We’ve been fairly quiet on here lately as we’ve been busy carrying out research for the GLOBAL-RURAL project in Ireland, New Zealand, Taiwan and here in Wales. There’s lots to report from this research and we’ll be doing so in a series of blog posts shortly.

In the meantime, we have uploaded copies of recent presentations by members of the GLOBAL-RURAL team to our publications and presentations page. These include:

  • Paper presented by Michael Woods at the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco on ‘(Re-)Assembling Foreign Direct Investment in an Irish Small Town’, with some early emergent findings from our research in Ireland. AAG presentation 2016

Wageningen presentation 3

  • Presentation by Jesse Heley and Laura Jones to the SUSPLACE Marie-Curie Training Network at their workshop at Wageningen University, on ‘Researching Rural Change and Globalization’. Wageningen Workshop Presentation

Estonia lecture 1Estonia lecture 4Estonia lecture 5


  • Lecture to the Estonian Ministry of Rural Affairs and Estonian National Rural Network by Michael Woods as part of their International Lecture series, discussing ‘Rural Development and Globalization’ with examples from GLOBAL-RURAL and the earlier DERREG project. Estonia presentation Woods
  • Keynote address by Michael Woods on ‘The Rural Routes of Globalization’ to a one-day symposium on ‘Les espaces ruraux périurbains au prisme du capital’ organized by LADYSS at Université Paris 8 at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord.The rural routes of globalisation
  • The 2016 J.D.K. Lloyd Lecture presented to the Powysland Club in Newtown by Michael Woods on ‘Newtown and the World: Everyday globalisation in a Powys town’, exploring historical and contemporary global connections. Newtown and the World
  • Plenary lecture on ‘Assemblage, Globalization and the State’, presented by Michael Woods to the Warwick Political Geography Conference on (Dis)Assembling State Spaces. Warwick assemblage paper

We’ve also welcomed two new members to the GLOBAL-RURAL team, post-doc researcher Francesca Fois and postgraduate researcher Fidel Budy, whose details are on the research team page.

Finally, if you are interested in following our research on ‘everyday globalization’ in our case study of Newtown in mid Wales, check out our new Assembling Newtown website, which presents emerging findings and stories from the study and has information about our ongoing research activities and how people in the community can get involved.

Call for Papers: Two Sessions on Everyday Globalization and Rural Life, IRSA 2016 Toronto


Paper proposals are invited for two related sessions on ‘Daily Practices and Global Countrysides’ and ‘Globalization and Everyday Life in Rural Communities’ at the International Rural Sociology Association Congress, 10-14 August 2014 at Ryerson University, Toronto.

Details of the sessions are outlined below. Session 34 focuses in particular on migration and mobility, whilst Session 35 engages with a wider range of globalization processes and experiences. The session organizers will liaise in the selection of papers and papers may be moved between the sessions to produce coherent groupings of topics.

Paper abstracts of no more than 300 words should be submitted through the conference website by 1 November 2015. Successful submissions will be notified by 15 January 2016 and presenters will be expected to register for the conference by 1 April 2016.


Organizer: Natasha Webster, Stockholm University

International migration to rural areas is a growing trend in many countries and this trend is an important part of social and economic development (Hedberg and Haandrikman, 2014). Rural migration stems from many contexts including refugee placement, family connections, marriage migration and labour migration. These migrants bring to rural areas a plethora of translocal and transnational social relations that are maintained and stretched across rural social spheres (Woods, 2012).

This session focuses upon relational mobilities of the global countryside and understanding the specifities of rural mobilities within the context of daily practices. Mobility is understood as multifaceted, spatial and temporal where daily practices, for example, cooking or telecommunications, are seen as creating translocal and/or transnational relations. This point of departure challenges not only traditional views of migration as a one-way flow but also underscores the role of rural migrants as builders of rural spaces and places. In exploring daily practices of global countrysides we invite papers that examine a wide range of mobility perspectives including gender, race, class, and sexualities within these contexts as well as issues of rural belonging, inclusion and exclusion from a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives.


Organizers: Michael Woods, Jesse Heley, Laura Jones and Marc Welsh, Aberystwyth University

The study of globalization in a rural context has commonly focused on large scale structural changes, transnational commodity chains, or dramatic examples of deindustrialization, land-grabs, mass migration or rapid transformation into tourist resorts. For the majority of rural communities, however, globalization is experienced in more incremental and mundane ways. Processes of economic globalization alter employment opportunities and conditions, raise or depress income levels, and change patterns of local service provision. International in-migrants and returnee migrants can foster cultural hybridity, but also create competition for housing and jobs, whilst the emigration of migrant labours can require remaining residents to take on new roles and adapt their lifestyles. Global communications technologies can overcome social and physical isolation, open up new opportunities for education, leisure and business, stretch social networks, and encourage new aspirations, but also facilitate cultural globalization, challenging established traditions.

This session calls for papers from all parts of the world that examine the impact of globalization on everyday life in small towns and rural communities. Possible topics include, but are not restricted to:

  • The impact of foreign direct investment, corporate takeovers, plant closures or migrant labour on employment opportunities and conditions;
  • The insertion into small towns and rural communities of supermarkets and corporate chains, access to internet shopping, changes to consumer behaviour and the consequences for local businesses;
  • The effects of lifestyle and economic migration on housing and public services, intra-community relationships and community events, including the introduction of new foods, languages and cultural practices;
  • The role of global communication technologies in reconfiguring social relations, the consumption of popular culture, education opportunities and aspirations, including for young people and previously marginalized lifestyle groups;
  • Pressures from globalized values on local customs and traditions, including hunting and land and animal husbandry;
  • Out-migration, changing gender roles and the contribution of remittances.

Reflections on a Summer of Conferences

By Michael Woods, 12th September 2015

As the nights start drawing in it’s time to reflect on a busy summer of conferences for the GLOBAL-RURAL team. Since the end of June, we’ve presented eight papers and a poster at six different academic conferences, starting with the WISERD conference in Cardiff, and continuing with the Quadrennial UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference, the IGU’s Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems Colloquium in Portugal, the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress in Aberdeen, and most recently, the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual International Conference in Exeter. Nor is the conference season over quite yet, with Anthonia Onyeahialam presenting maps from the ‘Visualizing the Global Countryside’ strand of our work at the Open Source GIS conference in Korea this coming week.

Copies of our presentations to these conferences can be found on our publications and presentations page, but the value of participating in academic conferences for us is not just in talking about our research (and receiving helpful feedback and questions and suggestions), but also in hearing about the research that other people are doing – and right now there’s a lot of interesting work on globalization and rural areas going on. So here’s my brief reflections on some highlights of the summer, and some of the things that I’ve learned.

A glimpse of the alpha version StoryMap tour of Newtown

A glimpse of the alpha version StoryMap tour of Newtown

Back in July, it was our pleasure to host the 8th Quadrennial UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference – together with Swansea University – and to guide 35 rural geographers from Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States around Wales with an intensive programme of presentations, field visits and croquet. For the GLOBAL-RURAL team it was a unique opportunity not only to report on our on-going study of everyday globalization in the mid Wales town of Newtown, but to try out some innovative methods for disseminating this work. So it was that we despatched our geographer guinea-pigs out on to the streets of Newtown with tablets and smart-phones loaded with a Storymap tour of the town and its global connections. The exercise usefully (if frustratingly) demonstrated some of the technical challenges that this method of communication faces, but also elicited some excellent feedback from our colleagues about the content and style of presentation that will help us to refine this approach. It was also a great exercise for prompting us to think about  how Newtown as a place has been assembled over time and the recurrent influence of global connections in this process, from investment of Davies family money derived from coal exports, to the internationalization of the wool trade, to the legacy of Newtown-born, cooperative-pioneer Robert Owen – about which Marc Welsh has written on our Assembling Newtown blog.

Trying out our Newtown tour

Trying out our Newtown tour

The conference theme was ‘Global Challenges and Rural Responses’ and many of the papers provided insights into the ways in which globalization is re-shaping rural economies, societies and communities. Several presentations explored the dynamics of local and global food systems, with Renata Blumberg, for example, describing the rise of alternative food networks in Lithuania and Latvia as a response to the global economic crisis, and Damian Maye revealing the different emphases of food security discourses in different countries. Margareta Lelea, meanwhile, demonstrated the complexities of global-local interactions, discussing how the adoption of international standards for food safety in Kenya had undermined local food networks and the capacity of rural communities to feed themselves. Other papers focused on international migration and the diversifying cultural mix of rural regions. Dick Winchell, for instance, showed how Latino immigration in Washington State maps on to areas of post-war rural modernization and irrigation programmes; whilst Levi van Sant presented a sobering corrective, charting the dwindling numbers of African-American farmers in South Carolina during the twentieth century. Martin PhilipsPeter Nelson and Darren Smith in a trio of papers presented early work from the fascinating iRGENT project, investigating international perspectives on rural gentrification, with Darren coining the term ‘Sothebyisation’ to describe the role of transnational real estates in developing an international market in elite property sales. Finally, a reminder of the persistence of the periphery in the age of globalization came from Ryan Gibson, with a discussion of the challenges faced by the Strait of Belle Isle region in Canada, with capital extracted by multi-nationals and local capacity compromised by a segmented political geography.


Croquet break at the UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference

Croquet break at the UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference

Participants in the UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference in Aberystwyth

Participants in the UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference in Aberystwyth


A fortnight later, the IGU Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems Colloquium in Portugal provided me with an opportunity to talk about rural responses to globalization in a keynote lecture, drawing on the GLOBAL-RURAL case study of the closure of the Moreton sugar mill in Nambour, Australia, as an impact of global economic restructuring, which I’ve discussed in a previous blog post. It is, however, the conference fieldtrips that stick in my mind as illustrating the impact of globalization in the Portuguese countryside, and confirming that these impacts are not necessarily new. A visit to the Duoro wine-producing region, in particular, provided evidence of how the distinctive viticulture-based economy and landscape of the region had been assembled over time from the combination of the region’s unique climate and topography, the business acumen of British port merchants (whose names still adorn the vine-clad hillsides), the development of export markets in 18th century Europe and North America, and, critically, the grafting of American and European vines in the late 19th century to enable the vineyards to survive the plague of phylloxena, which botanical collectors had inadvertently introduced to Europe.

Branding of British-founded port companies in the Duoro landscape

Branding of British-founded port companies in the Duoro landscape

Destinations of international trade in port, 18th century (from Duoro Museum)

Destinations of international trade in port, 18th century (from Duoro Museum)









The port wine assemblage continues to dominate the region today, but other sites visited revealed more recent international influences: from the Korean company investing in solar power farms north of Lisbon, to entrepreneurs reviving artisan salt-pan production for niche export trade, to the small town of Ponte de Lima attracting tourists with an International Garden Festival.

Reviving artisan salt pans on Ilha da Morraceira

Reviving artisan salt pans on Ilha da Morraceira


The International Garden Festival in Ponte de Lima









From Portugal to Scotland, and the GLOBAL-RURAL team were out in force for the European Society for Rural Sociology congress in Aberdeen, including an excellent pre-congress workshop on Digital Technologies and Visual Research Methods organized by the James Hutton Institute, which sharpened our ideas and techniques for trying visual methods in our Newtown case study. In the conference proper, Laura Jones and Jesse Heley presented on our research on the entanglement of the Welsh wool industry in the global wool assemblage, detailing how the introduction and refinement of non-human components have facilitated re-configurations that have enrolled Welsh farmers in international networks at the cost of local traceabiity (Laura has also written about this research in a blog post). Elsewhere, an impressive series of papers interrogated the dynamics of international migration in rural areas, with examples from across Europe and beyond. My own paper discussing the interesting case of Chinese farmers in late colonial Queensland as a possible example of early rural cosmopolitanism (which I will discuss further in a later blog post), was neatly complemented by Branka Kravokapic Skoko’s presentation on contemporary rural cosmopolitanism in Australia today, including the remarkable story of Katanning, WA, a small agricultural town with a mosque at its heart and strong inter-faith and inter-cultural relations. Ingrid Machold, meanwhile, demonstrated how international migration is responsible for the positive demographic balance in rural Austria; whilst Robyn Mayes’s paper in the same working group raised important questions about the body in international labour migration and the global circulation of a corporate workforce in sectors such as mining.

Finally, we returned to our theoretical framework at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Conference in Exeter, convening an exhilarating session on Assembling Globalization. We used our own paper to test out our developing thoughts on how to operationalize an assemblage approach to analysing the affects of globalization on place; but my mind was left reeling by the barrage of ideas and arguments from the other contributions to the session. Andy Davies countered our DeLanda-influenced approach with a strident call for a more radical assemblage theory, truer to its Guattarian roots, whilst Martin Jones’s barn-storming paper advocated the concept of plasticity as a fix to assemblage theory’s perceived weaknesses. Tarje Wanvik and Havard Haarstad’s paper on carbonscapes introduced the interesting idea of an ‘assemblage converter’ to describe the role played by the world oil price in affecting change in the landscapes of Alberta and Norway; whilst Martin Mulligan explored assemblage perspectives towards community resilience, and papers by Mor Shilon and Clara Rivas Alonso presented rich empirical applications of assemblage theory in urban analysis, examining case studies of Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and struggles over urban space in Istanbul respectively. I for one left Exeter with much to think about, a long list of reading to follow-up, and a desire to continue the dialogue in other forums.

So it’s been a hectic but stimulating summer and we have returned to Aberystwyth charged up with new ideas and possibilities that will be finding their way into the GLOBAL-RURAL research as we launch into the next round of fieldwork in Wales and Ireland this autumn.

PhD opportunities with GLOBAL-RURAL

We have two fully funded PhD students available at Aberystwyth University from this October (a January 2016 start is also possible) as part of the GLOBAL-RURAL project:

 1)      Globalization and Rural Change in Africa

The PhD will explore the impact of globalization on rural livelihoods and localities in Africa through in-depth place-based case study research. The PhD research may focus on any aspect of globalization that is relevant to understanding change in rural Africa, including, for example (though not necessarily limited to): trade liberalization and the development of export-oriented agriculture; international land investments (‘land-grabbing’); migration; the conversion of land to biofuel production for international markets; export-oriented mining operations; international tourism; or the implementation of global conservation models (including the displacement of indigenous peoples).

 2)      Small Town Global Engagement, 1860-1960

The PhD will explore the evolving international connections of a rural small town over the century from 1860 to 1960, including economic networks and trading relations, patterns of in- and out-migration, military service and cultural influences. The study will identify and trace these connections and examine their impact on the town and its residents. The research will be primarily focused on Newtown in mid Wales, but the student will have the option of extending the study, for example by introducing a second comparative case study or by following selected networks with fieldwork in linked locations. It is anticipated that the study will be largely based on archival research, but may also involve other methods such as oral history, or historical GIS, at the discretion of the student.

Both studentships include tuition fees (UK/EU student rate) and a stipend of £13,726 per annum. Funds are also available to cover travel expenses for fieldwork and conference participation. The studentships are open to students with a good honours degree (2:1 or above) in an appropriate subject, though preference may be given to applicants who have completed or are studying towards a relevant Masters qualification.

Applications should be made by 3rd August 2015 following the application procedure described at  and using application form available there, accompanied by a proposal of 1,000 – 1,500 words which should outline how the applicant proposes to address the topic, including a brief review of relevant previous literature, identification of research questions, data sources and methods, and a timescale for the research.

Further information can be found at:

To discuss the studentships informally please contact Michael Woods at


PhD opportunities with GLOBAL-RURAL

We have two fully funded PhD students available at Aberystwyth University from this October (a January 2016 start is also possible) as part of the GLOBAL-RURAL project:

 1)      Globalization and Rural Change in Africa

The PhD will explore the impact of globalization on rural livelihoods and localities in Africa through in-depth place-based case study research. The PhD research may focus on any aspect of globalization that is relevant to understanding change in rural Africa, including, for example (though not necessarily limited to): trade liberalization and the development of export-oriented agriculture; international land investments (‘land-grabbing’); migration; the conversion of land to biofuel production for international markets; export-oriented mining operations; international tourism; or the implementation of global conservation models (including the displacement of indigenous peoples).

 2)      Small Town Global Engagement, 1860-1960

The PhD will explore the evolving international connections of a rural small town over the century from 1860 to 1960, including economic networks and trading relations, patterns of in- and out-migration, military service and cultural influences. The study will identify and trace these connections and examine their impact on the town and its residents. The research will be primarily focused on Newtown in mid Wales, but the student will have the option of extending the study, for example by introducing a second comparative case study or by following selected networks with fieldwork in linked locations. It is anticipated that the study will be largely based on archival research, but may also involve other methods such as oral history, or historical GIS, at the discretion of the student.

Both studentships include tuition fees (UK/EU student rate) and a stipend of £13,726 per annum. Funds are also available to cover travel expenses for fieldwork and conference participation. The studentships are open to students with a good honours degree (2:1 or above) in an appropriate subject, though preference may be given to applicants who have completed or are studying towards a relevant Masters qualification.

Applications should be made by 3rd August 2015 following the application procedure described at  and using application form available there, accompanied by a proposal of 1,000 – 1,500 words which should outline how the applicant proposes to address the topic, including a brief review of relevant previous literature, identification of research questions, data sources and methods, and a timescale for the research.

Further information can be found at:

To discuss the studentships informally please contact Michael Woods at

Defining the rural in global society

Posted by Michael Woods, 21 April 2015

I spent a few days last week in Washington, D.C., participating in a workshop organized by the National Academies for the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) on the classification of rural areas. Like many countries, the United States has an unwieldy assortment of different definitions of rural areas, which are used for different statistical purposes or to discern eligibility for different government programmes. Even the best established and most widely used of these classifications have become increasingly problematic over time. The US Census Bureau, for example, defines urban areas as being settlements with a population of more than 2,500 residents, and by default classifies everywhere else as rural. Yet, the the 2,500 threshold is based an assessment made in 1920 that a population of that size was required to support a ‘full range’ of urban functions. Today, the assumptions in this statement need to be thoroughly critiques, not least because service provision tends to be more concentrated than it was in 1920, and because certain key services, such as malls and supermarkets, have moved out of towns to ‘edge city’ locations.

The practical difficulties of using the 2500 population definition have resulted in an alternative classification, produced by the ERS and designating ‘metropolitan’ and ‘non-metropolitan’ areas, becoming widely employed as a proxy for rural areas. Yet, as evidence presented at the workshop shows, the metropolitan/non-metropolitan classification is problematic because the metropolitan areas it identified are so extensive.For instance, not only do metropolitan counties cover nearly half of the US continental land area, but they are also home to more than half of the nation’s ‘rural’ population as defined by the Census Bureau’s classification.

A further motivation for the workshop was that ‘rural’ areas are becoming increasingly integrated into urban areas, with their social, economic and cultural lives looking very much like urban social, economic and cultural features, leading some to question whether the category of ‘rural’ is at all useful anymore. However, this assertion in itself is an unconscious reproduction of discourses of rurality as defined from an urban perspective. This was a point that I made in the presentation that I had been invited to contribute on ‘Defining the Rural in an Age of Metropolitan Society’, but even as I was writing the paper I became increasingly convinced that I was asking (and answering) the wrong question.

It may have made sense in the mid- to late- twentieth century to map how rural areas had been incorporated within the metropolitan fields of various cities, and therefore to identify distance and accessibility as key dimensions underlying relative degrees of rurality. However, the twenty-first century might look very different.

Take, for example, the ‘isolation’ of rural areas, as captured in the ERS’s new map of ‘Frontier and Remote Areas‘, which is based on travel time to urban centres of varying population size. This model presumes that there is a singular and linear relationship between a rural area and its nearest urban centre. However, with internet and cell phone connections, physical isolation is not necessarily the same as social isolation as individuals participate in globalized social networks, nor do rural residents necessarily travel to the nearest larger town to buy consumer goods – not when they can be bought online. This is not to say that all rural areas have equal access to services and resources, but rather that connectedness can no longer be simply measured in traveling time to an urban centre, but needs also to take account of broadband and telecommunications coverage and speed.

Similarly, whilst commuting patterns may still be shaped by the pull of one or more major employment centres, individuals leaving rural areas for education or employment are now heading to a diverse range of destinations for different periods of time, including major cities in the U.S. and overseas, as well as off-shore and remote on-shore energy operations. At the same time, food processing plants in rural small towns are now in  practice recruiting employees from a continental labour market of migrant workers. Moreover, tourists and recreationists are not necessarily visiting from the nearest city, and in-migrants into rural areas may be drawn from anywhere.

Rural areas are also no longer tied to particular franchises of television station in regional media markets, but consume news and entertainment from across the world via the internet, and rural businesses are developing export markets worldwide, not just supplying the local big city. Indeed, in many cases the relationships emerging are rural-to-rural, bypassing cities altogether and challenging the long held assumption in economics that cities function as the driver of economic development for their surrounding rural areas. Moreover, the very way in which we understand life in the countryside, and how we imagine rural areas in our minds, is being globalized as films, television programmes and books are distributed worldwide. As such, the perception of rurality held even by rural residents likely to be as strongly influenced by the hybridized representation of the farm and countryside presented in Disney films or US or UK made television programmes than in any direct experience of living in a rural community.

All in all, therefore, we need to be thinking about rural areas in the twenty-first century not just in relation to the metropolitan society of  regional cities, but also in terms of how they fit within an increasingly globalized economy and society and how they retain a ‘rural’ identity in this expanded context. The result, I suspect, will not be a neat delineation of rural and areas that can be definitively mapped and used to replace current definitions, and neither will it help to overcome the vested interest in particular rural classifications linked to particular funding schemes that makes any wholesale re-definition of categories politically difficult – what one participant in the workshop referred to as the ‘political economy of definitions’ – but it might help us to assess the needs and opportunities of rural areas in a global age.

Two new presentations available

Slides from two recent presentations from the GLOBAL-RURAL project are now available on the ‘Publications and Presentations’ page. ‘(Re-)Assembling Rural Places in the Global Countryside’ was presented at the ARENA Re-Imagining Rurality Conference at the University of Westminster last week and illustrates some of the ways in which rurality has been imagined and re-imagined in a globalizing world, before explaining the application of assemblage theory as a way of thinking about rural places and change in the global countryside. ‘Exploring Everyday Globalization in a Rural Small Town’ was presented in the Institute of Welsh Politics / WISERD ‘Understanding Wales’ seminar series at Aberystwyth today, and primarily introduces our research on ‘everyday globalization’ in Newtown, Wales, and presents some early emerging findings.

“Assembling Globalization” – Call for Papers: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference – September 2015

This call for papers for the RGS-IBG Annual Conference seeks contributions that explore globalization and its impacts through the application of assemblage approaches in human geography.

The concept of assemblage has been deployed from various theoretical positions to examine; new translocal and transnational social, economic and environment complexes and relationships (Hollander, 2010; Li, 2014; Rankin, 2008), diasporic communities and networks (Mullings, 2012), translocal forms of organizing (Featherstone, 2011), the repositioning of cities with global networks (Sassen, 2006) and the involvement of ‘global assemblages’ in negotiating technological and ethical challenges (Collier and Ong, 2005). However, whilst these studies have illuminated particular dimensions of globalization, few efforts have been made to apply assemblage thinking in a systematic manner to a coherent, critical analysis of globalization as process. Such an endeavour has the potential to extend the relational analyses of globalization pioneered by Amin and Massey, drawing especially on the emphases within Deleuzian and Foucauldian-informed renderings of assemblage theory of dynamism, contingency, relationality, hybridity and territorialisation.

The session therefore seeks to bring together papers applying assemblage thinking to the study of globalization to formulate a dialogue around this proposed research agenda. Contributions are invited that employ assemblage thinking to the investigation of any aspect of globalization and its impacts, including – but not limited to – global economic and social relations, corporate networks, migration, new technologies, global environmental change, alter-globalization movements and translocal political action, and the renegotiation of community and the restructuring of place in the context of globalization. Contributions that approach assemblage from Deleuzian, Foucaldian, Latourian or other conceptual framings, utilising qualitative and/or quantitative methods, and drawn from any geographical context (urban/rural, global north/global south) are encouraged.

Proposals for papers, with a title, a short abstract of 250 words and your full contact details, should be sent to one the co-organisers by 5pm on Monday 16th February 2015:

Session organisers: Laura Jones (, Marc Welsh (, Michael Woods (

Assembling Newtown

We’ve launched a sister blog, Assembling Newtown, focused on part of the GLOBAL-RURAL project that will be undertaking a detailed study of ‘everyday globalization’ in the small Welsh town of Newtown. The blog will report thoughts and observations from our research in the town, as well as news about how local people can participate in the research. The first post is now up, discussing the global networks behind the star exhibits in the town’s guitar shop, and you can read it by following this link.

China, milk and the return of the urban dairy?

Posted by Michael Woods, 19th November 2014

One of the most remarkable features of agri-food globalization has been the transformation of dairying into a global foot-loose industry. Remarkable because milk is the archetypal perishable good: it can be preserved by converting it into cheese, or butter or yoghurt, but fresh milk spoils quickly and needs to consumed soon after production. As such, it was a principle of old-style agricultural geography that dairy farming happened in districts relatively close to urban areas, with actual dairies often located in towns and cities so that fresh bottled milk could be delivered to customers daily. Advances in preservation technologies disrupted this relationship, allowing fresh milk to be stored for longer and transported over longer distances. As proximity to the market decreased in significance as a locational factor, dairy farming has become a foot-loose industry, clustering in regions where production costs are most cost-effective. In Australia this process was accelerated by the deregulation of the domestic milk market in 2000, which removed production quotas previously awarded at a state level, leading to a slump in prices as the subsidies received by dairy farmers in New South Wales and Queensland were removed and the domestic market became dominated by cheaper milk from farmers in Victoria who were already working to world market prices. Ten years ago I visited a farming couple in the Kilcoy Range north of Brisbane whose family had been dairy farming on the property since 1902. After four years of struggling against falling prices they had just decided to sell their herd and pull out of dairying, and they were not alone. In 2000 there had been 26 dairy farms in the local area, the withdrawal of my interviewees left only four still operating by the end of 2004.

The spatial restructuring of dairy farming has been repeated at an international scale, facilitated by the industrial production of powdered milk, which does not need to be refrigerated and can be easily transported in bulk. The largest exporter of powdered milk is New Zealand, whose 1,375,000 metric tons of exports account for nearly two-thirds of world exports of powdered milk. The majority of these exports are made by Fonterra, a farmer-owned cooperative created by the privatization of the New Zealand Dairy Board, which has become a key player in the global dairy market, with a complex web of subsidiary companies and trading relations across the world, as documented by Stuart Gray and Richard Le Heron in the New Zealand Geographer. Fonterra’s most important single market is the world’s largest importer of powdered milk, China, where consumption of milk jumped from practically nothing in the 1970s to over 7,000,000 metric tons by 2004 (as Andrea Wiley records in the American Anthropologist, there have also been massive increases in milk consumption in Brazil and India).

The international trade in powdered milk sets the world market price for milk as received by the farmer, whether it is for export or domestic use. Back in August I listened to a Swedish farmer complain that even though his family firm owned an ice cream factory that used powdered milk as a raw ingredient, he still got paid less than the cost of production for the milk produced by his dairy herd – the reason being that the milk had to be sold to a third party for processing, and they paid the world market price. The world market price for powdered milk also affects the price of liquid fresh milk: if the price of powdered milk is low, supermarkets and dairies are better able to cut the price they pay to farmers for fresh milk, as the available alternatives to farmers are limited. Thus, in recent months, an increase in global supply of milk, the trade embargo on European and US sales to Russia, and rumours that China had been forward-buying milk supplies in 2013, all contributed to a fall in the world market price for milk that lead ultimately to cuts in the farmgate prices received by farmers in countries such as Britain to well beneath the cost of production, and provoked direct action protests by farmers in Britain, Ireland and France, including blockades of supermarket depots and dairies.

Yet, despite market wobbles, demand for dairy in China is likely to continue drive up global milk production and exports, as well as milk production in China itself. China is now the world’s third largest milk producer and major transnational agrifood corporations including Danone, Arla, Fonterra and Nestle have invested in Chinese dairy companies and infrastructure. However, China still imports 14.3% of the milk that it consumes, much of it, as noted above, from New Zealand under a Free Trade Agreement signed in 2010 which I noted in a previous post the rural sociologist Hugh Campbell has described as more a food supply arrangement from New Zealand to China akin to the old imperial preference model than a genuine two-way free trade deal. Dairy also forms an important part of the new Free Trade Agreement between China and Australia, details of which have been announced around the fringes of the G20 and APEC summits over the last week. Under the agreement, Chinese tariffs on dairy imports from Australia will be phased out, bringing them into line with the conditions enjoyed by New Zealand.

Nor is it just about milk powder. A series of contamination scares and scandals has hit Chinese consumer confidence in powdered milk (especially that produced in China) and generated demand for imported fresh milk, with Australia identified as a key supplier – but not necessarily Australian farmers. The desire to secure safe fresh milk supplies was behind the purchase of 50 dairy farms in western Victoria by a Chinese-led consortium last month, as well as Chinese investment in the Tasmanian dairy industry announced a few days ago. The Australian newspaper reported on Saturday that the latter deal will involve Tasmania increasing its milk production from 800 million litres a year to 2 billion litres.

St David Dairy

Against this backdrop of globalization in the dairy industry, I was consequently intrigued to come across the St David Dairy in an inner-city side street of Melbourne last week. A boutique micro-dairy supplying locally produced milk to local customers, the St David Dairy seems to be the antithesis of global corporate dairying, but it has sprung from the same dynamics of industry restructuring. Founder Ben Evans is fourth generation family dairy farmer from south west Victoria, and a trained food technician. Like an number of entrepreneurially-minded Australian farmers he traveled abroad for inspiration in adapting to the deregulated Australian agricultural economy, in his case visiting cheese-making regions in Europe and working on a dairy farm in Ireland. Unlike others (including several farmers who we studied for the globally engaged farmers project), this experience was not channeled into developing a niche product for export, but to a decision to set up a small dairy supplying premium local fresh milk to the fashionable coffee shops and delis of the gentrified Fitzroy neighbourhood. The micro-dairy now processes 10,000 litres of milk a week with custom-made equipment that is smaller than that used in mainstream dairies, and with pasteurization limited to the legal minimum to retain a close-to-raw fresh taste. The milk is collected three times a week from selected farms all located within an hour of the dairy, process and bottled the same morning, and delivered that afternoon to customers,  who now include 22 cafes, restaurants and shops in Fitzroy, and a further 92 spread across the city.

St David Dairy is not just re-localizing milk supply, but is also re-urbanizing dairying. As Evans has pointed out in articles about the business, in 1920 there were 27 dairies in Fitzroy, but by the 1960s that had all closed. The local food movement is the other side of the coin to agri-food globalization, with distrust of mass-produced food and transnational corporations and solidarity with local farmers reviving interest in eating local produce – as has been well documented and debated in the rural geography and rural sociology literature. Dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and ice cream are staples of farmers markets and farm shops, but until now fresh milk has not featured prominently. This omission is starting to change, with micro-dairies being established in several parts of rural England, for example, by farmers opting out of contracts with supermarkets and agribusiness and into supplying local customers directly, but it will be interesting to see whether the St David Dairy’s return to the city is replicated by a new wave of urban micro-dairies in London, or New York, or Toronto, or other cities? In global market terms they will remain miniscule in comparison with the rush to provide milk to China in industrial qualities, but for a few dairying will have come full circle.

Food security, food safety and globalization: Asian perspectives

Posted by Michael Woods, 16th October 2014

The clamour by many bioscientists and some politicians to increase agricultural producivity through biotechnology as a response to the challenge of ‘global food security’ is often justified by reference to the need to feed the expanding populations of China and India. Yet, in Asia, discussion among food activists seems commonly to focus more on questions about food safety and food supply chains, with evident scepticism about the promise of biotechnology and distrust of transnational corporations. As McDonalds recently announced its first operating loss in Japan in 11 years trading in the country after being caught up in a food contamination scare in its Chinese supply chain, it is clear that agri-food globalization in Asia involves dynamics and challenges that are not neccessarily the same as those experienced in the west, and that we need to listen more closely to perspectives from Asia.

This was one of the aims of a conference this week in Hong Kong on ‘Food and Sustainability: Production, Consumption and Food Relations in Asia’, organized by Chan Yuk Wah of the City University of Hong Kong and colleagues. The conference included papers from researchers in Hong Kong, China, India, Japan, Taiwan and Cambodia, and a number of thematic papers by invited international speakers, including myself, to provide a broader global context. In my own presentation, I reiterated the core principle of GLOBAL-RURAL that globalization is reproduced through local places as starting point for critiquing notions of global food governance. Although agri-food globalization has been associated by some commentators with a new neoliberal ‘food regime’ based on international and privatized systems of governance and regulation, I argued that the notion the discourse of global food governance is undermined by two fundamental instabilities in transnational agri-food assemblages.

Firstly, as food production and consumption are grounded in particular places, attempts to develop new ‘solutions’ to food problems at a global scale can flounder on the dissent and opposition of local actors – as seen, for example, in the resistance of Indian farmers to GM crops – as well as on the unreliability of nation states whose adherence to neoliberal ideals mat be compromised by geopolitical or domestic security concerns, as exhibited in the decision by several countries to restrict exports of rice or grain during the 2008 food crisis. Secondly, global food governance is also disrupted by the unruly behaviour of non-human components in food assemblages, especially the unintended incorporation of contaminants or pathogens that subvert the careful coding of commercial food products by making them unsafe, as in the McDonalds example mentioned above. These two uncertainties, I suggested, are a key part of the story of agri-food globalization in Asia.

Interestingly, these points resonated with the contributions of the other thematic papers. Hugh Campbell’s excellent plenary lecture highlighted the failure of attempts to broker multilateral international trade agreements involving food and agriculture, with the latest WTO effort finally being scuppered by India’s insistence on maintaining food stockpiles, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership likely to collapse under Japanese and American reluctance to reform farm subsidies. More likely, he argued, are bilateral agreements along the lines of the China-New Zealand trade deal, which he suggested is in effect a food supply arrangement for China. Such agreements would not however provide the global food system with resilience, and Hugh argued instead for an alternative approached based on the accommodation of polycultural food systems, as well as principles of democratisation and ecology.

The potential for alternative approaches was also demonstrated in papers by Steffanie Scott on alternative food movements in China, including community supported agriculture, which has developed with tacit state sponsorship in the absence of a vibrant civil society and responds to middle class concerns over food safety; and by activist Lee Aruelo from the Third World Network, who described how local governments in the Philippines have successfully created ‘GM-free zones’ by introducing ordinances supporting organic agriculture and the banning GM as incompatible with the legal protection afforded organic farming. Bill Pritchard’s paper meanwhile further illustrated the complex grounding of agri-food globalization with discussion of food insecurity in India and the limitations of ‘trickle-down’ effects from value chain modernization in a model of compressed development.

The more-than-human and expressive components of global agri-food assemblages. meanwhile, were implicitly picked up in Michael Carolan’s fascinating paper exploring the “visceral momentum of (food) regimes”, which noted, among other arguments, that globalized regimes have molded our expectations of taste and texture to an extent that hinders the efforts of alternative food movements to convince consumers and regulators that traditional and artisan foods with strong and unusual tastes and textures are safe and acceptable, and that even the presence of bacteria might in some cases be appropriate, contrary to the “scorched-Earth” approach to food safety of the USDA.

Recognizing and welcoming diversity of taste, texture, shape, colour, smell and so on in the messy complexity of food is essential if the global food regime is to be weaned off its tendency towards standardization and nudged towards polycultural food systems as proposed in Hugh’s talk.

Globalization and Rural Crime

Posted by Michael Woods, 21 September 2014

With the current vogue for Nordic Noir, it feels only fitting to come to Stockholm to talk about rural crime. Last week saw aninternational workshop on rural crime and community safetyorganized by Vania Ceccato at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), with the presentation of 13 papers that will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Rural Studies early next year. I was invited to chair the meeting as the editor of the Journal of Rural Studies.

Research on rural crime, policing and community safety is still a developing and to some degree disjointed field. Although some criminologists have been examining rural crime over several decades, it still tends to be pushed to the margins of the discipline; whilst more recent work by geographers and sociologists is not always joined up with criminology. Nonetheless, the multi-disciplinary range of papers in the workshop threw up some recurrent themes – the reliability and appropriateness of official crime statistics; the hidden nature of certain types of rural crime, especially violence against women; tensions with myths of the rural idyll; the importance of  models of ‘community’ in understanding rural crime; and the significance of cultures of rural policing in shaping perceptions and records of crime and anti-social behaviour (the latter noted by Andrew Woof in an interesting paper on policing anti-social behaviour in rural Scotland – as well as some new directions, including Richard Yarwood’s paper on rural policing as hybrid networks, examining the role of search dogs in mountain rescue operations.

The papers covered international examples from Sweden, Britain, Australia, Brazil and the United States, but I was struck that whilst there were clear parallels between different countries identified, few explicitly considered international networks or positioned changing patterns of rural crime in the context of globalization. Yet, the significance of globalization was implicit in several of the papers. Rob Smith from Robert Gordon University, in discussing the ‘rogue-ish’ illicit activities of rural entrepreneurs cited examples that involved not only connections between rural and urban areas, but also between Scotland and the Baltic States; whilst John Scott from Queensland University of Technology highlighted the discourses of insider/outsider dichotomies that are used to explain crime in Australian small towns – even if contradicted by crime figures – resonating with studies that have identified fear of crime articulated in anti-immigrant and anti-migrant worker rhetoric in Britain, Belgium, Sweden, the US and elsewhere. In these ways the globalization of mobility impacts on both the reality and the perception of rural crime, including not only the mobility of people but also of objects. On a field visit from the workshop to a rural police district north of Stockholm the local commander listed smuggling and trafficking through small rural harbours and across the Baltic Sea among the crimes prevalent in the area.

Other papers demonstrated examples of understandings of rural crime being informed by what I call the ‘globalization of values’, especially around environmental crime. Here new ‘crimes’ have come into existence in the shape of non-compliance with laws or regulations that have been introduced as part of international agreements, or through the transnational circulation of new worldviews on environmental protection or animal welfare. These can clash with traditional rural values and practices, and may not always be accepted by rural residents as criminal behaviour, as Elaine Barclay from the University of New England at Armidale showed with respect to Australian farmers’ perceptions of environmental crime. Similarly, Erica von Essen from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences argued that illegal hunting in Sweden represented a form of resistance against conservation policies and an assertion of a beleaguered rural identity.

Expanding the theme, the globalization of the rural economy can be seen to have created new opportunities for crime. Only a few weeks ago, Britain established a new Food Crime Unit in response to the recommendations of an independent report into the so-called ‘horsemeat scandal’ last year, in which horsemeat was found to be being fraudulently passed off as beef or lamb in some ready meals. The potential for fraud had been increased by the complex supply chain, in which sub-contracts for sourcing and processing the meat had been placed with various intermediaries and agents across Europe. Moreover, earlier this year, an EU report had suggested not only that food fraud was more widespread problem than often appreciated, but that some organized crime gangs were moving into international food fraud in preference to drugs. Such moves notwithstanding, the global narcotics trade is arguably the most notable criminal manifestation of globalization for rural areas. Not only are levels of substance abuse higher in some rural areas than urban areas, as Joe Donnermeyer of Ohio State University noted in his paper at the workshop, and not only is the illicit domestic cultivation or production of illegal drugs such as marijuana an established aspect of ‘rural roguery’ in some areas, but much more damagingly the mass producing and trafficking of narcotics such as cocaine and opium – and the effects of violent feuds between the cartels active in this trade – is arguably the primary way in which rural regions from Afghanistan to Colombia to northern Mexico are engaged in the global economy.

The recession and rural Wales

Posted by Michael Woods, 12 September 2014

The interconnectivity and interdependence of the global economy was dramatically demonstrated in late 2008 when failings in the British and US housing markets triggered a financial crisis that spread around the world and plunged many countries, including Britain,  into a recession, form which we are only just beginning to emerge. But how have rural regions fared in the recession? And might globalization help or hinder recovery?

Yesterday, Jesse Heley and I explored these questions in a presentation on ‘The Recession and Rural Wales’ in Cardiff as part of WISERD‘s ‘Wales and the Recession Seminar Series‘. The answers, we showed, are not straightforward.

The broad trend seems to be that the recession hit rural Wales more slowly and less severely than it did urban areas, but that the recovery has also been slower. The number of unemployed people, for example, increased by 60% in urban parts of Wales between 2007-8 and 2012-13, but by 35% in rural Wales; with the number of Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants in rural Wales peaked in 2009 and has since largely plateaued, whilst in urban Wales it continued to rise. Yet, there are big differences in the trends between different parts of rural Wales. Pembrokeshire, for example, which includes the port of Milford Haven, saw a sharp increase in unemployment between 2008 and 2009, which has only fallen back slightly. In contrast, unemployment in Monmouthshire peaked early in 2009-10 and has decreased notably since; whilst in Ceredigion, with a large public sector workforce, unemployment increased more gradually and peaked later in 2011-12.

Unemployment by rural LA

The total number of businesses operating decreased in both rural and urban parts of Wales from 2008, at fairly similar rates, but analysis of statistics for new business starts (‘births’) and the failure of businesses (‘deaths’) reveals a more complex picture. Before the recession in 2007 the rate of business growth in rural Wales was exceeding that in urban areas, and during the depth of recession slightly fewer businesses were lost in rural areas than in urban Wales. Yet, the latest available statistics for 2012 suggest that recovery is slower in rural areas, with the net loss of businesses exceeding that for urban districts.

Business demography

However, even if statistics suggest that the overall impact of the recession has been less severe in rural parts of Wales, it has still created real difficulties for many rural households, as data from the periodic survey of 4,000 households in rural Wales conduced by the Wales Rural Observatory records. The number of households reporting that the claimed benefits such as Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit or Winter Fuel Payments increased substantially between 2007 and 2013, for instance, and when asked in 2013, nearly half of respondents said that they thought income levels in their local area had worsened in recent years (although household income reported by respondents shows remarkably little change over four surveys from 2004 to 2013). Around a fifth of respondents in 2013 confided that they were finding it difficult to manage on their present income, and there is evidence that many households have been drawing on savings to make ends meet: the number of households reporting that they had less than £1,000 in savings increased from 33% in 2010 to 44% in 2013.

Similarly, the Wales Rural Observatory’s survey of 2,000 businesses in rural Wales reveals the pressure of the recession. Whereas in 2007, 58% of businesses reported that their turnover had increased in recent years, by 2013 that figure had fallen to 27%, with 39% reporting that their turnover had decreased. Indeed, the proportion of businesses reporting annual turnover of less than £60,000 increased from 22% in 2007 to 30% in 2013; and businesses reporting that they had made a loss or only broken even in the previous year increasing from 15% to 19% over the same period.

The patterns suggested by these headline statistics are reinforced by interviews that Jesse conducted with business owners and managers in mid Wales as part of WISERD research in 2009 and repeated in last few weeks. Back in 2009, some interviewees had shown trepidation about the recession, but some had been bullish, one claiming that: “We don’t get the highs and lows [in rural Wales]; the business stays on a much more even keel”. By 2014, several of Jesse’s original interviews were no longer in the same jobs – including the manager who made this claim – having been made redundant, or seen their business fold. Those who are still here reflected on the recession with mixed experiences. Some had found that business had held up better than they had expected; others had struggled. Many agreed that the pinch for them only really came in 2012, much later than the national trend.

So, how might we explain these diverse observations? There are, we think, several factors at work that relate particularly to rural Wales (or parts of it). Firstly, the economy of rural Wales is dominated by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). This means that there were no mass redundancies as large factories closed or downsized to create spikes in unemployment, but instead there has been gradual attrition as SMEs have borne the brunt of the downturn. By 2011 there were 2,340 fewer businesses in rural Wales that employed less than 20 people than in 2008, but only 20 fewer firms that employed more than 20 people.

Secondly, some parts of rural Wales are heavily reliant on the public sector (Ceredigion, for instance, has one of the highest levels of public sector employment in the UK at 36% of the workforce). This provided a cushion in the early days of the recession, as public sector jobs were more secure than private sector jobs. However, as public spending cuts have started to take affect, redundancies, job freezes and pay restraint have hit. Thirdly, agriculture too has worked to its own cycle. Data from the Farm Business Survey collated by colleagues in IBERS here at Aberystwyth University show a drop in both average farm income and profits in 2012-13, but until then the trend over the previous decade had been of steady improvement. Welsh agriculture is hardly prospering at present, but it is doing better than during the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis in 2001 or in the late 1990s when farm-gate prices plummeted. The rise in global food prices is partly responsible for this. Fourthly, there are certain costs associated with a rural location that have dampened the recovery: both households and businesses have suffered from rising fuel prices, for instance, as incomes have fallen or remained static.

Finally, what about globalization? Global connections can create vulnerabilities – some businesses in rural Wales have been hit by the loss of export markets or breaks in supply chains – but previous research elsewhere in Europe for the DERREG project intriguingly suggests that global business networks can help firms be more resilient by spreading risks. Indeed, the DERREG research found examples of businesses expanding exports as a response to contracted domestic markets, and there are some signs of this happening in Wales: the proportion of rural business responding to the WRO Business Survey with customers overseas increased from 20% in 2010 to 26% in 2013. Moreover, using migrant labour might also reinforce resilience, as migrant workers are often the first to be let go in difficult times, providing something of a buffer for the endogenous workforce, and will commonly move away from the locality if alternative work cannot be found (indeed, migration more generally is a strategy for coping with recession in rural areas as younger people in particularly tend to move away to try to find work rather than remaining and contributing to local unemployment figures). Again, research by the Wales Rural Observatory on migrant workers in Wales shows that the total number of Eastern European migrant workers in rural Wales had decreased between 2007 and 2013, and that finding appropriate work had become more difficult.

These two aspects – the export activities of rural businesses and the dynamics of international labor migration in rural areas – are issues that we propose to investigate further in GLOBAL-RURAL, both in Wales and in Ireland.

The complete presentation from the seminar can be found on the link below:

WISERD Recession and Rural Wales

Visualizing the global countryside

Posted by Michael Woods, 27 August 2014

We’re presenting a poster at the Royal Geographical Society conference tomorrow introducing the GIS and geovisualization work that we are doing in work package 2 of the GLOBAL-RURAL project. This work aims to map key globalization processes affecting rural areas and their local impacts and expressions, combining maps and geovisualizations with commentaries, photographs, audio and video files and links to online resources, to produce an interactive website for use by researchers, students, teachers and the public. As we’re still at an early stage in the GLOBAL-RURAL research, the poster – which is part of a session on ‘Visualizing Economic Geography’ – presents a couple of illustrations of the proposed work using data from previous research. You can see the poster by clicking the link below.

RGS poster Aug 2014

Social change and new ruralities

Posted by Michael Woods, 26 August 2014

I’ve spent the weekend in the Swedish spa resort of Falkenberg at the Bertebos Conference in honour of Philip Lowe. The biennial conference celebrates the winner of the Bertebos Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and funded by the Bertebos Foundation, a philanthropic organization linked to Sweden’s oldest family firm, who’s dairy-, milling and ice cream- business near Falkenberg dates back to the sixteenth century (well, maybe not the ice cream). The 2013 prize winner, Philip Lowe, has been a leading figure in rural studies for over 30 years, most recently as Director of the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme in the UK, and the conference of ‘new ruralities’ reflected a recurrent concern in Philip’s work.

Having been asked to deliver a key note lecture on ‘Social Change and New Ruralities’, I took the opportunity to think aloud about how the assemblage approach we are working with in the GLOBAL-RURAL project might be applied to analysing rural change. The assemblage approach derives from the social theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and whilst it has become fashionable in human geography, its definition is still rather loose, with the term being employed in a number of diverse ways. For the possibly oversimplified purposes of the talk, I focused on the characteristics of an assemblage outlined in Manuel de Landa’s book A New Philosophy of Society, for thinking about rural places as assemblages and how they change. De Landa describes an assemblage as being comprised by both material and expressive components, as being held together and given shape by processes of territorialization (and re-ordered by processes of deterritorialization), and being given an identity through coding (and de-coding), as well as that the capacities of an assemblage are defined by the exteriority of its relations.

If this sounds very esoteric and theoretical, I tried in the lecture today to ground these ideas in familiar experiences of rural change. Thus, applying de Landa’s framework to describing a rural place or rural locality as an assemblage, we might think about the landscape, buildings, crops, livestock, wildlife, economic commodities, etc., as the material components which make up a rural place, whilst things such as the aesthetic qualities of the landscape, folk culture, and emotional attachments might be expressive components (non-tangible elements which nonetheless are part of the essence of the assemblage). A rural place is held together, or territorialized, by its community structure, but it is also literally territorialized – tied to a geographical territory – by practices such as working the land and forms such as the administrative boundaries of parishes or municipalities. At the same time, this shape is stretched and strained by processes of deterritorialization such as migration, which alters the community structure, the loss of local services, or the amalgamation of municipalities. Similarity, whilst the very act of describing somewhere as ‘rural’ is an example of coding, changing meanings of rurality – for instance a shift in emphasis from production to consumption – can be seen as de-coding that changes the identity of rural places.

Furthermore, the capacities of a rural place are defined by its external relations – its interactions with local towns and the wider region, migration flows, economic transactions, power relations and so on. It is these external relations that expose rural places to wider processes of change, including globalization processes, but critically change occurs within a rural locality through alterations to the material and expressive components that constitute it, to its territorialization and to its coding. From this perspective, we can see that ‘rural change’ happens through small-scale modifications within places-as-assemblages, including for example the introduction of new material components such as new technologies, crops, buildings, residents, tourists, invasive species, pathogens, etc., or the disappearance of material components as traditonal crops are phased out or local schools, post offices and village shops close, or the mutation of material components from one form to another, for instance the commodification of rural artefacts, as say old-fashioned agricultural tools become craft products for sale to tourists. Equally, change occurs through the modification of expressive components – the loss of folk customs, rituals and dialect, the weakening of collective memories about landscape, the introduction of new symbolic associations of place and landscape from new economic activities or fictional representations in film,  TV or literature, and the introduction of new cultural practices and fashions by tourists and in-migrants, or from the global media.

This thinking is still a working in progress, and we will no doubt revisit and refine it in future posts. In the lecture I also tried to illustrate it with an example from one of the GLOBAL-RURAL case studies about transnational migration. This example resonated with earlier discussions at the conference, and especially an excellent panel on ‘social mobilities and the changing countryside’, which had reiterated to me the significance of transnational mobility as a key aspect of rural social change in the 21st century. All three speakers on the panel touched on this in different ways. Erik Westholm from the Swedish Agricultural University pointed out that the settlement of refugees around Sweden had turned a steady trajectory of rural population decrease in some rural municipalities in population increase. Marion Eckardt from LEADER Halland similarly described the case of a community in inland Halland, Unnaryd, where the population has increased due to the arrival of German, Danish and Dutch middle class immigrants. These lifestyle migrants are attracted by the pictureseque lakeside location, and whilst some leave again after only a short period, others have made significant contributions to the community – helping local businesses to develop trade links to Germany, bringing skills such as website design, and through voluntary work – yet often still find it difficult to integrate with the local community and access established informal networks. Finally, Neil Ward highlighted a less positive aspect of transnational mobility, connecting the apparent rise in support for the populist anti-EU UKIP party in Britain with the disillusionment of ‘left-behind’ rural working class populations, whose sense of marginalization has been increased in areas such as the east of England by concerns about eastern European migrant workers depressing wage levels.

Presentations from the conference, including mine, can now be accessed at:


What is the global countryside?

Posted by Michael Woods, 21 Aug 2014

Welcome to a new blog and website for the GLOBAL-RURAL project, which over the next five years will be exploring how processes of globalization are reshaping rural localities, economies and societies to produce what we call the emergent ‘global countryside’.

We are all familiar with ‘global cities’ such as London, New York and Tokyo, but the prominence of the global city in geographical research perhaps the way in which the globalization of rural space and society has been somewhat overlooked. In popular perception at least, there are three common ideas about globalization and the rural. The first imagines that rural areas are somehow immune to, or at least less affected by, globalization than cities, and therefore offer a kind of refuge from global culture where authentic local cultures and identities are preserved – an illusion that contributes to the ongoing appeal of the mythical ‘rural idyll’. The second idea associates globalization with ‘time-space compression’ and imagines that improvements in transport and communications have eroded the disadvantages of peripheral rural locations, allow rural economies to compete on an equal footing with urban economies. The third idea holds that rural areas are the victims of globalization, with traditional rural cultures and endogenous rural businesses crushed beneath the juggernaut of globalization with no capacity to resist.

Each of these three perceptions are of course flawed, and the reality is much more complex, messy and geographically variegated. The concept of the ‘global countryside’, which I suggested in a paper in Progress in Human Geography published in 2007*, aims to capture some of this complexity. Although proposed as a counter-part to the global city, I argued that no rural places have been fully globalized, and that the global countryside is thus a work in progress, with localities being changed by engagement with global processes and networks, but still remaining different to other places. Indeed, I suggested that rather than being something imposed from above, globalization proceeds through relatively small, incremental changes within localities, including the fusing together of local and global entities to produce new hybrid entities. One important implication of this approach is that it means that rural communities do have the agency to affect the outcome of globalization processes – maybe not to hold them back completely, but at least to divert, modify and manipulate them.

It is these processes of globalization working through rural localities and the diverse outcomes that result that we will be investigating in the GLOBAL-RURAL project. To assist our analysis we will be drawing on a number of academic concepts including ‘assemblage theory’ and ‘counter-topography’, which we will explain and discuss in subsequent posts. We will also be employing a wide range of research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and carrying out fieldwork in diverse case study locations from Wales to Queensland, from Newfoundland to New Zealand, and China to Brazil. Our conception of globalization is broad, encompassing trade liberalization and the stretching of commodity chains, foreign direct investment and disinvestment, the role of transnational corporations, land-grabbing, amenity migration and labour migration, cultural convergence, growing global consciousness, and responses to so-called ‘global challenges’ such as climate change, food security, energy sustainability, water resources and biodiversity. We will also be examining what we call ‘everyday globalization’ – changes in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the tv programmes we watch, the places we go on holiday, the social networks we have and so on – through an in-depth study of the Welsh town of Newtown.

You can find out more about the research design on the ‘About’ page, or listen to me talking about the project here.

We will be posting regularly on this blog with news and updates about the project, reports from fieldwork locations, maps and visualizations, observations about current events and news stories, and links to related research and interesting websites. We will also be uploaded papers and presentations from the GLOBAL-RURAL project and other outputs on the website. You can also follow us on Twitter @globalrural for updates.

* Woods, M (2007) Engaging the global countryside: globalization, hybridity and the reconstitution of rural place, Progress in Human Geography, 31: 485-507 (DOI (subscription required)).