Historians often understand the “modernity” of the last two centuries to have been situated in urban geographies and shaped by the global diffusion of capitalism, scientific technocracy, and governmentality. In the United States, this interpretation portrays rurality as a passive victim of modernity, even as it describes rural life as the embodiment of an authentic American past. In contrast, this panel turns to the American countryside to explore crucial moments in the history of national formation, agricultural science and industry, state building, and community development. In so doing, it rethinks American and global modernities by considering rural spaces as characteristically modern and rural people as pivotal actors.
Tracking the development of institutions of scientific agriculture, Ariel Ron explores the construction of political economy in antebellum America. He argues that these institutions critiqued the exchange of American agricultural commodities for European manufactured goods. Upending narratives that frame urbanization as a “depletion” of the countryside, Ron's scientific agriculturalists encouraged the development of urban industry because industrial waste could return to rural soil what was lost through the export of agricultural commodities. This critique of antebellum political economy, Ron argues, reflected a rural modernizing impulse that shaped tariff policies, state institutions, and party formation.
By focusing on the cultural positioning of agricultural commodities in Sioux City's late nineteenth century Corn Palaces, Kelly Sisson Lessens examines how Midwesterners understood the capitalist transformation of the countryside. She describes how, as regional boosters promoted the transformation of their “natural” resources to attract the capital necessary to develop their communities, they performed the gendered and racial superiority of white settlers to indigenous populations. She argues that the emergence of “modern” urban space required cultivated hinterlands dotted with “civilized” white farmsteads.
In his paper on the early twentieth century 4-H movement, Gabriel Rosenberg explains how a rural intersection of state power and modernizing impulses generated an important experiment in governance. USDA-administered 4-H youth clubs allowed state experts to engage rural communities through an alliance of statist authority, local voluntary labor, and commercial capital. This unprecedented structure, he argues, enabled club work to traverse scales of governance and to create a model of civil-state hybridity used around the globe in post-war “development” projects.
Daniel Immerwahr's paper explores US-sponsored “development” projects in post-war Philippines and India and concludes that rural sociology, informed by experience of the pre-war rural United States, played an important role in formulating a “low-modernist” development model. Immerwahr contends that this development model emphasized local knowledge and grassroots democratic action, characteristics which distinguished it from elite-focused “modernization theory.” While “low-modernist” development schemes have been overlooked by historians and policy-makers, Immerwahr argues they have profoundly shaped community development programs throughout the rural Third World.
By examining the interactions among technocratic authority, economic development, and state power in rural contexts, this panel argues that the study of America's rural past can illuminate the American and global present.