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article number 582
article date 08-16-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Changing Philosophies of Rural Life
by Walter Slocum, Professor of Sociology, Washington State University

From the 1970 USDA Yearbook.

* * *

A PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE is what anthropologists call a “world view.” That is, it is a generalized perspective made up of beliefs, values, and customary ways of solving life’s problems.

There have been no systematic large scale studies and few small ones designed primarily to identify different philosophies of life among various residential segments of the population of the United States. Consequently, there is little “hard” evidence concerning the subject.

Thus, we are forced to rely on indirect evidence from behavior and on the comments of knowledgeable students of rural life.

Information from these sources generally supports the proposition that many traditional rural and urban differences in life styles and philosophies have disappeared as rural people have become more urbanized. This does not mean that variations in world view no longer exist between individuals, families, or ethnic groups.

Specialization, diversity, mobility and individualization are characteristic of contemporary America, both rural and urban.

Despite the great heterogeneity that stems from the diverse ethnic, religious, and racial origins of our population, some common beliefs, values, and goals appear to be generally agreed upon by most American adults, regardless of residence.

Robin Williams, in the 1960 edition of his book ‘American Society,’ listed the following typical American values:
- achievement and success,
- activity and work,
- moral orientation,
- humanitarian mores,
- efficiency and practicability progress,
- material comfort,
- equality,
- freedom,
- external conformity,
- science and secular rationality,
- nationalism-patriotism,
- democracy,
- individual personality,
- racism and related group-superiority themes.

To this list, I would add the belief that education is not only the channel for upward occupational mobility but the key to solution of all or nearly all contemporary problems.

Not long ago men with college degrees were scorned by farmers and by many others as impractical. Now, advanced education is seen as crucial to successful careers, even in farming.

So, from a position of extreme skepticism about education, rural people have moved to the other polar extreme. Many now have a naive belief that more education will solve poverty, crime, marital unhappiness, and all other problems. There is mounting evidence that the outcomes may be less utopian.

Williams’ list identifies values that appear logically inconsistent with other values in the same list; for example, freedom and conformity. Many other examples could be given.

Dairy farmer Arthur Litton balances books as family relaxes in their home in Washington
County. Md.
Littons tend their cows.

Francis L. K. Hsu, in his 1961 book, ‘Psychological Anthropology,’ has suggested that the element in the American world view which explains these contradictions is what he calls the core value of “. . . self-reliance, the most persistent psychological expression of which is the fear of dependence.”

I am not prepared to take as strong a stand as Dr. Hsu with respect to the overriding importance of self-reliance as the core value in the American value system, but it does seem to me that it is one of our most important values and I believe it is generally accepted by the majority, both rural and urban.

In the world of work, the emphasis of self-reliance appears in the Puritan work ethic which stresses the necessity of hard work, long hours, and devotion to duty as a formula for success.

In the family setting, this is manifested in the common desire of parents to have their children develop into adults who can make their own major decisions and become economically independent.

The idea that society should support able-bodied persons in idleness is clearly repugnant to the majority of Americans, including those who live in rural areas.

Hsu also suggests that the unrelenting competition engendered by the necessity to be self-reliant and successful may contribute to feelings of insecurity, with subsequent negative consequences.

Racial and ethnic prejudice in both rural and urban areas may be due in large part to fear that competition for jobs from people of other races and different ethnic backgrounds threatens the security of white workers.

But even though self-reliance may be a core value, it is not generally pursued to the ultimate of “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

Cooperation to attain mutually desired goals is characteristic within organizations and communities. Furthermore, most Americans have a basic orientation of friendliness and kindliness, a human rather than an animal perspective.

These humanitarian aspects of American philosophies of life have their source in the religious ideology of western civilization. In fact, religion is generally acknowledged to be one of the great character-building forces in our society.

The influence of the “Golden Rule” and other religious precepts enters into the philosophies of many who do not belong to or attend a specific church.

Growing emphasis in American society on the individual’s right to “do his own thing” appears to me to be closely related to the value placed on self-reliance.


Paradoxically, while stressing individual freedom and the right to self-determination for ourselves, most of us also believe that freedom to take many types of actions should be restrained. “There ought to be a law against that” we say, and soon there is such a law.

In my opinion, the idea that the typical American makes his decisions without reference to other persons and groups is largely a myth. Few major decisions are made without reference to the reactions of other people who are important to a decision maker.

Thus, people tend to be guided by the norms, beliefs, and values shared by their close associates.

This does not mean that the idea of self-determination is unimportant. The fact is that it is a shared value and many antisocial actions are justified in terms of it.

“It’s his and he has a right to do what he pleases with it” is still heard. But, of course, we all know that an individual is not free to do anything he wishes with his property even though property is highly valued. That is because we recognize that the welfare of others, the interests of society, may be a higher value.

We do not accept the Potlatch custom of the aboriginal Northwest Indians, a ceremony during which chiefs destroyed valuable property to gain prestige. We would send a person who tried to follow this custom to a mental institution. Yet we do approve of certain types of waste such as new fashions in clothes and new models of cars every year.

Writing in the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture on “A Philosophy of Life for the American Farmer,” William Ernest Hocking characterized the farmer as a conservative hard working property owner with an opportunity for a superior family life. He thought of the, farm family as the bastion of society and expressed concern that fundamental values would be lost if the urbanization of the countryside continued.

Said Hocking, “No civilization survives when the urbanite becomes the model for all groups.” I hope he was wrong, because the pace of urbanization continues to accelerate.

Values and fundamental beliefs change slowly. Changes in core values may take a generation, sometimes longer. Thus, we do not feel the full impact until a new generation of leaders takes over.

There is such a thing as a generation gap. Our own children live in a different world of values from ours. And a small but highly vocal, mainly urban minority apparently rejects many of the values accepted by the great majority of Americans.


Certain identifiable segments of the rural population have distinctive life styles and presumably also have distinctive philosophies of life, although all share to some extent in the major American values discussed earlier.

Commercial farmers are not a homogeneous group that shares a set of values, beliefs, and norms that are distinctive and unique. There are important differences among farm people engaged in different types of farming. Even within a specific type of farming such as wheat, ranching, apple growing, beef cattle ranching, or dairying there are regional, local, and individual differences.

A friend who was raised in the ranch area of Montana once told me that the typical attitude toward work of local cowboys could be expressed by the statement: “I can do anything, I mean anything that can be done on horseback.”

Nevertheless, all the commercial farmers—or at least all who are economically successful—share with other businessmen a common set of beliefs, values, and norms about private enterprise, including emphasis on the importance of profits, the privileged position of owners of private property, and tax incentives for business.

I do not mean to suggest that commercial farmers do not have a desire for rural living, even though some of the most successful actually live in cities. However, it seems to me that the one common distinguishing aspect of their philosophies of life is allegiance to what might be called the business ethic.

The situation appears to be quite different for part-time farmers and for open country residents who do not farm. For the most part, these people work at nonfarm jobs but live in the open country because they place a high value on rural living.

Many of them believe that the countryside is not only a healthful place to live but a morally wholesome setting for their children to grow up in.

Most of the breadwinners in these families are employees, in contrast to the commercial farmers, most of whom are self-employed. Consequently, while they may share some of the attitudes of the latter concerning property, relatively few are profit-oriented in the same sense as a businessman.

Although there is little objective justification for such a belief, many feel that their part-time farms give them security in case of layoffs. Thus, their farming operations reflect their desire to be self-reliant and independent.

A 65-year-old farmer works part of his 30 acres of land in Morgan County, Tenn.

Rural Poor People

Large local concentrations of subsistence farmers are found in Appalachia and in other areas of the Southeastern United States. In addition, they are interspersed among more prosperous farmers in other parts of the country.

Many are former sharecroppers who have been displaced by cotton picking machines or other new technology. Some are displaced miners. All of them are poor unless they have other sources of income, some because they are ill or too old to compete for nonfarm jobs, others because they are uneducated, and some for additional reasons.

With a few notable exceptions such as the residents of Marks, Miss., many of whom participated in the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, these disadvantaged rural people do not demonstrate or plead for their rights in the fashion of their kinfolk who have moved into the so-called urban ghettos. Their apparent apathy is a reflection of their philosophy of life.

Many who once had greater aspirations have resigned themselves to their lot, apparently believing that any improvement in their living conditions cannot come through collective action. Yet it is clear from studies in the Southeast that a large number of subsistence farmers have aspirations for their children to rise from poverty.

Lots of the people who live in Appalachia apparently embrace the same values, beliefs, and norms as their ancestors of colonial times did. Although television is now bringing them into vicarious contact with the outside world, they still live in relative isolation and have a world view that emphasizes kinship, membership in small friendship groups, and fundamentalist religious beliefs.

According to the Rev. Jack E. Weller, who resided in Appalachia for many years, the mountain folk tend to be introspective, fatalistic, individualistic, and traditional.

Another major difference from people in the mainstream of American life emphasized by Weller is a tendency to “live for today” rather than being future oriented.

In his words:

“The mountain man . . . has a “regressive” outlook for he does not look forward to tomorrow with pleasant anticipation. For generations his life has been hard and uncertain.

“(Life is) . . . geared toward achieving only the very basic goods needed for survival—food, shelter, and a minimum of comfort.”


The competition and anxiety of modern technological society is not characteristic of mountain folk in their home communities. Thus, when they migrate to urban areas they tend to have problems adjusting to new social environments.

This same dedicated adherence to a unique social subsystem and its traditional values is also characteristic of groups such as the Amish, for whom the dominant values are religious. Even today, in the last third of the twentieth century, according to John Hostetler, the Old Order Amish have the same beliefs, value the same ideals, observe the identical social norms, and use the same farming practices as their great, great grandparents.

The noted anthropologist Clark Wissler in his 1940 book, ‘Indians of the United States,’ said “One of the first things to learn about Indians is that there are many kinds of them.”

Originally independent, all of the Indian tribes and nations were overcome by the invading whites. Descendants of these proud aboriginal warriors have lived in poverty on rural reservations for several generations. However, few tribes have been willing to abandon all of their traditional values and beliefs even though they were obliged to adopt new patterns of behavior.

Indians preparing to stack hay with tractor stacker in a hay guard chat with USDA man. Thirteen families on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, N. Dak., formed a livestock association and borrowed funds to buy equipment and breeding stock.

Until recently most Indian Americans apparently had accepted their circumstances with the fatalistic philosophy that nothing could be done to change their lot. There are indications that this perspective is changing. Indians in many parts of the United States are beginning to challenge existing arrangements that they now regard as unacceptable.

The perspectives of life of Negroes living in the rural South have grown out of their long history of slavery followed by continued white domination. If we can judge by their apparent reluctance to take direct action to challenge local arrangements, their philosophy of life has changed less than those of their kinfolk who have migrated to the metropolis.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that their perspectives, especially those of younger people, have been changed materially by events of the past decade. Tangible expression of this can be observed in the election of Negroes to local offices and in collective action in some communities designed to change school policies and practices.

Mrs. Louise Miller and her 15-year-old daughter put finishing touches on their new home in Madison County, Ala., while Mr. Miller is on job as a truck driver. The family put in about 1,000 hours assembling and finishing home.

Rural Mexican-Americans have clung tenaciously to their own value systems and to the Spanish language. In the past, they have proved less receptive to assimilation into the larger society than have immigrants from northern European countries.

In 1954, Lyle Saunders described some of the major aspects of the world views of Spanish-speaking people that differ from the perspectives of Anglo-Americans:

1. They tend to have a different time orientation, instead of being oriented toward the future they are oriented to the present and the immediate past.

2. They do not have a concept of progress and hence express little desire for change.

3. They do not accept the Puritan work ethic, rather they think of work as something which is necessary but not important in itself.

4. They do not stress independence and success for the individual, and

5. They tend to be fatalistic, being “. . . more likely to meet difficulties by adjusting to them than by attempting to overcome them.”

For the substantial numbers who are still employed as migratory agricultural laborers and in other unskilled occupations, the foregoing views may still be prevalent. Others have moved out of their native communities in the Southwest and entered actively into competition with Anglo-Americans; these apparently have accepted many of the values and norms of the dominant group.

Spanish-speaking couple confer with builder of their new pre-fab home in Oakley, Calif. Both homes in this section were financed by Farmers Home Administration.
Husband—who did good bit of work on home himself—shows kitchen cabinet to one of his children.

We may conclude from this brief review that the perspectives of rural residents are characterized by diversity rather than unity, except to the extent that they share with all other Americans certain common values, beliefs, and norms.

Although there are notable exceptions, most people who live in small towns or in the open country are highly urbanized. They do not live in the past but are full partners of their urban contemporaries in meeting the problems of the times.

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