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Difference and discrimination in rural areas
Dr Richard Pugh, Keele University, UK


Although this presentation is about difference and discrimination in rural areas and their implications for health and social work practice, I want to begin by making a more general point about the state of our knowledge in regard to rural practice.

In his opening address, Brian Cheers provided a wide-ranging reflection upon the nature of rural practice. In this, he referred to integrative approach to practice, which as I understand it, emphasises the importance of a co-operative process of problem solving. A way of working which integrates both people and knowledge of the specifics of particular situations with that of the broader context that surrounds them. Brian also noted that the realities of rural practice did not always square with the formal expectations placed upon rural workers, who may have experienced a sense of ‘not doing it right’. I think that what is being pointed up here is the disjunction between the practice of rural social work and the formal knowledge and theorisation about it.

I start today from a similar premise, which is that despite some considerable differences between different countries in terms of the amount and sophistication of education, training, research and writing on rural human services, this area of practice, is under-theorised, and sometimes, inadequately theorised. I use the term ‘theory’ here to broadly refer to the many types of formal knowledge that surround our practice, from legislation, codes of guidance and formal policy, through to formal theories. Although I do not have time to address the broader question of what the ‘proper’ relationship between theory and practice might be, suffice to say that I do not propose that any mutually exclusive choice be made between theoretical abstraction and non-theoretical practice. In fact, I simply do not think that there is such a thing as theoryless practice, but only a distinction that can be observed between more or less explicit theorisation.

At the outset, I acknowledge that we come from a range of different circumstances and that inevitably, much of what I have to say arises from my own UK context. In Britain rural social work is not a widely recognised speciality, there are few texts, limited research and little training aimed specifically at working in rural contexts. Other than descriptive accounts of particular initiatives, most rural practitioners have little formal support for their work. Unfortunately, they are not well supported by a formal literature which adequately reflects the diversity and complexity of contexts and experiences which they encounter as they go about their jobs. In my experience, upon recruitment most are presented with the ‘tradition’ of their agency and either accept this or become more actively engaged in what Brian referred to as ‘inventing it as they go along’. That is, at trying to modify their practice to meet the exigencies of the real situations and problems they encounter. Now it is important to note that this not intended as a criticism of rural practitioners, but rather, is aimed at pointing up what I see as a more fundamental and more widespread problem. Which is, that we need to describe, elucidate, elaborate and distil the practice of rural social work in order to develop theoretical models and explanations which can have a broader currency beyond the particular places from which they originate. That is, we need to attempt to construct generalisations and frameworks for understanding which have a utility which goes beyond the situated context, yet at the same time do not oversimplify that context, nor seek to impose unsuitable and unhelpful generalisations upon other places, people and events.

Now from my reading, and from discussions with overseas colleagues I suspect that this is a problem that goes beyond my own country. It is in essence, a problem of knowledge and of course, is not one that is not confined solely to rural practice. And for practitioners, this problem is often experienced as a gap between the ‘realities’ of what seems to be necessary for practice and the absence of conceptual frameworks and theories which might recognisably describe, analyse and guide such practice. My presentation is offered as a first step towards generalisation, as my aim is to encourage the integration of ideas and knowledge from other disciplines and to try to establish a more relevant and useful theoretical analysis of difference and discrimination in rural contexts. The underlying premise of this presentation is that the ways in which human services understand difference and discrimination in rural areas will have a significant bearing on how they attempt to meet the needs of minorities in these areas.

In the UK, research on discrimination in rural areas is limited and patchy, while there have been some excellent studies on rural racism (de Lima, 1999; Dhalech, 1999; Jay, 1992; Nizhar, 1995), less attention has been paid to the experiences of other people such as those with disabilities and gay men and lesbians. Nonetheless, they report findings similar to those noted in studies based in urban areas, with black and ethnic minorities reporting discrimination in employment opportunities, harassment by some members of the public and also by the police, damage to property and in some cases, personal violence. Now I do not wish to deny the veracity and accuracy of these studies, nor to undermine the gravity of their findings, but I do want to make a few observations about them.

The first is that such information should be used to prepare and sensitise us to the possibilities of discrimination, but should not be used uncritically in an overly deterministic way to presume its existence in every instance where we work with people from minorities. My second observation is that my practical and personal experience of rural communities, as well as some of my wider reading, suggests that the existence and experience of discrimination in rural communities is much more variable than these studies so far indicate. For example, I think there may be considerable variations from one locality to another, and furthermore, that rural life as well as perhaps offering a greater potential for oppression may paradoxically, also offer more opportunities for individual acceptance. My third observation, is that as well as studying what goes wrong when oppression and discrimination occurs, we should also study what goes right. That is, report and research the otherwise unremarkable experiences of those who are well-settled and do not apparently report such negative experiences. This, I hasten to add, is not because I wish to put forward an alternative Pollyanna-like discourse, but because there may be much to learned from these accounts.

Let me turn to another discipline to elaborate upon my intentions. For well over a hundred years criminologists have studied crime by looking at criminals - they have looked at the shape of their heads and bodies, examined their childhood experiences, looked at their genes, and assessed their social development and personalities, largely to no avail. Attempts to reduce recidivism rates by tailoring regimes of punishment and treatment according to such theories have found it hard to sustain their initial success and often, difficult to replicate elsewhere. In fact, recidivism rates have been remarkable only in their relative stability! Now I am sure most of you are aware of some of the alternative sociological approaches, which instead of looking at the individual have looked to the social context and social response to crime, but what is perhaps less well known is the observation made by some feminist criminologists, that all this attention to men and their misdemeanours has eclipsed what may be a more productive question, why don’t women offend more? I think there is a parallel here for us. We are engaged in a profession which is primarily concerned with social action in some form. Therefore, we are interested in the application of research and theory to practice. Of course, we need to know the prevalence of discrimination and understand its effects and consequences, and there is still much to be done in these areas, but there is also much to be gained from studying the experiences of minorities who have not been treated negatively, and who have become established or accepted within their rural communities?

There are two main themes running through this address. The first, is about the role that idealised and selective representations of rural life have in defining insider and outsider status. That is, in defining who ‘belongs’ in the countryside and whose needs are met, and whose are not. The second, is concerned with the complexity of social location and indicates the pitfalls of making over-deterministic assumptions about difference. For although, discriminatory attitudes fuelled by homophobia, racism and sexism are indeed prevalent in some communities, negative outcomes such as exclusion and marginalisation are not inevitable consequences of social difference. My argument is that differentiation in rural communities can rarely be understood solely in terms of local dynamics, or simply viewed as mirroring the actions of the wider society. Instead, there is a complex interaction between these two dimensions which can produce some unexpected outcomes.

Idealised and selective representations of rural life

In most western industrial countries attitudes to rurality and rural life are often contradictory and ambivalent. Ching and Creed (1997) suggest that the rural/urban distinction is one of the important dimensions by which societies define themselves, and that there is a cultural hierarchy presumed in the words urbane and rustic. These terms are often being used to indicate the relative level of sophistication embodied in urban life as opposed to the rough simplicity of rural life; an ordering which validates the apparent superiority of city life. However, in many countries the countryside has a more ambiguous cultural position, and what is rural is represented in highly selective ways. It may be seen as backward, unsophisticated place, where a poorly educated populace engages in dubious farming and hunting practices, and where family and community life is perceived to be intrusive, overbearing and oppressive. Alternatively, more positive images may be held of the countryside as a place where traditional values hold sway, where stable communities and families provide a reassuring continuity from generation to generation, and a place that is both distant and safe from the problems of urban life such as drug abuse, crime, and latterly terrorism. Vaughan commenting upon the British context, wittily noted that:

Painters of the rural scene in the 20th century have been notorious for their inability
to see pylons and silage towers. ‘Discussing the Milk Quota’ and ‘Artificial Insemination Day’ are still, I believe, subjects awaiting their debut at the Royal Academy. (p. 4, Short, 1992)

However, as most of us who live and work in such areas know, the empirical realities of rural life are likely to a great deal more complex than these selective and simplistic images.

There are multiple idealisations within countries as well as considerable variations between different countries. For example, what seems to be more widespread in popular culture in North America than Europe is the representation of rurality in terms of notions of ruggedness, individuality and pioneering spirit. Thus, the idealised historical representation is not so much a picture of the countryside as a place of origin, of peace and stability, but is one featuring the hardships and hazards endured, and of nature tamed. Of course, there have always been other representations of rurality, and currently in both Europe and North America counter-urbanisation, the increasing popularity of rural living for educated and relatively well-off urban white people, as well as changing opportunities for employment (Champion, 1989) reflect changing perceptions about what constitutes a good life. Increasingly the countryside becomes seen as a place of retreat, or a play space for urban dwellers.

Nonetheless, there are two important reasons why we need to take account of these alternative stereotypes. The first, and the most obvious one, is that in the absence of accurate knowledge, or any more careful consideration of context, urban policy makers are likely to make decisions about service priorities, funding and organisation that reflect their urban expectations about ‘what works’, and which are informed by inaccurate and unsophisticated understandings of what rural life is like. The second reason, is that these images are not simply sociological curiosities, they potentially play an important political role.

These selective representations not only omit the historical realities of rural life, they omit contemporary realities too and in doing so, they may be mobilised and manipulated to serve particular ideological purposes. For example, right-wing organisations frequently use the imagery of rurality for their causes. For them, the countryside may be the very heart of the nation, a ‘white’ space free from the ‘pollution’ of immigration and of gender bending sexualities, where ordinary life is less corrupted by whatever so-called ‘evils’ they rail against. It is important to note that in Europe, historically ‘The countryside ... was regarded as the ideal location in which to breed a healthy and moral “race”....[often] The purity of rural areas was juxtaposed with the pollution of urban industry and commerce, and cities were aligned with racial degeneration’ (Ageyman and Spooner, p. 2000, 1997). Consequently, right wing political groups may deliberately couch their ‘call to arms’ in terms of notions of heartland and rootedness, and may manipulate symbols of rurality to lend spurious authenticity to their claims to be defending the nation from the threats within. Just as the Nazis constructed a romanticised notion of the ‘volk’, partly based upon the notion of a rural people dwelling in a peaceful and prosperous past, British right wing groups have in a similar fashion tried to mobilise the imagery of rurality to their own ends. Thus, the idealisation of a supposedly unchanging landscape populated by peaceful homogenous communities can at times of social stress and insecurity be perceived as being threatened and ‘endangered by the transgressions of discrepant minorities’ (p. 219, Sibley, 1997). Thus, this is not a benign neglect of the heterogeneity of rural life, it is one that is actively constructed as ‘outsiders’ are perceived at best as not belonging, and at worst as threatening, deviant and aberrant in some way.

This type of selective representation is not solely the preserve of extreme political groups. Even those with apparently more liberal or communitarian aspirations may idealise the countryside as a place where honest people toil, as a place of ‘goodness’ and cleanliness, free from rust-bucket industry and free from urban problems. The Australian singer Nick Cave mocked such smug conceptualisations in his song ‘God is in the House’, when he wrote:

Moral sneaks in the White House
Computer geeks in the school house
Drug freaks in the crackhouse
We don’t have that stuff here

and later:
Homos roaming the streets in packs
Queer bashers with tyre-jacks
Lesbian counter attacks
That stuff is for the big cities

Not only are there struggles over ideas of belonging and symbolic representations of rurality, there may also be fierce conflicts over the use of countryside ‘space’. Currently, these are epitomised in the UK by the debates and battles over public access to land and rights-of-way legislation, the planting of genetically modified crops, new road building schemes, and the continuance of fox hunting. What is often not recognised in the UK is the way in which ‘rural issues' may be part of a continuing process of ‘class formation’, especially of the English middle classes.

The rural domain is reassuring to the middle class. It is a place where gender and ethnic identities can be anchored in ‘traditional’ ways, far (but not far enough?) from the fragmented, ‘mixed-up’ city. Within the rural domain identifies are fixed, making it a white English, family-oriented, middle-class space; a space moreover, that is imbued with its own mythical history, which selects and deploys particular, natavistic [sic] notions of what it is to belong to the national culture. That this is what attracts middle-class in-migrants to the countryside is rarely made explicit. Instead, the rural is extolled for the virtues of peace and quiet, of community and neighbourliness...the assertion of this form of rurality necessitates the exclusion of other social groups, usually under the guise of excluding development ... such groups are increasingly unwelcome in the reconstituted spaces of southern England. [Thus] concern for the rural environment can be translated into the desire to protect a particular social space for the benefit of a privileged social group. Fighting to maintain the rural environment and struggling against development, is a more acceptable endeavour than seeking to exclude the less well off.

(p. 232, Murdoch and Marsden, 1994).

My point is that selective representations play up some features of rural life and underplay or deny others. These selective representations are not politically neutral but have important symbolic value and also can have very real consequences. For when rural life is represented in these ways, some people get left out of consideration, or alternatively, if noticed are portrayed as exceptions. While such idealised or selective pictures often ignore relatively ‘common’ problems such as drug abuse, mental health and domestic violence, they are especially prone to omitting ethnic and other minorities. In some cases, these may be indigenous minorities, for whom the processes of colonisation continue to be embodied in their relations with the dominant groups and human service organisations. In other instances, these minorities may be more recent arrivals, who are perceived as ‘not belonging’, or whose presence is regarded as aberrant or transitory. For example, throughout much of Europe the existence and prevalence of Romani people, commonly known as ‘gypsies’, is often overlooked and little or no effort is made to consider their needs (Cemlyn, 2000 ).

Indeed the deprivations that some people suffer can be more easily dismissed or ignored if they are perceived to be the result of individual or cultural inadequacy. As Malik (1996) contends in regard to racism, cultural racism is all the more pervasive and enduring if those who are derogated are seen to be culturally deficient in the characteristics which would otherwise enable them to participate and benefit from modern life. This perspective, thus reconciles the formal ideology of equality in democratic societies with the actual persistence of inequality. In the UK the presence and the needs of black and other ethnic minorities in rural areas are also frequently ignored, and on the rare occasions that they are considered, it is as an ill-informed afterthought. Consequently, the widespread assumption that rural dwellers do not expect much in the way of service anyway, when linked with other stereotypical notions such as, ‘they look after their own ‘, or ‘they don’t want services from a white organisation’, serve to further marginalise and exclude such minorities from their right to public services. In my experience many human services wittingly and unwittingly continue to ignore some individuals and groups, and typically lack good information about local minorities, often not knowing who to approach to explore local needs. Thus, ignorance and mistaken ‘information’ allows selective perceptions rural life to remain unchallenged and so reproduce one of the most persistent features of discrimination, the assumption of homogeneity, that is, of a particular version of ‘normality’.

Identity and difference in rural communities

Insiders and outsiders?

While sociologists may debate the merits of the concept of community, there is little doubt that it remains an idea that people perceive as having meaning. Indeed, it is sometimes assumed that communities are essentially groupings of similar people, or at least groupings who share a common world view and common norms. However, the homogeneity of rural communities often only appears so in contrast to the obvious diversity of urban areas. For example, the 1991 census in the UK showed that there were 33,000 people who identified themselves as Afro-Caribbeans living in small villages, retirement areas and in the rural fringes of small towns. Furthermore, it is erroneous to assume integration and consensus. British studies of small communities have found that while there may be ‘many communal forms of behaviour .. [there is] no standard definition of what these would entail among inhabitants’ (Sibley, 1997, p.64). Nonetheless, while it may not be an empirical fact that communities are homogenous and socially coherent entities, it may well be a fact that some people believe them to be so. This idealisation of rural life can have some disappointing consequences for incomers who have uncritically accepted such misconceptions. As one woman ruefully reflected:

Well, I think when you don’t come from here you kind of think that it is a really
wonderful place, it is kind of all the positive things you think about ... you don’t
ever tend to think of it as being about ‘backbiting’ or whatever, you have this
clichéd image of it being a smiling, happy place, without any hassles ... well
that’s how I saw it before I came here and that’s before I saw it as ‘warts and all’
(p. 19, Burnett, 1996).

It is easy to see how an idealised view of community complements some of the selective representations of rurality noted earlier. If diversity is overlooked or ignored then not only are some people not perceived as being present in the countryside, they are also much less likely to be included within the conception of the ‘community’. Hayden made a similar point about black invisibility in regard to African-Americans living in the Appalachians (1998).

When diversity is recognised, the encounter is fraught with possibilities including the potential for conflict. As can be seen in this quotation:

[There are] More English coming in. They don’t belong here. They would be all right
if they were part of the community, spoke Welsh. But they live as if they were still in
(p. 149. Cloke et al, 1997).

In this quotation the clash of expectations is sharply focused around national identities and it is the lack of cultural competence, in this case in language, that is seen as the main issue, but the expectations and perceptions of cultural competence extend to many other aspects of rural life. As one man in rural Wales trenchantly said of incomers:

... they don’t know how to behave. They drive the wrong cars, put up the wrong
curtains, and create pretty front gardens that just don’t fit in. In the village they
don’t know how to greet people, how to have a real conversation. Some of them
want nothing to do with us, and others would like to be part of the community,
but only if they can be in charge of what goes on. They just don’t know how to belong, even when they try very hard to fit in.
(p.150, Cloke et al, 1997).

From statements like these it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that there is a fairly rigid demarcation of status between ‘insiders’ and outsiders’. However, my own view is that these positions are much more fluid. Thus, the notion of some form of consensus or sameness within the in-group usually over-simplifies a more complex reality and typically overlooks other divisions within a community, such as those of family, class, occupation, religion, and overlooks the bitter local feuds that can be sustained over many years and even generations in some cases.

There are intrinsic difficulties in trying to make a simple distinction between insiders and outsiders, between those who belong and those who do not. The most obvious, is that we are reducing the complexity of social location to a simple dichotomy - in or out. I do not think this is how most people experience their social situation in rural communities. With a few exceptions, the lived experience is of a much more fluid and contingent set of possibilities. We need to use a more sophisticated and multidimensional model of social location. One which recognises that individuals may be located within particular communities in terms of many dimensions of social difference including their age, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, occupation, status, and so on. Moreover, each one of these dimensions may influence the ways in which the local community perceives and engages with them. This model should also be sensitive to changes that can occur, so that we may distinguish between changes that come from the individual or family such as marriage, coming of age, or misbehaviour, and those changes that come from circumstances external to them. For example, as the indigenous population of a small community diminishes and is replaced by people relocating or by summer tourists, then some ties and boundaries may become restructured, while other unmobilised dimensions of affiliation or disassociation may become activated. Thus, a traditional activity may be resumed or repopularised, or a declining language reinvigorated. The point is that groups who perceive themselves to be under pressure may protect their identity or refashion it in some way.

Fitting in - integration and adaptation

Fitting in is not just an external process applied to individuals, it has a subjective element to it also. It is a process that takes place in the mind of the incomer, as their self-identification changes. Burnett describes this as a negotiated process of belonging, which means that acceptance and belonging are not simply negotiated through external interactions with other people, they are also actively constructed internally in a person’s self-consciousness. For example, ‘I just call myself local now. I don’t feel like an incomer any more. I did at first, but not any more ... now I feel part of the community here’ (p. 26, Burnett, 1996). This is a crucial point because it emphasises the importance of the subjective experience, rather than simply suggesting that a feeling of belonging is an purely objective status.

Most incomers to rural communities are aware of their status and most probably realise that if they wish to be accepted they have some work to do. Burnett suggests that women are more conscious of the need to develop a deeper knowledge of the community and will usually work hard to acquire this. For such ‘local knowledge is a crucial resource for it allows the incomer to comment and contrast present events in relation to past ones’ (p.27, Burnett, 1996). However, it is also the case that incomers who ‘submerge’ their own personality in an attempt to fit in, may find that this is not an effective way of operating. Such tentativeness, may be perceived by other people as being overly guarded or judging behaviour and thus, be counterproductive, and such self-denial can be erosive of any internal sense of self-worth and confidence. A personal sense of self-belonging, separate from whatever objective level of acceptance exists, is an important resource which contributes to resilience and contentment. The tensions involve in being too passive are evident in this woman’s words:

When I first came here I was really careful, you know ... I never got involved,
never made any criticism of things. I suppose I felt it wasn’t really my place.
Now I just say what I like, when I like. I mean, I came to the conclusion that it
was my life and it was passing me by without my involvement in it. I just thought
I have as much right to say how I feel about things as the next person.
(p. 26, Burnett, 1996).

This reassertion of one’s self is sometimes prompted by the realisation that fitting-in is never a permanent accomplishment for newcomers, nor for long term residents either. If social identity is a more fluid and conditional status than might be expected and if the work of establishing and maintaining oneself is never finished, then while this remains a continuing endeavour for everyone in a community, it has a particular significance for those whose identity may be linked to some broader and potentially ‘risky’ dimension of social difference, like their ethnicity, skin colour, or (homo)sexuality.

Difference, discrimination and identity

There are a number of reasons why social problems generally in rural areas are not well recognised and often seem unnoticed within the wider society. The privileging of urban perspectives together with the comparative ‘invisibility’ of problems amongst dispersed and remote communities are obviously significant elements. But there is a third factor, the recognition of forms of discrimination such as racism and homophobia, is much less likely when idealisations of rural communities ignore these forms of social difference in the first place. If people’s perceptions are that there are no black or other ethnic minorities living locally, then it follows for many of them, that racism cannot be a problem. This is not simply a problem of idealisation and oversight, it is also a problem of understanding, because it assumes that discrimination arises solely from the presence of difference, i.e. that it is essentially a reaction to that ‘presence’. For example, people who embrace such ‘explanations’ will argue that problems of racism can be diminished simply by reducing the numbers of those who are perceived as different. Most significantly, it localises the ‘explanation’ and thus ignores the dynamics of oppression which originate in the wider society.

It is commionly noted that while people may hold derogatory and damaging stereotypical ideas about particular groups, they may at a personal level operate with a degree of courtesy and respect towards individual members of such ‘devalued’ categories. The explanation for this is partly a question of cognitive processes, and I have provided a critical account of deterministic accounts of stereotyping processes elsewhere (Pugh, 1998). Basically I am inclined to accept Michael Billig’s contention that while humans have a tendency to a form cognitive categorisation, which he terms generalisation, they also have a countervailing capacity to particularisation too (Billig,1976). That is, to individualise and make exceptions. I think that the social dynamics of small communities may provide greater opportunities for this to happen, and I wonder how often the process of particularisation, when an individual is treated as an ‘exception’, liberates them from the otherwise discriminatory effects of stereotypes?

As these following quotations indicate, I think we should be wary of assuming that the lives of all minorities in the countryside are constantly blighted by discrimination. For example, Iris Braithwaite, a black woman born in Barbados, described her experience in an otherwise all-white community in the Northamptonshire countryside, thus:

We had good neighbours... Nothing was too difficult for them. And that made it
simpler for us to settle in. We never had any bad neighbours. Most people around
here were the same age as us. We were all thinking about earning a living, getting children into school and getting on...people would come over for a couple of
drinks or suggest a picnic or a walk through the forest.
(p. 5, Myers, 1995).

Another young black man from the same area said, ‘having grown up with the countryside so close, the thing is I don’t like cities. They’re full of hustle and bustle and people with unpleasant manners. Around here I can cycle into town through the fields’ (p. 5, Myers, 1995). A young black father in a small former mining community who was frequently seen about the village wearing black motorcycle boots, a heavy leather jacket and who had shoulder length dreadlocks, when asked about his conspicuousness, said:

I am an ambassador for the race so I do have to be a bit careful about what I say and
do. But that pressure is as much from being from London as for being black. I
certainly don’t want any other black families to move down here and take away my
(p. 3, Myers, 1995)

Clearly, for some people, their experience of life in a small community is one in which they feel that they can be accepted on their own merits and are able to establish their own identity away from some of the stifling expectations of other larger communities. In the first quotation, it seems as if the commonality in terms of life stage and aspirations were significant features of this woman’s situation, in the second, the young man expresses a clear preference for what he sees as the positive qualities of rural life. While in the last example, the young father enjoys his distinctiveness. So while being black or different in other ways can be a peculiarly exposed experience in the countryside, it is not inevitably a negative one.

Nevertheless, although the experience of country life may be a liberating one, we should not forget that the potential threat of racism is always present and cannot be avoided in some of the ways that are possible in urban areas. For there is rarely immediate support available from a larger community of people with similar backgrounds and similar experiences, and there is no escape in the anonymity of a larger group. Charlotte Williams, a Welsh Guyanese woman who grew up in a small town in North Wales, captured this sense of isolation and vulnerability so well, when she wrote:

I’m not Cardiff black. There’s no Tiger Bay in my story. I have no rememberings
of such a vibrant and supportive black community; no sense of that collective
identity won through association and revisited in talk...At any moment some
aspect of your visibility could be called forth for negative comment or more
benignly negative connotation.
(p. 25/26, Williams, 1997).

Social isolation by virtue of difference is also experienced by other groups and individuals. For example, informal networks for gay men and women may be sparse in some rural areas. This can create difficulties in establishing contact with other gay men and lesbians as there may there are few places where it is possible to meet and talk with others, to try out different identities and experience different degrees of ‘coming out’. Furthermore, as Roberts has noted in regard to New South Wales in Australia, it may have significant implications for educational strategies for HIV prevention (2003).

We should remember however, that none of these factors exist separate from other aspects of social location, so the effects of being socially different or marginalised are not always predictable. As, for example, Roni Crwydren’s experience shows so clearly:

I was born, and have spent most of my life, in one small area about which I feel
deeply and passionately. I feel comfortable and at home in its woods, on its hills, moors and cliffs. Coming from an ‘alternative’ background ... and from a family
of English-speaking outsiders in what was still a very Welsh area, I have not, in
the past, been accustomed to feeling at home amongst Welsh people to the same extent. being an outsider was, therefore, such a natural part of me that choosing to become a lesbian did not mean risking rejection from society, friends, colleagues
and acquaintances, or leaving my home area, as it does for so many lesbians.
(p. 294, 1994).

Neither she, nor her family seemed to have had any strong desire to fit-in, yet her account shows how a sense of belonging to a place and already having some outsider status provided a base upon which other aspects of identity could be built. Moreover, local responses are rarely as unified and homogenous as is often thought, there is often differentiation in response, and there may be some tacit or covert acceptance which can be extremely supportive for individuals who are otherwise apparently isolated. (Give example of the post office run by two women). However, we should not assume that any identity is a permanent accomplishment, it is always an active process and this brings with it the possibility of change for the better or the worse.

The recognition that such, ‘freeing up’ of expectations is not a permanent, but a conditional acceptance, does not detract from the fact that it can create the space in which a given individual can make their life somewhat differently, and more positively, than we might otherwise expect. However, this sense in which one’s identity is always potentially a point of issue, either for oneself in resisting and responding to the marginalising tendencies of the wider society, or for others who may use it in myriad ways to attack, scapegoat or otherwise discriminate, can create a condition of continuing uncertainty. Indeed, this feeling of contingency is experienced by many who are perceived as different who move into and apparently settle successfully in rural areas. The idealisation of rural life, particularly the belief in a more settled and secure sense of community, can obscure this uncertainty, as one incomer who had grasped the contingent nature of acceptance, said ‘one minute I am local, and when it suits them, I am not ...[then] my opinions don’t count’ (p. 26, Burnett, 1996).

Exceptionally, as in the example of the young man asked about his conspicuous appearance, those who are different may find some acceptance through the exoticisation of their difference. That is, their difference may be celebrated or made special in some way, it can be seen in expressions of local pride in the fact that such a person lives in the area. Thus, the difference may be ‘showcased’ and used in a self-congratulatory way to indicate tolerance or sophistication (Grewal, 2000). Occasionally, it may be ritualised, as can be seen in the acceptance of the annual arrival of Gypsies and travellers for horse fairs or seasonal work. Exoticisation is of course subject to broader cultural trends, but it seems to be more common when there is relatively limited social contact, often occurring when someone who is different works outside of the immediate community, perhaps as a musician, an artist, minor media celebrity, or even an academic! However, acceptance as an exotic is peculiar status, for it is based upon the continuing presumption of the difference, and relies upon it being reinforced, thus, often precludes any broader integration.


It is often assumed that rural areas are relatively conservative and illiberal places, and consequently, are less tolerant of social difference. But as Ching and Creed (1997) observed this conservatism is not necessarily an intrinsic quality of rural life but one that is made. They suggest that the broader marginalisation of rural communities may make them vulnerable to political manipulation by other people and groups for other purposes. While the general context within which an individual or a group’s identity and social position is obviously influenced by events in the wider society, I think the local response to those who are perceived as different has a number of factors may operate separately. These include:

  • dominant views within the local community
  • individual opportunities for engagement with other people
  • perceptions of utility
  • other connections to established networks
  • personal behaviour of the individual
  • a sense of commonality in life stage or task
    •local perceptions of community
    •the degree of local economic and social security

Many of those in rural areas who suffer racism, or other forms of oppression and who would benefit from services, may be reluctant to seek help or ‘make a fuss’ because they fear that in drawing attention to their problems and needs, they may be blamed for their own situation, or even worse, may become the subject of further discrimination, perhaps even violence. As de Lima observes, ‘there is often a reluctance to become involved in any initiative which they feel would focus attention upon them as individuals, and they are often not keen to discuss their experiences of living in communities’ (p. 37, 1999). Workers seeking to develop responsive policies and services should be careful to recognise how inhibiting this reluctance may be. Although it may be a reasonably successful strategy for ‘not being noticed’, it represents a considerable anxiety and fear of exposure within the rural locality, and this should reminds us just how fragile and contingent the appearance of tolerance may be in any community. Racism, like other forms of discrimination, will always remain a potent set of ideas and symbols that can be mobilised and used to damaging effect.

Much of what is distinctive in social work practice arises from the intermediate location that it occupies between individuals, families and small groups, and the apparatus of the state. This location provides privileged access to the experience of others, especially those who are socially marginalised, and provides direct evidence of the impact of discrimination upon their lives. Our understanding of how difference and any associated discrimination is enacted and endured, should encompass the variety of personal experience and the subtly different ways in which individuals may have established their ‘place’ within the broader context of rural life.
We need to make links between their individual experiences and the wider context which undoubtedly shapes and constrains their lives, but which does not completely control them.
I think the solution (insofar as there can be such a thing) to the problem of knowledge that was noted at the start of this presentation requires three things:

  • comprehensive and accurate descriptive accounts of rural practice and rural life, i.e. ones that reflect the diversity and complexity of experience
  • greater effort aimed at elucidating commonalties and also at identifying discontinuities, with the aim of building theoretical and conceptual models
  • and a more critical engagement with, and application of, broader social theory to rural settings and rural social work

If we set about acomplishing these tasks, I believe that rural social work far from being the fringe activity which it is often perceived as, has an important role in reminding ‘mainstream’ practice of something that is evident to all who work in rural areas, specifically, that social context and the dynamics of communities matter. Seen in this way, the rural context in which social work is undertaken is a fascinating place. The countryside, far from being a separate dimension of social life, can be understood as having a complex relationship with the wider society. For how else can we understand how the idealisation of the ‘rural’ impacts upon our perceptions of social problems, upon our ideas of who ‘belongs’ in the countryside, and upon whose needs are recognised?


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