Geography Rural Geography
Soren Larsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0031


Rural geography focuses on the spatiality of rural life and environment. Its historical development as a subfield can be divided into three periods: a preliminary phase (before 1950), during which time human, regional, and cultural geography focused, mostly inadvertently, on rural landscapes as part of a broader disciplinary preference for nonmetropolitan study areas; an emergent period (1950s–1970s), when the subdiscipline was initially formalized under a rubric that emphasized agriculture, land use, and population/settlement patterns; and the contemporary period (1970s–present), marked by the integration of political-economic and post-structural theories and by new interests in rural restructuring, social movements, discourse, governance, identities, and experiences. Rural sociology is a closely related subfield that developed earlier (shortly after World War I) and has consistently produced scholarship relevant to rural-geographical interests. Traditionally, rural geography has focused on postindustrial states located mostly in the global North (e.g., in Europe and North America), along with Australia and New Zealand, but more attention is increasingly directed toward rural areas in the developing world. Today, rural geography is a healthy and vibrant subdiscipline practiced by a large international group of scholars in academia and beyond. It is well represented within the flagship specialty periodical Journal of Rural Studies, as well as in specialty research groups of national geography organizations and an array of degree and certificate programs focused on rural topics.

General Overviews and Textbooks

A number of general overviews of rural geography are available for nonspecialists and beginning students, primarily in the form of textbooks. Early texts such as Clout 1972 and Gilg 1985 are now more useful for their historical value in documenting the evolution of key questions and concerns in rural geography. The two best contemporary introductions are Woods 2005, which is a textbook overview of central themes organized under the rubric of rural restructuring, and Woods 2011, an in-depth exploration of the many different dimensions to rurality. The former is more appropriate for the nonspecialist and undergraduate student; the latter, for graduate students and scholars interested in learning more about the conceptualization of “rural.” Hart 1998 offers a modern introduction to rural geography, from the perspective of traditional American cultural geography (e.g., loosely based on the approach of Carl Sauer), which along with regionalism dominated the geographical study of the rural prior to the 1970s. Although not a textbook or formal overview, Bell 1994, an ethnographic account of life in the town of Childerley, is an accessible and prescient ethnographic introduction to many of the issues and themes that would emerge shortly thereafter in contemporary rural geography.

  • Bell, Michael M. Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village. Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    A highly readable ethnographic study of Childerley, pseudonym for a village in Hampshire, England, that focuses broadly on the social experience of nature and provides a wonderful introduction to many of the general themes in contemporary rural geography (e.g., identity, experience, class, gender).

  • Clout, Hugh D. Rural Geography: An Introductory Survey. Pergamon Oxford Geographies. Oxford: Pergamon, 1972.

    The first textbook to cover rural geography as a distinctive subfield, this title still stands out as part of the intellectual “bedrock” of rural geography. Chapters on population, urbanization, land-use planning, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing mark the subfield’s early preoccupations. Focuses primarily on European examples.

  • Gilg, Andrew W. An Introduction to Rural Geography. London and Baltimore: Edward Arnold, 1985.

    Introduces rural geography through a comprehensive survey of scholarship published in the previous decade, as the subfield entered a period of rapid growth. Although dated, the book is a useful waymarker; particularly telling is Gilg’s argument in the final chapter that rural geography was not yet a coherent discipline and that it needed to focus on developing theory and a more precise definition of “rural.” Reprinted in 1991.

  • Hart, John Fraser. The Rural Landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    A complete update on Hart’s earlier (1975) title, The Look of the Land, this book represents a contemporary expression of rural-landscape interpretation based on the sensibility of Carl Sauer’s approach to cultural geography. Focuses heavily on the empirical elements of the rural landscape: rocks, plants, land division, farm structures, and towns.

  • Woods, Michael. Rural Geography: Processes, Responses and Experiences in Rural Restructuring. London: SAGE, 2005.

    Written primarily for undergraduate students and nonspecialists, this textbook provides an introduction to rural geography through the lens of rural restructuring. Offers comparative case studies as well as suggestions for further reading and relevant web resources at the end of each chapter.

  • Woods, Michael. Rural. Key Ideas in Geography. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Part of Routledge’s Key Ideas in Geography series, Woods here provides an up-to-date survey of the literature on the notion of “rural,” in a detailed but accessible account. The work represents a more advanced and exhaustive review of contemporary rural scholarship than Woods 2005. It is useful to compare this text to the similar effort to survey the field made in Gilg 1985, over a quarter-century earlier.

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