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Rural sociology over 40 years

LU YILONG | 2019-09-12
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

 Photo shows the view of Longtou Village, Pingli County, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, which is praised to be one of the most beautiful villages in China. Photo: PEOPLE.CN


Looking back at the history of rural sociology over the past 40 years will help us better understand the progress and dynamic trends of the theory and methodology of this subdiscipline. We will focus on small towns, villagers’ autonomy, migrant workers, and issues relating to agriculture, rural areas and rural people, to reveal how the sub-discipline has evolved with time.


Small towns
Discussion of small towns, the rural development model and the empirical investigation of some typical villages all underline the theoretical and research focus of rural sociology—rural economic issues. Such an emphasis is closely related to the social needs of the 1980s in China.

The restoration and reconstruction of Chinese sociology has been promoted over the background of reform and opening up. At the beginning of reform and opening up, economic development was by all means the top priority. The study of rural sociology also conformed to the needs of the times, striving to serve the development of the rural economy, help farmers gain wealth and help villages achieve revitalization. The research on the development of the rural economy and the theory on small towns provides some new perspectives for people to understand the problems of the rural economy.

Though the study of the rural economy and small towns was the focus of Chinese sociology in the first 10 years after the restoration and reconstruction of the subdiscipline, that does not mean it didn’t research other aspects at all.

In fact, during that period, there were explorations taken in rural sociology theory, and aspects such as Chinese farmers, rural marriage and family, rural poverty, rural social security, and rural autonomy were also touched upon. The research in these areas has not yet been thorough, but in a sense, rural sociology research and its development has still made progress.

Empirical and experiential research focused on rural society and rural social facts. Thus, it can be seen that the reconstruction and development of rural sociology has been an important force for promoting the prosperity of Chinese sociology.


Villagers’ autonomy
The shift of focus from rural economic development to villagers’ autonomy and rural politics also reflects the changes of the needs of the times for rural sociology. At the beginning of the reform and opening up, the most urgent problem facing rural society was food and poverty alleviation.

By the 1990s, the rural reform had achieved immediate economic results. Most of the rural population no longer struggled with survival, and the performance of the rural economy, especially agriculture, had improved. In this period, rural reform was faced with many problems brought about by related political reform.

Therefore, it is necessary for rural sociology to study and answer various questions in the process of rural political reform. For example, how to reduce farmers’ burden? How to improve the relationship between rural leadership and the masses to alleviate social contradictions? In essence, it is a matter of rural governance and politics.

In fact, whether rural sociology puts the research focus on rural economy or rural politics is also a manifestation of the discipline’s development, and it reflects that, as a branch of sociology, the disciplinary independence of rural sociology is still developing.

There are studies on rural issues in other disciplines. The disciplinary perspective of rural sociology may be mainly reflected in understanding issues in different fields from the perspective of rural society. Therefore, the study of rural sociology needs to avoid pure political analysis and strive to investigate the relationship between rural politics and society from a comprehensive and holistic perspective.

In the second decade of the restoration and reconstruction of rural sociology in China, it can be said that it gradually rid itself of the pure economic and descriptive research from the previous decade, and it began to enter the stage of combining theory with practice and induction with deduction.

Moreover, it has become a new trend to emphasize the study of villager autonomy and rural governance. When rural sociology takes on more realistic concerns and becomes problem-oriented, its theory and paradigms will be weakened to some extent.


Migrant workers
As market transformation has progressed, rural population mobility has persisted, even risen. Every year, more than 200 million people move between rural and urban areas. Therefore, rural society has in reality entered an era of “great mobility.”

The massive rural population flow provides rich material for the study of rural sociology. For example, some research covers the relationship between the new generation of migrant workers and rural society. It points out that the new generation of rural migrants has unclear and unstable social identity, which increases the population’s transiency. With the increase of migrant workers, the number of people disconnected from the rural and urban social system has risen. Under the impression that “farming has no prospects,” the new generation of rural migrants shows some new features in many respects, such as motivation, choice of destination and social identity.

In addition, the current popular view that rural villages in China have become “hollow” is mainly based on the phenomenon of rural population mobility. Is the outflow of the rural population equivalent to the countryside being “hollow”? Current rural sociology studies tend to be pessimistic.

However, we need to dialectically look at the phenomenon of rural population mobility in the process of modernization. Though rural population mobility has had some impact on rural development and urban management, it has also created new opportunities for rural development and urban construction.

Rural areas are adapting to modern society in the way of population flow and have gained new vitality through the flow. Therefore, rural population mobility will become the norm of rural social development in the present and the near future.

Going forward, from the standpoint of value neutrality, we must seek to form a scientific and reasonable understanding of the fundamental problems in a mobile rural society. Upon our generalization and summarization of China’s experience with the rural population flow and rural development, we can promote the innovation and development of rural sociology’s theory and methodology.


New countryside
In the 21st century, with the deepening of reform and opening up, remarkable achievements have been made in the economic sector. At the same time, unbalanced and inadequate development has also emerged. Among them, the bottleneck faced by agriculture, the countryside and farmers stands out. Thus, the issues relating to agriculture, rural areas and rural people have become a hot and thorny topic in policymaking and academic circles.

As a matter of fact, rethinking the relationship between the research on issues relating to agriculture, rural areas and rural people and the development of the discipline will help rural sociology to better position itself as a discipline, so as to better maintain the continuation, accumulation and innovation of the discipline’s theory and methodology.

Not only does the research on the new countryside focus on the macro theory of rural construction and development strategy in the new era, but also more and more rural sociological experience research is beginning to study the practical experience of rural construction.

For example, nowadays, it is common to demolish and merge villages in rural areas. Some rural sociology studies have begun to pay attention to this phenomenon and, on the basis of empirical investigation, analyze the practical logic of rural integration, as well as the social problems that have arisen, and discuss the path for constructing the new countryside.

The demolishing and merging of villages reflects the huge impact that external force exerts on rural social spatial structure and social identity. The research of rural sociology on the phenomenon of merging villages may also need to consider the measure’s impact on the continuity of rural history, culture and social identity.

In addition, rural sociology also conducts empirical studies, which use large-scale sampling survey data to analyze the realistic needs of different rural strata for new countryside construction. Using quantitative methods to study rural society and the new countryside has gradually become a trend in the rapidly developing field of Chinese rural sociology, which reflects not only rural sociology’s innovation with its paradigm but also the discipline’s specialization.


Lu Yilong is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China.

edited by YANG XUE