Social change and new ruralities

Posted by Michael Woods, 26 August 2014

I’ve spent the weekend in the Swedish spa resort of Falkenberg at the Bertebos Conference in honour of Philip Lowe. The biennial conference celebrates the winner of the Bertebos Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and funded by the Bertebos Foundation, a philanthropic organization linked to Sweden’s oldest family firm, who’s dairy-, milling and ice cream- business near Falkenberg dates back to the sixteenth century (well, maybe not the ice cream). The 2013 prize winner, Philip Lowe, has been a leading figure in rural studies for over 30 years, most recently as Director of the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme in the UK, and the conference of ‘new ruralities’ reflected a recurrent concern in Philip’s work.

Having been asked to deliver a key note lecture on ‘Social Change and New Ruralities’, I took the opportunity to think aloud about how the assemblage approach we are working with in the GLOBAL-RURAL project might be applied to analysing rural change. The assemblage approach derives from the social theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and whilst it has become fashionable in human geography, its definition is still rather loose, with the term being employed in a number of diverse ways. For the possibly oversimplified purposes of the talk, I focused on the characteristics of an assemblage outlined in Manuel de Landa’s book A New Philosophy of Society, for thinking about rural places as assemblages and how they change. De Landa describes an assemblage as being comprised by both material and expressive components, as being held together and given shape by processes of territorialization (and re-ordered by processes of deterritorialization), and being given an identity through coding (and de-coding), as well as that the capacities of an assemblage are defined by the exteriority of its relations.

If this sounds very esoteric and theoretical, I tried in the lecture today to ground these ideas in familiar experiences of rural change. Thus, applying de Landa’s framework to describing a rural place or rural locality as an assemblage, we might think about the landscape, buildings, crops, livestock, wildlife, economic commodities, etc., as the material components which make up a rural place, whilst things such as the aesthetic qualities of the landscape, folk culture, and emotional attachments might be expressive components (non-tangible elements which nonetheless are part of the essence of the assemblage). A rural place is held together, or territorialized, by its community structure, but it is also literally territorialized – tied to a geographical territory – by practices such as working the land and forms such as the administrative boundaries of parishes or municipalities. At the same time, this shape is stretched and strained by processes of deterritorialization such as migration, which alters the community structure, the loss of local services, or the amalgamation of municipalities. Similarity, whilst the very act of describing somewhere as ‘rural’ is an example of coding, changing meanings of rurality – for instance a shift in emphasis from production to consumption – can be seen as de-coding that changes the identity of rural places.

Furthermore, the capacities of a rural place are defined by its external relations – its interactions with local towns and the wider region, migration flows, economic transactions, power relations and so on. It is these external relations that expose rural places to wider processes of change, including globalization processes, but critically change occurs within a rural locality through alterations to the material and expressive components that constitute it, to its territorialization and to its coding. From this perspective, we can see that ‘rural change’ happens through small-scale modifications within places-as-assemblages, including for example the introduction of new material components such as new technologies, crops, buildings, residents, tourists, invasive species, pathogens, etc., or the disappearance of material components as traditonal crops are phased out or local schools, post offices and village shops close, or the mutation of material components from one form to another, for instance the commodification of rural artefacts, as say old-fashioned agricultural tools become craft products for sale to tourists. Equally, change occurs through the modification of expressive components – the loss of folk customs, rituals and dialect, the weakening of collective memories about landscape, the introduction of new symbolic associations of place and landscape from new economic activities or fictional representations in film,  TV or literature, and the introduction of new cultural practices and fashions by tourists and in-migrants, or from the global media.

This thinking is still a working in progress, and we will no doubt revisit and refine it in future posts. In the lecture I also tried to illustrate it with an example from one of the GLOBAL-RURAL case studies about transnational migration. This example resonated with earlier discussions at the conference, and especially an excellent panel on ‘social mobilities and the changing countryside’, which had reiterated to me the significance of transnational mobility as a key aspect of rural social change in the 21st century. All three speakers on the panel touched on this in different ways. Erik Westholm from the Swedish Agricultural University pointed out that the settlement of refugees around Sweden had turned a steady trajectory of rural population decrease in some rural municipalities in population increase. Marion Eckardt from LEADER Halland similarly described the case of a community in inland Halland, Unnaryd, where the population has increased due to the arrival of German, Danish and Dutch middle class immigrants. These lifestyle migrants are attracted by the pictureseque lakeside location, and whilst some leave again after only a short period, others have made significant contributions to the community – helping local businesses to develop trade links to Germany, bringing skills such as website design, and through voluntary work – yet often still find it difficult to integrate with the local community and access established informal networks. Finally, Neil Ward highlighted a less positive aspect of transnational mobility, connecting the apparent rise in support for the populist anti-EU UKIP party in Britain with the disillusionment of ‘left-behind’ rural working class populations, whose sense of marginalization has been increased in areas such as the east of England by concerns about eastern European migrant workers depressing wage levels.

Presentations from the conference, including mine, can now be accessed at:

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