Defining Rural, Part I

(image source)

Rocherno de Jongh, a UMM junior, has worked with CST on rural data projects for the last 2 years and has learned just how complicated rural data are. With Kelly Asche and Rebecca Haider, he will explore one of the fundamental topics surrounding rural data: what does it mean to be “rural”?

“The term “rural” conjures widely shared images of farms, ranches, villages, small towns, and open spaces. Yet, when it comes to distinguishing rural from urban places, researchers and policymakers employ a dizzying array of definitions.” — John Cromartie, Defining the “Rural” in Rural America

What does it mean to be “rural”? Agencies and organizations across the state and nation having been trying to define “rural” for years, but coming up with a clear and useful definition is far more complicated than it would seem. As the USDA Rural information Center states, “many people have definitions for the term rural, but seldom are these rural definitions in agreement. For some, rural is a subjective state of mind. For others, rural is an objective quantitative measure.”

While the subjective definitions are important to the narratives we create (see Kelly’s previous post on this topic), these broader terminologies are less useful when categorizing data. For the purposes of comparing metrics and trends across geographies, it is necessary to have an objective way to determine if a given area is exclusively rural, exclusively urban, or somewhere in between. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately?), no state is neatly separated into a binary “rural” and “urban”. John Cromartie summarizes this sentiment in his 2008 Amber Waves blog post, Defining the “Rural” in Rural America.

“Because the U.S. is a nation in which so many people live in areas that are not clearly rural or urban, seemingly small changes in the way rural areas are defined can have large impacts on who and what are considered rural. […] The use of multiple definitions reflects the reality that rural and urban are multidimensional concepts, making clear-cut distinctions between the two difficult. Is population density the defining concern, or is it geographic isolation? Is it small population size that makes it necessary to distinguish rural from urban? If so, how small is rural?”

As he later states, “the choice of a rural definition should be based on the purpose of the activity.” Since everyone has a different focus, each agency or organization comes up with its own definition of “rural”. This is good, in that their data will be tailored to their needs, but it also makes comparing statistics across agencies nearly impossible (we’ll look at specific examples of this later in our series). Not only do definitions change from agency to agency, definitions within an agency can and do change over time.

Keeping all of these things in mind, we offer the following caution to readers: when comparing “rural” data across dates and sources, consider where the data came from, what the population is, and when the data were recorded before drawing any conclusions.

Stay tuned to Voices From Rural Minnesota for more posts diving into the topic of “Defining Rural”!

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