75th Anniversary: 13) Reflections: From Rural Sociology to a Sociology of Place?

Place has figured central in the work of the Rural Sociology Group. In a way this is, of course, already implicated by the adjective “rural” which adds a spatial identity to the sociology we do. Taking this identity as a social practice and the production of meaningful differences as points of departure (Hofstee 1946, Ploeg 1993, Wiskerke 2007), my own research gradually started to crystalize around the emergence of new spatial realities beyond ‘rural’  and ‘urban’.  At the background of this interest is the will to understand how people address inequality and uncertainty, and how they sustain themselves individually and collectively, socially and spatially.

Various thinkers have argued that the globalized political economy has come together with novel social and political cleavages (Bauman 2017). Global inequality in income and wealth distribution is increasing again (Phillips 2017) to the point that the extreme inequality of the early 20th century is back (Sassen 2010). Inequality is not only about “the size of wallets”, but also about the inequal distribution of capabilities to participate in social life and function as citizens (Therborn 2013: 1). As result of increasing inequality (Sassen 2010), to many, the future is identified with uncertainty more than with advancement (Bauman 2017).

Yet the modern world is not only marked by a growing inequality and destabilizing experiences, but also one in which people try to “change the world that is changing them” (Berman 1982). From the peasant household, taking advantage of job-opportunities in the city to compensate for deteriorating prices for their agricultural produce, or competition, so-called, from the world market, to city-dwellers maintaining backward links with their rural hinterland to be able to face up income insecurity in the city.


Mount Karacadağ1

I would like to illustrate this with an example from my own research practice in Kurdistan (Jongerden 2018). One of my fieldtrips brought me to Mount Karacadağ, a basalt-rich massif in the Kurdistan region in the south-eastern part of Turkey between Diyarbakir and Urfa reaching a hight of almost 2,000 metres. The higher parts of this volcano shield mountain are used for summer pasture, with mobile sheep-herding encampments. Since the dairy factories do not collect the milk when the farming families move out to the summer camps in the high meadows, women process the unpasteurized milk into soft, white cheese, which is chopped into blocks and left to rest in salted water. Most of the cheese is sold to traders or at open markets in nearby towns and cities, where it competes with the factory cheese sold in supermarket chains, like Carrefour. In the lower parts of the mountain, rice is grown. Much of the rice is produced on small plots under sharecropping arrangements. In the stony fields yield are low. Yet in the region the black-streaked white rice is praised for its aroma and taste, with city-dwellers willing to pay a relatively high price for it.

Some of the land-owners left the village decades ago and were successful in establishing a business elsewhere. They return to cultivate their land in the village, not for the money, but to mark it as theirs. One day, when they retire, they say they will settle in the village, and in anticipation of this return they have constructed villa-type houses, financed by their city earnings. Yet many of the young men work for cash in Istanbul and other metropolitan areas in the west or south of Turkey during the months in October to May, when labour is not needed in the village. Many earn a living in the precarious informal sector, and more in particular waste-collection. They walk the streets collecting tins, paper and cardboard, plastic and glass bottles and the like, which they sell to middlemen and recycle centres. The intersection of their social-economic status and Kurdish identity makes the young men subject to derogatory  practices. Yet the money these young men earn in the city is an important source of income for the family back home and goes toward savings for a future marriage. The family, meanwhile, sends yogurt, cheese and other processed foods from the village to support their sons in the city. Not only does labour move to work, work also moves to labour. Traders bring bags of the vegetable kereng (gundelia) to the villages. After women cleaned the root crop, traders collect and sell the vegetable.

Roads are important ‘actant’ in the landscape. They connect people and places, and compress distances between the different socio-spatial settings in which life organises. Widened in recent years, and with extra lanes added, cars pass by with dizzying speed, while heavily loaded trucks seem to have difficulty with every single slope. Years ago, the trucker-farmer was a common phenomenon, small-holders independently eking out a second income through delivery services. The trucker-farmer would organise journey routes to stop by his land as necessary, but otherwise only spend time in the village during the planting and harvesting seasons. While some on the road are the relatively well-off urbanites commuting to work or travelling between gated communities in the city and holiday villages by the sea or in the hills, minibuses carry village occupants to shops and markets and the children to schools. After talks between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkey had been terminated, check-points, military convoys and an occasional car-bomb hit the road.


Multi-social-spatial patterns

So, what do these descriptions of daily life activities all mean? What does the production of cheese and cultivation of rice, the seasonal migration into precarious jobs, and the car-bomb, among others, all tell us?

First, we see how people deal with the ‘squeeze on agriculture’ (Ploeg 2008: xv1). Since the prices of agricultural products tend to fluctuate and in the long-term decrease, while costs increase, there has been a relative reduction of farmers’ incomes in Turkey (Öztürk 2012). The development of employment strategies outside of agriculture, enables families to keep their land, maintain their smallholdings and their rural homes (Öztürk, Jongerden et al. 2014). Families organise for the continued maintenance of the smallholding through off-farm and out-of-village income supplementation and replacement. The maintenance of a peasant circuit, thus, is closely related to the generation of income through the procurement of income in an urban setting. What is referred to as rural and urban, village and city, are no distinct entities, but become closely interconnected in the practices of people.

Second, and relatedly, the case shows how the village in Mount Karacadağ , ‘the local’, is constituted through multiple (sets of) of unfolding practices and interactions and their relations with many ‘elsewheres’. While people move among socio-spatial settings, from the village in a mountainous area, the rhythm of life is no longer determined by agricultural activities only, but also by the rhythm of the city, where the leftovers of consumption in the city provide a living for village boys, and their families and futures back in the village. While the village boys travel to work in the city, some of the work also comes to the village, such the bags of the vegetable kereng that traders bring to the villages. In short, households maintain their small-holdings through a multitude of family-based, gender and age related arrangements, with income derived from agricultural produce supported by or (increasingly) just supplementing that derived from work elsewhere. Within these networks, people, products, information and money move.

Third, people’s lives are not only linked to broader geographical, socio-economic domains, but also the political domains. This includes the production of people and the places they live as backward, inferior, and dangerous, a representation that served to legitimize an authoritarian and repressive intervention strategy, in which the central authority claimed themselves to be the primary decision-makers regarding how people in the region others should live their lives (Akıncı, Bilgen et al. 2020). The derogatory and dehumanizing practices have produced violent conflict which drags on for decades, transformed rural and urban places, and produced attempts by an organized movement to develop local alternatives for the central state (Akkaya and Jongerden 2013, Jongerden 2016, Jongerden 2019).


Living structures

Crucially, people are agents, not merely buffeted by the winds of change around them – and they are social actors, moreover, making decisions not (just) as atomized individuals but (also) as (members of) larger social structures, such as  households, extended families and political formations (Öztürk, Jongerden et al. 2014, Öztürk, Topaloğlu et al. 2017, Öztürk, Jongerden et al. 2018).  In other words: people act as social subjects and on basis of designations they make about situations. Crucially, here, is that the intersection of identities defined in relation to the production process (e.g. peasant), the spatial (e.g. rural, urban) and cultural (e.g. Kurd) are important to understand the strategies of actors.

Reflections on the implication of all this gave birth to the idea of “living structures”, defined as the spatial arrangements and patterns people created and through which they gives structure to their lives. While ‘structures’ refers to the arrangements and patterns, emphasizing continuity and conditions that are not self-selected, the ‘living’ refers to e enactment, change and agency. The concept helps to map actors, practices, constraints, change, and as such helps to capture both the dimensions of agency and structure, while it tries to understand the lives of people without assuming a fixed economic, spatial settings or cultural setting, but a thrown-togetherness and intersectionality. This helps us to understand the ways in which precarity is experienced, how it is dealt with, but also how people develop their alternatives for a liveable live themselves.

Finally, rationality is in the eyes of the beholder, and this means that an important role of the social scientist,  is to make sense how people understand their world and act on basis of which designations. This asks for an understanding of how people act as social subjects, who make their decisions in the context of wider networks of collectivities of which they are part. This is an approach, which is firmly embedded in a tradition of research referred to as the Wageningen School with its focus on agency, meaning and heterogeneity. This comes with meticulous empirical description of social reality and their broader contexts (Hofstee 1938, Hofstee 1982), as well as understanding difference as the product of meaningful actions (Hofstee 1982, Ploeg 1994, Roep and Bruin 1994, Wiskerke 2009). In the language of Hofstee’s, the founder of rural sociology in Wageningen, this implies a research agenda which aims to understand practices and their encapsulation in various historical trajectories (Hofstee 1982). He referred to this as meaningful difference, and, in today’s language, this would imply to take “coexisting heterogeneity” (Massey 2005: 9) and  “multiple temporalities” (Tomba 2013) as an analytical lens.


1)This sections come from the publication: Jongerden, J. (2018). Living Structures. Methodological Approaches in Kurdish Studies: Theoretical and Practical Insights from the Field. B. Baser, M. Toivanen, B. Zorlu and Y. Duman. Boulder, Lexington Books: pp. 21-33.



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