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What Is Rurality and Urbanity?

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This paper attempts to differentiate rurality from urbanity. Rural-urban differences abound and can easily be demonstrated. These can be demonstrated occupationally, ecologically and socio-culturally. What to appears not to be easy is to explain these differences. While these differences used to be explained in terms of rural-urban dichotomy and continuum, this could not be used anymore as it is recognized today that dichotomies and continuity of rural and urban based on the three parameters mentioned above often times create more ambiguity that it has solved.

While occupational differences can still be used as differentiating criteria of rurality and urbanity, there is a tendency, however, that occupational categories transcends spatial boundaries as a consequence of physical mobility of people. In similar way, agricultural and industrial production occur today in rural and urban settings. Social relations based on community and association, organic and mechanical solidarity, status and contract do not occur specifically in geographical region of city and country but may occur in both. Consequently, explaining rural-urban dichotomy or in a continuum does hold water anymore.

But the new rural sociology rediscovers rurality and agriculture not as an isolated entity but as part of a total system. This is especially true on how farming is organized and how it is related to the other sectors of society. It is organized very differently from that of the urban industrial production system because if its closeness to nature. This is despite the attempts of humanity to put nature under social control. We can civilize nature probably in a such a way that bio-technologies may end up the contradictions between nature and society but it may end up to dreadful consequences for everybody both in the developing and developed world. Hence, it seems that humanity is not really able to put nature under its control.

Because of the closeness of agriculture to nature, the nature of rural society markedly differs from the cities and urban centers. While cities before were centers of industrial capitalist production, cities today are not only centers of these activities, but have been rediscovered both as (1) important nodes or ‘basing’ points for the economy of global flows and as (2) ‘coordinates’of the entrepreneurial state responding directly to the situated needs of global capital. As regards the first role, cities are control centers of interlocking globalizing dynamics of financial markets, producer services industries, corporate headquarters and associated service industries (telecommunications, business conferences, transport, poverty development, etc). Regarding the second function, cities act as economic motors. They act as knowledge-base.

They are the sources of innovation, information, knowledge and interactive reasoning which links various service headquarters of functions, media, cultural and arts industries, education and information services organization, and research, development, science and technology institutions. Cities also act as a source of vital agglomeration economies. Certain privileged metropolitan areas offer rich transactional opportunities for interpersonal proximity to facilitate competition and adjustment for shifting production mixes for volatile and fluctuating markets. Cities are also sources of cultural revitalization for urban renewal as well as for ‘expressive specialist’. Underlying all these streams of urbanism is an emphasis on the special effects of spatial proximity in an otherwise deterritorrialized and disembedded world-cities as clusters of knowledge and knowledgeable people, agglomerations of specialized firms, as a critical mass of cultural creativity and informal exchange.

Cities of globalized society typically exhibit the ‘in here-out there’ mixes. Correspondingly they manifest heterogeneity, shifting identities and multipolarity. One of the most striking features of cities today is their character as a set of spaces of juxtaposed fragments and contrasts, where diverse relational webs might coalesce, interconnect and disconnect. The cities does not possess unitary identity or homogeneous spaces, perhaps it never has. It is, for example, simultaneously Engel’s site of ‘barbarous indifference, hard egotism
 and nameless misery’ and Lewis Mumford’s collection of primary groups and purposive associations’ fostering ‘personal reintegration through wider participation in a concrete and visible collective whole’. They are home to transients and semi-permanents, locals, immigrants and strangers, traditionalists and cosmopolitans, diverse social groups, ethnicities and lifestyle, rich and poor, formal and informal circuits of economic organization and exchange, and so on.

The city is like the world in the backyard but a jumbled up and splintered yard with the fence broken in a number of places. One of the features of splintering is the loss in the primacy of proximate links. There are clearly sites where urban propinquity does still matter as a unique asset among global flows and connections—the financial districts, the cultural zones, the industrial districts. But there are also many more zones where fragmentation between adjacent units is more the norm, as exchange and interchange become disembedded from immediate locale, through fast transport and advanced telecommunication systems. Areas exist where neighbors do not know each other and tend to relate through telematics and automobiles with friends and relatives across the city and beyond. Adjacent firms in many business parks have no linkage but remain tied into distant circuits of corporate exchange. And cultural exchange in most residential areas is now perhaps more technically mediated than through face-to-face interactions, via television, the Internet and other global communications system.

This multiplex city is in part the product of globalization. This affects the individuals identities. Individuals exhibit polycentric identities as a result of traveling, mobility, de-rooting and re-rooting, negotiating urban differences, and mixing of daily experiences with images and signs from all over the world. What emerges is the juxtaposing of hybrid places and hybrid identities. It is a picture of multiple internal and external connections that implies neither collapsed nor new forms of cultural intermingling and community, but simple unity in diversity. In addition, it is an image of movement and change, not stasis or simple reaction to supposedly more dynamic forces.

On the other hand, while the urban and its way of life are what have been described above, rural and rurality remain very dependent on nature. Both the scale and rhythm of production in agriculture are largely determined by the natural resources endowment of an area, and the reliability of climatic conditions. In other words, agriculture is very much dependent on space where it is located. But how about social relationships as our course is rural sociology. Can we say that social relationships are also space determined? This is not easy to answer. In fact, it is an area which is still up for grabs for rural sociologists today.

There are some sociologist who take seriously the relationships between space and social interactions despite the linkages of people, organizations, regions, and nations which make geographical location unimportant. Space can no longer be “treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile” (Foucault as cited by Herbert-Cheshire, 1998:162) but it is something that makes us and at the same time the product or outcome of those been recognized that space cannot be simply understood as mere backdrop or container for human action (interaction); that just as people’s identities and activities are socially constructed, so they are also spatially constructed, so too it is possible for space to be socially constructed by those very activities themselves. And this emphasis of rural sociology space distinguishes itself from other sociological subfields.

But despite all the debates about the relationships between the social and space, there will always be inconsistency on how these two are related. But when our focus of interest shifts to the nature of agricultural production and its products, then we can say that rural sociology is indeed a field of study in its own right. We can witness this in the following examples:

‱Despite the advances in agricultural science, we have not put up to now solve the nature of agricultural products. Agricultural products have a shorter life span than those of industry; most of them are still subjected to the natural decay. Even effects of refrigeration have only modified the conditions under which they kept. Thus the works implied by production surplus in agriculture are much greater than in industry. Although it is possible to generate crop surplus and preserve livestock, the costs of doing so are much greater, and the likelihood that an abundant harvest will be followed by another is still beyond the capacity of people to influence.

‱The differences between production time and the socially necessary labor time in agriculture are still greater than that of the industrial production so that capitalism regards agricultural production more risky than industrial production. This also leads to slow extraction of surplus value in agriculture for the same amount of time and effort. Because of this, the capitalist form of production has veered away from agriculture.

While specialization has proved essential to industrial progress, this will not hold true in agricultural production. This is because too great specialization in terms of crops produced, and the methods employed to produce them, commonly leads to a lack of nutrients from the soil, erosion, and the destruction of natural habitats on which the human population depends. However, this close relation of agriculture to nature is being tried to be corrected through the use of biotechnologies. At first, the emphasis of biotechnology is on plant biology only, usually the focus is on the plant organ or part. But in the last decade, however, it has become possible to apply techniques developed for molecular biology to plant improvement.

These techniques can be divided into two broad classes: culturing and genetic transfer. Culturing involves regenerating plants from protoplasts (plant cells with the cell walls removed), single cells or plant parts while genetic transfer techniques operate at the single cell, subcellular, or molecular level and produce high accuracy in the desired genetic changes. The reason for these researches is to find possibility of transforming agricultural production into cell or tissue culture factories so that it will not be nature dependent anymore.

Though this information is not likely to take place within the next decade, the scientific foundations for change are now being laid. For example, sugar has already been replaced by aspertame, pal oil has already been produced from trees which are cloned, and we have now “fabricated foods”. These fabricated foods “differ from conventional foods in that their basic components-protein, fats, and carbohydrates -may be derived from many sources and be combined, along with necessary micronutrients, flavors, and colors, to form an attractive product”(Busch, et. al. 1989:124)

Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal to replace agriculture is the one proposed by Rogoff and Rawlins as discussed by Busch, et. al. (1989:125). They propose a system in which fields are planted to biomass perennial crops. These are harvested as needed and turned into sugar using enzymes at the point of harvest. Then, the sugar solution is piped to production plants in metropolitan areas. Finally, food is produced through massively scaled-up tissue cultures using sugar solution as a medium and nutrient source for the plant material. As they put it, “in this scenario, edible products are defined as foods synthesized from separately manufactured food components, or as plant organs, plant parts, or their derivatives, produced as such and not derived from the whole plant grown in soil”. In this system, processing would be year-round activity, with only what was actually needed being produced in a given day. Canning and freezing would be largely eliminated as would be spoilage, since food would be produced and consumed in the same general vicinity. In fact, the same production facility could be shifted from the production of one commodity to another in response to changing demand.

They argue that such a system would have other added benefits in terms of reduced need for mono cropping, lowered soil erosion, less use of agro-chemicals, reduced energy inputs and minimal transportation costs.

In summary, I have discussed in this paper the differences between rurality and urbanity from the new rural sociology and agri-food systems perspectives. While these two spatial categories used to be differentiated occupationally, ecologically and socio-culturally, these however are put into question today. But what distinguishes rurality and agricultural production from urbanity and industrial production is its nature. Despite the attempts of science to put agriculture under its control, this is still unsuccessful today. However, I do not discount the possibility of this event as biotechnology research is gaining ground.


Busch, L., A. Bonanno and W. Lacy. 1989. “Science, Technology, and the Restructuring of Agriculture”. Sociologia Ruralis. XXXIX(2): 118-130.

Herbert-Cheshire, L. 1998. “Sociological and Geographical maginations”. In Alexander, M., S. Harding, P. Harrison, G. Kendall, Z. Skrbis and J. Western (eds). Refashioning Sociology: Responses to a New World Order. Brisbane: TASA Conference Proceedings.

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