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Presidential Address

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads*


Richard S. Krarmich
Utah Stale University

A complex array of socio-historical, demogi-aphic. and organizational factors have combined in recent years to threaten both the current
status of and future prospects for the discipline of rural sociology, and for
the Rural Sociological Society (RSS). This papei' examines the somewhat
problematic recent trajectories of the RSS as a professional organization and
of rural sociology more generally and notes a degree of disciplinary and
organizational inertia that have limited the pursuit of new directions. It also
presents a discussion of selected factors that have contiibuted to these
concerns, including both "external" factors that are largely beyond the
organizational reach of RSS and "internal" factors that aie more directly
linked to organizational characteristics and actions. Drawing upon the
distinctions between "red ocean" and "blue ocean" strategies outlined by
market strategists Kim and Mauborgne, the discussion then shifts to a focus
on action alternatives that, if pursued, could help to create an expanded set
of opportunities and a brighter futtire for niral sociology, and for the Rural
Sociological Society.
ABSTRACT

Presidential addresses to profes.sional organizations typically follow one


of two primary paths. The first of these involves presentation of a
synthetic overview and extension of core themes and questions around
which the author's own research interests and contributions are
centered. A second, somewhat less common path involves a foctis on
the "state of the discipline," and on major trends and directions that
affect the status and future of a particular field of study. After spending
most of a career writing on topics revolving around natural resources
and community change, I initially set out on the first of these paths and
worked to prepare an address linked to those themes. However, in the
end, those topics were left for another day in order to address more
pressing concerns that confront our discipline and our professional
organization.
This paper is to a large extent foctised on the socio-historical,
demographic, and organizational factors that in combination threaten
the current status of and future prospects for rural sociology, and the
This paper was improved by commenmand reactions provided by numerous colleagues
following its initial presentation at the 2007 annual meeting of the Rural Sociological
Society, and by more formal reviewsprovidedby two past-Presidents of RSS. Please direct all
correspondence to Richard S. Krannich, Department of Sociology, Social Work and
Anthropology. Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322-0720, richard.krannich@usu.edu.

Rural Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

Rural Sociological Society. At the same time, portions of the paper are
unabashedly opinionated, and iinapologetically prescriptive. The
challenges that confront rural sociology are substantial, and they
require immediate attention. For that reason, this paper is as much as
anything else a call to action.
The discussion that follows is focused initially on the current status
and somewhat problematic trajectories of RSS as a professional
organization and of rural sociology more generally. Attention is then
directed to an analysis of selected factors that have contributed to the
challenges and vttlnerabilities that now confront us. The paper ends
with a discussion of strategies that might be pursued by the Rural
Sociological Society to enhance the future prospects of both the
organization and the discipline.
Where We AreAnd How We Got There

After several decades of what Bill Ftinn (1982) referred to 25 years ago
as "self-flagellation" and Bill Friedland (1982) called "continuous
...and relende.ss introspection," both the discipline of rtiral sociology
and the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) appear to have made only
Hmited progress in adapting to changing circumstances that affect both
the institutional contexts in which most of tis are employed and the
rural people, communities, and societies that are the focal points of our
work. As an organization, RSS has been slow to change and reluctant to
pursue the kind of extended and intensive strategic planning needed to
establish new directions. These circutnstances have brought the field of
rural sociology and the RSS to a critical crossroads. While I do not want
to be alarmist, I have no douht that "business as usual" cannot
continue any longerthe time to act is upon us. Our decisions about
future directions and about strategies for accomplishing organizational
change will determine whether rural sociology and the Rtiral
Sociological Society will be sustained, or whether our discipline and
our professional organization will continue to lose ground and
gradttally fade into relative obscurity.
Membership numbers represent one key indicator of organizational
health, vitality, and capacity to exert infltience and effect change.
Unfortunately, a review of trends in RSS membership over the past
decade provides very litde in the way of good news. Between 1988 and
1997 the organization's total membership exhibited short-term spurts
of both growth and decline, ranging from a low of 893 members in 1993
to a high of 1101 members in 1997. However, over the past decade the
trend has been more uniformly one of membership stagnation and

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

Figure 1. Rural Sociological Society membership totals, 1997-2007

decline (Figure 1). Membership numbers dipped and remained below


the 1,000 level beginning in 2001, and total membership has declined
in four of the past six years. As of October, 2007 the RSS btisiness office
reported a total of just 782 membersa 29 percent decline from the
1997 high pointand a one-year drop of 6 percent from the nutnber
reported for 2006. At the time of the membership high point in 1997,
RSS counted a combined total of 651 members in the various
"professional" categories (e.g., professional, professional without
jotirnal, and emeritus), and 237 student members. The numbers from
2007 itidicate a combined total of 516 members in the "professional"
categories (professional, professional without journal, new professional,
emerittts, and lifetime), and 184 student membersa 21 percent drop
from 1997 in professional members, and a 22 percent decline in
student members.
A second relevant indicator of otir sittiation involves instittitional
subscriptions to the Society's fiagship journal. Rural Sociology. Institutional subscriptions for many academic journals have exhibited sharp
declines in recent years as libraries responded to budget shortfalls and
rising stibscription costs. However, even though subscription costs for
Rural Sociology have remained comparatively low, tbe decline in
institutional subscriptions over the past two decades has been stistained
and precipitous. As indicated in Figttre 2, the total number of
institutional subscriptions to Rural Sociology dropped from 1,579 in
1986 to just 782 in October, 2007-a decline of over 50 percent. During

Rural Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

Figure 2.

Institutional subscriptions to Rural Sociology, 1986 to 2007 (selected years)

that same period U.S. institutional subscriptions dropped from 874 to


569 (a 35% decrease), while international subscriptions plummeted
from 705 to just 213 (a 70% decrease). This trend signals a disturbing
reduction in the visibility of and accessibility to reseat ch reported in the
journal. It also represents a major contributor to recent RSS budget
shortfalls, since institutional subscriptions to Rural Sociology comprise
the single largest source of income to the organization.
A third, more qualitative set of indicators involves various expressions
of discontent, uncertainty, and what Mike Bell (2007) recently referred
to as "academic rural doubt" among the RSS membership. This is
evidenced in various waysincluding the commentaiy presented in
several previous RSS Presidential addresses (see Beaulieu 2005; Flinn
1982; Klonglan 1987), articles published over the years in Rural Sociology
and other journals questioning the status and future of both rural
society and rural sociology (Bealer 1969; Bell 2007; Falk and Pinhey
1978; Friedland 1982), discussions and comments presented in
organized sessions at the 2006 RSS meeting focusing on the so-called
"deat!i" of rural sociology, feedback provided to RSS leadership
through organized listening .sessions (Beaulieu 2004), and informal
input that I and others have received through many conversations with
past and present RSS members over the past several years. It is also
evidenced by the disappearance from the annual RSS meetings and
from our membership roster of a considerable number of former

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

members whose training, research interests, and positions would


suggest that rural sociology should still be at the core of their
professional identities. To paraphrase a statement from the work of
economist Robert Heilbrontier (1991:11), "there is a qtiestion iti the
air, more sensed than seen, like the invisible approach of a distant
storm.... is there hope" for rtiral sociology?
What factors can we point to in attempting to account for these
trends and this state of unrest? Not surprisingly there are multiple
possible explanations. Some involve forces that are external to RSS,
and, to a considerable extent, beyond our immediate control. At the
same time, some of the contributing factors are internal to our
discipline and our organization, and perhaps more amenable to
collective efforts to implement change.
External Forces
The list of external forces operating largely outside of the organizational reach of RSS that have contribtited to the challenges confronting
r\nal sociology incltides at least the following:
(1) Substantial attrition among an aging cohort of rural sodology
faculty members at U.S. universities, who during the past decade in
particular have moved in growing numbers toward and into retirement.
This reflects a largely "external" process, because it can be traced not
to action (or inaction) on the part of RSS, but instead to the legacy of
earlier faculty expansions that occurred in large part as a response to
movement of the baby-boom generation into and through the
American educational system. The timing of this demographic
transition among the faculties of rural sociology departments and
programs could not have been worse, because it has coincided with an
inability on the part of many academic departments to fill vacant
positions due to budget shortfalls that affected large numbers of public
and private institutions during the same time period. The end results
h'ave inclttded a loss of critical mass in many programs where rural
sociology was once firmly estabUshed, reduced ability of affected
programs to compete at the institutional level for resources and
students, and more generally a shrinking pool of academic professionals whose appointments and research interests make them hkely
candidates for RSS membership.
(2) Topical constraints and stagnant or declining funding opportunities for rural soeiological research. In particttlar, there has been an
erosion of traditional sources of research sttpport such as the formula
funds allocated by the United States Department of Agriculture

Rural Sodology, Vol. 73, No. 2, March 2008

(USDA) through Agricultural Experiment Stations at U.S. Land Grant


universities, and stagnation in the amount of competitive grant funding
available for rural sociological research through key programs such as
the USDA National Research Initiative (NRI).
Rural sociology's reliance on USDA funding has always been a
double-edged sword. Formula funds allocated to support research at
U.S. Land Grant universities have provided a readily accessible and in
many cases essentially guaranteed source of research funding not
enjoyed by social scientists in other disciplines or those otitside of the
land grant system. At the same time, reliance on such funding has
constrained the focus and scope of much rural sociological research to
topics that fit within whatever may be included in the then-current
USDA agenda of priorities and to issues and locations deemed relevant
by Experiment Station administrators whose interests most often are
cente] ed within their own state rather than on topics characterized by a
regional, national, or global focus (see Falk 1996; Flinn 1982; Friedland
1982). In recent years this funding tradition has produced increased
vulneiability for many rural sociology programs and faculty, due to
reduced levels of USDA-administered formula funds allocated to Land
Grant universities and ongoing uncertainty about the future of such
ftmding within the federal budget (see Huffman et al., 2006).
The emergence in 1990 of the NRI competitive grants program,
including in particular the program area focused oti rural development, added another important source of research funding for rural
sociologists, and one that has been more broadly available to
researchers both within and outside of the land grant system. However,
here as well, USDA funding priorities have focused attention on a
relatively limited range of topics, and funding levels for the rural
development program area have lagged substantially behind those in
other NRI programs. The move several years ago to an every-secondyear proposal submission schedule for the NRI rtiral development
program, along with shifts in program priorities from one funding
period to the next, have further constrained the availability of this
source of funding for rural sociological research. To a large extent
these trends reflect the operation of broad-based social and political
forces that have contribtited to a shift in national research ftmding
priorities towatd areas other than the social sciences. At the same time,
the absence of political infiuence on the part of social science in
general and RSS specifically has contributed to a failure to organize and
fight effectively to retain or enhance such resources.
The deterioration and future uncertainty of these traditional funding
sources place rural sociology programs and faculty members at

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

increased risk, especially in the context of research-oriented universities


where grantsmanship is increasingly a criterion for resource allocation,
faculty tenure, and program continuance. These circumstances have
contributed both to the loss of faculty positions noted above and to
reduced levels of graduate assistant funding needed to stipport and
train the next generation of rural sociologists, and ultimately to the
pattern of membership decline experienced within the Rural Sociological Society over the past decade.
(3) A gradual disappearance of academic departments that are clearly
defined by name and mission as "rural sociology" programs. Whether
abandoned entirely, absorbed into other types of disciplinary or multidisciplinary departments or given a new label, the result of program
discontinuance, restructuring, and redefinition has been an erosion of
the "rural sociology" label on most university campuses across the
United States. At present, only two explicitly "Rural Sociology"
departments remainat the University of Missouri and the University
of Wisconsin. A handful of other departments retain "rural sociology"
in their names, either listed second after more prominent (and
institutionally dominant) disciplines like "agricultural economics" or
"sociology" or combined with other thematic emphases (e.g.,
Washington State University's department of "Community and Rttral
Sociology"). Elsewhere, the phrase "rural sociology" has essentially
disappeared from the roster of campus department names and
program lahels. Althottgh a considerable amount of rural sociological
education and research remains in evidence within departments of
differetit names, the disciplinary identity and heritage of "rural
sociology" are nevertheless blurred. With this comes a redticed
likelihood that either factilty or studentsparticularly those who arrive
after a department's label has changedwill develop or sustain
personal and professional identities as rttral sociologists, or feel
compelled to establish or maintain membership in something called
the Rural Sociological Society.
(4) Increased competition for memberships, membership dollars,
and professional identity from a large and expanding array of social
science professional organizations. These include long-standing national as well as regiotial disciplinary organizations such as the American
Sociological Association and the Pacific Sociological Association, along
with an ever-growing number of more recently-created interdisciplinary
organizations such as the Agriculttire, Food and Human Values Society,
the Association for the Study of Food and Society, the National Rural
Health Association, the International Association for Society and
Natural Resources, and the Society for Human Ecology.

Rural Sodology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

Faced with a proliferation of professional associations as well as


constraints on their time, energy, and finances, it was perhaps
inevitable that a number of past as well as potential RSS members
would shift the focus of their organizational involvement and
allegiance, especially as the "rural sociology' identity" has waned across
U.S. university campuses. Nearly 40 years ago Robert Bealer (1969:231)
observed that the "continuing problem of identification...is an issue of
critical importance" for the future of rural sociology. More recently,
Falk (1996) argued that a rural sociological identity was promoted by
common experience within the land grant university context and
shared participation in RSS. Research on social network ties,
comnnmit\' interaction, and collective organization has repeatedly
demonstrated that a shared, overarching identity is key to both
interaction and engagement (see Putnam 2007; Wilkinson 1991).
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the RSS has in recent decades
lost ground to other professional organizations that have built their
focus around themes that once were well-established within the rural
sociological enterprise. As a consequence, it seems that in recent years
the "identity" of being a "rural sociologist" has become less and less
compelling for many rural-oriented scholars and practitioners.
(5) A fundamental transformation of "rural society" in the U.S. and
other advanced industrial societies, resulting in an erosion of many of
the content domains that were traditionally at the core of rural
sociology. Twenty-five years ago Friedland wrote of the "death of rural
society," asserting that demographic shifts along with ctilttiral and
economic homogenization had by then reached a point such that there
was "little 'rural' society left in the United States" (1982:590). This is
without doubt even more true in 2007 than it was in 1982.
By 2000, over 80 percent of U.S. citizens lived either in central cities
or in suburban areas of metropolitan areas (Hobbs and Stoops 2002),
;md many of those living in non metropolitan areas were urban-origin
in-migrants attracted by small-town lifestyle opportunities, rural
retirement destinations, and natural amenities (see McGranahan
1999; Winkler et al. 2007). Meanwhile, by 2000 the percentage of the
U.S. workforce employed in agriculttire had dropped to jtist 1.9
percent, and by 2002 only 0.7 percent of the total U.S. GDP came from
agriculttire (Dimitri, Effiand, and Conklin 2005). Long-term employment declines in other ttaditional niral economic sectors such as
forestiy and mining tell a similar story (see Freudenburg, Wilson, and
O'Leary 1998). These shifts in conjunction with the rapidly expanding
communication and information exchange capacities fostered by
electronic technologies have contributed to a situation in which much

Rural Sodology at the Crossroads Krannich

of what we traditionally studied as "rural" is no longer so clearly


evident, or so clearly distinctive, as was previously the case. In turn,
there is no longer an obviotis "constituency" for rural sociological
research, if there was ever one to start wilh (see Friedland 1982). Under
these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the traditional focus of
rural sociology on "rural people and places" has become less relevant
and less compelling in the eyes of policy makers, funding agencies,
university administrators, the public at large, and students.
Internal Forces

In addition to external forces that often operate beyond the immediate


reach of the Rviral Sociological Society, there undoubtedly are also
some internal forces involving the organizational structure and
behavior of RSS that have contributed to our current situation. These
incltide at least the following:
(1) A somewhat schizophrenic organizational perspective with
respect to the value of application and outreach. Rural sociology has

long been characterized by a more "applied" orientation than is


generally true of most other sociological fields (see Falk 1996; Lobao
2007). Application, public outreach, and policy application have been
self-proclaimed strengths of rural sociology from oiu- earliest days,
placing the field far out in front of more recent calls within the broader
sociological enterprise for development of a "public sociology"
(Burawoy 2005; Sachs 2007). The continued centrality of such an
orientation as a part of both our legacy and our contemporary identity
is evidenced by the recendy-announced theme for the 2008 RSS Annual
Meeting: "Rtiral Sociology as Public Sociology: Past, Present, Future."
At the same time, this more applied orientation has been identified
by some observers as contributing to a tendency for rtiral sociology to
be less highly-regarded than other sociological fields (Bealer 1969;
Friedland 1982). This may help to account for a reluctance on the part
of RSS to wander very far from the path of traditional academic
scholarship. Our organization has for the most part failed to engage
with or effectively recruit participation and membership among those
whose professional roles have more to do with practice and application
than with traditional academic research and scholarship. Despite some
recent efforts to diversify the content of annual meeting programs,
meeting sessions and presentations pertaining explicitly to application
and practice are scarce at best. Meanwhile, the content oi Rural Sodology
remains entirely within the domain of scholarly research, providing no
real opportunity for publication of primarily applied or policy-oriented

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Rural Sodology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

work. Our newly-minted applied policy series. Rural Realities, is intended


to provide an outlet for more accessible policy-oriented analyses, but to
date at least those contributing its content have been individ\ials in
traditional academic positions rather than those engaged directly in the
policy arena or in applied professions. Unlike some other professional
organizations (for example, the Nationai Rural Health Association)
that have ptirposeftilly btiilt a membership comprised of both scholars
and practitioners, RSS remains focused on an academic, researchoriented membership base. Stich an approach leads inevitably to a
somewhat limited and shrinking member recruitment potential.
(2) A degree of "boiuidary maintenance" behavior, which has
diverted the interest and participation of some social scientists away

from RSS. This is perhaps best illustrated by the virtual disappearance


over the past 20 years of non-academic natural resource social scientists
from the RSS meetings and from the organization's membership roster.
As Field and Burch (1988) have documented, rural sociology is in many
ways the disciplinary hirthplace of natural resource and environmental
sociology. In 1964, the Rural Sociological Society became the first
professional social science association to formally embrace this
emerging field, when a group that soon became the Natural Resources
Research Grotip (NRRG) was established within RSS. In subsequent
years the NRRG grew to become the largest and perhaps the most
influential of the research and interest groups formed within RSS, with
substantial involvement and group leadeiship occurring among social
scientists working outside of the academic sphere in natural resource
management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of
Land Management, and the National Park Service.
By the late 1970s and well into tlie 1980s, this grotip was louunely
organizing a well-attended full-day "mini-conference" in conjunction with
the annual RSS meeting, usually schedtiled for the day immediately
preceding tlie start of the regulai' RSS meeting program. Concerns
eventually emerged within RSS about the possibility that NRRCi (and other
interest groups) might exert undue infltience on the structure of the
annual meeting tlirough these pre-conference activities. This led to a
decision requiring tliat interest group activities and sessions be interspersed throtighout the meeting program, rather than being concentrated
in a full-day pre-conference forum. While there undoubtedly were some
well-reasoned organizational concerns behind this action, an unintended
conseqtietice has been the virttial disappearance of natural resource
agency social scientists from the ranks of RSS membership and meeting
attendees. With very few exceptions these former RSS members have
shifted their attention to other professional associations and other

Rural Sodology at the Crossroads Krannich

11

meeting venues where their identities are more clearly reinforced and
have fueled the emergence of new organizations and new journals that
compete with RSS for visibility, impact, and the allegiance of members.
(3) A largely failed attempt to build stronger bridges between RSS
and the American Sociological Association, and between rural sociology
and the broader sociological discipline. Over the past 10 to 15 years, few
debates within RSS have been as heated or as extended as that involving
the decision in the mid-1990s to hold future RSS meetings during
overlapping time periods and in the same or proximate locations as the
annual meeting of the American Sociological Association on an
alternate-year schedule. Some RSS members welcomed the opportunity
to more easily attend the meetings of both organizations, and
promoted the potential for rural sociology to btiild a closer affiliation
to the broader discipline. Some members opposing the policy decried
both the costs of meeting attendance in large-city convention venues
and the symbolic implications of holding "loiral" sociology meetings in
stich settings. Others expressed concerns about a potential blurring of
the distinct rural sociological identity if RSS and its members were to
become more closely connected lo atid influenced by ASA.
For the most part, neither the anticipated positive consequences or
the anticipated negative consequences of meeting coordination with
ASA have occurred, simply because efforts to schedtile coincident
meeting times and venues have been generally unsuccessful. Several
times during the past decade ASA has shifted its annual meeting to an
entirely different city and region in response to unresolved contractual
issties between hotel worker labor unions and convention hotels.
Unfortunately, those decisions occurred after RSS had established
contractual obligations for a meeting ventte that could not be
abandoned without incurring substantial financial penalties. As a
result, an tinintended consequence of this policy has been the location
of several recent RSS meetings in less-than-ideal locationssites that
undoubtedly would not have been selected in the absence of efforts to
coordinate with ASA meeting plans.
These circumstances have without question contributed to reduced
attendance at RSS meetings over the past decade. Some members,
confronted with an inability to participate in two temporally proximate
btit geographically distant conferences, have chosen instead to attend
ASA meetings. Others have bypassed RSS meetings held in what they
considered to be inconvenient, unattractive, or overly expensive
locatiotis. Reduced meeting attendatice contributes in ttxrn to reduced
effectiveness at both new member recruitment and member retention,
and to further erosion of the "rural sociology" identity.

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Rural Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

(4) Organizational inertia. The Rural Sociological Society has been


slow to respond to changing circumstances, due at least in part to an
unwieldy and cumbersome organizational .structure. Along with six
officers and seven elected council members, RSS has eleven standing
committees and at present four ad hoc committees, each with a chair
and multiple (in some cases 10 or more) committee members. In
addition, each ofthe fourteen Research and Interest Groups has its own
chair or co-chairs, and in some cases other officers. At any given time
there are 100 or more individuals listed on the rosters of the various
committees that comprise the organization chart for RSS. For a
professional association that now has fewer than 800 members, we are a
very complex organization!
On the plus side, this structure provides considerable opportunity for
a substantial proportion ofthe RSS membership to become involved in
various facets of organizational decision-making and leadership. In
addition, the broad-based representation of our membership in
committee assignments and council positions insures that virtually all
organizational affairs and proposals for action will be fully vetted from
multiple perspectives. At the same time, there are important liabilities
associated with such a complex leadership and committee structure.
Even though some elected and appointed positions involve two or
three-year terms, the annual turnover in RSS officers, council members,
committee chairs, and committee membership results inevitably in
organizational inefficiencies that make it difficult for RSS to pursue
sti'ategic planning, to reach major organizational decisions, or to insure
follow-through on decisions previously made. Each year, newlyconfigured committees inherit a range of existing and in-process tasks
not completed during the prior year, most often in conjunction with a
completely new set of charges put forth by an incoming president. The
time required for new chairs and committee members to learn about
their assignments, allocate responsibilities, and tackle their list of tasks
often means that real progress does not begin to occur until at least
several months after committee terms begin. At that point, only a few
months remain before terms end, committees are reconfigured, and
the process starts all over again. Institutional memory and followthrough suffer in this context of repeated starts, stops, and re-starts,
making real action difficult to accomplish.
Added to this is a hesitancy on the part of many, if not most, RSS
committee chairs and elected officers to effect major changes to the
organization and its activities when there is a diversity of opinion
among members about alternative paths and future options. As an
organization and as individuals, we tend to promote and value broad-

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

13

based input and open dialogue about the issues and choices that
confront RSS. This is one of the strengths of our organization, and
certainly one that merits protection. At the same time, it is important to
recognize that the choices before us are difficult, and that consensus is
not likely to emerge. At some point it is necessary to move beyond
introspection and dialogue into actionand that has proven to be a
difficult step for RSS to take.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Although "rural society" is less extensive and certainly very different
than has been the case historically, it is important to keep in mind that
one in five U.S. residents still lives in a nonmetropolitan setting, and
that in 2007 just slightly imder one-half of the world's population is
rural (see Wimberly, Morris, and Fulkerson 2007). Rural places and
populations remain at the center of an international agricultural
industry that has evolved into a complex, hierarchical world food
system that has important implications for the health and security of
rural and urban people across the globe (see Buttel, Larson, and
Gillespie 1990; Friedland 1982). Community-based natural resource
management provides a context within which the pursuit of ecological
as well as social well-being are intricately intertwined in rural
communities across both developed and developing societies (see
Baker and Kusel 2003; Wilkinson 1991). Spatially differentiated and
persistent patterns of poverty, inequality, and injustice continue to
plague rural people throughout the world and continue to call for
resolution (Lobao 2004). At the same time, deeply rooted societal
ideals about "rurality" and the attractions associated with rural
landscapes continue to influence public opinion, recreation and
tourism patterns, migration behaviors, and political decisions in the
United States and other advanced industrial societies. Even where
"rural society" has waned, rural remains an important "category of
thought" (Mormont 1990:41, as cited in Bell 2007)a social
construction that is deeply embedded in cultural and political discourse
(see Bell 2007).
While many additional topics and themes could be listed, it seems
obvious that the work of rural sociologists remains relevant and
important even though "rural society" has morphed into something
decidedly different in the 21" century. Indeed, as Don Dillman (2007)
has recently observed, rural social science may now be more important
than ever, largely because of major shifts that continue to alter the
social, economic, and biophysical landscapes of the rural countryside.

Rural Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

Old assumptions about rural community decline and the growing


irrelevance of locality as a foimdation for social organization are
repeatedly contradicted by evidence that reveals a persistence and even
a resurgence of locality-based activity and action across much of rural
America (see Luloff and Krannich 2002). Continued transformations in
communication technologies have dramatically altered tlie spatial
constraints on interaction long connected with rurality, with consequences for personal and collective well-being that are still only partially
understood. Global climate change has the potential to create dramatic
ecological upheavals that could significantly alter agricultural production pattems, the availability and allocation of water resources, and
future migration patterns. Declining petroleum resources and global
political tensions are stimulating a rapid shift toward bio-fuel
production that has the potential to alter economic, demographic,
and ecological conditions throughout much of rural America. At the
same lime, the potential for a future shift entirely away from economies
built around carbon fuels portends even more dramatic transformations. On balance, there can be little doubt that many important
questions remain to be addressed by rural social scientists.
The legacy and continued strengths of the Rural Sociological Society
also seem still to matter, in spite of our recent downward trend. RSS
members care about, contribute lo, and value both research and
application. As a group, we are committed to social change that will
promote the well-being of rural people and communities. That
commitment is reflected in a strong focus on addressing real-world
problems through original research, infonnation dissemination, policy
assessment, and action. We are highly inclusive and value the ways in
which a variety of disciplinary perspectives, theoretical orientations, and
methodological approaches can illuminate the conditions and changes
confronting rural societies around the globe. We also value and nurture
a tradition of informality, collegiality, fellowship, and networking that
has made RSS truly special, both in terms ofthe strong professional ties
that link us as colleagues and collaborators and the enduring
friendships and socializing that make attendance of our annual
meeting so enjoyable.
In short, there is much about tbe field of rural sociology, and about
the Riual Sociological Society, that is worth saving. We need to preserve
and build upon our legacy and our strengths, but we also need to think
strategically about new directions. We can undoubtedly "fine tune" our
existing course in a variety of waysperhaps by reconsidering the
locations and even the timing of annual meetings; by "spicing up" the
content and structure of the annual meeting program; by selectively

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

15

adjusting the length of terms for certain leadership and committee


chair positions; or by reconsidering the number, size, and even the
need for some of the organization's committees. Even such relatively
mild redirections will undoubtedly generate some controversy among
members with diverse perspectives and preferences. However, these
types of small, incremental change will by themselves not suffice in
responding to the challenges before us^we will also need to pursue
more fundamental changes to the structure and activities of RSS. To
accomplish this, we can take guidance from the work of market strategy
specialists Kim and Mauborgne (2005), who distinguished between
"red ocean" situations in wbich multiple competitors vie for customers
and constituents in a crowded market space, and "blue ocean"
situations characterized by essentially open and untapped markets, the
chance to create new demand, and substantial growth opportunity.
The "Red Ocean" Context
At present, RSS operates almost entirely within a "red ocean" context,
where we compete head-to-head with multiple other professional
organizations for membership, meeting attendance, visibility, and
impact. In a variety of ways our competitive situation in the several
arenas that comprise this "red ocean" is not particularly advantageous.
For example, within the realm of disciplinary sociology we are
confronted by the American Sociological Association, the discipline's
"800 pound organizational gorilla." By virtue of membership size, fiscal
resources, staffing levels, organizational visibility, and disciplinary
prestige, ASA is clearly dominant in competing for the attention and
allegiance of U.S. sociologists. Meanwhile, multiple smaller regional
sociological associations compete for membership among those whose
professional identities are firmly situated in the realm of disciplinary
sociology but who prefer affiliation with smaller and perhaps more
accessible professional organizations. With reference to the broader
discipline of sociology at least, RSS has been and undoubtedly will
remain a marginal competitor among multiple professional associations and societies.
We also confront a red ocean with respect to several specialized
content areas where rural sociology has traditionally been strong, and
where we continue to compete. For example, while population studies
represent a well-established field of interest among rural sociologists,
the Population Association of America has 3,000 members and a much
stronger presence among U.S. scholars whose core identities are
focused around demography. Although a number of rural sociologists

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Rural Sociology, VoL 73, No. I, March 2008

maintain a strong interest in health-related topics, the National Rural


Health Association has in just 20 years grown to become a very large
(over 15,000 members) organization with a dominant position in that
specific domain. Multiple organizations, including the International
Association for Society and Natural Resources, the Society for Human
Ecology, and the Social Science Working Group in the Society for
Conservation Biology, have emerged as alternative and perhaps more
central professional homes for those whose identities focus more on
environmental/natural resource social science than on rural studies.
The fact that there are multiple and, in many cases, stronger
organizational competitors in disciplinary sociology and in several
specific content areas where rural sociologists are engaged does not
mean that either our discipline or RSS should divert attention away
from those domains. As Kim and Mauborgne (2005: 5) suggest, "it will
always be important to swim successfully in the red ocean... red oceans
will always matter, and will always be a fact of... life." RSS should
certainly continue to embrace its disciplinary foundations in sociology.
We sbould also continue to provide an organizational home for those
whose interests in population dynamics, environment and natural
resources, agriculture and food systems, land use and tenure, labor
force issues, community, health, social inequality, race and ethnicity,
aging, gender, family, and a myriad of other topics converge around a
common interest in rural contexts. In short, RSS needs to remain
broadly inclusive and eclectic in order to maintain position in the
competitive arenas where it is already established, even where other
organizations have captured stronger positions.
The Blue Ocean Option
At the same time, RSS also needs to move beyond these existing
competitive arenas, and chart new courses in a less-contested "blue
ocean" environment. To accomplish this, several areas of opportunity
should be considered.
First, RSS should focus attention more explicitly on the shared
interests and identities that can be forged by capitalizing on interest
across multiple disciplines and .subdisciplines in "things niral."
Increased emphasis on interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary
learning and research, both within higher education and in the
funding priorities of major research foundations and agencies,
reinforces the need to extend the RSS identity and "brand" beyond
its disciplinary roots in sociology. In short, RSS needs to pursue a much
more explicitly interdisciplinary courseone that would move our

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

17

collective identity beyond "rural sociology" to a more broadly-defined


domain of "rural social sciences." In many ways rural sociologists have
at least as much in common with geographers, anthropologists, political
scientists, and others from allied social science fields whose interests
converge around "rural" themes as they do with sociologists working in
the broad array of specializations that characterize what has become a
highly-fragmented discipline.
Amove toward this more interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary position
is hindered by the image or "brand" that characterizes the Rural
Sociological Society. For that reason, it is time to change the n;une of
our organization and of our journals and other products, and to create
a new organizational identity that refiects a more inclusive and more
interdisciplinary orientation. Although several suggestions come to
mind regarding new labels for the organization (e.g., the "International Association for Rural Studies") and the journal (e.g.. Rural
Dmjelofrmimt and Social Change: An IntetdLsciplinary /mirnati,

this will

admittedly be a difficult transition, one that will undoubtedly generate


extended dialogue and debate among members. Yet it will also be
important to move beyond that admittedly difficult, symbolic first step
of renaming the organization by also changing our organizational
behaviorsRSS needs to become more proactive in attracting niral
scholars in allied social science fields to participate in our annual
conference, to publish in our journals, and to engage as members of a
reconfigured professional organization.
Second, tbere are opportunities to pursue an expanded research
agenda and membership base that would extend the reach of RSS (or
whatever it becomes) more effectively beyond the boundaries of the
United States. Although tliere is already an "international" umbrella
organization for rural sociology (the International Rural Sociological
A.ssociation, of which RSS is a member organization) and several rural
sociology associations focused on particular world regions (e.g., the
European Rural Sociological Association and the Latin American Rural
Sociological Association), that should not preclude RSS from pursuing
a stronger international position and reputation. An expanded,
interdisciplinary focus on rural social sciences that encompasses
research and application across international contexts, particularly
one that promotes cross-national comparative studies and analyses of
global systems, could substantially extend the scope and visibility of our
organization and the rural social science disciplines that it might
encompass. A move in this direction could be pursued in multiple
waysperhaps in part through changes to the names of the
organization and its products, through targeted solicitation of

18

Rural Sociology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

manuscripts for submission to the organization's journals, through


strategic recruitment and publication of manuscripts published in the
Rural Studies Series, through thematic sessions in annual meeting
programs and proactive recruitment of a new cadre of participants, and
through collaborative organization of future meetings with other
organizations that are already more engaged in international research
and application, including some .situated outside of the United States.
Third, it should be possible for us to become more inclusive and
more relevant with respect to policy-oriented and application-based
work, to build a stronger connection with professionals engaged in
activities outside of the academy, and to recruit a larger and more
diverse group of practice-oriented members. This could be accomplished in part through strategic partnerships wilh olher professional
associations where practitioners focus on rural development and the
welfare of niral people. Such partnerships could including the
occasional scheduling of joint meetings to encourage cross-fertilization,
as well as collaborative pursuit of projects or development of products
focusing on key issues where rural social science and practical
application converge. The RSS annual meeting could be resuuctured
to include an expanded array of sessions and participants focusing
explicitly on practice and application. Similarly, our journal could
follow the lead of some other peer-re\iewed social science journals by
making room for high-quality "application" pieces aiong with more
traditional research arlicles. If our legacy and our identity are defined
in part by a commitment to application and to engagement on behalf of
rural people, communities, and organizations, it would seem entirely
reasonable to have that refiected more explicitly in the activities and
products of the organization. Doing so could help rural sociology to
more effectively identify and nurture an external constituency that
could help to reinforce and defend the relevance and the importance
of our educational programs, our research, and our contributions to
policy discourse.
Fourth, we need to identify and pursue a series of high-visibility, highimpact initiatives and products that can highlight how in specific,
thematically focused ways our organization and its members can
contribute to understanding and helping lo resolve key challenges
confronting rural communities and people across both domestic and
international contexts. RSS bas accomplished this kind of outcome
previously, most notably through the work of the Task Force on
Persistent Rural Poverty assembled in 1990 by past-Presidenl Gene
Summers (see Rural Sociological Society Task Force on Persistent Rural
Poverty 1993). This represents an important example of how RSS has in

Rural Sociology at the Crossroads Krannich

19

the past seized a "blue ocean" opportunity by pursuing an important


issue and having major impact within and beyond the academic arena.
Such activities should be structured in a manner that would
simultaneously build on our current strengths and forge new
Interdisciplinary and international bridges and visibility. With lhe
Rural Sociological Society's 75^^ Anniversary occurring in just four
years, tlie time is ripe to move forward on this front.
Conclusion

The theme of the 2007 RSS annual meeting, "Social Change and
Restructuring in Rural Societies: Opportunities and Vulnerabilities,"
was designed to focus attention on both the vulnerabilities and the
opportunities that accompany social change and restructuring in rural
societies. Similarly, the forces of change confronting the discipline of
rural .sociology and the Rural Sociological Society present us with bolh
vulnerabilities and opportunities. We undoubtedly have the capacity to
adapt to changing circumstances, to chart a different course, and to
reconfigure RSS into an organization that will remain strong and vital
into the distant future. The question is, do we have the will to do so?
Are we prepared to take action?
In his seminal work on community, Kenneth Wilkinson (1991) wrote
about five key elements of well-being that should be kept in mind as we
venture forward. Central to Wilkinson's discussion of well-being is
collectiveflc/io^"peopleworking together in pursuit of their common
interests" (1991:74). Clearly, members ofthe Rural Sociological Society
need to engage in collective action to address the challenges confronting
our professional field and our association. In doing so we will "promote
and enrich the collective life" (p. 74) experienced through social
interactions that comprise the foundation of this organization.
However, our attempts at action will undoubtedly fall short if we fail
to recognize and nurture the other four elements of well-being that
Wilkinson identified. We must endorse the importance of distrilmtive
justicemeaning equit)' and justice as principles of interaction as we
engage in frank conversation and difficult decision-making about the
future of RSS. We musl foster open communicationboth through
creation of efficient channels for dialogue among members and
through adherence to the principles of "honesty, completeness, and
authenticity" (p. 73) in the communication process. As, was noted
earlier, we cannot allow differing perspectives to block decision making
and action, yet at the same time we must expect and promote tolerance
of differing viewpoints, and respect the right of others to disagree.

20

Rural Sodology, Vol. 73, No. 1, March 2008

Finally, we need to use this historic moment in the trajectory of RSS


to experience communion. By taking the opportunity to celebrate our
collective heritage, recognize the personal and professional relationships that bind us into an organization, and promote the shared values
and purposes that can guide our actions, we will enhance our capacity
to work together on behalf of the rural sociological enterprise and
move RSS forward.
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