‘Critically assess the extent to which the concept of the rural idyll is relevant to an understanding of contemporary rural identities’. The concept of ‘rural idyll’ with reference to the countryside can be described as a representation of ‘an ideal society which is orderly, harmonious, healthy, secure, peaceful and a refuge from modernity. ‘ (Ilbery, 1998). Ilbery suggests in this statement that there is a clear contrast drawn between the countryside or the ‘rural idyll’ and modernity, a representation of modern urban identity.
This idea is supported by Phillips (1984) describing rural idyll as ‘A positive image which is seen as opposing the uncertainty and confusion of the city and which creates a rural identity that is timeless’. Whilst the common conception is to define the two extremes of rural and urban, there is great inconsistency and preciseness in the exact definition of the term ‘rural’. Halfacree (1993) suggests that ‘the quest for any single, all embracing definition of the rural is neither desirable or feasible’.
Despite the category itself having an influence upon behaviour and decision making. Differentiation between the concepts of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ is arduous, particularly with the idea put forward by Cloke and Milbourne (1992) that ‘there is no longer one single rural space, but rather a multiplicity of social spaces that overlap the same geographical area’. Despite the difficulty involved in classifying the ‘rural’, there seems to be a common theme in the definition of the concept of ‘rural idyll’.
This portrays a positive image surrounding aspects of rural life (Ilbery 1998). Little and Austin (1996) suggest rural life is ‘associated with an uncomplicated, innocent, more genuine society in which traditional values persist and lives are more real. ‘ However, this statement is followed with the idea that rural idyll is ‘created by the wealthy for the wealthy and reflects particular power relations within society’. This would advocate that rurality and in particular rural idyll are related to social structure and class.
If this were to be taken as the case, then it would be feasible to suggest that the definition of rural idyll, and its relation to contemporary rural identities will vary according to the exact situation to which they are applied. Hoggart et al (1995) propose that it is not only the socialistic views which are relevant, but the factors which affect rural areas such as social, economic, environmental and political issues. It is these factors which contribute to the dynamic and constantly changing nature of rural areas.
Continual changes in the economic and recreational structure of rural space are creating different power relationships, with the countryside now being characterised by consumption as well as production; commonly associated with agriculture and raw materials. Murdoch and Marsden (1994) state that ‘process of rural change and class formation are inextricably bound together’. This can be related to the exploitation of cheap housing in the 1960s and 1970s by the service classes and in turn, colonisation of the countryside.
It is the service classes which can ‘exert a strong influence over the social and physical nature of public space’ (Cloke and Little, 1990). Already it is possible to draw together the aforementioned views and concepts to ascertain a connection between the rural idyll and individually formed views of rural identity. Identity is linked to Sibley’s (1995) view that ‘we inherit a strong urge to maintain a distance between self and other – physically, socially and mentally – we like to be with people, but not those who are different’.
This statement can be applied not only to class, but ethnicity and geographical classification (i. e. differentiation between North and South or accent variations within the UK). The rural idyll however, whilst being difficult to classify to a generic level, is an individual view of an idealistic rural setting. Those who live in rural areas are likely to do so because they desire what is often termed a romantic and idealistic setting in the countryside – away from urban areas, which are not settings of desire.
This of course is the view of those who desire the countryside. Their view will of course differ from those who desire the city, those who will look upon urban settings as objects of disgust. There are of course extenuating circumstances such as the convenience of site and situation, particularly with relation to employment and services which form an importance in many people’s lives. Many of those who live in urban environments do at some point, chose to migrate to the countryside either as a status of class and/or wealth, or as an escape from an undesirable setting.
In which case, there are those who live in rural areas which view migration from towns and cities as a threat to an unspoilt and idyllic setting. A setting, which once was safe and distant from the contrast of urbanised areas, could be considered to be under threat, particularly with the movement of industrial centres to out-of-town settings. There are also the many stereotypes which are linked to urban areas to consider such as crime rates and increased traffic.
Both of which are factors which are unavoidable as a cost of development or increased population levels. Such a change in the relationship between society and space in the countryside has been painted by Mormont (1990): ‘The increasing mobility of people, goods and information has helped to erode local communities and open up the countryside to new uses. ‘ This has led to ‘new power relationships and external networks’, which are likely to be subject to the influence of external rather than internal linkages.
Such changes in the countryside have increased the pressures placed upon rural-sector resources and forced local governments to re-evaluate their policies for the countryside. Such changes have included re-regulation in relation to sustainability and environmental conservation (Lowe et al, 1993). Resurgence or land in the countryside, particularly wealthy areas or ‘counterurbanisation’ is often a result of suburban expansion and such occurrences are situated in close proximity to urban areas. It is these areas which are often protected to preserve areas of unspoilt countryside.
To avoid such preserved areas, urbanisation, possibly on a smaller scale, occurs further into the countryside. Rural spaces experience varied development ‘trajectories’ as a result of their dynamic relationship with the processes or urbanisation and economic development. Factors include employment, access to services and the varied views on quality of life. In particular, quality of life can be measured, often in the form of a census but is person-specific and is also not a generic term to which a population can identify.
It is these factors, which vary between protected rural spaces, contested spaces (of extended sub-urbanisation) and spaces characterised by integrated rural development (Daniels et al 2001). Sibley (1995) promotes the idea of ‘geographies of exclusion’. Using the English Countryside as an example, rural areas are often conceptualised by the preservation of English culture and identity, an idea mobilized by the myth of the rural idyll. The English countryside is thought of as timeless, unchanging and unaffected by global progress, which has already been proved not to be the case.
People with alternative lifestyles do not fit into this ‘cosy’ category and are therefore deemed to be ‘outsiders’ and a threat to local cultures. Many groups consider cultural survival depends upon a closed idea of culture with strong boundaries separating it from what are deemed as ‘others’. Changes in population (location and levels), land-use and local economies are examples of factors which disprove the idea of closed cultures and hypothetical ‘boundaries’.
The ever-changing structure of both urban and rural settings, which by definition themselves are in question; mean that it is difficult to determine an understanding of contemporary rural identities. As is the case with the concept of the rural idyll, rural identities are very much socialistically defined and are person-specific. The idea that the countryside is timeless, unchanged or romantic is considered by many geographers to be nothing more than a myth, but many believe it to be the case. The concept of rural idyll itself is in question because of the dynamic structure of both rural and urban settings.
Contemporary rural identities can be defined by many techniques such as census data but the relevance of the concept of rural idyll has to be brought into question, particularly as the concept itself is considered by many to be a myth. Even if such a perception were to be accepted, definition would be difficult, particularly to produce a widely accepted classification. The varied and incomprehensive definitions of the terms ‘rural idyll’ and ‘contemporary rural identities’ are under such scrutiny and are determined by dynamic factors.
Such a circumstance does not make establishing the relevance of the former to the latter easy or clear-cut. For this reason it is sensible to suggest that the concept of the rural idyll, as an idealistic and theoretical approach is permissible, but the relevance to understanding contemporary (modern) rural identities is not feasible in dynamically structured settings such as rural and urban areas.
References Cloke, P. and Little, J. , 1990, The Rural State? Oxford University Press, Oxford. Cloke, P. and Milbourne, P. , 1992, Deprivation and lifestyles in rural Wales II: rurality and the cultural dimension.
Journal of Rural Studies, 8, pp359-71. Daniels, P. , Bradshaw, M. , Shaw, D. , Sidaway, J. , 2001, Human Geography: Issues for the 21st Century. Prentice Hall, Harlow. Hoggart, K. , Buller, H. and Black, R. , 1995, Rural Europe: identity and change. Edward Arnold Publishing, London, pp129-51. Ilbery, B. , 1998 The Geography of Rural Change, Prentice Hall, Harlow, pp1-5 Halfacree, K. , 1993, Locality and Social Representation: space, discourse and alternative definitions of the rural. Journal of Rural Studies, 11, pp1-20 Lowe, P. , Murdoch, J. , Marsden, T. , Munton, R. , and Flynn, A., 1993, Regulating the new rural spaces: the uneven development of land. Journal of Rural Studies, 9, pp205-22.
Mormont, M. , 1990 Who is rural? Or how to be rural: towards a sociology of the rural. In Marsden, T. , Lowe, P. , and Whatmore, S. (eds) Rural restructuring. David Fulton, London. Murdoch, J. and Marsden, T. , 1994 Reconstituting rurality. UCL Press, London. Phillips, D. , 1994 Rural Britain: a social geography. Blackwell, Oxford. Sibley, D. , 1995 ‘Mapping the Pure and Defiled’ Geographies of Exclusion: Society and difference in the West. Routledge, London. Word Count – 1706 A162492.