January 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 1

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Invitation to the 75th Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society

Conner Bailey, Auburn University, President, Rural Sociological Society

This summer (July 26-29, 2012), the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) will celebrate its 75th anniversary in the gilded environs of The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago www.ruralsociology.us/. Where better to meet?  It was there, 75 years ago, that the RSS was founded, in the midst of the Great Depression. What did those founders think about the state of the nation and the state of rural America in the midst of such opulence?  And what will we think this summer as, by all indication, the Great Recession grinds on?

The theme of the 2012 meetings, “Local Solutions to Inequality,” will hopefully strike a chord with many sociologists. Issues of inequality are central to our work, and we understand that increasing inequality of both wealth and income is a symptom of a deeper problem of increasingly concentrated power wielded by distant actors who no longer believe in the social contract. Corporate consolidation and the federal government’s commitment to the fetish of free trade have created an economic system disembedded from social life as lived by most citizens. The result is a contemporary legitimacy crisis that has spawned the Tea Party and the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movements.

Focusing on the Local

Over the past 75 years and more, rural sociologists have chronicled the steady decline experienced by many parts of rural America due to top down decisions made in far away corporate boardrooms and legislative bodies. Parallel changes have affected urban industrial centers through government acquiescence to, or even encouragement of, corporate disinvestment. Resistance is becoming increasingly visible as communities fight big box developments; invest in local food systems; and fight environmental and public health threats, which local, state and federal governments are willing to permit at the price of economic growth. Higher energy prices and technological developments are likely to create new opportunities to build local economies around local needs and resources. The movement towards localism is inspired by the idea that the economy is something we participate in, not something that is done to us.

This conference will provide an opportunity to debate the potentials and limits of localism. We know the dangers of romanticizing the local. Local elites and growth machines are alive and well in America; and yet, in many parts of the United States, and beyond, renewed interest can be found in building economic relationships that are embedded in social relationships. These are issues around which sociologists—rural or otherwise—can find common cause.

Not Just Rural Issues

Fundamentally these are not rural issues, they are issues of general societal importance. University-government-industry partnerships are shaping the future through support of information technologies, genetic engineering, and the defense industry, to name a few. The sociology of science in the agricultural sector has become increasingly well developed and provides one window onto the larger picture. Partnerships between universities, governments, and corporations are key drivers of rapid technological change affecting virtually all aspects of life. The changes unleashed are multidimensional, contributing both to consolidation of economic and political power and to the ability of citizens around the world to communicate and organize. Rural sociologists have some useful things to say on many of these issues, and we also have much to learn. Come be part of that dialog!

Rural sociologists have a long tradition of working on natural resource and environmental sociology—since 1963 when the Natural Resources Research Group (NRRG) was founded. Our work in these areas covers the spectrum from environmental justice to ecotourism, from forestry to fisheries, and most recently the social and environmental consequences of bioenergy development. There is a long history of engagement and joint membership between rural sociologists of the NRRG and the ASA section on Environment and Technology.

See You in Chicago

As the current President of the RSS, I invite members of ASA to Chicago. You will find an intellectually stimulating meeting. One of our plenary speakers is Jim Hightower, who some will recognize as an outspoken populist. Hightower authored an influential study of how agribusiness firms hijacked the science done at major universities in ways that led to increasing concentration of food production, processing, distribution, and marketing. This work from the mid-1970s fit well into the long tradition of rural sociological research on social impacts of technological change, sparked increased attention to the sociology of science within the discipline, and inspired a generation of research into the impact of agribusiness concentration on rural America. 

RSS meetings are rather different from those of the ASA. For one thing, they are smaller, with 500 attendees being considered a large meeting. The first day of the meetings is devoted to field trips and workshops organized by individual Research Interest Groups, followed by the Presidential address and reception. The second day is devoted primarily to concurrent sessions and one or more plenary sessions. In addition to Hightower, we are working with a senior policy advisor in the White House to invite a senior member of the Obama Administration to give a non-partisan address to members of the RSS on rural policy. Why would policies that affect rural economies and communities be of interest to ASA members? Because technological and other changes are blurring the distinctions between urban and rural and our urban life depends on ecosystem services produced in rural areas. Because food, energy, and building materials come from rural areas, and the ebb and flow of human populations between urban and rural areas remains a dynamic feature of our nation’s demographic profile. And because it is foundational sociology—it addresses many of the core issues that sociologists have engaged since the beginnings of our discipline. Come join us in Chicago. Where better than the city of big shoulders, the city of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, to look for rural-urban connections?

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