Rural futures in a complex world.
Rural futures sit at the nexus of contemporary global challenges. Some of the challenges facing rural areas in the 21st century include climate change, migration, ageing, depopulation, technological innovations and urbanisation. Significantly, not all rural areas are alike: some lie close to urban centres and are embedded within a wider hinterland, while others are extremely remote, often struggling to survive. Many rural spaces sit in the ‘squeezed middle’ of high demand for consumption, production and protection functions. Some rural areas are significantly more successful in this modern, complex and seemingly chaotic world, while other places seem to be increasingly marginalised. The people living in rural areas are also diverse. They have different interests and aspirations and include long term residents, life-style migrants, retirees, migrant entrepreneurs, farmers and business owners, among many others. Rural living and cultural identity are closely intertwined and often the inflow of new residents creates stress upon existing rural communities. Clearly, multiple vectors of change impact locally across rural space, resulting in uneven development trajectories. Opportunities ebb and flow according to a complex array of different forces, both internal and external to the locality. The result is that some places naturally evolve, adapt and self-transform, while others rely on outside forces to drive change.
It is against this context that we want to explore rural futures in Europe as we move through the 21st century. We identify three key elements of this complexity which raise questions for rural studies and which necessarily transcend disciplinary boundaries.
Innovation, artificial intelligence and digitisation
Technology plays a central role in the modern world, big data poses both opportunities and challenges for rural areas. How can rural areas and industries capture the potential benefits while overcoming the threats? How are rural social relations and networks affected by digitisation? Can smart villages and smart rural areas contribute to wider rural development objectives? What are the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, not only individually, but also locally and regionally?
Multifunctional agricultural has brought diversity and change to the farming community with issues from biodiversity to climate change requiring a collaborative and participatory approach to research. Innovative agricultural practices add an exciting dimension for scientists and researchers which need to be debated and discussed. Meanwhile, innovation in food systems leads to opportunities that are not yet fully understood. New technologies are changing the meanings of ‘food’; ‘energy’ and ‘environmental protection’, opening new opportunities and questions of surveillance. Financialisation is changing the definition of ‘farm’. New ethical challenges emerge around data. ‘Alternative’ approaches to food production and marketing have become mainstream. What of energy transitions? Who is benefiting from alternative forms of energy development? What is the role of rural communities in energy transitions?
We want to further understand how research can inform those debates. Are rural scientists appropriately positioned to engage in wider innovative partnerships? How can the opportunities of multi and transdisciplinary research threaten the vitality of disciplinary research? Are further collaborations between social and natural scientists, public and third sector organisations and citizen groups the answer, or part of the problem?
Social justice and rural spaces and places
Rural restructuring continues to bring about fundamental change to rural communities including new economic activities that result in differential outcomes. The relationship between rural areas and their urban counterparts continues to be debated in rural studies. Meanwhile increased mobilities have created new transnational and often cosmopolitan spaces as well as a multiplicity of rural stakeholders often with conflicting interests. Efforts to increase food, energy and water security and preserve the natural environment have the potential to alter or reinforce existing power balances. These changes have a range of implications for community structure and for land use.
Who advocates rural regions’ interests across Europe and how are economic inequalities embedded in policy decisions? What does it mean to belong to a rural community in these changing times? Is there a distinctive rural identity? How are different cultures negotiated? How are rural places governed? How are social relations affected by various changes in land use management? How can both newcomers to farming and inter-generational transfer be assured? How can environmental goods be protected? How can the wider public derive benefit from rural resources?
What are current and emerging patterns of mobility? How do urban and rural areas inter-relate in the 21st century? Social justice is normally perceived through cosmopolitan ideals and ways of living, while rural values are based on traditional perceptions and practices. What happens when parochial rural values interconnect with cosmopolitan ideals? Are traditional social structures re-negotiated? Whose voices are afforded legitimacy to determine the shape of a rural community? How are policymakers and scientists involved in balancing and negotiating often clashing values in the rural arena? Why is there self-transformation from within some rural spaces while others rely on external forces? What of the places left behind? How are they implicated in these global and transnational flows of ideas, people and capital?
Knowledge production, policymaking and research agendas
The production of knowledge is a highly political process. The academic qualities and ethics of rural social scientists constitute important axes for playing a role in rural futures. It is not always clear if researchers transform the policy agenda or if they are given an agenda by policymakers. In other words, does evidence based policy or policy based evidence prevail? Do rural social scientists have a sense of so-called public interest or if they feel that they serve a host of societal, economic and/or environmental interests? How is knowledge mediated between researchers, practitioners and policymakers? How accessible is that knowledge? Is there a role for co-production of knowledge? What are the pathways to influence so that different messages being heard? Are the traditional roles of ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’ being re-defined? How can sociology empower communities and make their voice heard in the policy decision process? What is the role of academia in understanding, and thereby possibly influencing, social processes in rural regions?
Digitalisation also impacts on knowledge production. It expands the ways we can do research and interact with the social world. Innovation in digital technologies and visual research methods are transforming social research and opening up possibilities for new ways of imagining and engaging with the social world. How can these technologies help or hinder the developments in theoretical thinking and practice in social sciences, and our ability to engage with other disciplines? Are distinctive methodological transformations necessary to encapsulate these complexities?
On behalf of the Scientific Committee
Dr. Ruth McAreavey (Chair)