Populism and the Rural-Urban Interface: The 2018 TARRN Conference

The political divides in America feel deeper than ever.

As pundits wrestle over the root causes driving the polarization of the political spectrum, sociological phenomena that stand as candidates to explain this divergence are being fervently discussed. Perhaps more than any other socio-economic factor, the urban-rural divide has become a major contender in public discourse to explain why Americans appear so dissimilar in how they see big issues like government spending and immigration. In June of 2017, the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of roughly 1700 Americans found that adults living in rural areas and small towns were more likely to feel culturally and morally estranged from their urban counterparts, being more likely to report the ineffectiveness of federal government, with a strong sense that they are being left behind.

This feeling of alienation saturating rural life was an important topic addressed at the annual meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) on March 23-25. Academics from American institutions were not the only ones voicing concern over the kind of deprivations characteristic of the urban-rural divide: similar observations were made by counterparts from Welsh, English, and Scottish universities. There was a consensus that relative deprivation is key to understanding the lived experience of rural communities and the insurgence of political populism in both the U.S. and the U.K. The opportunity to compare notes and examine theories in engaged discussions like the TARRN annual meeting is helping lead rural researchers towards a better understanding of what is driving these divides across contexts.

As the conference unfolded, it became clear that the binary of rural-urban doesn’t capture the messiness of reality and the diversity of rural-urban relations. Instead, as many argued, it’s important the recognize the typologies and nuances of rural and urban connections and interfaces. Bettina Bock, Professor at Wageningen University and visiting Professor at Newcastle University, proposed that a relational sociology lens can better illuminate the connectivity to places of wealth and resources that differentiate the development of rural areas. Her research in rural Holland examine communities forced into self-reliance and endogenous development that find themselves left behind. David Kay, of Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute, pointed out similar patterns in the study of boom towns, where rural areas were not so monolithic, but rather differentially privileged based on their access to industry, urban services, and the mobilities that connected them.  Unpacking the lived realities and complexities of rural society is undoubtedly important for addressing the underlying deprivations through policy and action. But many discussed a complicating obstacle that is seldom systematically examined in the context of research- a lack of trust in public institutions. The 2018 Edelman Global Trust Survey monitored dramatic decreases in reported trust of public institutions both in the US and the UK. Some conference  identified allegorical cases of having been characterized as politically motivated by virtue of their institutional association. Particularly when ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ are disorienting or eroding trust in traditional processes of knowledge generation, what can academics do to rebuild trust in academic knowledge?

One way, as Professor Mildred Warner of Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning suggested, is to ensure that we are co-creating knowledge with the public in more accessible formats, as opposed to transferring knowledge and producing purely for the audiences of academic journals. Representational justice and making rural communities feel heard and understood in the process of academic research may be an important part of diffusing distrust.

Whether in the context of public engagement, policy creation, evaluating and comparing the deep seated problems that challenge rural society, TARRN created a forum where senior and junior academics were able to examine best practice, develop new connections, and forge emerging pathways towards transformative research. For more information on TARRN and their participating institutions, visit their website at www.tarrn.wordpress.com.

Funding for this conference was provided in part by the Polson Institute for Global Development.

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