Identity in Rural Communities: Sociological Concepts


Introduction

Rural communities have been a source of much interest for those engaged within the sociological and geographical realms of study for many years now. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries triggered the phenomenon of rural depopulation as millions throughout the Western nations, lured by the promise of a more prosperous existence in the urban core, abandoned their agrarian settlements. However, the late 20th century has witnessed a dramatic increase in the standard of living for the inhabitants of the developed world. Cataclysmic advancements in the spheres of transportation, infrastructure and technology have permitted the denizens of our cities with greater access to regions which were once isolated and peripheral. For the first time in over two centuries populations are now increasing throughout the urban hinterland and countryside. As a consequence, rural communities are now faced with a growing influx of ‘outsider’ or alien elements which may be perceived to threaten their unique cultural and social traditions. Such elements range from governmental legislation (imposed from a regional, national or supranational level) to tourism and second home ownership.

However, in an increasingly globalised and homoginised world, academics have developed great interest in the methodologies deployed by erstwhile isolated settlements as they strive to conserve their very identities and notions of ‘community’. Mewitt has argued that the ‘esoteric cultures’ of rural communities have been much undervalued. He states that, ‘a local population can possess a largely unique culture that remains distinctive in that its symbolic manifestations convey meanings that are commonly understood only among those people.’[1]

Defining the Communal Boundary

Muir eloquently highlights that, ‘every landscape is enmeshed in networks of boundaries. Some of these are living or current and others are relics of former patterns of overlordship and partition.’[2] He further adds that, ‘some boundaries are political in character’ whilst ‘others relate to ownership and tenancy.’[3] Indeed, the configuration of the present day counties of England dates from Medieval times when the Normans attempted to organise and rationalise the physical landscape. Muir explains that as the number of people residing in a specific locale increases, the greater the necessity precipitates to impose physical boundaries to ‘serve both instructive and symbolic roles.’[4] The remnants of Medieval ‘landscapes of power’ can still be observed in the guise of churches or castles positioned on elevated terrain. Indeed Muir emphasises that, ‘Medieval crosses were frequently associated with marking route ways and the places where roads entered ecclesiastical property.’[5]

However, sociologists argue that the concept of ‘boundary’ often surpasses the purely mundane realm. Cohen insists that the boundary of a community is ‘more complex than its physical, legal or administrative basis’ and even ‘ethnic, racial, religious or linguistic differences.’[6] Indeed, he believes that communal, social and physical frontiers may ‘exist in the minds of their beholders’ and are often not objective entities.[7] Indeed, according to Cohen and other commentators the boundaries of a community may be defined in a variety of ways including local genealogy, traditions, idioms, land distribution, folk histories and idiosyncrasies.

Defining the Rural Community

Shuttles argues that whilst urban communities were traditionally defined on the basis of ‘race, ethnicity and socioeconomic differences,’ rural communities were typically ‘more homogenous.’[8] However, he notes that power was normally concentrated ‘in the hands of a small group of local elites.’[9]

Shuttles’ comments are interesting when one considers what many regard as being symbolic of the typical or idyllic rural community. The English manor house and rustic thatched cottage conjure up images of a romantic and traditional arcadian scenario. Indeed, sociologists are now quick to highlight how the paintings of artists such as Constable, and the lucid literary descriptions of writers like Thomas Hardy, have done much to perpetuate the myth of idyllic rural communities within the collective mindset. These were communities where everyone seemingly had his or her ‘place’ within a clearly defined and functional social hierarchy.

However, Seymour et al. state that ‘recent debates in rural studies have highlighted the need to reconsider power relations in the countryside by allowing other voices to be heard.’[10] They insist that previously marginalised groups, such as manual workers and housewives, play just as important a role in defining the local community as those in positions of economic and political power. They also note that traditional stereotypes of the rural community are changing both within and out with the locale. For example, farmers were typically viewed as ‘patriotic food producers and the guardians of the countryside.’[11] Since the 1980s the pollution issues concerning unsustainable farming practices and use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides have severely altered the once romantic myth of the farmer as custodian of the landscape and lynch pin of the rural community.

Jones’ study of social attitudes in and around the town of Cwmrheidol in rural west Wales is most illuminating. In the late 1980s she began to interview a wide range of locals and incomers; participants included: ‘traditional women and feminists, Welsh speakers and English speakers, residents and summer visitors, New Age travellers, hill farmers and urban commuters.’[12] Indeed, Jones’ findings reveal a plurality of attitudes regarding what constitutes ‘community’ in the local area. Ieuan, a Welsh-speaking hill farmer, seemed to resent official bodies and felt that EU legislation was gradually eroding traditional farming practices and his way-of-life. He was also angry with the planting of Forestry Commission coniferous forests on the hillsides and the imposition of alien boundaries upon once communal pasturelands. Ieuan complained about the ‘thoughtlessness of tourists’ and was sceptical regarding plans to diversify the tourist industry.[13] His conservative attitude was shared by Alison and Phil, ‘incomers’ from England, who also opposed development of the area and believed that new housing projects could destroy the rustic character of the local milieu. Another ‘incomer’ named Ros also exhibited similar sentiments and did not want change, so much so that she stated how she would protest vehemently against the renovation of a nearby ‘ruin’. Indeed, one could say that Ieuan, Alison and Phil, and Ros viewed the traditional community as something which should be cherished and remain static throughout time. However, the ‘incomers’ did state that they felt very much like ‘outsiders’ despite having lived in the region for some time. As Ros stated, ’the old locals they’re a community on their own.’[14]

The local vicar Patrick Thomas was more than aware of the existence of ‘communities within communities’ throughout this part of Wales. A principal boundary was of a linguistic nature and those who could not speak the Welsh language became effectively excluded from many social and communal activities. Many older inhabitants simply did not view ‘incomers’ as part of the community and seemed to view them as a threat. The vicar strove to promote individual responsibility and attempted to encourage community values regardless of whether an inhabitant was of an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ status. Indeed, Patrick Thomas clearly viewed the entire community as a cohesive whole whilst others chose to be more selective in their analysis, often on the grounds of language, ethnicity and place of origin, regarding who was a part of their local ‘community’.

Mewett notes how the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis choose to define the boundaries of the community. He emphasises the importance of nicknames throughout the island by ‘expressing to people the attachment of themselves and others to the local community’[15] and by effectively defining their very social identities. Cohen’s study of the Shetland Island community of Whalsay revealed the existence of a ‘public treasury of personal knowledge.’[16] This social treasury included; ‘the public identities of Whalsay people: the characters attributed to them in public discourse and formulated on the basis of the stereotypical qualities of their kinsfolk or their township of origin; the anecdotal knowledge of incidents in which they were participants; supposed personal idiosyncrasies and so forth.’[17] Such a methodology of social definition is representative of a local folk history and assists in binding the local community together and affirming the notion of ‘being Whalsa’. Cohen concludes that public identities provide social boundaries for the community and serve as veritable ‘compass bearings’.[18]

Cohen also highlights the linkage of a person to a place in Whalsay and the propensity of locals to depersonalise individual talents and skills. If someone exhibits an aptitude for woodwork they are said to have ‘Skaw-blood’ in them. The origin of this saying derives from the belief that many skilled carpenters once came from the town of Skaw in the north. This was due to the fact that drift wood commonly accumulated on the coast near this town and the local artisans had a ready supply of the raw material. To compliment one’s ability in such a way effectively grounds the individual within the historical, genealogical, physical and symbolic boundaries of the imagined island community.

McFarlane’s study of four villages in Northern Ireland highlights how rural communities choose to define their communal identities and demarcate boundaries within a nation fraught with religious tension. In the predominantly Protestant village of Ballycuan the local history is recounted from a Protestant perspective. The July band marches also symbolised Protestant hegemony within the community and, as the local band master stated, ‘remind everyone that Ballycuan is a Protestant village.’[19] Conversely, in the village of Glenleven, Protestants seemed to ‘present histories which appear to be much less certain about Protestant strengths.’[20] This was due to their minority status in the town and the general consensus amongst all inhabitants that a good sense of community outweighed religious differences. This is an example of how rural inhabitants may choose to redefine the symbolic boundaries of their communities in order to accommodate a plurality of interests.

Conclusion

As Tuan emphasises, human territoriality and the creation of community is very different to that of the animals which is ‘unburdened by symbolic thought.’[21] There is often ‘an emotional bond between man and nature, man and place.’[22] Cohen’s and Mewett’s studies of rural island communities have highlighted this fact.

Community boundaries may be imposed by a variety of individuals or groups in accordance with how they perceive, or wish to perceive, their local society. Such symbolic representations are often crafted on the basis of class, gender or ethnicity but, as Cohen has shown, they can also be very subjective. Cohen also notes that the coming of improved transport linkages to rural communities and the mass market will offer new challenges to how people in the countryside identify themselves collectively. He is however confident that they will continue to define the symbols and boundaries which establishes one as ‘an integral piece of the fabric which constitutes the community.’[23]

Bibliography

COHEN, A. P. Belonging: Identity and social Organisation in British rural Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1982

COHEN, A. P. Symbolising Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in British Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1986

COHEN, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary In a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987

CRANG, M. Cultural Geography, Routledge, 1998

GIDDENS, A. Sociology, 5th Edition, Polity Press, 2006

LEWIS, G. J. Rural Communities, David and Charles, 1979

LOWERTHAL, D. BOWDEN, M. J. Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy, Oxford, 1976

MILBOURNE, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997

MITCHELL, D. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction, Blackwell, 2000

MUIR, R. The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, University of Exeter Press, 2000

PENNING-ROWSELLE, E. C. LOWENTHAL, D. Landscape Meanings and Values, Allen and Unwin, 1986

SALTER, C. L. The Cultural Landscape, Dixbury Press, 1971

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Footnotes

[1] Cohen, A. P. Belonging: Identity and Social Organisation in British Rural Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1982, pg. 222

[2] Muir, R. The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, University of Exeter Press, 2000, pg. 68

[3] Muir, R. The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, University of Exeter Press, 2000, pg. 68

[4] Muir, R. The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, University of Exeter Press, 2000, pg. 69

[5] Muir, R. The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History, University of Exeter Press, 2000, pg. 82

[6] Cohen, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987, pg. 14

[7] Cohen, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987, pg. 14

[8] Shuttles, G. D. The Social Construction of Communities, University of Chicago Press, 1972, pg. 260

[9] Shuttles, G. D. The Social Construction of Communities, University of Chicago Press, 1972, pg. 260

[10] Milbourne, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997, pg. 57

[11] Milbourne, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997, pg. 58

[12] Milbourne, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997, pg. 135

[13] Milbourne, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997, pg. 137

[14] Milbourne, P. Revealing Rural Others: Representation, Power and Identity in the British Countryside, Pinter, 1997, pg.139

[15]Cohen, A. P. Belonging: Identity and Social Organisation in British Rural Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1982, pg. 243

[16]Cohen, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary In a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987, pg. 61

[17]Cohen, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary In a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987, pg. 61

[18]Cohen, A. P. Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary In a Shetland Island Community, Manchester University Press, 1987, pg. 61

[19] Cohen, A. P. Symbolising Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in British Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1986, pg. 94

[20] Cohen, A. P. Symbolising Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in British Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1986, pg. 94

[21] Lowerthal, D. Bowden, M. J. Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy, Oxford, 1986, pg. 13

[22] Lowerthal, D. Bowden, M. J. Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy, Oxford, 1986, pg. 13

[23] Cohen, A. P. Belonging: Identity and Social Organisation in British Rural Cultures, Manchester University Press, 1982, pg. 21

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