The Right to be Rural During a Pandemic: Exploring Narratives of Place, Displacement, and ‘The Right to be Rural’ in the Context of COVID-19

Authors: S. Ashleigh Weeden*, PhD Candidate - School of Environmental Design & Rural Development, Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, Jean Hardy, Assistant Professor, Department of Media & Information, Michigan State University, Karen Foster, Associate Professor; Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada; Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University
Topics: Rural Geography, Social Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: rural geography, COVID-19, right to be rural, displacement, urban flight, contested geographies, rural development, place-based policy, rural Canada, rural America
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 7
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Climate change, neoliberal social and economic policies, population ageing and outmigration, food security and sovereignty, and many other issues are dramatically changing small town and rural life. Such challenges are also exposing the decaying relationship between rural citizens and their states, as external actors deem rural places as too costly or inefficient to deliver basic services and amenities (e.g., healthcare, Internet). The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of these challenges closer to the surface while also raising new questions in the negotiation of ‘the right to be rural’.

In this paper, we conduct a discourse analysis of media content (e.g., social media posts, news articles) to interpret the complexity of ‘the right be rural’ in the context of urban flight and the COVID-19 pandemic. We ask: who counts as rural ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? How does one acquire a right to a rural place? Whose rights count, in narratives of rural displacement and urban flight? We bring media narratives into conversation with our own field sites in rural Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Michigan, to show how feelings of rural displacement are tied to concepts of community, identity, and safety. Drawing from the political economy of rurality, we describe the power relations, inequalities and historical contingencies that structure the experiences of full-time and part-time residents during the pandemic. We argue that both the political economy of rural-urban relations, and the construction of place-based identities, are significant in understanding the social processes that shape the ‘right to be rural’ during and after COVID-19.

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