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Framing essay I

Everyday life in the countryside has undergone profound changes, especially in the global North. Agriculture and forestry have ceased to dominate rural employment and the division between work and leisure has grown ever more substantial. Historically, place attachments and community-based identities among rural people grew out of shared rhythms, the collective shaping of landscapes, and the rituals of sociability associated with these practices. While these intimate connections have waned, actual agricultural practices gradually merged with the early tourism industry in the manufacturing of the pastoral ideal, a powerful imaginary resulting from the first attempts to commodify rural space as an object of consumption. Although rural life has changed in myriad ways, the pastoral ideal lives on along with ideals about an independent rural lifestyle, where rural dwellers are seen as active forces in shaping the landscape, and where community sociability is not a thing of the past. All of this is maintained and reproduced in a variety of versions often marked by hybridity. The framing essay attends to the ways that such hybridities can be seen to problematise quality of life as something that is taken for granted. Instead, it asks the more basic question of what rural quality of life actually is for those who dwell in the countryside today.


Historically, everyday rural life was characterised by the near absence of a division between work and leisure (Morse et al., 2014). Place attachment and community-based identities grew out of a shared set of rhythms and practices which also gave shape to rural landscapes and sociability. Rural dwellers, in this sense, were key producers of the places in which they lived and worked (Bennett, 2015; Lefebvre, 2004). Today, less work is agricultural or forestry-related and the everyday lives of most rural dwellers in the global North are punctuated by some form of work–leisure division. Between then and now – and complicating matters – the early days of the tourism industry saw the manufacturing of a pastoral ideal of idyllic rural places which served to commodify rural space, first for tourism and later for settlement (Brown, 2016; Darling, 2005).

This complex historical background, with all its local and regional variations, needs to be taken into account if we wish to properly understand what rural quality of life is all about. Contemporary rural life can be tinged by this heritage in several ways. Most importantly, the ideal of leading an independent rural lifestyle where one is actively involved in the creation of landscapes and community sociability is widely maintained and reproduced (Farmer, 2020; Wallis, 2017; Chueh & Lu, 2018). Many rural dwellers take pride in it (Mohatt & Mohatt, 2020), and it is an ideal sought by many who migrate to the countryside from more urban places (van Rooij & Margaryan, 2019). Likewise, the pastoral ideal continues to be reproduced, not just as an invention of tourism marketeers and real estate agents but as something genuinely felt and appreciated, even under circumstances where it takes a lot of selective filtering of sensory impressions to do so (Johansen, 2019).

Within research focused on everyday life, there have been claims that lack of clarity and multiplicity of meanings may be valuable attributes of well-being (e.g. Atkinson, 2013), although there have also been numerous attempts to identify ‘points of shared understanding’ (Conradson, 2012, p. 16) and promote particular conceptualisations. Smith and Reid (2018, p. 807), for example, suggest that well-being research is dominated by ‘economic and psychological approaches’, although they stress connections with health and promote an ‘intra-active’ perspective on well-being. This approach resonates strongly with notions of situated and relational perspectives promoted by Atkinson’s (2013) and Andrews et al.’s (2014) arguments about a non-representational approach (see also the framing essay in Part II). In developing their argument, Andrews et al. (2014, p. 211) also outline the significance of a ‘largely social constructivist, “representational”’ body of research and work focused on the concept of subjective well-being. Drawing these commentaries together, six, often overlapping, zones of shared understanding of well-being can be identified (see Figure 4.2).

This part of the book, however, takes nothing for granted and sidesteps the urban gaze by entering everyday rural life itself to ask a basic question: what is quality of life in the countryside? Quantitative quality of life indicators do not tell the whole story and are only as reliable as the assumptions that went into making them in the first place. We put such assumptions aside here in order to begin the book by questioning the very foundations of the field. The aim is to reappraise and take seriously the lived experience of rural dwellers in order that we may raise awareness, also among planners and policymakers, about the fact that their good-intentioned efforts to improve rural quality of life do not necessarily always align with reality on the ground. Moreover, we want to highlight and come to terms with the unsettling possibility that in some rural places, high levels of subjective well-being may be predicated on demographic segregation and the exclusion or absence of specific ‘others’. Where this is the case, should it be a cause for celebration or concern? How do we deal with the very real danger that such findings may be used to promote and justify racial and cultural segregation and the homogenisation of communities?

These are tough and important questions that can only be answered rigorously by immersing our research endeavours in the messy realities of rural life. This is what we have tasked our contributors and ourselves with doing. The result is a collection of chapters which generate important insights into the kinds of everyday performances, practices, mechanisms of power and rhythms through which real and imagined notions of an independent rural lifestyle are maintained, reproduced and reinvented. In-depth knowledge on these matters allows our authors to get closer to properly grounded notions about what rural quality of life is and what it can be. It also allows us to critically assess the intricate dynamics involved in the production of winners and losers in terms of human well-being, including how they are gendered and racialised but also how they relate to questions of class and other axes of sociocultural difference.

Introducing the chapters

How to deal with the danger that specific findings on quality of life may be used to promote and justify racial and cultural segregation and the homogenisation of communities is a core question and point in the moral geographies’ perspective, which Michael Carolan takes up in Chapter 2. He begins by questioning whether high levels of quality of life are the product of a community being able to keep ‘Others’ out, and if so, is that something we ought to be celebrating? To throw some light onto that dilemma, a deeper understanding of how minorities as well as majorities experience quality of life is needed, along with knowledge about how different experiences may have an impact on the experienced quality of life of others.

As a straightforward way to shed light on the dilemma, Carolan compares two communities with different degrees of homogeneity in population – one with almost only a white population and one with a majority of a young black population. As Carolan points out, rural communities and people are incredibly heterogeneous when it comes to quality of life, so the rural communities to be compared must have undergone some major challenges and the reactions to these challenges in terms of their beliefs about the world and about their future. COVID-19 shook communities all over the world, including the two communities in Colorado which Carolan investigated to see how the people and social institutions responded to a threat like COVID-19. The in-depth comparative study drawing on pre- and post-COVID data enables Carolan to empirically illustrate to us ‘how “rural” and “rural wellbeing” cannot be understood monolithically’ and the ‘unevenness in how subjective quality of life was expressed between these two communities relative to reported household-level economic wellbeing.’

While Carolan investigated two very diverse Coloradan communities in terms of population in the comparison of the moral geography and expressed quality of life, Pia Heike Johansen and Jens Kaae Fisker explore everyday quality of life in six rural communities in Denmark, searching for answers across community, gender, age and socio-economic status to how everyday rhythms of rural life relate to social acceleration. They take up the point that, historically, everyday rural life was characterised by the near absence of a division between work and leisure, but that today most rural dwellers in the global North are punctuated by some form of work–leisure division.

Theoretically, they get their inspiration from Hartmut Rosa’s thoughts about social acceleration destroying both human and non-human life and his suggestion for a decoupling of economic growth and ideas about what a ‘good life’ is by directing attention to resonance as quality of life. Rather than fall for the temptation to align higher quality of life in the rural everyday life with de-accelerated everyday life, they suggest adding to the concept of social acceleration the qualitative dimension of time associated with rhythms. More precisely, what Johansen and Fisker do in Chapter 3 is to anchor their analysis of how the people in rural communities deal with social acceleration in a Lefebvrian rhythm perspective. Through an explorative photo-ethnographic case study, they seek to answer how rural everyday life rhythms are involved in producing relations of responsivity and self-efficacy and hence, in a Rosa perspective, achieving resonance.

Following up on the fact that people living in rural areas are strongly engaged in the social acceleration of society in general directs attention to rural gentrification. As pointed out by Martin Phillips, Darren Smith, Hannah Brooking and Mara Duer, gentrification, well-being and quality of everyday life have rarely been explicitly discussed together, but can be seen to be implicitly quite closely interconnected. In Chapter 4 they fill in this gap by offering an extensive review of discussions of well-being and gentrification conducted in urban studies, before outlining their connections to rural communities and social change. Philips et al. point out how ideas of well-being and quality of life have underlain conceptualisations of rural gentrification, including rural in-migration, community interaction and rural exclusion and displacement.

Adopting a ‘more-than-representational’ perspective, the chapter critically investigates the role that such symbolic constructions of rural gentrified living play in instigating rural gentrification and the use, transformation and displacement of these representations within the performance of everyday living in gentrified areas. Drawing on research from contrasting rural districts in England, attention is given to the significance of proximity to nature and feelings of (non)belonging, (in)authenticity, guilt and displacement in relation to the impacts of gentrification within the formation of senses of well-being and quality of life.

Gentrification is partly also a theme in Simona Zollet and Meng Qu’s Chapter 5. With the point of departure in urban migrants’ visions about a rural lifestyle, they explore the motivations driving the migrants to relocate and their perceptions in terms of quality of life changes in relation to the range of challenges and the opportunities arising from living and working on depopulating island communities. Of particular interest are the migrants who are residing in a stable manner on the islands and who are at least partially self-employed and running their own businesses. Examples include small tourism or food businesses, creativity-based professions and organic farming. Their in-depth study illustrates how the processes of bringing together the urban and rural lifestyle, networks and relations contribute to the constructions of lifestyle migrants’ quality of life, and it throws light onto how post-migration rural lives tend to be constructed as having a better quality of life compared to before migration. Zollet and Qu’s analysis shows how respondents imagine, construct and (re)negotiate their desired lifestyles according to individual ideals of what constitutes a good quality of life, seen through the challenges and opportunities arising from living in small island communities.

The last chapter in this section returns to the impact of crises on the rural communities and the question of moral geographies. While having so far had attention directed at the quality of life among the rural population following and creating the flow of cultural and structural changes, Maria Christina Crouch and Jordan P. Lewis’s Chapter 6 sets out to explore how Native people have dealt and deal with the punctuated story of the manifold and often generational changes to these systems: family structures, expressions of culture, land-based identities and Alaska Native cosmology and ontology directly impinged upon by colonisation. Informed by the concept of cultural trauma and a sample of conversations with adults within rural Alaska, the chapter provides an Indigenous, holistic framework of understanding the meaning and embeddedness of quality of life in a rural context. Touching upon the themes of family, subsistence, access to resources, health and happiness, traditional knowledge and values, acts of self, providing, sobriety and healing, Crouch and Lewis offer a deep understanding of the vulnerability and changeability of quality of life and point out how challenging it may be to deal morally with findings about quality of rural everyday life and with how these findings may be used to promote and justify racial and cultural segregation and the homogenisation of communities.


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