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Imagining the Rural in a Globalizing World

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - RURALIMAGINATIONS (Imagining the Rural in a Globalizing World)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

RURALIMAGINATIONS focuses on the crucial role played by widely read and viewed cultural imaginations – novels, films, television series – in determining what aspects of the contemporary globalized rural are and are not visible, and on how this affects political mobilizations of the rural. This is relevant in the context of the 2016 Brexit referendum; the American presidential elections of 2016 and 2020; the 2019 farmers' protests in the Netherlands in response to announced measures to cut nitrogen emissions; ongoing discussions about land reform in post-Apartheid South Africa; and the Chinese State's promotion of rapid urbanization.
Our three central research questions are:
1) To what extent do cultural imaginations render globalization’s effects on the rural (in)visible?
2) What role do traditional rural genres like the idyll and the feelings and desires they attach to the rural play in this making (in)visible?
3) How can new aesthetic repertoires highlighting the rural as a dynamic site of globalization and addressing growing rural-urban divides be developed?
The project proposes that the detailed analysis of the form and content of prominent cultural imaginations of the rural is a vital addition to looking at what is actually happening in rural areas because such imaginations influence how people, both inside and outside the rural, make sense of it and its relation to globalization. The project is unique in comparing five national contexts across four continents – the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, China and South Africa – and in examining, in the project synthesis, how certain rural imaginations have themselves achieved global reach.
The first two-and-a-half years of the RURALIMAGINATIONS project saw the following major research achievements:
1) The research team was recruited, consolidated and expanded. The PI (Esther Peeren) recruited two postdocs (Emily Ng, China subproject; Hanneke Stuit, South Africa subproject), three PhDs (Anke Bosma, Netherlands subproject; Lelia Tavakoli Farsooni, UK subproject; Tjalling Valdés Olmos, US subproject) and three research assistants (Zaza de Ridder, 2019-2020; Calvin Duggan, 2020-2021; Ayumi Fillipone, 2020-2021). To consolidate the team, team meetings were held and a teambuilding excursion was organized to Veenhuizen, a former pauper colony in a rural part of the Netherlands. This excursion resulted in a joint publication in the online journal Collateral titled "Dutch Domestic Colonization: From Rural Idyll to Prison Museum" (
2) We formulated provisional answers to the research questions. We established that in all five national contexts many prominent cultural imaginations of the rural still present it through idealizing idyllic or pastoral genres. At the same time, we found that some prominent cultural imaginations thematize the idyll/pastoral’s inadequacy to rural reality, as well as the detrimental effects of people’s lingering affective attachment to these genres. In critiquing these effects, some cultural imaginations of the rural suggest reconfigurations of the idyll/pastoral, including in decolonial and posthuman veins.
3) We expanded the theoretical framework in two ways. First, we are engaging with post- and decolonial theories in order to grasp how many cultural imaginations of the rural ignore the afterlives of coloniality that haunt the rural. This engagement is central to the joint Collateral publication. Second, we are exploring to what extent the rural is being reimagined through posthuman frameworks. A first result of this is the 2020 article “Making Up the British Countryside: A Posthuman Critique of Country Life’s Narratives of Rural Resilience and Conservation” in the Journal of Rural Studies.
4) We brought humanities and social science scholarship on the rural into dialogue. One of the project's main objectives is to expand the field of rural studies – largely confined to the social sciences – to the humanities and to set up durable collaborations between social scientists and humanities scholars. Important steps have been taken towards this aim. Not only does our team include researchers with humanities and social science backgrounds, but so have all the project events held so far. That our interdisciplinary approach has already gained recognition within the field of rural studies is evidenced by the fact that two articles co-authored by Peeren were published in the Journal of Rural Studies, a top journal that predominantly contains work by social, economic and natural scientists.
5) We have actively involved artists and cultural producers in the project. In June 2019, Peeren, Stuit, Ng and Tavakoli Farsooni attended the Rural Assembly at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, a three-day event featuring “contemporary artists and creative practitioners who are challenging the assumptions made about rural life and culture, providing a new vision of the countryside grounded in everyday experience and a critique of the rural-urban binary.” The event coincided with an exhibition of the artist collective MyVillages. Wapke Feenstra, a member of MyVillages, gave a presentation at the RURALIMAGINATIONS project launch in June 2019, and invited us to be part of a public event at TENT Arts Center in Rotterdam related to her exposition Boerenzij (Farmers’ Side) in December 2019. Further collaborations with MyVillages are planned, including in a long-term project called The Rural School for Economics. The international expert meeting in Aberystwyth, in November 2019, featured a panel discussion between two authors (Cynan Jones and Caryl Lewis) and a location manager (Paul Bach Davies) involved in creating the rural-set BBC series Hinterland.
6) The project has attracted attention from other rural stakeholders. At the December 2020 online RURALIMAGINATIONS workshop on “The Self-Image and Public Image of Dutch Farmers and the Politics of the Rural,” Esther Peeren and Peter van Dam, a historian of sustainability, presented their article-in-progress “Scales of Sustainability: Redefining the Position of Productivist Farmers in Debates about the Environment,” to be submitted to Geoforum in March 2021. This article was conceived after Peeren and Van Dam were invited by Amsterdam Green Campus – a non-profit foundation at the University of Amsterdam that connects government, business and higher education – to consult on a study of agrarians commissioned by the municipality of Hollands Kroon. In November 2020, a virtual roundtable was organized by AGC to discuss the article with scholars from the social and natural sciences; this group plans to form an interdisciplinary thinktank for sustainability questions. A meeting to discuss the article with representatives of Hollands Kroon and the Netherlands Agricultural and Horticultural Organization is also planned.
7) We have disseminated our research results in academic and non-academic venues. The project’s findings have been published in academic journals – Journal of Rural Studies, Journal of Cultural Studies, Collateral, Social Dynamics, Made in China, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute – and presented in academic institutions, through keynotes, invited lectures and conference presentations. Results were also disseminated through public events, including the event at TENT Rotterdam, Valdés Olmos’ contribution to a discussion about the documentary Americaville organized by Pakhuis de Zwijger Amsterdam, Bosma’s participation in a podcast about cinematic depictions of European countrysides for Pod Academy, and Peeren’s contribution to an article on cottagecore in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw. Dissemination also occurred through teaching at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Groningen.
8) We designed and launched a project website:
In formulating provisional answers to our research questions, expanding the theoretical framework by engaging with decolonial and posthuman approaches, bringing social science and humanities scholars on the rural into dialogue, involving artists and cultural producers, attracting the attention of rural stakeholders, and disseminating our findings in academic and non-academic contexts, we have already progressed beyond the state of the art. In the remainder of the project, we will build on these achievements by organizing a 3-day international project conference in Amsterdam (planned for June 2022) geared towards prompting further dialogue and collaborations between humanities and social science scholars, cultural producers, artists and other rural stakeholders. This conference will generate an edited volume or special issue. In addition, more academic publications will appear from all team members, including monographs by Stuit and Peeren, with the latter designed to bring together the findings of the subprojects and to explore the global reach of particular rural imaginations. The ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic has been a major challenge and has caused some serious delays in the project, leading to the cancellation/postponement of research stays, conference presentations and, most seriously, the international expert meetings in New York (planned for May 2020) Beijing (planned for December 2020) and Amsterdam (planned for February 2021), and delaying work on a planned popular scientific volume. Smaller-scale online events – Rural Imaginations x Dissent Magazine (May 2020), Remaking the Chinese Village through Cinema and Pork Markets (November 2020) and The Self-Image and Public Image of Dutch Farmers and the Politics of the Rural (December 2020) – were organized to keep the project's momentum going, and tri-weekly team meetings continued online. We hope to still be able to hold the New York and Beijing meetings at a later stage and will integrate the Amsterdam meeting into the international project conference. The international expert meeting in Johannesburg (planned for June 2021) will be held online as a two-day workshop geared towards preparing an interdisciplinary publication on Hinterlands: Reimagining the Rural, for which a CfP has been sent out with our partners Sarah Nuttall and Pamila Gupta from the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), with whom Peeren and Stuit have had a series of regular online meetings in 2020-2021. Although the pandemic has caused delays and difficulties for the project, it has also underlined its urgency: not only have idyllic imaginations of the rural as providing an escape from the urban epicenters of the pandemic experienced a resurgence, but the pandemic has also highlighted certain rural realities often obfuscated in popular rural imaginations (such as the presence in the rural of structures highly susceptible to disease outbreaks like prisons, meat processing factories and mink farms that bring large numbers of people and animals together in close proximity; the rural's underservicing, especially when it comes to hospital beds; and the rural's dependency on international trade and tourism). In the remainder of our project, we seek to shed further light on why idyllic imaginations of the rural remain so appealing, especially at times of crisis and even when their inadequacy to rural realities is obvious, as well as on how other imaginations of the rural might be created capable of accounting for the rural's involvement in globalization processes that perpetuate colonial, capitalist and environmental violence.
Cover Program Project Launch Meeting Amsterdam June 2019
Cover Program International Expert Meeting Aberystwyth November 2019