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Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Keynote Address: Lisa Pruitt

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Professor Lisa Pruitt writes about the intersection of law with rural livelihoods. Her work considers a range of ways in which rural places are distinct from what has become the implicit urban norm in legal scholarship. Pruitt reveals, for example, how the economic, spatial, and social features of rural locales profoundly shape the lives of residents, including the junctures at which they encounter the law. Her most recent work considers how rural spatiality inflects dimensions of gender, race, and ethnicity. In it, Pruitt challenges the association of the rural with the local by revealing the ways in which rural lives and rural places are enmeshed with national and global forces including legal ones.

Held March 18, 2016 in Missoula, MT


Keynote: Lisa Pruitt

Speaker   Video unavailable

  • Professor Lisa Pruitt, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, UC Davis


Keynote Address

Why Rural? (Or, On Being a Ruralist)

Lisa R. Pruitt, UC Davis School of Law, March 18, 2016

Thank you, Montana! In saying that, I admit that I feel a little like a presidential candidate who’s just won the state primary!

But I do want to thank the State of Montana for inspiration, the University of Montana, and the Bill Lane Center for the American West (Stanford University) and the Eccles Family for this exciting conference. I’m delighted to be a part of this wide-ranging and thought-provoking event. So many of the themes we have talked about yesterday and today resonate with me, as someone who grew up rural and who has spent more than a decade now carving out a discipline I call “law and rural livelihoods.”

I can’t resist recalling my first time in Missoula, in 2009, seven ago years now, for the University of Montana Law School’s symposium on “Rural Law.”

One of the first photos in this slide show is of me with two men [both] named Bob, two of the drafters of the 1972 Montana Constitution. They nabbed me for the photo after the talk, sitting on hay bales in that very room where Governor Bullock spoke today. I learned then, as Professor Anthony Johnstone emphasized today, that Montana takes its STATE constitution very seriously.

(I must admit that “the Bobs” also shoved into my hands some U. of Montana swag that I’m not sure got paid for ... but never mind, water under the bridge). In any event, I have this photo [of the Bobs and me] framed, in my office, a momento of one of my favorite conferences ever ...

The second time I was in Missoula was more than two years later—a direct result of that 2009 visit to the law school here. At that rural law symposium, an attorney from Essex (part-time public defender Larry Epstein, Flathead County) and an attorney from Browning (Glacier County)—a Blackfoot woman—also an attorney— both of whom spoke at the “rural law” event at the University of Montana School of Law, had encouraged me come back to Montana to visit Glacier National Park, to come back before the glaciers are all gone ... And so I did, two summers later, with my family. We enjoyed several nights at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, right there in Essex, Montana, at Mr. Epstein’s encouragement. (Essex is perhaps best known as the place where trains crossing the nearby continental divide can employ the help of a “helper engine” to traverse the pass; there is a BNSF rail yard situated between various parts of the Izaak Walton Inn).

We took in a truly stunning slice of the rural West on that trip: Glacier National Park, ultimately driving south along Flathead Lake, through Polson, down through Missoula (and a memorable meal at the Montana Bread Company—my son is still talking about the tuna sandwich) to Darby (home of a cousin of my husband) and then through Ravalli County into Idaho, at Salmon (where we picnicked by the river), through Chalice, and into Stanley before descending into total rural gentrification: Sun Valley (long-time home of my husband’s uncle) ... and ultimately back to Boise.

Tourism is, of course, part of the West, as we have already heard acknowledged at this conference. It drives Western economies (and rural gentrification, for better or worse)... and I must say I delighted, as I prepared for that trip, in receiving daily emails from Governor Brian Schweitzer, regaling me with the state’s delights and charms—since I had written to the Montana Tourism organization for information and been put on their listserv. All of this is a very long way of expressing my own sentimentality about the rural West, of taking a walk down memory lane.

And that is a good enough segue, I guess, into what motivates my interest in and work about rural America, which is also grounded in some ways in nostalgia (I admit): my own rural bona fides, my own “home place,” my own sense of place. I am not a native westerner (as my accent might have provided notice of), but rather a transplant 17 years ago, when I moved to California to join UC Davis. (I am, however, delighted to be raising a westerner, as you can see in some of the photos of the Montana vacation).

My own rural roots are in the Great State of Arkansas, in the Ozark Mountains (well, hills compared to these Rockies), in one of that state’s most rural counties. At the time, the county of 8000 residents (and for that matter, still does, which is about the population of many Montana counties) had no incorporated entities/municipalities. It did boast four small schools—of which I attended the largest, in the county seat, Jasper, with about 400 kids K-12, some bussed as far as 25 miles each way, some of it over dirt roads.

This photo [of my sister and me on my grandfather’s mule] is from that childhood. But that was a long time ago (the late 1960s), at a time when more Americans lived in rural places or had more meaningful contact with them, perhaps grandparents living on an old homestead, perhaps more frequent visits to rural venues for family for recreation. Increasingly, however, we are faced with the rural brain drain, with fewer rural connections.

And that, I believe, has an impact on rural scholarship, on what gets studied, what gets taken seriously. Let me share an anecdote from my earliest days as a “legal ruralist,” as a would-be, aspiring legal ruralist, before I had tenure, when I first joined the UC Davis Law Faculty: I had come from a decade of living in huge metropolitan areas (primarily in Europe, no less), and I was as cosmopolitan as I would ever be (my status as a cosmopolite has been on the decline ever since I moved to northern California in 1999—through no fault of California, I might add ... it’s mostly the frame of mind I’ve been in). But my decade of big city living rendered some revelations: It ultimately revealed to me the near total absence of rural people and places from legal scholarship. It struck me that lives and livelihoods like those of my family in Arkansas (and formerly my life, too) were largely unseen and unacknowledged by legal actors at scales other than the most local (and sometimes even by those, e.g, the sheriff, the circuit judge). My county had a sheriff and a deputy or two, but law was otherwise seemingly absent from those lives, from their consciousness.

Rural residents comprise nearly 20% of our nation’s population (well, David Kennedy said yesterday, a sixth, and that is more accurate), but they are a forgotten fifth whose lives are in many ways different to what has become a presumptive, but rarely explicit, urban norm in legal scholarship. That is what I set out to examine, document, and reveal. In short, I set out to reveal the legal relevance of rurality (for legal scholars study that which is legally relevant, sort of by definition)

[Explain that the remaining slides will play automatically, changing every 10 seconds, and that each is a photo I have taken in rural America, mostly in the south and in the West, including many in Montana, but also in California and Appalachia and ....]

So, I began teasing out, theorizing the legal relevance of rurality about a decade ago, and I have found so much to say that I have published almost exclusively within the sub-discipline I call "law and rural livelihoods" since 2006. Nevertheless, I only started writing about rural people and places after I got tenure. I was discouraged from this enterprise ... channeled in those pre-tenure years instead to my other specialty---feminist legal theory, which—believe it or not—was considered more mainline and less risky than law and rural livelihoods. And so I earned tenure as a feminist scholar.

Once I had tenure, I figured I had less to lose, and so I went for it—I reached for the rural. When I think about that decision, I am reminded of the mantra—one with rural echoes (Field of Dreams): “If you build it, they will come.” But it was more a question: “If I built it [law and rural livelihoods], would they [other scholars] come?” Well, the response has been mixed, as I’ll explain ... you see, to some extent, my trajectory as a ruralist is perhaps a cautionary tale, especially for a legal scholar, for someone on a law faculty.

My work has, admittedly, not been as generative as I had hoped—a thousand flowers have not bloomed, but a few dozen have (and really, who’s counting?). But I’ll blame that on the very metro-centricity and urbannormativity that my scholarship surfaces. I’ll also note that while my work has not garnered as much traction as I hoped in the legal academy, it has garnered more attention in cross- disciplinary settings like this one, in the humanities generally, as evidenced by the Princeton Conference which I am key-noting next week: “Life and Law in Rural America: Cows, Cars & Criminals.”

A metro-centric America:

It is surely undisputed that we live in metro-centric times, in a metro-centric country. Even in the Western United States, marked as it is by vast open spaces, cities/the urban and their/its needs dominate(s) not only political and policy debates, but also – increasingly—our national imaginary. Even the West— somewhat ironically, as David Kennedy pointed out last night—is now dominated by the urban – Portland, Oregon has become more iconic, more emblematic of the West, than, say, Burns, Oregon—a matter to which I shall return.

As for my own career/efforts, I have written rural angles/analyses on a lot of different topics (please pardon the naval gazing, the excessive self-references)

  • Depictions of rural people and places in judicial opinions—stereotypes, assumptions, values ...
  • Welfare reform [welfare-to-work] as ill-fitting in rural settings b/c of the lack of jobs, dearth of child care
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse ...
  • Rural places as new immigrant destinations
  • Termination of parental rights (and how judges misunderstand rurality and manifestations of rural poverty)
  • Abortion access ... and more recently, voter ID laws in relation to barriers to rural voting ...
  • How justice systems operate differently in rural places – budget and personnel deficits
  • The spatial distribution of child poverty in Montana (when the governor mentioned today Harlowtown, Wheatland County, I knew exactly where he was talking about b/c it was one of five counties on which I focused in my article for that Montana rural law symposium—along with Gallatin representing rural gentrification, Big Horn representing American Indian poverty, Yellowstone because it is home to Billings, the state’s largest county,and Stillwater, a relatively affluent nonmetropolitan county with an economy driven by mining) and a great deal about rural poverty generally
  • The spatial distribution of indigent defense (in Arizona) and the quality of that constitutionally guaranteed service along the rural-urban continuum.
  • Rural-bashing in political rhetoric
  • The rural lawyer shortage, and most recently, a follow-up study of why students are choosing NOT to practice in rural places
  • How rural socio-spatiality presents challenges to effective policing/law enforcement
  • Environmental justice in rural settings
  • And a whole lot, generally, across all of those articles/projects, about material distance—about spatiality—as an obstacle to law and how rural folks engage the law (or fail to do so)

Something that has emerged in many of these studies/articles is the relationship between the presence of American Indian reservations/Indian country and rurality. This has led me to explore the difference that the presence of Indians makes in rural places—or, more precisely, the significance of rurality/rural settings in relation to American Indians. Who has jurisdiction? Who funds services and are they culturally sensitive? Substance abuse? The differing nature of family relationships?

But let me come back to “mainstream” rurality. Here are just a few things that [my exploration of law and rural livelihoods has revealed] distinguish rural people and places and their relation to law, legal actors, legal institutions:

  • Lack of anonymity
  • Material spatiality
  • The lack of diversification in rural economics
  • Attachment to Place – probably the feature of rural living least respected by judges, courts ... (note that it implicates nostalgia, sentimentality)
  • Skepticism of—if not downright antipathy toward—the state

And so, I have argued, it is worth studying legal phenomena –which are also social phenomena—across and along the rural-urban continuum ...

I have argued that rural matters ... I have made that argument in every different way I could think to make it. In desperation, I have even argued that we need to understand the rural not only for the sake of the rural [people and places] but because doing so reveals something about the center—about the mainstream— about the implicit urban norm ...

What I have found—to be perfectly blunt—is that most people are not very interested in rural America. They are not interested in the people, and they are only slightly more interested in the places—if those places have natural amenities. In that case, they are interested in the places in an instrumentalist sense—to consume those places, to “recreate” there, to hike, kayak, ski, have a second home ... People— especially affluent coastal elites—are interested in the places that are candidates for rural gentrification. They are interested, perhaps, in owning a little (or not so little) slice of rural America.

Let me provide an illustration of this metro-centricity specifically in the context of legal scholarship. A few years ago, I came across a piece of new scholarship on “Food Fights and Food Rights: Legislating the 'Delicious Revolution.'"

The abstract stated that the “Essay explores some of the civil rights and human rights dimensions of American food policy. In particular, the Essay examined the problem of “food deserts” – the dearth of grocery stores and farmers’ markets in America’s poor and nonwhite urban neighborhoods. These are complex problems, involving powerful agricultural interests, difficult public health questions, urban planning, and civil rights.

I was surprised and disappointed that in all of 51 pages, the author did not use the word "rural" a single time. Nor did he use the word "nonmetropolitan." The word "urban," on the other hand, appeared thirteen times (more if you count the footnotes). He talked about farmers' markets, farm policy, the Farm Bill, Farmer Barack, and occasionally plain old farmers, but he did not mention the fact that a whole lot of food (the vast majority of what the world consumes) is grown in rural and/or nonmetropolitan areas. He talked about what is good for cities and urban children without acknowledging rural children, their families, their nutritional needs, or their communities.

On the one hand, the author’s use of the modifier "urban" could be seen as progress. That is, by specifying urban people and contexts, he is at least not pretending to refer to all children when his real focus is those who live in cities. There is precision and honesty in this. Unlike many legal scholars, he is not merely assuming the urban; he's expressing it.

Now, I do understand that urban ag, Slow Food, and Alice Waters are hot topics these days. I also appreciate that even law review articles need a little marketing. Still, given that food insecurity and child obesity are as much rural problems as urban ones and given agriculture's importance to rural economies, I would expect rurality might play at least a cameo role somewhere in the discussion. Maybe “rural” merited the old law review footnote. But it was not to be.

In a similar vein, a few years ago, a poverty law textbook (the first in more than a decade) was in the publication pipeline. One of the authors was/is a long-standing friend of mine at another law school across the country. When I casually asked the author what he and his co-authors were including in the book regarding rural poverty, an awkward silence ensued ... because at that point there was no plan to say anything about rural poverty in the text book. To their credit, the authors then did scramble and throw in some mentions of rural poverty (and, I’m happy to say, some citations to my work). Needless to say, there were already plenty of references to urban poverty in the book. They didn’t have to be prompted to include those.

Similarly, the first ever law text book on reproductive justice was published last year, and it includes no mention of rural women, in spite of the fact that rural women—especially poor rural women—have been hardest hit by numerous abortion regulations over the past several decades. Indeed, “rural” women even garnered a mention in the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, albeit only in a dissenting opinion. Yet the book barely mentions distance, let alone “rural.”

Somewhat more shockingly, rural women have been overlooked in the most recent round of litigation over abortion restrictions. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt on March 2, 2016, but by the time the plaintiffs briefed their Supreme Court case—somewhat differently to the way in which the case was litigated in the lower courts—the burden of abortion clinic closures on rural women, on all those not living in major metropolitan areas, was off the radar screen, relegated to brief mention at the end of the petitioners’ briefs (and then, presumably, only because they had been discussed in the federal district judge’s opinion.

Similarly, a great deal of legal scholarship about access to public education— scholarship about issues of equality and adequacy—does not acknowledge the struggles rural schools face. A friend of mine who is a West Virginian by birth and upbringing—a rural West Virginian I might add—is among the scholars whose drafts I have read only to find not a single reference to rural schools and their plight. This was remedied when I pointed it out to him, but I’m flummoxed by what is behind this neglect of the rural, this failure to address rural aspects of any of a number of legal /socio-legal issues—even by those who are well aware of what those issues are seemingly not born and raised into metro-centrism. (Alas, perhaps these scholars are aiming to pass as metro-centric; perhaps it is one way scholars who are not urban by birth and upbringing “clean up well,” of trying to fit in. They shed their place of origin as a way of working their identity in the same way that class migrants must shed the folkways of their families of origin).

Quite frankly, I feel shamed—and I wonder if other scholars here experience this— shamed for writing about the rural. I have been made to be/feel ashamed of/for caring about rural Americans, for devoting my scholarly agenda to them.

When I tell my colleagues about my latest project—which inevitably is some variation on the rural theme—their eyes glaze over. I have even been told that I only have “one idea,” as if rural people and places are only worthy of a single law review article. I have often joked that—something like the church lady on “Saturday Night Live”—you remember her, right—I am the “rural lady.” I have a one-track mind.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Clearly, these reactions of colleagues and the wider public foster an instinct to self-censor. Even I have taken to re-framing what I do. I am less likely to say I am writing about this rural project or that rural project. I am increasingly likely to re-frame and re-position myself as a “legal geographer.” It just sounds more high-falutin’, more worthy of academic inquiry, doesn’t it?

So, no self-respecting scholar writing about any significant legal or social phenomenon would overlook the urban—or, for example, racial disadvantage, which is often conflated with “urban.” However, no similar compulsion exists to mention the rural even in passing ... vestigial and peripheral as it is to what the world tells us matters.

Indeed, rural bashing has become sport in public life--perhaps especially during election season! “Indeed, rural Americans have become the butt of jokes in ways that would be entirely unacceptable for racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities.”1

Consider a few exhibits/illustrations:

Statement from the FCC economist Michael Katz, February 2009: “Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas . . . [s]o I will. . . . The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society . . . is misguided . . . from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.”... “[Rural places are] “environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation, simply because rural people are spread out across the landscape.”2 (As a related matter, The Brookings Institute has had a lot to say a few years ago what it called the “Miracle Mets”—referring to the glorious metropolitan areas that are the center of the universe and engines of economic growth.)

Then there was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a metaphor for allegedly wasteful spending, and one with rural overtones. The actual bridge under scrutiny was one that would link Ketchikan, Alaska (pop. 7,640) with its airport. The Brookings Institute argued the funds for it should be allocated instead to metropolitan infrastructure or a “bridge to somewhere.”

Indeed, The New York Times subsequently referred to federal spending for broadband infrastructure in rural areas as a “Cyberbridge to Nowhere.” All implied that rural residents were “nobodies.” To this, Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies responded: “When people think of rural as ‘nowhere,’ [they’re] saying the people who live in those places aren’t worth working with, they’re not worth helping.

Another example of rural bashing was a piece headlined, “Village Idiocy: Enough with Small Town Triumphalism” by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute, published in the New Republic.

Much of this talk arose in the midst of the 2008 Presidential Election when Sarah Palin took up the “Main Street” mantle ... At that point, coastal elites openly took aim at rural America as co-terminous with “Main Street” and all that Palin claimed to represent.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins, observed, for example, that only about 106,000 people vote in Alaska, fewer than “in my immediate neighborhood!” She added, “What kind of state is this, anyway?” This theme of rural people and rural states being unimportant because there are so few of them, while they are also politically overrepresented, was echoed in other columns. For example, Collins observed (a very neutral choice of verb under the circumstances) that Senator Max Baucus of Montana assembled a special bipartisan negotiating committee on healthcare whose members “hail from Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Iowa, Maine and Wyoming. This was quite a coup on Baucus’s part, since you have to work really hard to put together six states that represent only 2.77 percent of the population.5

Call me hyper-sensitive (and others have, especially when it comes to rurality), but I do not find this rhetoric helpful. It is certainly not bridge-building rhetoric.

In short, I see cultural and political disdain for rural folks preventing law- and policy-makers from seeing and addressing the distinct challenges facing the rural citizenry – they simply don’t seem to be seen as worth the “extra work.”

Such disdain may also prevent us from seeing when rural people help achieve something really great. Witness the coverage of President’s Obama’s (recent) ultimate decision not to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. The environmentalist/conservationist victory lap was all about the institutional environmentalists and what they had accomplished. Forgotten was the grassroots work of many rural Nebraskans who organized against the pipeline. So when rural folks are—on rare occasion—aligned with coast elites, they still don’t get their due, eclipsed by those who really matter.

Burns, Oregon/Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

And all of this brings me to Burns, Oregon and the seizure of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. With the self-styled militia seizure of that refuge in January this year, the situation seemed to escalate... or perhaps I should say, degenerate, further.

Indeed, I found myself in my first Twitter fight over the events at Malheur.

Now, I’ve only been on Twitter for less than a year, and I am often quite inactive ... but I began following the situation in Burns closely from the outset (it seemed quintessentially rural!), including on Twitter. Again, call me humorless, but I was uncomfortable with the hashtags that popped up:


But when some liberal elite/member of the chattering/narrating classes said (and I’m reading from the Twitter exchange here):

“Imagine being so whacked out you think the *Bureau of Land Management* is the most tyrannical federal agency.”

I responded,

“That is a very metro centric perspective ...”

To which the other Tweeter replied:

“how many American citizens has the BLM assassinated?”

To which I responded,

“not talking objective right or wrong; talking perspective”

To which my tweeting nemesis replied:

“so you agree that thinking the BLM is the most tyrannical agency is objectively wrong?”

My response:

“Not even close to what I said”

And before I could even zap that last tweet off, he added,

“(I grew up in the rural southwest by the way, I’m extremely familiar with the BLM)”

So he got the last word. It didn’t seem useful to try to continue the conversation.

My point was simply that we might try a little empathy and really, more fundamentally, that I don’t have to negotiate with the BLM in order to do what I need to do to feed my family. As far I could tell, not many people ridiculing the “militia” and—more significantly—the ranchers in the West (who were not necessarily one in the same as the “militia”)—seemed to be thinking in those terms.

But what struck me most about the Oregon standoff was how complicated and nuanced it really was—if you bothered to look closely. It wasn’t just these “crazies” from the rural West taking the law into their own hands and not understanding conservation and such. Many different “rural” interests were at stake—and sometimes at odds with each other.

Here’s a quote from Les Zaitz, a reporter for The Oregonian, who lives in Harney County, being interviewed early on by NPR:

ZAITZ: Well, I don't know that they're [Bundy and allies] being considered by locals as heroes. I think people make a distinction between their message and their tactics. Either they support the message that perhaps the federal government is not complying with the principles behind the Constitution, but they are not very supportive of this tactic of seizing a public building and, you know, making schools close and federal governments close. They have really disrupted life in this little town. And so again, it's a distinction between the message and the method.

And this is from Kirk Johnson’s reporting in the NYT (which I thought was generally very good, very nuanced and sensitive) and a blog post I wrote about it: “Rural Oregon’s Lost Prosperity Gives Standoff a Distressed Backdrop

Times were once very good out here on the high desert of east-central Oregon, and a place like Burns — remote and obscure until a group of armed protesters took over a nearby federal wildlife sanctuary this month — was full of civic pride and bustle. In their heyday, Harney County and its largest town, Burns, were economically important in a way that now seems unthinkable in the rural West.

There is so much to Johnson's story, which really does justice to the decades-long (downward) trajectory (or should I say “spiral?”) of the rural West. After describing how metro-centric and urbanormative (my words, not his) even Oregon has become—half of the state's jobs are in the three counties in and around Portland— Johnson closes with this quote from a 73-year-old who formerly worked in Burns's sawmills:

People in western Oregon don’t even know where Burns is.

[This reminds me of how those supporting The State of Jefferson have expressed their gripes—about not being seen, not being known by policy makers and law- makers in Sacramento and Salem]. And that is lent further perspective by this quote from state representative Cliff Bentz, a Republican whose district includes Harney County:

People feel powerless. ... As the rural areas grow more and more poor and urban areas grow more and more wealthy, there’s a shift in power.

And then there is this from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden:

There’s enormous frustration about the economy and a very powerful sense in rural communities that nobody listens to them, that they don’t have any power, that their voices don’t matter,” Wyden said. “But the next step isn’t to be led by some outsiders into doing something that doesn’t help anybody.

For me, this raises the question: what would a just transition look like for communities like Burns? For ranchers? For coal miners? For other rural workers, whose work goes away because of some structural, economic shift? For prison guards/correctional officers if a prison closes?

But because there is so much hostility to rural Americans out there—and because rural Americans don’t have a great deal of political power—I don’t think many policymakers and lawmakers are interested in thinking about “just transitions.”

So what is behind this hostility toward “rural?” I think it is in part due to rural America’s reputation as homogeneous—and increasingly, the characteristics associated with that homogeneity are not positive. I’m talking about characteristics like racism, close-mindedness, traditional. Even whiteness is associated with rurality in our national imaginary, though the most disadvantaged rural residents are the Blacks living in the Mississippi Delta and Black Belt, the American Indians living in the Southwest and Plains and even into western Montana, and the Latina/os living in the Rio Grande Valley.

Speaking of just transitions, race, and negative stereotypes about rural folks, and admittedly as something of an aside, a colleague opined this past week that it is proof of [rural] whites’ racism that, for example, correctional officers unions—when offered a buy-out or a hand-out in exchange for a rural prison closure—in exchange for a shrinking of the prison-industrial complex—will not agree to such a handout. My colleague said these prison guards cling to their jobs because having a job is what distinguishes them from being black and dependent—blackness and dependency having been conflated. Thus, my colleague concluded, rural prison guards must be racist or they would take the government hand-out and give up their jobs as prison guards. Personally, I thought the causal link in his proposition was more than a little tenuous, but you start to get a sense of how some/many coastal elites view rural people, and a lot of it has to do with race—but that is a whole ‘nother lecture, or a whole ‘nother book. In any event, conversations like this make you wonder, can rural people do anything right – at least in the eyes of some/many?

To me, the neglect of rural America by academics seems to be in a [negative] feedback loop with the neglect of—even hostility toward—rural America—by policy-makers, some politicians, and much of the metro-centric populace. All of this has consequences for academic work that engages (or might engage) rurality.

I am a member of the governing body of the Rural Sociological Society, we keep finding ourselves in conversations about—to be frank—about how to save the organization. The number of members has declined sharply in recent years, and the meetings seem to be less robust, year on year ... and it sometimes feels as if, as scholars of the rural, we are writing ourselves into the very obscurity that increasingly marks rural America ...

One reason for this seems to be that most people who self identify as rural sociologists no longer work on rural sociology faculties. They work on “sociology faculties” or in “community development” or “planning” departments (even urban planning). So, those who might self identify as rural sociologists are dispersed, a diaspora from what were once robust critical masses of rural sociologists.

And, to be clear, I think this is only part of the problem. Another aspect of a flip side of the problem is that rural sociologists have been too silo-ed over the years and they became/are rather insular, not really engaged in cross-disciplinary work with others who study the rural from different disciplinary vantage points. Indeed, one thing that I find very heartening about this gathering is that it is so interdisciplinary, and I want to be explicit in encouraging all of you who are scholars of rurality to engage each other, to cite each other and not to get stuck in your own disciplinary silos. Similarly [as referenced earlier] I am encouraged by an event at which I’ll be speaking a week from tonight at Princeton University, an American Studies conference that will bring together historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and others around the theme: Life and Law in Rural America: Cows, Cars and Criminals. [If people at Princeton are studying rural America, it must be important, no?] These events hold out the promise of more robust engagement about the rural across disciplinary boundaries. And, to be fair to RSS, the organization, too, has shifted to be more flexible and outward looking, looking past “pure” [rural] sociology to other disciplines that engage rurality in one way or another.

Indeed, while I am on the point of strategies, I see the study of rurality as a comparative undertaking, across/between/among nations also to be a point of considerable promise. I’m pleased to be a contributor to the just published Routledge International Handbook of Rural Criminology ... with dozens of contributions /chapters from rural scholars around the globe ... what can we learn not only from talking to rural scholars from other disciplines, but also from other nations? A great deal I would expect.

But back to the Rural Sociological Society: The past president of RSS, Eddy Berry – who is at Utah State, Logan, Utah being a pretty rural place—related a few years ago that whenever she supervises a dissertation on a rural topic, others on the committee (not all rural scholars) inevitably ask “Why rural?” As in, “why study rural America?” Why look at a particular phenomenon specifically in the rural context? Why does rural matter? Maybe even hinting at, “how passé” or “how boring” or “how retrograde.”

A more charitable spin on this question, “Why Rural?” might be found in a germinal piece of sociology scholarship from the 1960s, in Richard Dewey’s provocatively titled “The rural-urban continuum: Real, but relatively unimportant.”

So, if like Dewey, we are convinced that meaningful differences no longer exist between the rural and the urban, then we don’t need to study the rural, right? (At least this spin on/interpretation of the question is less problematic than assuming that rural people don’t matter or are uninteresting just because they are rural?)

And so this is what scholars of the rural and advocates for rural people and places are sometimes struggling with—a widely held perception—hinted at by several speakers today—that rural and urban are no longer different—that people in rural places consume the same television and pop culture and such that urban people do ... and so why study any phenomenon in its rural manifestation?

Why study rural crime, instead of “crime, unmodified”?

  • Environmental justice, unmodified?
  • Termination of parental rights, unmodified?
  • Poverty, unmodified?
  • Voting rights, unmodified?
  • Civil liberties, unmodified?

Well, in response to the “why rural?” question—the question whether “rural is still distinct”—old-time rural scholars would point to some of the features I’ve already mentioned as setting rural people and places apart:

  • High density of acquaintanceship/lack of anonymity
  • A different sense of community responsibility and cohesion.
  • The existence—even dominance—of an informal economy ...
  • Maybe material spatiality ... Linda Lobao of Ohio State, a past president of RSS, has said she thinks this is what sets rural apart ... and she has written a great deal about rural spatiality

But the truth is, many of our assumptions about rural difference may have become outdated—they may simply no longer be true. It’s probably time to test [or re-test] some of those assumptions.

I, for one, would like to see more empirical work –some new work, some current work—on whether rural places do really differ in these ways. David Engel’s germinal study on rural attitudes toward civil litigation (1984) is now more than three decades old. Do rural folks still have these attitudes? If so, what is behind them?

So, let me spend my last few minutes and take that question, “Why Rural?” seriously—and not as snarky and sarcastic and imperious/condescending—and try to answer it?

This is actually something I have been thinking about for a few years: If, as Katz has asserted, rural America and rural Americans are “inefficient” and have a greater carbon footprint and we cannot achieve economies of scale to serve rural people ... why not just encourage everyone to “move to town”—or better yet, “to the city!” Why should we care about preserving or saving rural America? Why not just let the inevitable run its course?

How do we grab folks’ attention to rural issues? Given lack of efficiency, inability to achieve economies of scale ... services and infrastructure is going to be costly, so we need to be prepared to justify it. Here are some thoughts on what we get from rural, how we justify rural.

  • Food? Wonderful as Slow Food and urban agriculture are, we are not going to be able to feed the world with it. So rural places as producers of food are likely to continue to matter, even though the New York Times feeds us photos of skyscrapers covered in gardens and greens.
  • Other natural resources?
  • The Environment?/Wilderness?
  • Nostalgia – doesn’t seem very effective in today’s world –think of Katz’s comments—though it certainly links powerfully to this idea of “place.”

I have to admit, I’m not sure how to convince a metro-centric world that rurality is worth saving, or even worth subsidizing. I would be interested in hearing your ideas. As for me, among others, I like the idea of rural proofing? This is a practice of some Australian states and New Zealand governmental units. When a law is proposed, they think through the specific consequences of the law for rural people and places. It’s a bit like an environmental assessment ... but focused on the impact for rural livelihoods. That way, laws can be tailored or amended to avoid deleterious impacts on rural folks.


I am called to think and write and advocate for rural people—and I’ll be honest—my biggest soft spot is for the disadvantaged, for rural underdogs.

I fear that if we let rural America dry up and blow away ... and sometimes it feels like that is what is happening both literally (in drought) and metaphorically (in light of population loss, for example) —the only people with access to rural America— and this is a particular concern in the rural west—will be the wealthy, the rural gentrifiers who are remaking places like Montana and elsewhere in the inter- mountain west.

And won’t that be ironic, given rural America’s long-time association with socioeconomic disadvantage?

But I can’t end on that depressing note, I want to end on a happier one:

This conference has in some ways lifted my spirits and made me more optimistic than I am on the average day, again, simply because it is inter-disciplinary. It’s a wonderful thing about the Bill Lane Center for the American West, bringing together scholars from across disciplines to consider the challenges facing the Rural West’s people and places ... Thanks to the Lane Center for tearing down the disciplinary walls that cabin or silo us, separating us from one another. In bringing down those walls, we are better able to reach for –and, in fact—identify/find comprehensive and workable policy solutions in and for the rural West.

Thank you.

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Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.