Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 77, 1948-49
This text is also available in PDF
(514 KB) Opens in new window
– 331 –

Rural Sociology in New Zealand

The amount of sociologically significant work that has been done in this country in recent years is considerable. Local studies in farm topography and farm management have become a regular feature of the widely circulated Journal of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture appointed, some time ago, several officers who were given the title of rural sociologists. It has working for it experienced instructors on all aspects of agriculture. Every encouragement is being given to young-farmers' clubs. The community-centre movement, under the auspices of the Departments of Internal Affairs and Education, is fast going beyond its experimental stage. Agricultural instruction for primary, district-high, and high-school pupils has been expanded in scope, personnel and method, and one of the Agricultural Colleges of the University of New Zealand publishes periodically a bulletin to foster rural education. The amounts budgeted yearly for country library service and all matters related to soil research and kindred problems are steadily increasing.

Side by side with these activities, the publicity that in the past was given to the Ottawa agreements, and that is being given since the end of the war to CORSO, UNRRA, and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, has made New Zealand more conscious than ever of the chief source of its wealth. Problems of resettlement and of claiming of new farming land have entered a new stage with the rehabilitation of returned service men. The abolition of the country quota in 1946 has cut the knot of an old problem of parliamentary representation, by deciding an issue to which great political importance was attached in the relationships of town and country. The farming community is linked with international economic policies through the work of various boards handling produce, the External Marketing Division, and all the financial transactions that are called for by their work. Problems of farm tenancy and credit organisation have not been lost sight of by either the Government departments or by academic research.

New Zealand literature on rural problems has grown rapidly during the last ten years. There are such books as Somerset's examplary study of a rural community;1 special research works such as Doig's on the conditions of living of dairy farmers2 (which is remarkable for being the only attempt made in this country to apply methods of mathematical statistics to evaluate this kind of research material), and Hamilton's on the dairying industry;3 several studies on Maori problems.4 The centennial series devoted to the farmer in New Zealand a special survey which culminated in what can only be described as a philosophy of farming.5 A comprehensive study in scientific co-ordination, presenting a synoptic view of land utilisation, farm organisation, and finance and marketing, was carried out on behalf of the Institute of Pacific Relations by H. Belshaw, D. O. Williams and others in the years between the depression and the war.6 No. 6 in the Reconstruction Series of the Institute of International Affairs surveyed the future of farming by an expert author.7

The emphasis and purpose in these and many other activities was either economic, 01 political, or technological, or educational. A strictly sociological approach—that is, one that regards all the activities and events of rural life in a given society not as ends in themselves, but as factors determining the development, character, conditions and relationships of the farm and family units that combine to make rural life what it is, and thus considers them as the component parts of the social life in the rural community—such an approach has rarely been adopted. My purpose is to examine this approach of rural sociology in sufficient detail to show its use and method, and, by doing so, to commend its adoption to the consideration of all who are concerned with rural New Zealand. There appear to be ample possibilities of research of a strictly scientific character in this direction, in which as yet we have scarcely ventured to take the first hesitant steps. This line of research has been no further pursued since the Social Science Research Bureau in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research ceased to function after the publication of one sociographic survey of limited scope.

Considered in its broadest terms, the problem may be put as follows: External and internal marketing by government agencies; the operation of a

– 332 –

guaranteed-price system for certain kinds of produce; dominion-wide planning of crops in conjunction with import policy; reclamation of new farming land and afforestation; fertiliser supplies and subsidies; stabilisation policy and exchange control; representation of farming interests in organisations on a nation-wide basis; and many other factors, have brought about a tremendous administrative concentration and centralisation of agricultural policies and practices. It would not be an easy task to reconcile this situation with what may be described in shorthand by the American term of the democratic principle of participation, but this reconciliation must be attempted. Moreover, the question has become urgent what effects developments such as those mentioned have had, and continue to have, on the structure and dynamics of our rural community.

A moment's reflection will make us apprehend the world of difference between this reality and an ideology of freedom and progress, such as, for instance, that of Herbert Spencer's sociology; despite the battering which it received at the hands of two generations of sociologists in almost every country in the civilised world, this ideology seems to have persisted in public opinion. While one must not shrink from putting in its broadest outline the problem at the base of our society, it is evident that it will be, as such, quite unmanageable, except by expression in a manner of rather vague philosophical reflection, or by the wide sweep of a historical summary. Whenever these interpretations have succeeded in throwing light on the dark and confused scene of the daily workings of society, they were made as guess rather than dogma, and at the end, not at the beginning, of a life-time devoted to scientific inquiry into the problems of social life. No sociologist who has not, at one time or another, keenly felt the agony derived from what on inspection turned out to be merely “verbal” essays at a statement and some solution of problems of such magnitude. The history of sociology is the story of the attempts to break down the general problem of organised life in modern society into more manageable questions that can be attacked scientifically. The military analogy of an over-all strategy versus tactics and logistics suggests itself here. In social science, however, two dangers arise as soon as this first step in the direction of scientific treatment is taken; the danger either of losing sight of the context of any specific problem, or of rashly generalising on the narrow basis of specific research results.

I return to rural sociology, which has become necessary as a scientific pursuit to match the developments of agricultural practice and rural life in the twentieth century. Since “rural sociology” is still a very young science, it will be necessary somewhat to enlarge upon its scope and method, and to indicate in outline what contribution it can reasonably be expected to make towards the solution of problems of rural life.

It is perhaps not unduly overstating the character of rural sociology to say that it was given its chief impetus, and nursed to grow into a social science in its own right, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the proper date of this event one may set down the post-depression years when the Agricultural Adjustment Administration was created under Roosevelt's New Deal. The date is important not only because it indicates the relative youth of rural sociology, but also because it helps us to understand the impact upon social science of an urgent problem of vast dimensions in the only country in the world in which sociology had secured its place in the curriculum of colleges and universities. At that time W. H. Odum had already done much of his research on the rural South, and Kolb, Brunner, and others were recognised for their work on problems of rural society. The first text-books on rural sociology had made their appearance even in the 'twenties. But while this work remained part of a more general sociology, the setting-up of A.A.A. clearly hastened a process of specialisation, and rural sociology became more and more an independent branch of the social sciences.

Yet rural sociology cannot but be understood as a special branch of general sociology. To those familiar with the sociological literature it is clear at a glance that problems such as internal and external migration, population trends and family cohesion, shifts from rural to u ben occupations, urbanisation of certain features of rural life, and so forth, were part and parcel of the older sociology. So much so that the editors of a hen v three-volume source book on rural sociology could claim that “up to the present sociology as a

– 333 –

science of society has virtually been the sociology of rural life.”8 One may reject this claim as exaggerated, but one must admit that for valid reasons the study of rural life was considered equally important to that of urban life. The systematic sociologists of one or two generations ago, e.g., Lester Ward, made progress from “lore to science,” that is, they overcame the speculative and philosophical discipline which had been the sociology of Auguste de Comte and of the Social Darwinists in the Old and the New World, and advanced to an observational science working out its own research techniques. They had learned that the bedrock of their science was comparison and correlation. To grasp the character of problems of rural society one had to see it set against the problems of urban life. Early concern with the nature of the country-to-town movement involved the comparative aspect. It can also be discerned in a vast number of researches into family and marriage, delinquency, suicide, communications, religion, standards of living, household economy, consumer supply, and national wealth. Indeed, some of the few fundamental concepts which were achieved by social theory, as, for instance, community and association, rest largely upon the very distinction of rural versus urban society.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that a recent survey of the teaching of sociology in the United States (which comprised 219 institutions of college and university rank) registers only one department with the title “rural sociology,” whilst 151 had “sociology” departments, the rest being divided between titles such as “Social Institutions,” “Social and Political Science,” “Social Science,” “Social Studies,” “Philosophy,” “History,” “Economics and Social Psychology,” “Educational Sociology,” and so on.9

I have referred to the wider background of general sociology at some length to denote the manifold connecting links of rural sociology with social studies in general. These considerations must not detract from the practical problems that are the immediate concern of research in rural sociology. “Agriculture [as one American sociologist put it] is not merely an industry, or a technology, but it is a way of life, and a better agriculture therefore involves everything that goes to promote better rural living.”10 American rural sociology which for some time to come has a fair chance of being the pattern of any rural sociology, has, despite its short span of life, become sufficiently mature not to underrate the tremendous difficulties of approach and treatment which chiefly arise from the complexity of its subject-matter. “Contrary to general opinion [one of the co-authors of the book, The Farmer in a Changing World stated] the sociologist is quite unwilling to give easy answers to difficult questions, but is perfectly willing to accept the responsibility of studying the factors, trends, and situations out of which necessary answers may be obtained.”11

To illustrate this last point, I choose three research projects which may indicate the contribution to rural sociology which I have in mind. In stressing their purely illustrative purpose in this connection, I do not wish to anticipate any suggestions, projects, or requirements that may exist and wait to engage the rural sociologist in New Zealand.

(a) The effect of the guaranteed price scheme on the stabilisation of farm and rural community life.

After this scheme has been in operation for ten years, it would be of value to examine its effect on stabilising dairy farm incomes and, to the extent in which income is the base of family and community life, to ascertain the general effects it may have had on steadying rural life. It can be said in this respect that New Zealand developments may “well tender themselves to the world as a laboratory experiment” (Alley and Hall), and a survey of the social effects of the guaranteed price scheme would be rendering an account of the consequences that can be attributed to this “experiment.”

(b) Crop Planning.

As a specific case of planned economy we have witnessed during the war years the country-wide determination of acreages for wheat and potato crops. Agricultural administration has advanced from taking care of the distribution of produce to the planning of primary production. While developments such as this admittedly curtail individual initiative of the farmer as producer, they cannot be without effect upon the attitude of the farming community as a whole towards the economic problems of the country. At the same time, they constitute a step in the process of

– 334 –

integration of agriculture into the national economy. But while the administrative agencies will chiefly be concerned with the immediate response of the producers to the central planning, which can be expressed in a margin of correspondence between targets and harvests, the rural sociologist will first and foremost try to understand “the behaviour and thought processes by which farm people get into step with the larger world of which they have become a part,” (C. C. Taylor, i.c.).

(c) Rural Settlement.

The settlement or resettlement as farmers of returned servicemen by rehabilitation has put into practice a movement which is apt partly to offset trends of urbanisation. The increase in farming units by dividing up of Crown lands, and the success or failure of rehabilitation settlements permit the rural sociologist to observe as it were on the living object social change under rural conditions. The observations will include the study of problems of rural welfare, including aspects as different as rural housing and vocational guidance.

Time permits only a brief concluding remark on the methods of the rural sociologist. To the extent to which in a scientific investigation the individual instances become merged in general statements of fact which are in the form of numerical series, the research techniques are statistical. In view of the fact that the mere term “statistics” strongly flavours of statistical mathematics to-day, I almost hesitate to claim statistical techniques for rural sociological research. The methods would seem to be too far ahead of the development of inquiry into the subject-matter. The point, however, can safely be made, I believe, that the medium of empirical study will be mass-observation. How far mass-observation involves statistics in the narrower sense of statistical method, may be left to the decision of the research worker. He will not be limited to asking only those questions which can suitably be answered by statistics; on the contrary, the nature of his subject-matter will determine the most suitable methods of treatment. Furthermore, numerical data accumulate at the Census and Statistics Office and in relevant departmental records which are often valuable but inaccessible beyond the immediate administrative purpose of their collection. There is no continuous and independent scientific elaboration and evaluation of such information on rural problems. A research station or observatory on rural sociology could well answer the need of a centre for such information.

Other social-science research techniques, such as questionnaires and interviews, have been tried very little in this country, and their application to rural social work will have to be a matter of careful consideration. Lastly, there is room for further work of a mainly descriptive nature by “case studies” of rural communities; the demand for these is almost certain to intensify once the nature and scope of sociological research is more widely understood by the community.


1 Somerset, H. C. D., 1938. Littledene. A New Zealand Rural Community. New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

2 Doig, W. T., 1940. A Survey of Standards of Life of New Zealand Dairy Farmers. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Bulletin No. 75 (Social Science Research Publication No. 1). Wellington.

3 Hamilton, W. M., 1944. The Dairy Industry in New Zealand. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Zealand, Bulletin 89. Wellington.

4 1940. The Maori People To-day. A. General Survey. Edited by I. L. G. Sutherland. N.Z. Institute of International Affairs and N.Z. Council for Educational Research.

McQueen, H. C., 1945. Vocations for Maori Youth. N.Z. Council for Educational Research.

Beaglehole, Ernest and Pearl, 1946. Some Modern Maoris. N.Z. Council for Educational Research.

5 Alley, G. T., and Hall, D. O. W., 1941. The Farmer in New Zealand. Wellington, Department of Internal Affairs.

6 Belshaw, H., Williams, D. O., Stephens, F. B., Fawcett, E. J., and Howell, H. R., 1936. Agricultural Organization in New Zealand. International Research Series. N.Z. Institute of Pacific Relations. Melbourne.

– 335 –

7Hudson E. R. The Future of Farming. Reconstruction Series No. 6. Published by the N.Z. Institute of International Affairs. N.D.

8 1930. A. Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology. Edited by P. A. Sorokin, C. A. Zimerman, and C. J. Galpin. Three vols. Preface, p. VII. Minneapolis.

9 Bernard, L. L., 1945. The Teaching of Sociology in the United States in the Last Fifty Years. The Amer. Journ. of Sociology, vol. 50, May, p. 534.

10 Sanderson, E. D., 1942. Rural Sociology and Rural Social Organization, p. 414. New York.

11 Taylor, C. C., 1940. The Farmer in a Changing World. United States Yearbook of Agriculture, p. 1054.