The simple life often evoked by the keyword “rural” belies its extraordinary complexity. Across the centuries, many hands have wielded this term for contradictory purposes: to exalt and exhaust the nation’s natural resources, to malign and glorify nonurban citizens, and to incite and squelch revolutions. As a word that invites and resists reduction, “rural” can signal a pastoral landscape on one hand and neglect the labor that cultivates it on the other. It can conjure a bucolic retreat at odds with dynamic histories of political, socioeconomic, and racial conflict. It can appear outdated in our postindustrial era of globalization and expansive megacities, yet it persists in the conservative rhetoric of small-town values as well as the radical manifestoes of eco-activism.

Some of these tensions originate from overlapping—and historically entrenched—uses of “rural” as a noun and as an adjective. As a noun, “rural” can refer to any geographic place (the countryside, …

This essay may be found on page 217 of the printed volume.

Ethnographies, Nature, Places
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