While addressing rural poverty, this article discusses why sociologists pay more attention to cities:
American disinterest in the poverty of its own pastoral lands can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean and back several hundred years to the origins of social sciences in academia. The rise of these disciplines coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of peasants from the country into cities. As an effect of these circumstances, the leading theorists of the era—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—were primarily concerned with living conditions in cities and industrializing societies, setting the foundation for the metro-centrism that continues to characterize the social sciences.
“In academia, there’s an urban bias throughout all research, not just poverty research. It starts with where these disciplines origins—they came out of the 1800’s—[when] theorists were preoccupied with the movement from a rural sort of feudal society to a modern, industrial society,” Linda Lobao, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, tells Rural America In These Times. “The old was rural and the feudal and the agricultural and the new was the industry and the city.”
Similarly, the advent of the study of poverty in sociology departments across the United States during the Progressive Era centered nearly exclusively on the metropolis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the University of Chicago’s influential School of Sociology utilized the city of Chicago as a laboratory for the development of the discipline. According to an article published in Annual Review of Sociology by sociologists Ann Tickamyer and Silvia Duncan, poverty in the city was “one of the many social pathologies associated with urbanization, mass immigration, and industrialization”—issues that were at the heart of the Progressive movement.
Lobao explains that around the same time there arose a “small,” but “vibrant” contingent of rural sociologists at Penn State, University of Wisconsin Madison, Cornell, Ohio State and University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. But the role of rural sociology, she says, has remained perpetually marginalized, a “residual category” outside of the mainstream discourse. Today, it is not uncommon to see rural sociologists placed into colleges of agriculture, where corporations like Monsanto rule, rather than sociology departments—pushing them further into the recesses of the social sciences.
American sociologists have a number of blind spots and this one is when I’m aware of as an urban sociologist. While the founders of sociology were not primarily focused on cities, many of the changes they observed were based on urbanization. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber wrestled with the changes from agrarian societies to city-based industrialized systems. The first major sociology programs in the United States – places like Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard – tended to be in or near large cities and this still holds true today. This all happened as the United States rapidly transitioned in 100 years from a rural country in the early 1900s to a society where more than 80% of the population lives in metropolitan areas. What’s left behind? Those places further away from the major research schools – which I would argue also includes suburbs – that sociologists find less exciting and tend to generalize about.
There are occasional counterexamples to the urban focus of American sociology. For example, see Robert Wuthnow’s 2013 book on rural America.