The conference will provide important opportunities for rural social scientists to explore new evidence and approaches to understanding rural diversity and inequality. It will seek to pose new questions around both traditional and emerging conflicts. The conference will reflect work within and between the following four themes:
Growing inequalities at the global scale
With globalisation has come an increase in disparity among individuals, groups, territories, and states. In rural areas these processes are particularly relevant. Rural populations account for a large share of poverty in the world, and are particularly vulnerable to climate change, regional conflicts, price volatility, the strategies of big players in food production and other sectors. Current economic and financial crises are expected to have a major impact on rural territories and people although the detail of this impact is as yet unknown.
Growth in emergent countries has not mitigated this trend, indeed it has potentially exacerbated it, as concentration in processes of growth has fostered poles of attraction of economic activities and of people, increasing inequalities both within and between states. The liberalization of trade has undoubtedly had differential impacts and increased the vulnerability of the poorest countries.
Inequalities are exacerbated by the global environmental crisis. Under the pressure of resource scarcity, emerging states carry out aggressive procurement policies based on agricultural exploitation of land in foreign countries, putting in danger present and future livelihoods of local populations. Climate change, which causes chronic stresses such as water crises, yield decreases, land degradation, and catastrophes, affects regions and social groups in an unequal way. A growing body of literature on the link between poverty and environmental degradation has raised awareness of such inequalities and must lead to a radical review of the principles underlying the functioning of the dominant economic system.
Science and Technology are not neutral to these processes. In the present regulatory regimes, there is a clear link between knowledge production, private appropriation and creation of inequalities. New technologies also change the relations between people and nature, redefining the boundaries between them and opening new opportunities to concentrate the control of the body
Nowhere is the theme of inequality so evident as in the global production of and access to food. Statistics show that in recent years a gap between people with access to nutritious and healthy food and those without has widened; food inequality is not simply between North and South but occurs at regional and national scales. Moreover, the food sector is highly concentrated into a handful of companies dominating the world seed production, grain transportation, food retailing.
The multidimensionality of inequality and the importance of diversity
Inequality has several interconnected dimensions. The same income levels can hide huge differences in quality of life or in happiness. Health and wellbeing, knowledge and skills, status, or access to public goods (water, clean air, biodiversity), peace, social cohesion, feelings of belonging and many other dimensions concur to equality / inequality among people and among territories.
Inequality can have different meanings and different implications when related to diversity of human beings and to the ways diversity, such as age, gender, culture and religion, race and ethnicity, are articulated into hierarchies of power that produces and reproduces inequality and social exclusion.
Depending on specific contexts, diversity can be a source of discrimination - and therefore of inequality – or of empowerment. Diversity is also a key to the transition to sustainable systems. It can be mobilized to diversify economic activities, to differentiate products to keep an advantage on industrial food, to provide resilience to economic systems, or to mitigate and adapt socio-environmental systems to climate change.
Diversity in space and rural areas
The rural is a privileged point from which to explore the complexity of the links between diversity and inequality. It is home of biodiversity and traditional knowledge, a kind of original source of diversity. As a result of processes of change, rural areas have been characterised by both homogeneity and diversity and as such have been associated in some places with the reproduction of inequalities while in others they have been drivers of change. Climate change, financial and economic crises, environmental problems, geopolitics contribute to the creation of new urban/rural patterns underlying reconfigurations of power. Rural diversity and inequality has also played out over time and space. Different configurations and processes in space (density, distance and division) and in time (early/late, tradition/innovation, change/ stability) produce and reproduce spatial diversity, which in turn can cause processes of adjustment through mobility.
The view of rural diversity as something to be reduced or even removed and replaced with modern organization and technologies has been progressively countered by the specificity of place in the context of resource development. Approaches to development mainly conceived of in rural areas, based on the idea that production, reproduction and mobilization of territorial capital (human, social, cultural, institutional, natural) may be a key to successful development patterns. These new approaches are feeding alternative strategies of economic development in other contexts.
Diversity and inequality – Implications for the governance of European States and Institutions
The principle of equality is largely taken into consideration in different EU policies. Social and territorial cohesion are increasingly seen and used as means to counterbalance divergence caused by the creation of a single market and related economic policies of market liberalisation. Rural areas are among the most interesting fields of implementation of innovative cohesion policies. There is no doubt that, as a result of successful implementation of cohesion policies in rural areas, there is an increasing awareness of the complexity of the relations between territorial diversity and inequality on the one hand and of the need to deal with these aspects in an interdisciplinary way, on the other. In spite of this, rural Europe is still faced with an unreasonable imbalance in financial provision of funds. With the enlargement of the EU, new disparities have emerged and largely neglected by policies.
In times of climate, energy, food, economic and financial crisis as those we are living in today, agriculture and rural areas have again gained a central place in the policy debate. It is not only the issue of budget cuts to agricultural and rural policies that are at stake but, more profoundly, the broader role of agriculture and the goals of agricultural and rural policies.
Rural sociology can make an important contribution to both policy makers and civil society to foster the improvement of policies and governance patterns to meet new challenges. It needs to engage seriously with questions about the integration of inequality issues with policy goals. It needs to urgently confront ways of conciliating climate mitigation and adaptation, energy diversification policies, measures to reduce financial instability, immigration policies and social cohesion.
On behalf of the ESRS Scientific Committee,