Michael Carolan
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Well-being for whom and at whose expense
COVID-19 through the lens of moral geographies in two rural Colorado communities

This chapter reflects on questions that all-too-often go unasked in quality of life research. Questions like, ‘Are higher levels of well-being always a good thing?’ and ‘Are there circumstances where high levels of well-being in a given community could be seen as a warning sign rather than a cause for celebration?’ To think through these questions, I examine a dataset drawn from two rural communities in Colorado (US). The project began in late 2019 and concluded in the summer of 2020, which means it draws from pre- and post-outbreak (COVID-19) data. One community is located on the rural eastern plains of the state, while the other is located in the Rocky Mountains within a frontier county – ‘frontier’ is a subset of the ‘rural’ classification to refer to US counties with population densities of six or fewer persons per square mile. These communities also differed in terms of their demographic compositions, with one being overwhelming white while the other had recently seen a considerable influx of immigrants. The research points to how ‘rural’ and ‘rural well-being’ cannot be understood monolithically, while also proving they can be good to think about from the perspective of troubling concepts like happiness and satisfaction.


This chapter is animated by a number of empirical tensions dealing with rural well-being. These tensions have been especially well documented in the US, the focus of this chapter. Yet I know they exist, and therefore complicate rural policy, in other countries (e.g. Almås & Fuglestad, 2020; Gallent & Gkartzios, 2019). For example, the 2020 World Happiness Report tells of how rural citizens in Northern and Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are on average more satisfied with their life compared to their urban counterparts (Burger et al., 2020). Relatedly, note the findings of the US-focused Life in Rural America survey (NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University, 2018). The report explains that rural Americans are ‘largely optimistic about the future, as most say the number of good jobs in their local community will either stay the same or increase in the next five years’; a majority also reported being ‘better off financially compared to their parents at the same age, and a majority think their children will be better off financially compared to themselves’ (p. 1).

And yet, from a follow-up survey conducted a few months later – Life in Rural America Part II – nearly half of rural Americans report not being able to afford an unexpected $1,000 expense, while four in ten said their families have experienced problems paying for medical bills, housing or food in the past few years (NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University, 2019, p. 1). From 1999 to 2016, the rate of suicide among Americans ages 25 to 64 rose by 41 per cent. Suicide rates among individuals in rural counties are now roughly 25 per cent higher than those in major metropolitan areas (Carroll, 2019). Much of the authoritarian populism witnessed in the US and elsewhere – Trumpism (US), Brexit (UK), the rise of Bolsonaro (Brazil) – has been attributed to deeply felt rural anxieties (e.g., Carolan, 2020a, 2020b; Scoones et al., 2018).

Here we have a group said to be more satisfied (Burger et al., 2020) and who report being ‘largely optimistic about the future’ (NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University, 2018, p. 1). Yet at the same time, rural populations are experiencing runaway suicide rates and embracing a political movement animated by feelings of discontent and grievance. This is an unusual way to show, well … happiness. What is going on here?

I do not attempt to explain, or explain away, the above tensions in this chapter. Scholars studying quality of life in the countryside know that rural communities and people are incredibly heterogeneous (e.g., Woods, 2006). Such ‘tensions’ are therefore to some degree expected. Expressions of satisfaction within a population should in no way deny the presence of dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety and hardship. But this does not mean quality of life/satisfaction scholarship is free of conceptual and empirical blind spots. For instance, expressions of satisfaction and well-being are still overwhelmingly assessed normatively, as ‘good’. Yet other scholarship complicates this picture. Take, for instance, economics, with its rich tradition explaining how utility is a function of trade-offs, where increased well-being for some often comes at the cost of others (e.g. Hediger, 2000). Another example: critical race and immigration studies, which describe, for example, well-being as a function of the dominant social group by being able to exclude historically marginalised ‘others’ (e.g. Laurence & Bentley, 2015).

I use this chapter to reflect on important questions that quality of life researchers must address: for example, are higher levels of well-being always a good thing?; are there circumstances where high levels of well-being in a given community could be seen as a warning sign rather than a cause for celebration?; and what would it mean for quality of life scholarship, and rural policy practitioners more generally, if we entertained the idea that conflict and anxiety might actually have generative (i.e. positive) qualities?

To investigate these questions, I draw on a historically unique data set. The chapter is based on research involving two rural communities in Colorado (US). The project began in late 2019 and concluded in the summer of 2020, which means it draws from pre- and post-outbreak (COVID-19) data. One community is located on the rural eastern plains of the state, while the other is located in the Rocky Mountains within a frontier county – ‘frontier’ is a subset of the ‘rural’ classification to refer to US counties with population densities of six or fewer persons per square mile. Beyond these geospatial differences, the communities also differed in terms of their demographic composition, with one having undergone a considerable influx of immigrants in recent years. It has become a minority-majority community, especially among its youth – approximately 70 per cent of the students at its high school are non-white. The other community was almost exclusively white.

By drawing upon two case studies, I am able to, first, speak specifically to the point about how ‘rural’ and ‘rural well-being’ cannot be understood monolithically, even when talking about communities within the same US state. Additionally, the pre- and post-COVID outbreak data add another important layer to this study – each respondent completed an online survey and qualitative interview at both points in time. Environmental shocks have been examined in fields such as disaster (e.g., Fois & Forino, 2014) and community studies (e.g. Besser et al., 2008), noting that they can be good to think about from the perspective of observing how people and social institutions respond to threats. COVID greatly touched both communities (as it did communities around the world), though the time-series data show that the outcomes of the pandemic, in terms of changes in quality of life, differed greatly between the two places, which itself is revealing from the standpoint of helping us answer the above questions.

As this chapter is intended to be empirically driven, and space is limited, I will hold off engaging with relevant literature until it is time to present the data. This allows for an iterative engagement between the study’s empirical findings and the broader literature on the subject. The next section, then, provides a description of the study’s methods. After that, I begin to unpack the findings. To focus this discussion, the findings section interrogates an interesting unevenness in how subjective quality of life was expressed between these two communities relative to reported household-level economic well-being. In one community, the economic well-being (i.e. household income) of respondents decreased between T1 and T2 and yet their reported subjective well-being marginally increased during this period. Meanwhile, respondents in the other community saw no change in their household economic well-being between T1 and T2 and yet reported a noticeable decrease in subjective quality of life indicators.


Fifty -six participants agreed to participate in this study from two Colorado localities: a non-metropolitan county located in the far eastern third of the state and a non-metropolitan county in the state’s mountainous interior. The former community sits in a rural county, so henceforth I will call it ‘Rural Community’ (N=27), while the latter is in a frontier county, which explains its ‘Frontier Community’ (N=29) designate. (The ‘frontier’ designate is a subset of the ‘rural’ classification used by the US government to refer to counties with population densities of six or fewer persons per square mile.) Individuals were first interviewed between June and November of 2019. During this stage, data collection took place over two phases: baseline interviews, which lasted approximately 1 hour 45 minutes, followed by respondents completing an online Qualtrics survey.

A few reasons drew me to the communities described above. I had numerous connections within these locales, which was important as participants were recruited by reaching out through personal networks. I wanted to build into the study diversity, both within and across communities. These two communities were therefore also selected because of this demographic and spatial difference; a difference captured by, for instance, one being a minority-majority community, especially among its youth – approximately 70 per cent of the students at its high school were non-white – while the other was homogeneous, consisting almost entirely (99 per cent) of people from European descent. The mean household income for both communities was approximately US$35,000. (For a point of comparison, the mean household income for the state’s capital, Denver, is almost US$70,000.) Basic demographic data for both communities are reported in Table 2.1.

Rural Community (N=27) Frontier Community (N=29)
White 8 29
Black/African American 0 0
Latinx/Hispanic 12 0
Two or more 7 0
Household income
Less than $20,000 3 4
$20,000–$39,999 18 16
$40,000–$59,999 5 6
$60,000–$79,999 1 2
$80,000–$99,999 0 1
$100,000–$119,999 0 0
$120,000–$139,999 0 0
$140,000 or more 0 0
21–30 7 5
31–40 7 13
41–50 8 5
51–60 2 5
61–70 1 1
71–80 2 0
Male 15 14
Female 12 15
Non-binary 0 0

In the wake of COVID-19, I began wondering how the pandemic was being experienced across rural communities. I was also struck by how the pandemic had become politicised and racialised. This has been evidenced by, for instance, politicians in the US using raci st narratives to talk about the virus and its spread – like when the former-President Trump talked about the ‘China virus’ (Vazquez & Klein, 2020) and ‘kung flu’ (Coleman, 2020), when the governor of Florida blamed outbreaks on ‘overwhelmingly Hispanic’ workers (Woods, 2020), or when an Ohio politician (who was also an emergency-room doctor) asked at a hearing if the ‘colored population’ are more likely to get COVID-19 because they do not ‘wash their hands as well’ (Siemaszko, 2020). I thought it would be interesting to extend the above study and obtain post-outbreak quality of life data to complement what had already been collected. The second phase of data collection began in early June 2020. All fifty-six individuals agreed to be interviewed for a second time. As before, each completed an online survey. Each also agreed to participate in an hour-long interview that was either conducted over the phone or ‘virtually’, using mediums like Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. Any names used below are pseudonyms to protect respondents’ identities.


This section begins with an overview of elements from the survey data. Once presented, these data are triangulated and further unpacked using qualitative interview data. That latter discussion focuses on emergent themes related to how respondents grappled with diverse moral lived experiences (e.g. what is in/out of place), positionalities that varied greatly across the two communities.

Survey measures of well-being from T1 to T2

Included within the survey instrument were questions from what is known widely as the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SLS) (Diener et al., 1985). This well-known scale asks respondents to answer the following five questions using a 1–7 scale (1, strongly disagree to 7, strongly agree): ‘In most ways my life is close to my ideal’; ‘The conditions of my life are excellent’; ‘I am satisfied with my life’; ‘So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life’; and ‘If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing’. The following two questions were added as yet other indicators of quality of life: ‘My community is currently the best version of itself (or at least just as good) relative to any earlier version’ and ‘On the whole, I consider my community to be a better/just as good place to live today compared to a generation ago.’ In addition to these subjective quality of life indicators, respondents were also asked at T2 whether their household income for 2020 will be greater than, the same, or less than their income in 2019. If a change was reported, individuals were asked to estimate by what per cent their income changed.

Roughly 73 per cent of individuals in Frontier Community reported a decrease in household income from T1 to T2, with an average decrease of roughly 32 per cent. Some of the jobs and livelihoods negatively impacted by COVID from this group included ranching, restaurant owners, those connected to tourism and hospitality, and day care. Meanwhile, respondents from Rural Community reported, on average, no change in household incomes, as evidenced by a mean change of a positive 2 per cent. Some of the jobs reported among this group include truck/delivery driver, meat processing plant employee, wheat farmer, grocery store employee, hardware and nursery employee and public/private utility employee. Given the weight placed in economic and community development circles on material (i.e. economic) well-being, it would have been fair to expect Frontier Community to have witnessed greater decreases in subjective well-being in T2 than Rural Community, where incomes held stable. This, however, was not the case.

Table 2.2 depicts the average Likert ‘score’, with standard deviations, to the above seven quality of life questions across all respondents in both communities at T1 and T2. There are a number of observations about those survey data worthy of highlighting. I will make those observations here, without much discussion. In the next subsection, those points will be fleshed out with the help of the qualitative data.

Question Rural T1/T2 Frontier T1/T2
In most ways my life is close to my ideal. 6.1/5.5 6.0/6.2
The conditions of my life are excellent. 6.0/5.4 6.2/6.1
I am satisfied with my life. 6.7/5.1 6.1/6.1
So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life. 6.5/5.8 6.0/6.3
If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing. 5.1/4.7 6.1/6.3
My community is currently the best version of itself (or at least just as good) relative to any earlier version. 5.7/5.0 6.2/6.4
On the whole, I consider my community to be a better/just as good place to live today compared to a generation ago. 4.2/4.1 6.0/6.2
Summed averages 40.3/35.6 42.6/43.6

First, to speak to a point already made, we saw an overall decrease in subjective well-being indicators in Rural Community, even though this group of respondents saw their average household income increase 2 per cent between study periods: an 11.7 per cent decrease in the average score total, from 40.3 to 35.6. Meanwhile, well-being appears to have marginally increased in Frontier Community, even in the face of losses to household incomes and a global pandemic: a 2.3 per cent increase in the average score total, from 42.6 to 43.6.

The mean scores for the latter two questions about community also differ noticeably between the two groups. Respondents from Frontier Community expressed greater satisfaction towards their community today than those in Rural Community did, who appear to have held nostalgia for the past. Relatedly, note the differences in standard variations in score between the two groups. There is considerably more variability in answers within Rural Community compared to those in Frontier Community. Note, too, that this variability increased in each question from T1 to T2 for Rural Community respondents. Conversely, that variability held steady (or even decreased) for the Frontier Community group from T1 to T2.

These data, while interesting, really do not tell us much; after all, data do not speak for themselves. In the next subsection, I therefore turn to the qualitative interviews to triangulate survey and interview data and let respondents speak for their answers to the above survey questionnaire.

Unpacking quality of life: From the collective conundrum to moral geographies

This subsection focuses on two emergent themes to arise from the qualitative interview data (points the earlier-discussed survey data also tease at), which I will call ‘feeling community’ and ‘moral geographies’. The former discusses how respondents grappled with in-group and out-group identities (e.g. how ‘us’ and ‘them’ was negotiated); the latter, relatedly, centres on the construction of moral understandings of place and space, in terms of, for instance, how people, practices and institutions ought to look, sound, feel, etc.

Feeling community: beyond the individualism- collectivism dichotomy

Considerable research has looked into the so-called individualism–collectivism dichotomy to understand differentiated actions and attitudes between groups. To quote one study on the subject, ‘individualism (vs. collectivism) is characterized by the view of an independent self (vs. interdependent self)’, noting further, ‘individualists focus on personal autonomy and individual uniqueness and place personal goals over group goals [… whereas …] collectivists care about group norms and collective harmony and subordinate personal goals to the group goals’ (Xiang et al., 2019, p. 3; see also, e.g., Kahan et al., 2010, 2011).

I have no interest in trying to refute what is an incredibly robust, empirically based literature. Yet, like others (e.g. Baumann et al., 2017), I do not believe talking in terms of individualism vs collectivism represents a complete picture of how individuals live these values at the level of everyday life. For one thing, it implies individualists are incapable of holding any significant in-group (collective) identity and that they hold very egoistic (non-altruistic) mindsets. Yet we can point to ample evidence contradicting this position, as evidenced by, for instance, studies documenting identified individualists who regularly subordinate personal goals in favour of group goals when the latter connect to kin and close-peer networks (Carolan, 2020b; Darnhofer et al., 2016).

I mention this literature because it is problematised against the wealth of empirical support for the thesis that individuals obtain considerable satisfaction from strong in-group/peer affiliations. Or to put an even finer point on the tension: quality of life has repeatedly been found to be a function of feelings of autonomy and productive relationships with, which arguably border on feelings of dependency upon, others (e.g. Ng et al., 2020; Van Leeuwen et al., 2019). Our understanding of the lived experience of quality of life is enriched by talking about this productive tension between autonomy (individualism) and interdependency (collectivism).

Respondents from both communities spoke frequently in ways that explicitly tied together these often-described oppositional bedfellows, autonomy and (inter)dependency, often in the context of also describing elements of satisfaction/well-being. The following is a representative quote of this lived tension:

Freedom and liberty are important; being able to live the type of life that you want to live? … There is also something to be said about feeling connected to your community. We help each other. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my neighbours and friends and they for me. … Sometimes I really need that help. It’s incredibly freeing knowing you have that type of support, you know?

(Rural Community #11)

Community, in fact, was overwhelmingly described in the context of autonomy-as-interdependence, as a relational outcome that essentially allowed respondents as ‘individuals to be more than the collective sum of their parts’ (Frontier Community #8). This point also helps explain the high levels of satisfaction reported by respondents from Frontier Community in the face of material constraints, with participants facing, among other things, household income loss and COVID-19 at T2. To provide one representative quote to illustrate this sentiment: ‘The world’s going to hell in a handbasket but at least we [the community] have each other to look after; a point that gives me great relief and solace’ (Frontier Community #19).

Yet it is important to highlight that community, in this sense, was not available to all, as ‘not everyone feels like they’re part of the community even though the live in it’ (Rural Community #2). This realisation helps us address the variability articulated in the above survey data and why those standard deviations differed as much as they did between the two communities. Community, as a source of utility and well-being for its members, has to be understood in the context of having to perform a tricky balancing act between generating a sense of inclusion and we-ness while avoiding as much as possible feelings of exclusion and othering. Community, then, by affording quality of life, also risks creating the very conditions for undermining it.

As mentioned, Rural Community had over the last decades undergone considerable demographic change, going from an almost entirely white (European descent) population a generation ago to a minority-majority community today. Feelings of belonging and connectedness to ‘the’ community thus varied considerably depending on who was interviewed. The non-whites in the community talked about not identifying as being part of the community even though they worked there and had strong kin and peer relationships in the area. Community, then, was not synonymous with social networks, which all respondents expressed having. Rather, it included feelings of being welcomed in its institutions and places (e.g. schools, government, Main Street) and having a voice in the decision-making process when it came to deciding the direction of this identity. As one resident explained, whose parents emigrated from Mexico when she was ten (she was twenty-two at the time of the interview):

Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of friends [here]. That’s not the same as feeling part of a community; not when you’re downtown in a store and workers look at you as a potential shoplifter or assume you’re here illegally [as an undocumented immigrant] and can’t speak English. … So, no – I don’t feel like I’m part of the community, which is seriously sad on so many levels.

(Rural Community #21)

It is important to emphasise that ‘having a lot of friends’ is not the same, from a quality of life perspective, as noted by the above respondent, as feeling ‘part of a community’, which brings us back to the aforementioned interrelationship between autonomy and (inter)dependency. We can see this in the change in variability in survey responses between T1 and T2 for Rural Community respondents. Respondents experiencing Otherness within the community expressed feelings of want when it came to having the same ‘protections’ as felt by those believed to be part of the community. Those protections came not just from having friends but from being recognised as part of the broader social body – the notion of recognition is a significant theme in the social justice literature (e.g. Carolan, 2020c; Fraser, 1995) for this very reason. This is exemplified by Tony, a middle-aged, Mexican-born meat processing plant employee who was told by his employer that if he did not show up to work during the pandemic he would be fired. This threat also included not showing up for work if he were sick, which encouraged people showing up to work who might have been sick with COVID. To quote Tony:

The company looks at me and sees ‘outsider’ but I’m a ‘local’ just like they are. If I was considered a ‘local’ I’m sure I’d be treated better, given face masks [at work], provided health care [through work], and not told our jobs are at risk if we got sick. … And we have to take this [treatment] because we’re ‘outsiders’.

(Rural Community #23)

Moral geographies: in-place/out-of-place; blighted; contaminated …

Continuing the above discussion, this subsection interrogates the moral geographies underlying the above conceptions of ‘community’. Doing this brings to the discursive surface how quality of life hinges at least in part on normative determinations about what is and ought to be, which includes assumptions about how spaces and places should look, smell, feel, sound, etc. There is nothing particularly unique in this pivot, as a rich literature exists that highlights the spatial politics linked to notions of rurality, particularly in terms of contestations about what is in-place and out-of-place in the countryside (e.g. Cloke, 2004; Halfacree, 1996). Yet this literature has not, to the best of my knowledge, been used to inform what we think about quality of life in rural spaces.

I want to discuss this because of the emphasis placed on particular spatial aesthetics by those respondents who self-identified as part of (as opposed to feeling excluded from) the community. Those in Frontier Community expressed significant satisfaction in the fact that their community ‘is a source of stability in a world changing at breakneck speed’ (Frontier Community #27). This group expressed clear moral geographies, as evidenced by their repeated talk about, say, ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’. For example, state politicians, and the governor in particular, were frequently vilified by respondents for their COVID-related mandates, like the state-wide mask mandate implemented early into the pandemic. This shared identity could be leveraged during times of external threat (i.e. COVID-19), resulting in increased social cohesion and thus enhanced well-being, points supported by the aforementioned survey data. Respondents from Rural Community, alternatively, did not have this social, cultural, aesthetic homogeneity. There were people and places denoted by this group as out-of-place, which negatively impacted the well-being of all, to various extents.

While the ‘cleansing’ of public space has been studied in urban areas undergoing gentrification (e.g. Smith, 1996), less attention to this thinking and discourse has been applied to rural areas (Walter, 2019). This literature highlights that talk about ‘preservation’ and ‘revitalisation’ and ‘blighted areas’ promotes versions of the past that justify present politics, which tend to be racial and exclusionary. Elements of this were already expressed in quotes provided in the prior subsection, where non-white respondents from Rural Community talked about being viewed as Other (i.e. potential shoplifter, undocumented immigrant [#21]) and as an ‘outsider’ (#23). Alternatively, white respondents from this community talked about how, for instance, ‘certain parts of town have changed for the worse in recent years and need revitalization’ (Rural Community #11). When asked who resided in those aesthetically problematic spaces, it was always non-white bodies.

I’m referring to all of our recent arrivals. People who came because of the meat packing plant; not because they have any connection to the community.

(Rural Community #25)

Mexicans – that’s where most of the Mexicans live.

(Rural Community #15)

These points are especially important from a quality of life perspective as talk about ‘rural development’ is often couched in well-being language – e.g., to quote the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where they talk repeatedly about development through a lens that focuses on affording activities that ‘boost rural economies and improve well-being for the rural dwellings’ (OECD, 2018). This is problematic given how terms like ‘development’ and ‘investment’ (to counter ‘blight’) are frequently employed as colour-blind terms that in actuality mask racialised politics that work to exclude and thus reduce the quality of life of some groups (Carolan, 2020b; Walter, 2019).

This came out especially clearly in interviews when the subject turned to development in Rural Community, particularly those spaces in need of ‘revitalisation’. On the one hand, people of colour within Rural Community, especially at T2, were viewed by white residents as important from the standpoint of keeping food systems afloat – the closing of meat-slaughtering facilities around the county had taken an enormous toll on retail meat availability while also making it impossible for farmers and ranchers to sell their livestock (e.g. Elejalde-Ruiz, 2020). And yet, on the other hand, many respondents felt those darker-skinned individuals ‘could just as easily live somewhere else, out of town or maybe [the meat packing plant] could provide housing close to the plant’ (Rural Community #3).

A lot has been written about rural communities as ‘sacrifice zones’ – spaces of enormous vulnerability to feed capitalism and its associated uneven development (Lerner & Brown, 2012). Yet what the above represents might be better conceptualised as necro-subjection, where people are explicitly being sacrificed in the name of progress and growth (Rosas, 2019). The following quote, from a 40-something white female at T2 who owned a downtown business, nicely summarises this tension between the needs of global capital and those more pertinent to ‘locals’ and how ‘community development’ might resolve it.

Those immigrants [working at the meat processing plant] are essential workers in the fundamental sense of the word. We need them working if we want to eat in this country. But in the same breath, the trailer park where many of them live is an underutilised space. I’d like to see it improved and made into townhouses or condos for the younger, educated [read: white] families moving into the community.

(Rural Community #7)

It is important to also place these sentiments within the larger political context of the time. President Trump signed an executive order in April 2020 that declared meatpacking plants critical infrastructure. At the signing, he told reporters that it would address ‘liability problems’, mentioning specifically Tyson Foods (Bloch, 2020). The liability problems he was referring to related to worker safety. Meatpacking plants have been the source of numerous coronavirus clusters. As of September 2020, more than 200 meat plant workers in the US had died of COVID-19 (Kindy, 2020). The executive order signalled a greater interest in the continued production of meat than the safety of workers – necro-subjection.

Discussion and conclusion: unsettling quality of life

The above data and discussion offer an unsettling view of quality of life, with ‘unsettling’ serving as both verb and adjective. As the former, I mean to say the data induces pause and reflection when contemplating how we conceptualise quality of life in the future. But also, I mean ‘unsettling’ as an adjective that qualifies ‘quality of life’, noting that quality of life, or more accurately the pursuit of it, can create disruption, anxiety and, yes, even pain. Quality of life discourse is neither self-evidently positive nor neutral. There is a quality of life politics that we need to recognise and negotiate when looking to measure and increase subjective well-being. And as with any politics, rather than trying to eliminate difference/disagreement we would do better to learn to work with it, which, if successful, turns something negative into something generative.

To talk about this in more concrete terms, I will end by referencing colour-blind ideology. Strong norms of colour-blindness permeate liberal political cultures and had revealed themselves in certain quotes above – for example, seeing cultural/aesthetic differences as ‘blight’. This is the idea that you are supposed to see the person and not the colour of their skin, especially, at least in the US, in a post-civil rights, post-Obama presidency era. Colour-blindness provides Americans with discursive devices that can be used to defend the status quo by denying that racism (or any -isms for that matter) persists while presenting outcomes in ways that are themselves neutral to structural inequities. Examples of this include justifying residential and school segregation patterns as matters of individual choice, explaining education, employment and incarceration inequities between whites and non-whites as matters relating to differences in familial structure (e.g. single mothers vs two-parent families) or culture, or opposing affirmative action on the grounds that is goes against the American principles of treating everyone the same (Carolan, 2020b; Wise, 2010).

We have that small-l liberal ethos to thank for this, a political philosophy that celebrates merit and demands we treat everyone the same. This ought to serve as a reminder for when we think about rural politics. As Woods (2006) explains, rural politics is less concerned with the management of land and better understood as about the idea and regulation of ‘rurality’. To lack the discursive, practical and intellectual tools to talk about difference (e.g. race, otherness) is to practice a rural politics that perpetuates the arguably most problematic forms of exclusion, namely, the type that occurs where those responsible do not even know they are harming others’ quality of life.

When interrogating quality of life, then, it is important to insert complexity and nuance into that understanding – to see the heterogeneity of quality of life rather than viewing it as objective and normatively self-evident and monolithic. Let us return to those questions posed at the chapter’s beginning. Are higher levels of well-being always a good thing? No. Are there circumstances where high levels of well-being in a given community could be seen as a warning sign rather than a cause for celebration? Yes. And lastly, what would it mean for quality of life scholarship, and rural policy practitioners more generally, if we entertained the idea that conflict and anxiety might actually have generative (i.e. positive) qualities? That is a question for future research, though the above data certainly supports the idea that quality of life, over the long term, might be enhanced because of conflict rather than in spite of it.


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