Urban and Rural “Mindsets”?

“The Irish Mind” was once a well-known book title. The idea of a national mindset seems obscure to me. Somehow, the idea of urban and rural mindsets does not. Often, I faff on about that idea to myself, as was probably reflected by a former blog or two here. Unsurprisingly, scholars have, on occasion, felt the need to address the issue in a more specific manner.

I was reminded of this recently on noticing a couple of different things. First, there was an announcement of a new project based on the premise that “Europeanists have often neglected rural Europe in their scholarship [despite the fact at least half of Europe is rural]”. Integrating rural perspectives into not just food distribution but “wider debates about social justice, environmental policy and community building in twenty-first century Europe” is a declared object of the project. Second, the urban-rural issue is an occasional policy issue for the Irish government and various interested parties, as some recent news reports have again highlighted. Not being a party to policy formation, I am inclined to think of the issue purely in the light of how it does, or does not, affect cultural perceptions in the humanities, including historical studies. One side of the coin is certainly methodological. Might the other side of the coin be often unacknowledged prejudices? (more on that later).

A study in recent years of “dangerous places” may have been notable for a few things, such as statistical analyses. I remember thinking, however, that it essentially portrayed political extremism as a threat posed to the urban world by rural discontents. Stated that baldly, that may seem a polemical notion, but the idea is certainly current in contemporary migration studies. In history, migration is a big theme too. In the 20th century, the fact that the study of peasant societies became a field for sociological, rather than historical, studies may have denoted their formerly unenfranchised place in political societies, yet the mass migration of rural populations to urban centres from the 1820s onwards became an acknowledged pivot of modern political history. Did these rural and urban worlds abide or collide from 1848 onwards? There is an old gem of a subject, as the recent Atlas of the Irish Famine may remind us. Underground revolutionaries between 1848 and 1918 were often rural migrants to cities. The theme was not always interpreted in a “dangerous places” manner, however.

Various well-known British historians of yesteryear (A.J.P. Taylor and Eric Hobsbawm come to mind) made such revolutionaries their initial research subject and, in turn, a launching pad for their later embrace of broader themes of international history, effectively reimagining historical time periods from the margins. “Lucky for them”. A recent painful catharsis for me was sorting notes and books I had collected a decade or two ago for Fenian studies that represent to me a work in progress that was not allowed to progress. Much of it was used for a PhD thesis (awarded 2003) and a subsequent book (2005 and awarded the “NUI Centennial Prize for Irish History”, i.e., the first “NUI Publication Prize”, in 2008) but because a PhD reaches its sell-by date in terms of one’s employability in three years, by the outset of 2007 I was simply forced to stop: if one is not registered as a student or employed as an academic, one’s access to research libraries ceases. It was painful not to be able to follow through on my subject, which instead of being a passion became a nightmare, causing me to breakdown with the conviction that I had completely wasted the last decade of my life (as a student). If UK historians like Taylor or Hobsbawm once had the intellectual liberty to reimagine the 1848-1918 time-period from the margins, should Irish scholars not be allowed the same liberty, according to their own lights? Two Irish politics professors (one from the south and one from the north) who wrote about revolutionaries in this period once said to me that the only reason why they taught politics, not history, as a career was because they knew that they would not be allowed the liberty to pursue this subject under the weird professional umbrella that is Irish historical studies. Evidently, Irish sociologists, literature students and some students of political theory may tackle such “grey-area” subjects, but the political historians cannot, professionally at least. “Tough”.

The urban-rural question can certainly illuminate the political history of many a country, however, including Ireland. It has been said that no new town was created in Ireland from the Cromwellian conquest (c.1660) until the development of the airport town of Shannon (c.1960). A belief that urban Ireland was not viable to sustain an independent country governed opposition to that idea, more so than cultural attitudes, and it was not until significant urban development in Ireland took place that this belief essentially dissipated. Modern Ireland was, in one politician’s words, “the back garden of Britain”, where farm produce was grown, and the ancient Romanic proverb “civilisation is inseparable from the city” underpinned many a text or debate too. Perhaps it does still.

The Europeanist debate cited above may suggest, however, that perhaps “urban and rural mindsets” are less a key pivot of societal studies that “urban and rural professions”. If most jobs available since the nineteenth century were in towns and cities and this led to a necessary migration there, may something of a reverse process occur and alter this balance? Can one realistically imagine such a trend? I am not sure if I can. And within that uncertainty we can come full circle back to the idea of mindsets.

Here is a micro mindset. A couple of days ago, having neglected to “do the garden” for a few months, I spent hours cutting back a wilderness of briars, without succeeding at getting to their roots and acquiring a dozen cuts in the process. Do I really like this rural world better than my sheltered urban home? Has it not been said a million times (by someone or another) that the rural world is inherently anarchical compared to the “orderly progress” represented by fine instruments of urban construction? Here is a micro-macro mindset. Looking at my dinner, I see an urban product of rural origins. This way in which urban and rural worlds have always coalesced is little likely to change, as the former cannot exist without the primordial latter because it is its only source of food.

What about macro mindsets: “the world of ideas”? Can we become slaves of definitions that ill befit our theme? For example, it has sometimes (but not always) seemed to me that the contemporary vogue to apply to term “ecosystem” not to ecosystems but to economic systems betrays how much investment patterns (governed by the urban world), rather than ecosystems, govern priorities in defining both the subject and challenge of “climate change”. The influence of this trend in international relations literature is certainly perceptible.

An old rule of thumb for all international relations since the year dot is the degree to which powers are “aligned” or “non-aligned” with military powers greater than themselves. Many studies (including, come to think of it, my own last book) are inclined to bypass that idea somewhat by focusing on economic orders instead. Some postulate that a new economic order has already redefined the nature of international relations with states (small, medium, or large) operating less according to the degree to which they are militarily aligned with others than according to a paradigm that states of similar size, or geographical characteristics, are most likely to find it beneficial to deal with each other, resolving their respective challenges through sharing ideas and initiatives. Thereby, a “small island nation” like Ireland will start working with other small-island nations; a “large agricultural mainland nation” will start working with other states of similar characteristics; and so on. “Perhaps”. More traditional geopolitical notions governing small states will, however, be the subject of a forthcoming study of mine, to cover something of a gap in my last, by attempting to locate Irish literature within the (surprisingly large) field of small-state studies elsewhere. However, even should I complete such a theoretical study to my own intellectual satisfaction, I expect to be sceptical about the result, perhaps for one basic reason: irrespective of all states’ existence, it seems to me that all urban and rural societies tend to identify with other urban and rural societies respectively. Herein may be the root of often unacknowledged prejudices.

I can recall hearing an American “digital humanities” expert talk about the great potential of their discipline to “urbanise” sections of society and eradicate what were deemed to be offensive political attitudes held by “rednecks”. As the American slang “redneck” denotes those with sunburnt necks from doing manual labour outdoors (be it in town or country), this American academic was effectively expressing contempt for the entire American working classes but, evidently, they have never been given a personal or career reason to acknowledge this prejudice. If “black lives matter”, why does this debate not focus primarily on (rural) Africa rather than urban America (and, by extension, its urban media/educational satellites abroad)? If “gender” is an important issue, does it include the entire natural world, rather than just (urban) human professions and, more specifically, their legal/financial regulation? How often do wordsmiths define issues in exclusively urban professional terms because we are unwitting prisoners of a purely urban environment, unable to see and accept the natural world for what it is because it does not fit with our professional occupations and resulting preoccupations? I suspect “quite a lot”. The issue, however, may not be prejudices or even legislation but partly one of semantics. There is another “frequently occurring thought” (for me, at least). For instance, a book I picked up yesterday was John Bew’s “Realpolitik”. In it, he reflects on different usages of that term over time (an interesting idea), yet I noticed in his ten-page introduction that he referred to an “Anglo-American mindset” ten times as a definable, or definitive and self-evident, entity in international relations. Is this a case whereby if something is presumed to exist, then it simply does, in terms of the world of ideas? It may often seem so, simply by the language that we use.

Will future generations start to see urban and rural mindsets not as a divide, as I think societies have always done, but instead as a unity? If so, will that affect the whole tenor of the humanities? I wonder. For instance, did the fact that printing presses existed in towns rather than the country effectively create the literary idea that “civilisation is inseparable from the city”? As digital print media is not predicated on physical location, will this literary conceit dissipate so that notions of civilisation become shaped less by cities than by peoples? Will notions of civilisation truly become “geo-neutral”, to invent a new phrase? Before environmentalism went mainstream in the 1970s, such a notion was voiced by very few individuals, except for a few old aristocratic-types (the supposed “far right” of the day) who were called cranks. But maybe they had a point. Come to think of it, to return to the subject of a Frenchy blog a month or two ago, I’ve read that was also the subject of an Eric Rohmer film that I have never seen but some people called his best. Maybe it is about time I gave it a glance. It has been said that ideas never die; they just keep changing the way they associate with other, semantically, in people’s minds. Even if that is true, however, I still doubt I will be able to clear the forest of chaos I can see out by back window before this weekend passes no matter what I may say.