What is rurality?

I’m obsessed with my work. It’s all my favorite things – research, reading, writing, and place-connected people. Which means that I talk about it…a lot. One of the things that always strikes me is the number of folks who ask me about the definitions of some of the terms that I use. I guess because I’ve defined them for myself, I forget that not everyone has been in my brain doing that work with me. 

Actually, every time someone asks me, I’m confronted with (re)defining those terms for myself. As I continue this work, I feel like their shade changes slightly – that they shapeshift in small but significant ways. So, I’m undertaking a series that will explore those terms to help document my shifting understanding as well as share with folks who are curious or interested in how I define those words. I fully acknowledge that not everyone will share these definitions with me – heck, I might not either a few months down the road, but I wanted to share what they are now so we can all continue to build and grow in our knowledge and understanding. 

So here goes the first one – rurality

I think I started using this, at first, simply because it felt like the correct way to conjugate it in sentences like “my cultural practices are deeply connected to my rurality.” Ruralness felt like to much of a mouthful and rurality rolled off the tongue better – perhaps because it slant-rhymed with normality. Which is in itself an interesting connection, especially given that rurality used to be my normality but hasn’t been since I moved to Texas. 

The more I’ve said it and explained it though, it felt like my decision to use that term wasn’t simply a linguistic matter of pronunciation. Outside of my own cognition and consciousness, I think I chose that word because it combines rural and reality = rurality. Since my work focuses on the lived realities of rural people and rural out-migrants or folks who left rural spaces to settle in sub/urban ones but may not necessarily still identify as rural (probably the next blog in this series), it makes sense that rurality as a term spoke to me. 

Even as I write this, though, I’m thinking about how rurality is singular and because there are so many different types of rural places, there are many different ruralities. A couple of scholars (Licther & Brown, 2011) talk about how contrary to popular imagination, there is more than just one rural America. So, really, rurality is still a relative term and will likely be defined differently according to the definer’s context. Rob Petrone and Allison Wynhoff Olsen also demonstrate that in their new book Teaching English in Rural Communities

The rural US is a collective but far from a monolith. Though it might make some things easier to nail it down to one thing, even the US Census Bureau definition makes this impossible. The temptation would be to define rural by the numbers – population size, land size, proximity to an urban center. But as with most things, it’s not that simple. Since the rural/urban spectrum has been set up in a binary, rural is defined as the not urban which ecompasses an insane amount of different types of communities of all sizes and configurations. There are communities ten times the size of my hometown that are considered rural and my hometown is ten times larger than some other rural towns. 

So, where does that leave us? Honestly, I don’t know. I reckon like most abstract terms, it leaves us with a pluralistic definition that can be clarified by the writer/speaker of the word. And I need to remember to let readers/listeners know what I mean. In general for me though, rurality is a feeling and set of cultural practices that the keeper of them designates as rural. 


When I say the word rural or rurality, I see my family farm. I feel the pollen sticking to my skin while working in a corn field heavy with dew. I see combines and tractors and anhydrous ammonia. I hear coyotes in our woods and smell the aroma of wood burning to heat our house. I feel the weight of a plywood plank being used to move a hog for marking. I smell an array of different manures while hearing my Papaw say, “Smells like money” through a crooked grin heavy with his special brand of ornery. I see fireflies and deer eyes illuminated by my headlights on the way to school early in the morning or coming home late at night. I taste the goodness of a tomato ripe and freshly picked from the garden. I hear my hamstrings complain about spending too long picking beans. I see the tones of brown and gold and green in the patchwork of fields. I hear cicadas and crickets and deep laughter early in the morning from the farmer table at the Mill Street Inn (the only breakfast joint in town- also not really an inn). And not being there, I feel it missing in my bones. 

There may be aspects of this rurality that resonate with you and others that don’t. But that doesn’t mean that one of us isn’t experiencing authentic rural reality – they’re just different. So…that’s what I mean by rurality.

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