotomy, rural anthropology reveals continuity, complexity, contradiction, and change.

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