Taking Stock of the Assets of a Rural Community

By S. Roy Kaufman | Mar 5, 2013

Historically, rural communities like ours here in Freeman have experienced a decided disadvantage within the dominant urban cultures where they have lived. While urban centers depend on rural communities for their food, fiber and the raw materials of urban life, their numbers, wealth and power far outstrip those of rural communities. Rural communities typically live under the shadow of the “metropolis,” which literally means “mothercity.” Decisions affecting life in rural communities are often made not by rural residents, but by government bureaucrats, corporate boards, and elite specialists centered in the city. Governments, corporations and universities, all institutional expressions of urban power, all too often dictate decision making in rural communities.

All this is ironic, given the fact that the city depends directly on the countryside for its very life. One would think that would give rural communities some leverage! It is ironic as well because in fact, rural communities possess unique assets that could and should enable them to hold their own against the urban powers in which they live. Rural sociologists speak of these assets in terms of different forms of capital that are present, sometimes uniquely, within rural communities. These types of capital are:

  • Cultural capital—the values, heritage, and ways of life represented in the community;
  • Human capital—the skills and abilities of each person within the community;
  • Social capital—the networks, norms of reciprocity, and mutual trust within and among the groups comprising the community;
  • Financial capital—the money available to be used for investment in the community;
  • Built capital—the infrastructure and institutions available within the community;
  • Natural capital—the landscape, natural resources, and biodiversity present within the community; and
  • Political capital—the ability of people and groups within the community to influence and control decision making regarding the other assets of the community. (Cornelia Butler Flora and Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, 2004, p. 9-10.)

Rural communities like ours rarely take stock of these assets in any systematic way to see what they have and how they are utilizing the assets they have. We tend to focus on one or the other and perceive the limitations we might have. But the question is how well we are utilizing all these various types of capital for the welfare of the community as a whole.

For instance, we might recognize the limitations of our financial capital, but fail to realize and utilize the social and human and natural capital that exists within our community. We have often allowed our natural capital to be defined almost exclusively in terms of the dominant paradigm of commodity agriculture when in fact the natural capital of this area may be largely unexplored in terms of its potential benefit to our community.

In this community, we may do fairly well at appreciating and capitalizing on our cultural capital, but perhaps we struggle in translating that strong cultural heritage into political capital capable of influencing decision-making and the exercise of power.

Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the assets we have and in that way build and utilize all the forms of capital present in this rural community. This community does not have to keep declining, and we are capable of regaining the political capital that will enable us to make the decisions required for a sustainable community life.