Community and Diversity

When thinking about rural communities, people often envision a community which is small, close knit and homogenous. People within rural communities are assumed to not only share space, but also religion, race, work ethic, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. It is important to understand where this image comes from and, if it does not accurately describe rural communities, why it persists.

How are communities defined?

Communities define themselves by asserting boundaries which separate them from other communities. These boundaries do not, however, need to be physical, geographical boundaries. Boundaries can be created by accentuating the similarities among members of a given community. Conversely, boundaries are also created by emphasizing the differences of other communities. Communities define themselves in terms of other communities which they perceive to be different than their own and derive pride from being different. Thus, creating and strengthening the boundaries of community downplays the existence of difference within the community in order to accentuate the similarities. Difference, when defining the boundaries of community, lies only outside of the community. Accentuating similarities within and differences without, communities define themselves both in terms of what they are as well as what they are not. Thus, in order to understand the definition which the rural community gives itself, it is important to look at the boundaries of the community.

The debate over boundaries

The issue of urban sprawl has become the subject of significant public debate, as evidenced on the cover of Kenyon's Alumni Bulletin.
The debate surrounding urban sprawl illustrates Knox County's residents' perception of the boundaries of their community. Knox County is located sixty miles north of Columbus, a city which is rapidly growing and spreading into the countryside. Many residents of Knox County fear the encroachment of the city on their rural community as Columbus and other smaller cities in the vicinity expand . As residents feel the geographical boundaries of their community being threatened, they reassert these boundaries symoblically. Whether consciously or not, residents talk about what it means to be a member of a rural community in terms of the difference from what it means to be a resident of an urban area.

Residents of rural areas often evoke an image of the small town where everyone knows one another. They compare this quality to urban areas, which are perceived to be more anonymous.

I mean, I lived in Worthington for three years, didn't know my next door neighbor, I mean, I knew what her name was and we had said maybe fifteen or twenty words to each other in three years and I knew I could never count on her if we needed something. Resident, Centerburg, OH.

Thus, Knox County residents take pride in the qualities which they perceive to be rural. It is important to understand, however, that the characteristics which residents extol are not necessarily objectively true. The differences which people perceive as only outside of the community, may be found inside the community as well. For instance, the same resident who left Worthington because it was too anonymous, had a similar experience in Knox County.

We ran into a couple that we thought they had just moved into the community . . . and we got to be really good friends with them and we were sitting down eating dinner with them one night and asked, 'Well, how many years have you lived here?' thinking one or two years. Well, they moved into town the same time we did and we only live about a block and a half from each other and hadn't even connected.

Emphasizing the difference between rural areas and urban areas, qualities which may belong to both the areas are overlooked. What the urban area is, the rural area is not, at least in thought. Despite geographical encroachment of urban areas on rural communities, Knox County residents enforce symbolic boundaries in order to keep them distinct from urban areas.

What becomes clear is that there exists a notion that rural communities and rural residents are different than urban communities and urban residents. This perceived difference impacts the acknowledgment and acceptance of diversity in rural communities. Urban areas are believed to be comprised of a diverse group of individuals who may be of a different race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Thus, Knox County residents maintain their difference from urban areas by asserting the notion that "we are all the same here." In Knox County's attempt to maintain its boundaries by asserting "sameness," it fails to recognize the diversity of its members.

Different than what?

If communities emphasize sameness in order to maintain the boundaries of their community, what, then, are the characteristics of this sameness? What are the differences that are overlooked when the similarities are accentuated? In order to talk about diversity, or difference, in rural areas, the question "different than what?" must be answered. Whether or not the description of community residents is accurate, the existence of an ideal type of resident affects the definition of diversity. Defining what is considered "standard" in a rural community will indicate what is considered "different."

One of the most obvious differences between rural and urban areas is the rural community's association with agriculture. Rural communities are often synonymous with farming communities. Thus, residents engaged in farming typify what it means to be a member of the Knox County community. Although many people are not engaged in farming, there is a sense that the farmer embodies all the characteristics of a rural resident. There is also a certain work ethic associated with agricultural occupations. Farming conjures up an image of the hardworking farmer. Thus, Knox County residents are supposed to be hardworking. People who are perceived to lack this work ethic, such as residents on public assistance, are often looked upon unfavorably and considered different.

Length of residence also plays a role in the definition of diversity. Newcomers to the community, especially if they are from urban areas, are considered different. They are often believed not to have the same values as those who have lived in the community for a long time.

Rural areas are thought to be family-oriented. The breakdown of the family is seen as a primarily urban phenomenon. People in the cities are too busy to spend time with their families. Whereas other areas of the country bemoan the loss of the family, Knox County residents see themselves as very committed to the family. This commitment to family comes with an assumption about the sexual orientation of Knox County residents. The image of the family is the nuclear family, a father, mother, and children. Thus, alternatives to the nuclear family are considered different.

The assumed racial homogeneity of rural communities is a product of both the relatively low visibility of non-European Americans and the association of racial diversity with urban areas. Cities are supposed to have a wide range of residents coming from many different backgrounds. Conversely, part of the assumed definition of rural communities is homogeneity. Rural areas are unlike urban areas, where people of all different races live. Thus, European Americans are considered the norm, whereas other racial groups, such as African Americans, are considered an exception to the norm.

Religious diversity is perhaps more obvious in urban areas. It would not be surprising to see a synagogue or even a mosque in an urban area. In Knox County, however, religious differences are not as apparent. There are no structural markers of religious diversity within the community. Denominational differences among the residents of Knox County are generally accepted, but Christianity is thought to be the norm. Christian music at community affairs, prayer before community events, and religious events in schools are assumed to be acceptable because everyone is assumed to be Christian. This assumption can prove problematic for non-Christians.

Relationship to the larger community

It may seem surprising that people who are excluded from the definition of what it means to be a rural resident still feel like they are part of the larger community. People who have characteristics which are labeled "different" do not necessarily feel estranged from the community. This sense of belonging is often developed through opportunities to interact with others in the community. For instance, newcomers to a community will often join groups which allow them to interact with residents. Involvement in community groups helps to integrate people into the community. The church provides opportunities for the establishment of both formal and informal networks which make residents feel like part of a greater community. People who participate in the local area, both informally through friendships as well as formally through associations, are more likely to feel attached to the community than those who do not participate locally. In general, people who engage in activities within the community are more likely to feel a part of the community. Thus, groups which are excluded from more formal forms of participation, like the church, often feel less integrated into the community. There are other factors which limit the opportunities for social interaction. Language barriers play a role in how well people are able to interact with other residents of the community.

Back to Home