'Communities of work' is focus of sociologists' book
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'Communities of work' is focus of sociologists' book

Michael D. Schulman has co-authored a book that includes 17 case studies showing the effects of global economic forces on rural areas. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

Ornate letter "T"
here’s no question that the Industrial Revolution changed America’s landscape: Big cities grew and suburbs sprang up while rural areas struggled for survival.

Still, says sociologist Michael D. Schulman, the ability of rural people and their communities to react locally to global economic forces hasn’t been given enough attention.

In the new book Communities of Work: Rural Restructuring in Local and Global Contexts, Schulman and co-editors William W. Falk and Ann R. Tickamyer write, “Change in America’s rural industries and communities is, in part, a story about the effects of a global economy, something often overlooked in treatments that depict rural America as a bastion of tradition and backwater folksiness.”

The book, published in 2003 by the Ohio University Press, challenges such treatments through a series of wide-ranging case studies that demonstrate the ways in which rural people and places have changed in response to political, social and economic forces far outside their control.

Dr. Schulman is Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor and professor of sociology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and adjunct professor of health behavior and health education at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health. He and his co-editors — Falk of the University of Maryland-College Park and Tickamyer of Ohio University — began the book as an outgrowth of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Regional Research Project.

Over the past 15 years, that project has focused on changes in the South’s labor markets. The project started with large-scale data analysis, but the researchers found that the picture painted by the data alone was incomplete.

“I think we were missing the sense of place and how people in different communities adapt to global change on a local level. There was a story that needed to be told beyond the regression coefficient analyses,” Schulman said. “We needed to take a look at more intensive case studies.”

The 17 case studies included in the book represent diverse locales, topics, disciplines and methods. They span several fields of study, especially sociology, economics, geography and political science, and draw upon both qualitative and quantitative data to tell the stories of rural places from the rural South to the mountain West, from the Mississippi Delta to New England.

In addition to his contributions as editor, Schulman is also a co-author of two of the case studies: one with MaryBe McMillan on the conflict between hog farmers and neighbors in eastern North Carolina communities, and the other with Cynthia D. Anderson and Philip Wood on changes in jobs and employment in the Southern textile industry. McMillan and Anderson both received their doctoral degrees from N.C. State.

The editors start from the premise that communities are formed and sustained by work and that local communities of place, in turn, shape work and economic activities. The case studies, they write, reveal “the richness of the experience of rural communities” and “the variety of approaches to creating livelihoods.”

To illustrate, Schulman points to a chapter, written by N.C. State alumna Susan E. Webb, about a group of impoverished women who lived in a remote swampy area of South Carolina, where there were few economic opportunities. In the 1970s, as the resort area of Myrtle Beach began to grow rapidly, the women recruited friends, relatives and neighbors and pooled resources to build a transportation system to commute several hours each day to the beach. There, they took jobs as maids, laundry workers, fast food servers and kitchen help. As one woman, now a college graduate and social services professional, indicated, the bus was a temporary means to income that ultimately led to a better life.

The workers’ experience demonstrates the power of community networks and the tremendous vitality of rural people in ensuring the survival of their communities amid large-scale forces, Schulman said.

While massive social and economic transformations have touched every rural community, no matter how remote, “uneven social and economic development of rural communities shows that diverse configurations of geography, economy, population and history must be respected in analyzing these transformations,” the authors conclude.

“In short,” they write, “place matters.”

And, said Schulman, rural Americans continue to find ways to maintain their family and community networks, even in the face of great hardship.

Schulman said this conclusion has important implications for policy makers. In the past, economic development policies have often focused on “finding a success story and trying to repeat it,” he said.

“Despite a bleak picture, there are solutions. But they aren’t cookie cutter solutions,” Schulman says. “What works for Missoula, Montana, won’t work for Mississippi."

-- Dee Shore

Schulman's students rack up awards

Three of Dr. Michael D. Schulman’s graduate students have won recent awards for their research:

Corre Robinson, a Ph.D. student, won the Rural Sociological Society’s Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Award for 2003 for a paper based on his research on African-American farm families in Duplin County.

Tricia McTague won the Society for Study of Social Problems’ 2003 Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Award in the Environment, Technology and Society Section. McTague, a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant, was recognized for a paper based her research into women’s environmental activism in Holly Springs.

Leslie Hall Hossfeld received the 2003 Nancy Pollack Dissertation Award from N.C. State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences for her dissertation, “They Say the River Ran Red with Blood: Narrative, Political Unconscious and Racial Violence in Wilmington, North Carolina.” Hossfeld, who earned her Ph.D. in 2002, is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A book based on her doctoral thesis will be published by Routledge in 2004.

— Dee Shore

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