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Framing essay III

Starting from the findings that self-reported quality of life is higher in rural areas than in the city, this framing essay sets the scene for the chapters in Part III, which focus on the role civil society might play for quality of life in rural areas. First, the framing essay shows the different ways of participating in civil society and considers how other studies have discussed how different ways of participation in civil society might influence individuals’ quality of life. Next, the framing essay considers the possible role the density of civil society might play for individuals’ quality of life. Finally, the framing essay gives an overview of the content of the chapters in the section, including the methodological and theoretical basis for the chapters.

Introduction

As we saw in the introduction of the book, recent findings have indicated that self-reported quality of life is higher in rural areas than in the city (Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2015; Burger et al., 2020; Dijkstra, 2020; Lolle & Andersen, 2019; Sørensen, 2018). This has fuelled a debate on what might influence quality of life in rural areas. A relevant point of departure for pinpointing what might matter for quality of life in rural areas is departing from the more general knowledge we have on what influences quality of life. Some of the major findings in the research literature are that social relations and social trust are positively associated with self-assessed quality of life (see, for example, Delhey & Dragolow, 2016; Smith, 2016; Helliwell et al., 2020). Also, public authorities and researchers have shown an interest in the impact of participation in civil society for members and volunteers, including health benefits (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005; Casiday et al., 2008) and quality of life in general. These findings point to different aspects of how and why civil society might contribute to quality of life in rural areas. In this section we will focus on the possible role civil society might play for quality of life of individuals in rural areas.

In this framing chapter we assess the role civil society might have for quality of life in rural areas. The causes mentioned above arguably seems to be particularly relevant for quality of life in rural areas as organised civil society in different national contexts are stronger in rural areas (see chapters by Iversen et al. and Frisvoll et al.). Contrary to the general aspects mentioned above (for example social trust), civil society might play a particularly important role for quality of life in rural areas. Contrary to the role civil society might play in more urbanised areas, where civil society might create development in a more or less fruitful co-creation with many other types of (commercial) organisations and interests, civil society is arguably one of the important driving forces for development in rural areas. Even though many of the decentralised welfare institutions (such as public schools or kindergartens), shops and industries are no longer viable to operate in rural areas, and therefore are ‘closed’, civil society remains ‘open’.

Hence, civil society possibly arguably plays a very important role in rural areas as the ‘last person and organisation standing’ when individuals and organisations have left. Because there are fewer possibilities with regard to finding work, and fewer institutions exist locally in many rural areas, the choice of living in a rural area today is more often the result of a choice rather than a necessity due to having to live where you work (Wallace et al., 2017). However, few studies have addressed the question of how civil society in rural areas might influence individuals’ quality of life. This section of the book presents five different perspectives on how civil society in rural areas might influence quality of life in rural areas.

Different ways of participating in civil society

Much research has shown that volunteering and participation in civil society have a positive effect on the social support for individuals involved – and social support is likely to translate into higher quality of life (Smith, 2016). But it is obviously possible to participate in many different ways, and a relevant question is therefore which different types of participation exist and whether they have all been shown to positively influence quality of life. To get nearer an understanding of how different types of participation in civil society and quality of life might be linked, it is therefore relevant to consider the many different ways it is possible for individuals to participate in civil society.

The least demanding type of participation is arguably participating in cultural, leisure and sports activities, many of which take part in associations or informal groups which to a greater or lesser extent are linked to civil society. Studies of participation show a correlation between quality of life and ‘participation’ in cultural, leisure and sports activities (Snyder et al., 2010; Brajša-Žganec et al., 2011; Downward & Rasciute, 2011; Gopinath et al., 2012; Becchetti et al., 2012; Young et al., 2013; Wheatley & Bickerton, 2017).

An arguably deeper and more engaged connection to civil society is created when an individual signs up for membership in an organisation. Membership in an organisation will often refer to less commitment than being a volunteer, which we will get back to in a section below, but more commitment than ‘merely’ being a participant in an activity. Research has shown that being a member does seem to have a positive impact on self-assessed quality of life (Cutler, 1976, 1982; Helliwell, 2002; Haski-Leventhal, 2009; Wallace & Pichler, 2009; Eime et al., 2010).

Finally, an even more demanding relation to civil society is via being a volunteer in organised civil society. Being, for example, a coach, or taking part in boards or the like indicates a level of involvement that is more invasive than being a participant or a member. Studies of the consequences of ‘volunteering’ indicate that volunteering has a positive impact on self-assessed quality of life and happiness (Wheeler et al., 1998; Haski-Leventhal, 2009; Loga, 2010; Tiefenbach & Holdgrün, 2015). In sum, it therefore seems that across the different depths of involvement of being a participant, a member and a volunteer, many studies have found such positive correlations.

However, the role of civil society in providing the possibilities to participate, to be a member or to be a volunteer, are arguably different in bigger towns or even cities. Following the change in rural areas from being areas where the inhabitants both live and work – to areas where they to a higher extent primarily live (Wallace et al., 2017) – the role civil society plays has come under pressure and is more unevenly distributed in comparison to earlier. In some instances, the strength of civil society has remained the same – or is perhaps even stronger than before – because in some rural areas there is a cluster of people living with different types of strong competencies and a willingness to contribute to civil society (Egelund & Lausten, 2006), whereas in other areas there are clusters of people living with a weaker background for contributing and/or less willingness to contribute to civil society (Wallace et al., 2017). Such measurements of the strength of civil society are often referred to as the ‘density’ of civil society which is what we will consider next.

Regarding density of civil society

There is strong anecdotal evidence that the density of civil society is higher in rural areas. As mentioned in the introduction, the strength of civil society is often measured via the coverage of civic associations – which has often been used as a proxy for the strength of civil society (cf. Donaghy, 2013). The findings of whether civil society density is higher in rural areas have been mixed. Some studies (for example, Selle et al., 2019 and Wallace & Pichler, 2009) show a higher density of civil society associations in rural areas. But other studies only find non-significant and therefore inconclusive results (for example, Hooghe & Botterman, 2012). Other studies do also find that density of civil society is reduced when population density increases – but, in sum, no clear pattern emerges with regard to the question of whether density of civil society is higher in rural areas (Baer et al., 2016).

But even though there is no clear conclusion with regard to whether the density of civil society is higher in rural areas than in cities, this does not alter the interest in assessing what role civil society and the different levels of participating (participating, being a member or being a volunteer) play. Actually, it becomes even more intriguing to try to capture if and how civil society might play a role for the higher levels of quality of life found in rural areas. Therefore, in this section we will pursue the question of whether it is possible to show that participation in civil society might play a role across rural and urban settings, but also what the mechanisms between participation in civil society in rural areas and higher levels of quality of life might be. The first four chapters in the section highlight different types of mechanisms using different types of qualitative methodologies. In Chapter 13 Iversen et al. shed light on how participation of local inhabitants in organised civil society might matter for their quality of life. Melås et al. focus in Chapter 14 on how we can understand what might contribute to rural youths’ quality of life growing up in rural areas. Beel and Wallace investigate how cultural heritage might mobilise local civil society, contribute to create social and cultural capital, and thereby add to the quality of life in rural areas. Tandberg and Loga assess what role participation in a voluntary organisation targeting marginalised women in rural areas with low language skills might play for the quality of life for these women. Finally, Eime et al. pursue the question of whether it is possible to trace a difference across rural/regional areas and metropolitan areas on health-related quality of life.

Methodologically, it is a challenge to capture what role civil society might have for quality of life. The chain of causality in some instances might be stretched rather long (and perhaps sometimes too long) as it is difficult to assess in vivo what might in the end have the most important influence on subjectively experienced quality of life. The possible links between participation and how participation might influence quality of life is therefore difficult to capture and analyse. Therefore, it is interesting that the chapters in this section in different ways shed methodological light on how it is possible to work with exploring how the possible link between different factors within the realm of civil society and their possible impact on quality of life can be researched and analysed via different methodological approaches. Iversen et al. conduct qualitative interviews to pursue the role organised civil society might play. Melås et al. use both quantitative data and qualitative data to analyse how participation in civil society might influence adolescents’ quality of life in rural areas. Beel and Wallace shed light on the role participation in local history organisations and the digitisation of local history content play for individuals by adopting a qualitative methodology. Tandberg and Loga use ethnographic fieldwork and qualitative interviews to assess how participation in voluntary organisations in rural areas by ethnic minority groups with low language competencies might influence their quality of life. And finally, Eime et al. use quantitative survey data to pursue the question of whether quality of life varies across rural and urban settings.

Theoretically, the different contributions also introduce a number of the different theoretical perspectives which have been utilised in attempts to explain how civil society might influence quality of life. Iversen et al. use social theory, which claims that identity-bearing activities in a social context increase self-assessed quality of life and that self-expression in a social context matters. Melås et al. apply a social-spatial approach to how civil society might influence quality of life, which is conceptually approached as co-constituted by ‘locality’, ‘ideas about rurality’ and ‘human practice’, which is perceived as analytically rewarding as it bridges three fundamental dimensions. Beel and Wallace use theory focusing on how different types of social and cultural capital might be transmitted via digitisation of historical material and thereby open up new opportunities for cultural participation, which then in the end might influence quality of life. Tandberg and Loga base their study on the capability approach, which focuses on people’s ability to convert resources into opportunities. Finally, Eime et al. take their point of departure in a conceptual model on health-related quality of life.

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