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Rural Crime - Rural-urban Distinctions

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Much confusion exists in the criminological literature over rural-urban distinctions. In most cases, theoretical distinctions by rural and urban sociologists have been ignored, and criminologists have employed simple, arbitrary cutoff points to distinguish rural from urban areas. In some instances, in fact, commentators have designated entire states as rural or urban. For example, a report prepared for the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s, which claimed that crime rates in rural America were increasing, noted:

America's rural towns, villages, and small communities are suffering a plague of violent crime, drug trafficking, and drug abuse. The latest crime figures show that the violent crime toll is growing faster in rural America than large urban states; faster in rural states than in even America's largest cities. These reports document rural America's skyrocketing criminal violence—murders, rapes, robberies, and violent attacks are growing at an astonishing pace. (U.S. Senate Majority Staff Report)

This report reached these stunning conclusions by classifying some states as rural and then comparing percentage changes in Uniform Crime Report data for these "rural states" with two of the most populous states, California and New York. As Ronet Bachman points out, classifying a unit of analysis as large as a state as rural is flawed, because at least one urban area exists within virtually every state.

Of course, these problems are not unique to recent examinations of rural-urban differences in crime rates. In the 1880s, one commentator classified states as rural or urban on the basis of their primary economic activity, and argued that "rural (agricultural) communities have ever been distinguished for good order and stability" (Pickard, p. 460). Noting that the ratio of offenders committed to prison to the total population in "agricultural states" was much lower than in "manufacturing states," Pickard asserted that "the theory was founded in fact" (p. 461). In commenting on such gross distinctions that were prevalent in much of the literature, Sorokin and Zimmerman noted that the data brought to bear on empirical questions concerning rural and urban differences "often concern not the pure rural and urban groups, but groups which represent only a relative and remote approximation to them" (p. 37).

In the more contemporary context, Ralph Weisheit, David Falcone, and L. Edward Wells point out that the definition of rural utilized by researchers is an important consideration. In their review of over ninety studies on rural crime, the authors note that 62 percent gave no measurable definition of the term rural; they also note that some crime studies have even described cities with populations of up to 175,000 as rural or small town. As these authors suggest, despite the apparent simplicity of the concept of rural, there is nothing mechanical or straightforward about developing a working definition of it.

Weisheit et al. suggest, however, that there are four important dimensions of rural that need to be taken into account: (1) demographic; (2) economic; (3) social; and (4) cultural. The demographic dimension encompasses how many people are concentrated in an area, along with where they are located. Generally, one would expect rural areas to be geographically isolated, and physically removed from major urban centers. The economic dimension relates to the primary economic activity of an area; one usually thinks of rural areas as being predominantly agricultural. The social dimension of rurality relates to a variety of characteristics; rural areas are seen as having the defining characteristics of intimacy, informality, and homogeneity. The final aspect of rurality is related to cultural issues. Individuals who reside in rural areas are perceived as being more traditional and conservative in their political attitudes.

In short, given the considerable confusion in the literature surrounding how rural and urban areas are defined, we must treat the findings from studies of differences between rural and urban crime with caution.

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