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Southern Cultures 13.4 (2007) 86-102

Selling Which South?
Economic Change in Rural and Small-Town North Carolina in an Era of Globalization, 1940–2007
Peter A. Coclanis
Louis M. Kyriakoudes

Although most people do not realize it, it has been a long time now since agriculture dominated rural areas in the developed world. Most do know that farmers today constitute but a tiny proportion of the U.S. labor force—about 1.55 percent in 2005—yet few have bothered to ask just what rural folks are doing for a living.1 While the public at large appears to have missed the decoupling of "rural" from "agriculture," this development has shaken several academic disciplines to the core. Entire fields, rural sociology and rural geography, for example, were founded on the assumption that the relationship between rural and agriculture was nearly akin to a mathematical identity, remaining true regardless of the values either of these variables acquired. Even while fewer and fewer farmers were "out standing" in their fields, many so-called agricultural historians merely shifted their attention away from questions relating to agricultural production per se to other questions that had rural dimensions: gender relations, childhood, and rural leisure and consumption patterns, for example.

Not surprisingly, then, once the relationship between rural and agriculture was severed, these disciplines took a nosedive, and it has taken the better part of a generation for them to reemerge, and then only in a much reduced and altered form. Some students of rural agriculture have redefined their terrain by moving away from the study of specific rural locales in the developed world towards the study of global agro-food systems and commodity chains. Some have adopted political economy models, often derived from industrial geography and industrial sociology, and injected class analysis into rural studies, while others still have repositioned themselves as social, women's, or labor historians. A few—Deborah Fink and Steve Striffler, for example—began in a literal rather than figurative sense to study factories in the fields.2

Despite the venerable bond between "rural" and "agriculture," manufacturing has played a role in rural America from the colonial period, when domestic manufacturing in rural households constituted the primary type of industrial activity. [End Page 86] The vast majority of domestic manufactures was intended for home consumption, but by the late eighteenth century, some was destined for markets, and variants on European, rural proto-industrialization schemes existed. In the early national period, rural areas and small towns in New England were the first sites of large-scale, centralized manufacturing activity—the factory system—in North America, and in the antebellum period some large manufactories existed in the rural South.3


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National planners and the federal government first became interested in rural manufacturing as a development strategy in the 1930s and 1940s, but the South—or at least individuals and companies operating therein—had by that time been pursuing such a strategy for generations, albeit with mixed success. Spinner in Vivian Cotton Mills, Cherryville, North Carolina, 1908, photographed by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

When the South embarked upon modern industrialization in the 1880s, almost all of the early initiatives focused on rural areas and small towns. Although some larger towns and cities later assumed prominent roles as manufacturing centers in the region, much of the South's industrial activity, particularly in the Carolinas, remained sited in non-metropolitan areas—the rural districts and small towns that lay outside the largest urban areas. When national planners and the federal government first became interested in rural manufacturing as a development strategy in the 1930s and 1940s, the South—or at least individuals and companies operating therein—had already been pursuing such a strategy for generations, albeit with mixed success. Antebellum industrialist William Gregg, whose famed [End Page 87] Graniteville complex in the Horse Creek Valley of South Carolina was one of the region...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 86-102
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-14
Open Access
No
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