COL What makes rural different?

What makes rural, rural? What is unique about living in a rural community? What changes are taking place that affect the quality of rural living?

The density of population and the relative isolation from other people have a distinct effect on the way people view life and the values they espouse.

Density of population doesn't mean more social interactions. In fact the smallest and most remote rural communities have the most social interactions. A "dense" social network means that people in the social network are friends, related, know each other and interact regularly. In terms of quantity of social interactions, rural isolation is a myth.

In another sense, rural isolation is not a myth. It is precisely because of the closeness of the social network that rural people generally confide in fewer people about important matters. Friendly doesn't necessarily mean open.

Communitarian and individualistic values. The rural value system is primarily communitarian and relational. These values are found primarily in peasant villages, agricultural communities, ethnic neighborhoods or tribal communities. The dimensions of being rooted in a particular place and having continuous life-long relationships with kin and friends underpin the psychology and sociology of these communities.


The dominant value system in the cities is that of individualism. These values flourish in western, industrial, mobile societies where capitalism, material well-being and career identity form the bedrock of personal endeavor. These values are embedded in the economy, schools, media and other institutions. These messages are taught, articulated and advertised.

Rural people adopt these values to survive in the larger economic and social environment in which they find themselves. Underneath these values are the rules for surviving in a harmonious community.

Rewards in rural life. The rewards of the rural value system are belonging, emotional support, security and predictability. One major contrast between rural and urban living is the type of emotional connections and bonds rural people have with their friends and neighbors. Another is the sense of community and community participation.

The way people relate to one another in rural communities is more personal, emotional, direct and socially supportive. People encounter each other in friendship and social roles as well as in formal roles within the community.

Everybody knows everybody. There is a feeling of belonging and fellowship, a feeling of genuine affection for each other. Even relationships with authority figures are softened or tempered by social constraints and niceties.

Rural people have more relationships characterized by this direct, personal style of interaction than do urban residents. The social sphere of urban dwellers is limited to a much smaller range of friends and acquaintances.

Efficiency of urban, suburban life. Social interaction patterns in cities are more impersonal, calculating, indirect, and often conflicting. People encounter each other in specialized roles and functions. This is the relational pattern of the marketplace, the workplace, the governing bodies and other organized structures of society.

However, research shows that in cities of over 100,000, or in Midwestern cities west of the Mississippi River, people choose their friends from a narrow range of people with similar interests and backgrounds. Their friends also would be friends in close social networks. These people create a village mentality within the midst of the big city.


In other parts of the country, there is a strong urban/rural contrast depending on whether the people in an individual's network also have close ties with each other.

Urban and rural is a matter of degree. People in cities operate at both the personal and impersonal level. They have their social network of friends and relatives for social support. However, the number of primary relationships to formal relationships is smaller than in rural communities.

Rural people also operate at both levels of formality and informality. The difference is also about how much value rural people place on relationships, social obligations, and community participation as vital and enjoyable facets of life.

Some thrive, some don't. Some people thrive on the personal dimension of rural life. They have mastered the art of being social diplomats. The abundance of personal interactions seem natural and comfortable. It is what they are used to. It is hometown. It is family. It is warm and comforting. To them, life in the city would seem cold, impersonal and devoid of caring.

Rural youths who leave rural towns may return again if they have developed a sense of comfort with the powerful social connections in their communities. Part of their identity is with their community. Those who don't return may have found the small town social atmosphere to be oppressive and controlling.

Some rural people find the amount of time and effort expended in social awareness, recognition and appreciation of each other's emotional needs are also wearing and oppressive. They welcome the anonymity of a shopping trip to the city, the privacy of their homes and respite from the intensely personal social obligations of daily life.

As life gets more complex, as new communication technologies grow, as people commute and enlarge their formal networks, as the economy and social institutions become more regional, as the boundaries of the rural community expand, the distinction between urban and rural life will continue to blur.

For more information on rural culture, you can visit Val Farmer's Web site at


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist with MeritCare in Fargo, North Dakota.

He specializes in rural mental health and family business consultation.

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