RURALITY

New Series: Volume 2, Issue 1

9 March 2022

Editorial: Rurality

Sam Hillyard

Welcome to this special issue of the online journal Discover Society.  The general editors have generously elected to feature rurality on the reinvigorated journal’s agenda.  The authors of this collection have sought to contribute both to what we know about rural issues and how we think about them, too.  This is the ambition for this special issue and merits greater explanation.

Rural sociology in the UK remains a marginal subdiscipline.  It is not seen as an exciting field, or where innovative and dynamic way of grasping the complexity of the social world may arise.  The reason for this, of course, lies with the history of the discipline – the catalyst of the industrial revolution prompting the growth of the city and a seismic change in the where and how most of the population live.  The rural harks back to old ways of living.  Yet, and as the general editors of this journal are fully cognisant, rural areas remain sites of inequality, poverty and neglect.  Such areas are subject to a set of circumstances that both underpin and recreate these inequalities.  On that basis alone they merit serious sociological attention.

The question therefore becomes, how best to approach and understand – and to unlock – rural circumstances?  That question underpinned my thinking in pulling together this issue’s contributors.  They have all approached a rural issue in a distinctive or innovative way.  Not all authors on my wishlist were able to submit in the end – some authors were keen but found that the issue they wanted to discuss proved (or perhaps confirmed) that rural matters can be too complex to capture in short-format articles.  I am therefore pleased and grateful that all authors featured here have elected to signpost their work further – their ideas and further publications can be followed up in greater detail.  Also, and extremely pleasingly, there is a breadth of disciplinary backgrounds reflected in the papers.  This is when sociology performs something special.  It makes a space for dialogue and perhaps new ways of seeing things to emerge.   Now, to outline the editorial approach to this SI collection and to overview the contents of the papers.

As stated above, the core ambition was to offer some new angle, light, perception, to inform or surprise about rurality.  The paper by Anne Matilainen and Merja Lähdesmäki takes the not-particularly-remarkable – even banal – product of moose meat as the focus of their analysis.  They outline its status as a product – and pivotally a non-commercial product.  Their discussion then follows on to explain why this is the case and the status and role of hunting cultures in their native Finland.  To discuss moose meat is therefore to begin to unravel complex – and longstanding – patterns of landownership, control and interaction with rurality.  It is a paper that begins to show that rurality has a cachet beyond its intrinsic value.  This is theme is also found in Ed Lord’s article.

Drawing upon extensive ethnographic research, Lord seeks to discuss the intangible – the benefits of occupying rural spaces and how this has permeated the contemporary zeitgeist.  Using an array of commentaries and literatures, he traces how we have reached this point.  While the exact therapeutic benefits of using rural spaces are difficult to pinpoint, there is a growing consensus that the great outdoors is good for us.  Moreover, this appreciation – whilst dominant now – is not new.

In the wake of the global pandemic, which has seen in the UK context an increasingly emphasis upon access to green spaces, Lord’s work is an important contribution towards our understanding of why.  His analysis traces back some roots underpinning the emergence of this zeitgeist.  Lord asks difficult questions – how to see afresh what has become culturally taken-for-granted?  Furthermore, his conclusion asks what will occur if such values become commodified?  Again, the theme of equity emerges and how can rural spaces – in all of their diversity –be enjoyed by all.

Rowan Jaines’ article is perhaps the most speculative and provocative.  It can be read as a provocation for us to think afresh about rurality’s status in society.  It does so by stripping back the status of the rural vis-à-vis the earliest formation of the city.  Present-day patterns of both ownership and also the cultural status of the rural are shaped by this background.  Jaines’ argument is provocative because it argues we have stopped thinking and reflecting upon what the rural is.  Indeed, what it could become.  Yet we remain dependent upon its produce.  She concludes with a call for greater ontological status to be accorded to nature. 

Finally, my own contribution tries to explore what is not there –  specifically, the shortfall in vets.  A global and longstanding issue, the article looks into what the vets have had to say and also specific work on vets by academics.  They concur that a vet’s work is complex – both technically and emotionally – and hence difficult to fully grasp.  Here we might apply Matilainen and Lähdesmäki and also Jaines’ research strategies.  That is, to see the situation in a broader landscape.  Vets are subject to global trends and forces.  There is a move from large to small animal practice and also the role of service work they inevitably are involved in performing.  The sociology of work literature is brought in to try to see this important rural profession in a new light.  Pivotally for vets, is the status of non-human animals and the article calls for their greater inclusion in our analyses. 

To conclude, the collection is a varied one – and deliberately so.  They can be approached in any order, but the issue remains more than the sum of its parts.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the contributors and also the general editors for the opportunity to showcase a rural theme.

Sam Hillyard is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, where she teaches sociological theory and methods.  She is series editor of Studies in Qualitative Methodology (Emerald) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Qualitative Research.  Her current research includes work with rural GPs and colleagues in Lincoln’s International Institute for Rural Health.

Header Image Credit: Valley Farm, West Wratting. Andrew Stawartz

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Hillyard, Sam 2022. ‘Editorial: Rurality’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Hunted wild game meat – sustainable option for meat consumption?

Anne Matilainen & Merja Lähdesmäki

Food consumption increasingly raises ethical questions amongst contemporary consumers. These concerns are related, for instance, to animal welfare and negative environmental effects of food production. Particularly conventional meat production has received criticism concerning the living conditions of animals as well as the contribution of the production methods to greenhouse emissions and climate change. Consequently, the demand for more ecologically and socially sustainable food is acknowledged as one of the leading consumer trends at the global level.

Expanding organic production is one means to mitigate food related ethical concerns, including animal welfare issues. Accordingly, the European organic meat products market is experiencing a strong growth as, for example, the production of organic beef, mutton and pork meat is increasing.

Another option for more sustainable meat consumption is hunted wild game meat. Indeed, according to recent studies, consumers perceive game meat as more ‘green’ when compared to farmed meat. Furthermore, free roaming and following their natural grazing behavior is often associated with meaningful life for the animals (see Matilainen et al. 2021).

Hunted wild game meat does not only provide an option for environmentally sustainable livestock system but wild game meat is also considered to retain high nutritional values with a low fat and cholesterol content. While consumers’ increasing health awareness is one of the predicted consumer trends globally, hunted wild game meat may appeal to modern consumerswhen purchasing meat products. Furthermore, from an environmental point of view, there is also an ecological “surplus” of hunted wild game meat. In many countries, it is a necessity to control overgrown game populations in order to avoid damages to fields and forests as well as to avoid traffic accidents. Thus, to some extent hunted game meat is a side product of wildlife management aiming to control damage. In the Finnish context, an example of this kind of game is the European moose (Alces alces), which is the most significant game animal concerning meat provision.

In Finland, moose hunting is strongly embedded in rural traditions and based on a specific hunting culture. The hunting rights belong to landowners, often private non-industrial forest owners, who make the decision whether to allow hunting or not. According to rural tradition, forest owners typically rent their forests as hunting areas for local moose-hunting clubs, free of charge or for nominal compensation.

In addition to the permission from landowners, each hunting club must purchase a license from the State. Game management authorities annually estimate the number of licenses that can be sold to the hunting clubs in various regions to ensure the ecological sustainability of hunting. Accordingly, 58 000–65 000 moose are shot annually, which leaves the winter population at 60 000–80 000 animals.

Moose hunting has traditionally been a joint activity of the whole rural community and local moose-hunting parties still play a significant role as one of the last remaining social communities in rural areas.  Strongly rooted social practices and norms typically dictate the ownership of game meat. These norms are often based on close social proximity between landowners, hunters, and local residents.

While the annually hunted moose in Finland equals 8.1–8.5 million kg of meat, less than 2 percent of this ends up in commercial markets. Thus, currently it is challenging for consumers to purchase moose meat unless they have close personal contacts to the hunting clubs. But what kind of perceptions do consumers hold in relation to moose meat in the first place?  Here, we examine Finnish consumers’ perceptions of moose meat and compare them with the perceptions they held of chicken meat. The consumption of chicken meat in Finland has significantly increased during the last decade, thus representing a rather common and mundane protein in Finnish diets.

Hunted wild moose meat vs. chicken meat – consumers’ perceptions

To analyse consumers’ perceptions on the moose meat, an e-survey was conducted in the autumn 2018 (n=199). It was targeted to the consumers that have registered to the food panel of the organization implementing the e-survey. Thus, they were potentially more attuned to food related issues than typical consumers. Consumers’ perceptions of moose meat were measured by using 13 food meaning -constructs that were based on the work of Renner et al. (2012) and Januszewska et al. (2011).

These attributes were taste, health, convenience, affect regulation, tradition, sociability, price, naturalness, societal norms, appearance, weight management, ethicality and impression management. Affect regulation measures whether certain food brings joy and positive feelings to consumers.  Sociability, on the other hand, refers to how well consumers estimate the food material to fit to be offered on social occasions. Societal norms describe how socially acceptable consumers consider the food material to be and, finally, impression management in turn estimates whether certain food is considered to bring social prestige to consumers.

A similar survey was also conducted concerning consumers’ perceptions of chicken as food (n=201). Chicken is one of the most popular meat choices in Finland. However, the ethics of chicken meat production has been challenged widely due to the production conditions. Thus, it was considered as a relevant comparisn with moose meat. Consumers’ opinions on chicken and moose meat are summarized in figure 1.

Figure 1. The food meanings associated with moose and chicken. *) construct measured with one item. Valuation of the food meaning -construct 1= low, 6= high.

The differences in the consumers’ perceptions on moose and chicken meat were statistically significant, except for three food meaning -constructs: taste, sociability and impression management. According to the results, consumers’ perceptions on chicken meat seem to be fairly high. Only with regard to tradition, ethicality and naturalness, was moose meat valued more positively than chicken meat.

The biggest factors in favouring chicken meat were convenience, price and weight management. These findings are unsurprising, as chicken meat as “white meat” has been highlighted as lighter meat alternative when compared, for example, with pork or beef. Furthermore, because obtaining moose meat often necessitates hunting oneself or having close connections to the moose-hunting club, it is no wonder that chicken meat was perceived as cheaper and more convenient.

Interestingly the perceived ethical issues involved in chicken production did not seem to impact on impression management or sociability. There were no statistical differences between the two forms of meat concerning these food meaning -constructs. Nevertheless, moose meat was clearly seen as a more natural and ethical meat choice and thus, it could potentially be seen as being of interest to those consumer groups that emphasise ecological and ethical food choices. According to Matilainen et al. (forthcoming) nearly 70% of the Finnish consumers would be interested in moose meat availability as a food product. However, only 34% of the respondents reported currently having access to it.

Resenting hunting but valuing game meat?

One issue influencing consumers’ perceptions on game meat is their opinion on hunting. Game meat is typically harvested through hunting and consumers’ attitudes towards it can be very controversial. Negative attitudes towards hunting are increasing in many countries, especially among consumer groups that otherwise value ecological and ethical food choices. At the same time, slightly paradoxically, research has found that game meat is valued as food also among non-hunters with negative attitudes towards hunting in general (Matilainen et al., forthcoming).  The results of this study support these findings.

When consumers’ perceptions were analysed based on their attitudes towards hunting (negative, neutral and positive), even respondents with negative attitudes towards hunting valued moose meat fairly highly, although their perceptions were lower than those with positive attitudes towards hunting. The differences between the groups were statistically significant except concerning impression management, tradition, price, affect regulation and convenience constructs. Thus, there may be consumer groups that are interested in moose meat, but have a less positive attitude towards hunting in general (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Consumers’ perceptions on moose meat based on their attitudes towards hunting. *) construct measured with one item. Valuation of the food meaning construct 1= low, 6= high.

This interesting mismatch raises also a question whether the public acceptance of hunting could be increased if the benefits of hunting, i.e. game meat, would be made available to non-hunters. Expanding the supply of wild game meat to urban non-hunters has, indeed, been proposed as a way to maintain and increase support for hunting and wildlife management. More particularly, the role and significance of enhancing the general availability of wild game meat in increasing the acceptance of hunting has been found to be even greater than that of social relationships and having friends or family members who hunt (Ljung et al., 2012). Furthermore, this impact appears to be similar in both rural and urban contexts, even though consumers’ access to game meat is typically greater in rural areas.

Traditional hunting culture as an obstacle in increasing the hunted meat consumption?

In Finland, moose meat is very difficult to find in shops, as the commercialization of moose meat is as yet undeveloped. The selling the meat by hunting clubs has both cultural and operational obstacles. According to the hunting traditions in Finland, the moose meat is considered to be the property of the hunters who participate in the moose hunting. As the landowners typically lease the moose hunting rights to the hunters for free or against a very nominal compensation, the hunting clubs are very careful in commercializing their hobby. They are afraid that this would cause conflicts with the landowners and jeopardize the moose hunting rights granted to them.

At the same time, the hunting clubs do sell moose meat occasionally in order to build or improve their club’s facilities or cover the costs of hunting licenses. Thus, the hunters feel entitled to have the costs of their own recreational activity covered by selling the meat.  Presently, however, selling to consumer markets is rare and is not part of the Finnish hunting cultural norms.

Moose hunting culture in Finland has traditionally been based on close social proximity between the local hunters, landowners and residents. Due to the general demographic changes in rural areas, an increasing number of landowners and hunters are not as tightly connected to rural societies as was once the case. Almost a half of both groups now live in urban areas, far away from their hunting grounds or land property. Thus, critical voices have been raised concerning the legitimacy of the current hunting practices and speculation regarding who has the right to economically benefit from the value of moose meat. Is it the landowner, who bears the costs of wild roaming moose or the people living in rural villages surrounded by moose?

Even though it seems that commercial markets for moose meat exists, the broader commercialization of moose meat faces significant social challenges. Indeed, commercialization would require significant changes in the traditional hunting culture and the social meanings attached to moose meat (Matilainen and Lähdesmäki, 2021).

References

Januszewska, R., Pieniak, Z., and Verbeke, W. (2011), “Food Choice questionnaire revisited in four countries. Does it still measure the same?” Appetite, 57, 94-98.

Ljung, P. E., Riley, S. J., Heberlein, T. A., & Ericsson, G. (2012). Eat prey and love: Game‐meat consumption and attitudes toward hunting. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 36(4), 669-675.

Matilainen, A., & Lähdesmäki, M. (2021). Who does the moose belong to?–Legitimation of collective psychological ownership. Journal of Rural Studies, 86, 236-246.

Matilainen, A., Luomala, H., Lähdesmäki, M., Viitaharju, L. & Kurki, S. (2021) Resenting Hunters, but Appreciating the Prey?  – Identifying Moose Meat Consumer Segments. (Manuscript submitted for a publication)

Renner, B., Sproesser, G., Strohbach, S., & Schupp, H. T. (2012). Why we eat what we eat. The Eating Motivation Survey (TEMS). Appetite, 59(1), 117-128.

Anne Matilainen (PhD) is a researcher at the University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute. Her research interests are sustainable use of natural resources, nature tourism, wildlife and psychological ownership of natural resources.

Merja Lähdesmäki (PhD) is a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki Ruralia Institute. Her research is focused on sustainable business, business ethics and ecological and ethical consuming.

Header Image Credit: Metal Moose by Henry Söderland

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Matilainen, Anne & Merja Lähdesmäki 2022. ‘Hunted wild game meat – sustainable option for meat consumption? Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Unpacking the nature and human health zeitgeist

Ed Lord

“Human perspectives on nature have always been coloured by connotations of recovery and restoration. But in the present century we have been especially busy – obsessively busy – in teasing out and delineating these connotations” (Smyth, 2019)

The intersection of human health and nature has a distinctly zeitgeist feel about it currently. Barely a week seems to pass without a news media piece extolling the health benefits of going outdoors or viewing the coast, gardens, parks and countryside. New terminology has proliferated in this domain: Biophilia, Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing, ecotherapy, to name a few.

Networks of people focused on specific types of nature based self-care have been formed; for example, Mountains for the Mind and Mental Health Swims in the UK.

In a March 2020 commentary essay published in The Guardian Review the natural history author Patrick Barkham suggested that the nature and health theme is fast becoming its own literary genre – as he put it: “a rapidly growing forest of new books that examine cures found in nature” (Barkham, 2020). Particularly of note in this ‘new’ genre are a number of mass-market books with high global sales, these include Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative from 2018, and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder from 2005.

Three such works were released by popular publishers in the spring of 2020 alone, with prescient timing given unfolding self-care discourses related to the pandemic; The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by the journalist Isabel Hardman, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones, also a journalist, and The Well Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist by profession.  As familiar social and economic rhythms fell away during those early months of the pandemic, people searched around en masse for every tree, every last socially distanced blade of grass, in their locality, looking for a balm to soothe the burgeoning stress and anxiety. It seemed that after slowly building momentum since the turn of the century the awareness of nature’s contribution to human health had reached its zenith at the perfectly opportune moment.

Allied to, and frequently cited in support of, the nature and health themes in these more popular media outlets and grass roots networks, there has also been much empirical, in-depth and ‘heavyweight’ material produced. This includes government departments, quangos, transnational agencies, and third sector organisations publishing multiple reports on the topic, papers in peer reviewed journals accruing at a notably increasing rate (Ives et al., 2017), and a number of ambitious academic textbook projects such as first editions of the “Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health” in 2018, and “The International Handbook of Forest Therapy” in 2019.

Could this phenomenon, however, really be seen as a “period-specific cultural pattern,” to use Krause’s (2019) definition of a zeitgeist? If it could, then what would be the utility of such a status anyway? This article aims to open up an initial inquiry into these two questions.

If assessed quantitatively, using the crude measure of the amount of academic papers published on the topic, it would seem that there is indeed a growing research interest. In a 2017 multidisciplinary review of what they call “Human-Nature Connection (HNC)” literature the authors found a dramatic upswing in the numbers of papers published since the turn of the millennium, and this growth was particularly marked after 2010 (Ives et al. 2017). For example, their search parameters found less than 10 HNC papers published in 2001, 20 papers published in 2009 and over 80 published in 2015. A 2014 review also noted this increase in the number of papers published, this time by referencing just the term “greenspace and health”: “Growth in this field of research is shown clearly by the increase in publications. For example, a search in the Web of Knowledge on just one term, “greenspace and health,” yielded 2 hits for 1990–1999, 34 for 2000–2009, and 45 from 2010 to June 2013” (Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014, p. 209)

Leaving aside the possibility that the absolute number of all research outputs may have increased in this time period, thereby making these figures less striking, for such a quantitative accounting to inform us of cultural patterns would require delving into the social, cultural and organisational arrangements within which such research practices, their funding, and dissemination, are embedded.  

In assessing the claim of any cultural pattern to be a zeitgeist Krause (2019) proposes that certain properties need to be delineated: duration, scope, course, and media and carriers. Many of the factors related to scope, and media and carriers have been introduced above. In looking at the nature and human health domain in terms of duration it can be seen how a zeitgeist is framed by an interplay between newness and continuity: this ‘thing’ has not sprung forth fully formed from a void, but neither is it simply an indistinguishable continuation of older ‘things.’

As suggested by the opening quote there is a long-standing narrative – something of a ‘common-sense’ claim – associating nature with physical and mental restoration. The work of Hippocrates in ancient Greece entitled “On Airs, Waters, and Places” is frequently cited as an illustration of the point that linking health and nature is nothing new. Many healthcare professions – Occupational Therapy and Nursing are key examples –  have long organised and promoted nature based interventions like gardening; indeed a notable assertion by Florence Nightingale describes the foundation of the nursing role being “to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him” (Nightingale, 2020 [1859]).

In relation to mental health specifically, narratives around an intertwining relationship between nature and ‘madness’ are a recurring theme stretching back centuries (for example, Shepard, 1982). As a physical manifestation of this intertwining thought there are many examples internationally (particularly in Western countries, settler colonial states and former colonies) of the use of formal tended gardens at mental asylums/hospitals as a therapeutic, calming and ‘taming’ influence on the ‘wild’ unreason of the inmates; this can be seen to prefigure the contemporary interest in ‘biophilic design’. As Edginton (1997) reports in relation to the famous York Retreat founded in 1796: “Design, then, would enable those who lost their sanity to recall their former serenity by being placed in an association with a natural, healthful environment.” (p. 91)

These ideas can be argued to be part of a wider orientation characteristic of the European Enlightenment and emergence of modernity, often summarised as ‘romanticism’ and explicitly associated with certain philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and artists, such as William Blake. In these schools of thought and expression nature is frequently set in binary opposition to human society and culture; in Thomas Hobbes’ orientation to this binary society and culture transcending nature in the progressive unfolding of the Enlightenment, in the romantic orientation of the binary this ‘progress’ acting as a debasement of the natural condition. The binary formulation itself – setting humans and nature as ontologically separate – can, however, be critiqued as simply representing the European Enlightenment as a particular spatially and temporally located culture in no way generalisable to the beliefs of any other human culture.   

If contemporary notions of the health-giving benefits of nature are simply about the continuation of these much older orientations, however, then how can a claim to zeitgeist be supported? In other words what are the claims to newness and novelty that can be separated as distinct from this continuity?

First, a potential answer to this is the intensification of interest in this topic across diverse fields (scope); a practice assisted by the increasing acceptance of interdisciplinarity working in some academic disciplines.

Second, there is a receptive audience in policy making arenas, with numerous levels of government seeking novel approaches to meet a convergence of complex population health, environmental, and budget challenges.

Third, the urgency of the climate crisis, and wider knowledge of environmental degradation caused by the economic activities of contemporary society, has taken concern for nature from being a niche ‘single issue’ concern to a mainstream consideration infusing debate in all sectors.  

Developing the first assertion; a wide variety of academic disciplines can be seen to have an interest in investigating the human health and nature intersection, even though definitions, scales, actors, and methodological approaches frequently differ markedly between these disciplines. on a pragmatic level the application and integration of knowledge from different disciplines is essential to navigate many complex contemporary challenges. Numerous attempts have been made to integrate research from different disciplines, these “field developments” include “Ecohealth”, “One Health”, “Ecological Public Health”, and, most recently, “Planetary Health” (Buse, et al., 2018; Haines, 2017)

This interdisciplinarity and ‘silo crossing’ is not the only factor in play, shifts within disciplines are also creating a conducive atmosphere to the nature and health theme. For example, in disciplines directly related to human health there has been a movement collectively summarised as ‘the new public health.’ This has its genesis in the growing acceptance of the inherent limitations to focusing on the individual alone and the need to include the social and environmental determinants of health. This refocus is also encouraged by a notional shift to preventative healthcare in response to population morbidity becoming dominated by non-communicable diseases, often related to lifestyle; this shift was heralded by the WHO Ottowa Charter in 1986.

Another addition to this ‘new public health’ nexus of discourses are ideas related to wellbeing, and the maximisation of positive health, sometimes called the ‘salutogenic approach’. Concrete outputs from this shift in emphasis include practices like social prescribing, and the activation of ‘community assets’ in which a social and natural environment is appraised in terms of its strengths and potentials as well as its threats as a container of risks. Implicit, and frequently made explicit, in the prevention and wellbeing focused ‘new public health’ is that the bounds of health stretch beyond the traditional domain of healthcare. This has led to a call for developing new partnerships – most obviously with social care – but also beyond the ‘usual suspects’. This is where the second claim to newness and novelty in the nature and health zeitgeist can be found: the policy arena.

There are a number of ways in which these ideas of meeting complex challenges through the application of concepts associated with the ‘new public health’ (like assets activation and non-typical partnerships) can be seen to be playing out in the policy agenda; here using Wales as an illustrative example. Included in areas of jurisdiction devolved to the Welsh Government are both health and social care, as well as departments associated with landscape and ‘space’ including environment, agriculture, forestry, rural development, culture, and town and country planning. 

The activation of ‘assets’ such as particular landscapes in the service of health and wellbeing is well summed up in this quote from a report commissioned by the Welsh Government into the designated landscapes (such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in its jurisdiction: “The designated landscapes are now far more than passive ‘green lungs’ for the urban populations; they are as we state in our vision, the new, dynamic and productive ‘factories of well-being’” (Marsden, Lloyd-Jones & Williams, 2015, p. 5) 

These partnerships are intended to contribute to the aforementioned public health goals of the health and social care sector, while attending to things like the move away from a single focus in the forestry sector on the ‘bottom line’ of timber production from plantations to a more complex emphasis on habitat development and protection, and a wider array of social and environmental outputs to be gained from woodland and forests.

Wallace (2019) argues that all of the UK devolved legislatures – Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – have explicitly tried to operate differently from the central government. Specifically this has been through developing a “‘whole of government approach’ to public policy, underpinned by a framework that sets a single vision and tracks progress towards it” (p. 3). In Wales the ‘whole government’ approach to a single vision is most recently exemplified by the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act of 2015.

The central organising principle of policy making going forward from this is ‘sustainable development’ through linking environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing. It does not take a large leap of the imagination to see how operationalising the field of nature and human health is a pragmatic way to meet these policy aspirations in multiple fields simultaneously without a large budget uplift.

The third contributory factor pointing towards newness emerging from continuity in the nature and human health field at this particular point in time is the mainstreaming of environmental awareness. To be concerned about the catastrophic risks presented by things like climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss has gone from being a niche interest to something infusing all areas of life. In this context of awareness society is arguably not only concerned with managing threats from nature (natural disasters and vectors of disease transmission, for example), but now has to acknowledge threats to nature, and in doing so the previously assumed affordances provided by nature gain a new visibility and scarcity value.

The utility of taking an approach like the zeitgeist suggestion in this article is that it puts the excitement and energy that is palpable in much of the nature and health domain in a context. In appraising how this represents a continuity of older trends, in what ways it displays novelty, newness and departure, and what the carriers of all this are, potential future directions of travel for this cultural trend can be identified.

Connecting nature and human health has a pragmatic appeal to policy makers, and an ideological appeal among numerous interest groups, and it is instructive to identify the contested imperatives and objectives in play in these different orientations. Will nature as a resource for human health become as commodified, enclosed, reduced, reified, and damaged, as it has in every other extractive process that keeps modernity running? Looking at many other domains of contemporary culture and society it is possible to see a risk of “technological drift” in which nature becomes simply a “technical solution to a technical problem” (Lord & Coffey, 2021).

This reductionist and commodifying trend, if unanalysed and unchallenged, will also likely lead to exclusion along pre-existing lines like race, class and gender, through a mixture of legal, economic, and normative means; both within regions and globally as a continuation of colonialism. Seeing this field as a zeitgeist can uncover the historical processes that have led to the dislocation of human society from a rich intertwined relationship with a healthy, diverse, and thriving natural world; a dislocation that is itself intertwined with so many of the complex challenges facing human health and the environment in the current century.

References

Barkham, P. (2020). Green Prozac. The Guardian Review. 14th March 2020, Issue 113, pp 6-11.

Buse, C.G., Oestreicher, J.S., Ellis, N.R., Patrick, R., Brisbois, B., Jenkins, A.P., McKellar, K., Kingsley, J., Gislason, M., Galway, L. and McFarlane, R.A (2018). Public health guide to field developments linking ecosystems, environments and health in the Anthropocene. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 72(5), 420-425.

Edginton, B. (1997). Moral architecture: the influence of the York Retreat on asylum design. Health & Place, 3(2), 91-99. (97)00003-8

Haines, A. (2017). Addressing challenges to human health in the Anthropocene epoch – an overview of the findings of the Rockefeller/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. International Health, 9(5), 269-271.

Hartig, T., Mitchell, R., de Vries, S., & Frumkin, H. (2014). Nature and health. Annual review of public health, 35, 207-228.

Ives, C. D., Giusti, M., Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Klaniecki, K., Dorninger, C., Laudan, J., Barthel, S., Abernethy, P., Martin-Lopez, B., Raymond, C. M., Kendal, D., & von Wehrden, H., (2017). Human–nature connection: a multidisciplinary review. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26, 106-113.  

Krause, M. (2019). What is Zeitgeist? Examining period-specific cultural patterns. Poetics, 76, 101352.

Lord, E. & Coffey, M. (2021). Identifying and resisting the technological drift: green space, blue space and ecotherapy. Social Theory and Health 19, 110–125. ; (Free read only access: )

Marsden, T., Lloyd-Jones, J., & Williams, R. (2015). National Landscapes: realising their potential. The review of designated landscapes in Wales: Final Report.                                                                                                                                              

Nightingale, F. (2020 [1859]). Notes on Nursing: what it is & what it is not. Bristol: Read & Co Books.

Shepard, P. (1998 [1982]). Nature and madness. University of Georgia Press.

Smyth, R. (2019). In search of the “nature cure”. New Humanist Online 23rd December 2019. 

Wallace, J. (2019). Wellbeing and Devolution: reframing the role of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Ed Lord is a lecturer in mental health nursing at Swansea University. His research interests are in the intersection of social theory, environmentalism, and mental health. He completed an MSc by research in geography and social theory prior to commencing a PhD in 2016. Ed’s PhD research was funded by a fellowship from RCBC Wales and used ethnographic methods to explore the experiences of people taking part in ecotherapy as an intervention for mental health in South and West Wales. Before his move into research and education Ed worked as a clinical nurse in National Health Service (NHS) acute inpatient mental health settings in England and Wales for over a decade.

Header Image Credit: Yoga pose on Mount Peg. Marsh-Billing-Rockefeller National Parks

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Lord, Ed 2022. ‘Unpacking the nature and human health zeitgeist’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

The Social Life of Agriculture: History Passes into Setting

Rowan Jaines

In the mid-sixteenth century, William Herbert the Earl of Pembroke expelled villagers from long standing settlements on the boundary of his estate. Herbert had a vision of an arcadian country park, landscaped in the vision of a bucolic and well-ordered England, ruled over by a noble upper class. To achieve this vision, the labourers in the village just outside the estate were ordered to leave. 

In anger at their expulsion from their homes, the villagers invaded the park. In retaliation Herbert travelled to his Welsh  estates and ordered an army of tenants whom he marched to Pembroke. This army, at Herbert’s order, hunted and slaughtered the invading villagers leaving the grounds clear for the development of a harmonious and beautiful country park (Wood, 2007).

A generation later Herbert’s son Henry married Mary Sidney, whose brother Philip Sidney wrote ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia’. The pastoral images in this book, inspired not only by Herbert’s estate but also by his political philosophy, defined literary depictions of the English countryside for the next two centuries, influencing writers from Shakespeare to John Milton.

Monocultural arrangements

This category of territory; the rural, the pastoral, the agricultural, the arable, or the countryside – is slippery, never fully or accurately described by any of its possible names. Neither reducible to, nor attainable by discourse, the very act of agricultural production is always simultaneously, over and underdetermined. The monocultural arrangement, by which I mean, the tending of a crop within a delimited space, whilst creating a hostile environment for all other life, can be understood as a counter transcendental category.  It literally embodies the immanence of existence in its emphatically mundane, earthbound, and corporeal form. It is the site that shows the field of force between nature – at once a tyrant and a martyr – and sovereign power, the rule of bounded territory.

Sociology was created and named as a discrete discipline in 1838 by the French philosopher of science, Albert Comte. This initial vision was of a positivistic science of social life, using, mainly urban focused experiments and observations to understand the behaviour of ‘society’.  The idea of ‘society’ as a delimited, bounded entity is analogous to, and in part generated by, the conception of the city-state. This urban environment was named the polis by ancient Greek thinkers of the 4th century BCE, most notably Plato and Aristotle.

In short, since the birth of the ‘political philosophy’ the urban has been imagined as the situated body of society. This is a model of thinking that obscures the relational significance of rural life. The ancient Greek polis was distinguished from other types of community through the presence of distinct activities, such as: commercial exchange, judicial proceedings, and public deliberation. These systems imagined arable land as part of the polis, rather than its life sustaining force.

Standard accounts of the history of sociology see the roots of the discipline as originating in classical Greek thought, and this theoretical orientation has provided many of the bases of the social analyses of ‘classical’ sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. Contemporary sociologist Mark Shucksmith (2010) has raised the issue that the agency of people in rural areas frequently goes not only unnoticed but is actively neglected in sociological research. Rural areas are understood, even in contemporary research, as lacking in ‘social life’. In other words, by imagining the urban as the location of ‘society,’ the sociological discipline has neglected some fundamental conceptual problems.  Pivotally, the place of the rural in the social whole.

It seems we have forgotten the fundamental importance of agricultural operations to social life, even as forces of production diversify.  Mid twentieth century mechanisms for understanding rural life were derivative rather than critical or radical. Indeed, the first annals of the Rural American Sociological Society published in 1936, made the case for a rural sociology which viewed agriculture as a ‘primitive’ mode of production.

This first issue is revealing, its analysis of agricultural communities labelled them foetal cities and the postcolonial indigenous rural community “parasitic” (Zimmerman et al 1936).  In this paper, the scholars identify a rural site which had been colonised by European settlers who had moved on after having altered the ecosystem entirely through monocultural farming practises, and the commodification of the land. In doing so, the earlier settlers had alienated the Indigenous population. Despite this, the authors of this paper, characterised the Indigenous population as parasitic, because they received government assistance. 

In sum, the early attempts of rural sociology to understand the countryside, are bound up with the same Kantian flaws that have provoked criticism within the medical sciences and the associated disciplines of anthropology and geography. Kant follows the Aristotelian project in imagining a hierarchy of beings in which the white male body, and the urban site appear as ‘most developed’. The early development of rural sociology suggests that the corporeal body is separate to psychic life. The body here is understood as a phenomena synonymous with the rural, the physical manifestation of common ancestry and inheritable traits that are perpetuated through generations; the life of the mind on the other hand, is imagined as an urban phenomena, a cultural category of being that is capable of transcending and overcoming corporeal constraints.

The rural as an analytical category

There is an alternative way of interrogating the rural as a site of social life. Instead of imagining the rural and the urban as two poles on an evolutionary spectrum – we might instead imagine the city as always shot through with the agricultural. When conceived of in this manner, agriculture is neither a starting point, nor an end destination – it is rather an interminable force, a relationship with nature that is reproduced within social and political life.  When we think of commodities, this task is fairly simple: of course plants make up 80 per cent of the food that humans on the planet eat and of course they are grown in farmers fields, and of course they are sold to people in the city. The task gets more difficult as we begin to think about philosophical, economic and political products and issues. It is nevertheless an important task, enabling us to see assumptions about the rural afresh.

Long before Aristotle and Plato, in the 8th century BCE, the philosopher farmer Hesiod in Works and Days  warned that the life of the polis sails upon the sea of a dangerous and unstable nature. A farm, Hesiod explained, is a part of nature that human beings take as their own and try to direct towards expedient ends. Humans cannot however, control the movements of nature within their bounded plot. The agricultural field is not understood as a tamed patch of earth by Hesiod. It is rather the site where we can see in action the relationship between human social organisation and the dis-ordered, chaotic force of nature (Nelson and Greene, 2002).

For Hesiod this is a bond that is at once co-operative and hostile. Nature is the force that both causes the crop to grow and destroys the self-same crop, through the actions of insects, diseases and storms. The farmer can perceive nature’s actions but cannot control its force entirely – even with the best planning. It is here, I propose, in the relationship between society’s need for food and the untamable earth that a radical rural sociology may emerge. This requires an understanding of the world that does not see human life and subjectivity as having primacy even within human society- indeed within sociology.

The pre-Aristotelian theory of arable land found in Hesiod’s Works and Days suggest that rather than being distinct from social life, the organisation of ‘nature’ that is used in arable arrangements is always indelibly entwined with the management of human life.  The arable field is the ground on which we find the dialectic between history and necessity, autonomy and nature. In the following section I consider the dual issues of land ownership and food production and explore the conspicuous absence of the rural from English public knowledge and the UK’s democratic tradition.

The rural is haunted

In the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s (1983) play Fen, a Japanese businessman “Mr Takai” introduces the audience to this specific landscape in which, he explains, he hopes to invest his money and in which the audience will invest their time for the duration of the drama. Mr Takai explains that this land was once underwater. The Fens squirmed with fish and eels in reed-ridden currents until; “In 1630 rich lords planned to drain the Fen, change swamps into grazing land, far thinking men, brave investors.”

The Fen people, he continues, had “no vision”. They claimed to be content with their writhing mire and actively opposed the drainage. Despite this, for Mr Takai, the story ends happily ever after; “In the end” he tells the audience “we have this beautiful earth. Very efficient, flat land, ploughs right up to the edge, no waste”.

Mr Takai’s monologue describes a Fen community which is intractable and aggressively resistant to progress. In his account the Fen-dwellers are less than human, ignorant and indolent in the face of technological progress; – “they refused to work on the drainage, smashed dykes, broke sluices” he tells the audience.

From Mr Takai’s prospector’s viewpoint both landscape and history are broken into parcels of investment, arranged in a logical movement forward, but the bounded space of the stage allows Churchill to counter this narrative. Using temporal slips and spectral traces the audience is made aware that this progress narrative is dependent on myriad omissions, or perhaps more precisely, repressions. Ghosts walk upon the stage.

The labour of working-class bodies and the land itself only feature in Mr Takai’s narrative at the point in which they threaten to interrupt material accumulation. The compliance of labouring bodies is framed as natural within this temporal schema. The ghosts who appear on stage during Fen expose the violence of this myth, for example the spectre of an unknown woman appears and tells Tewson the farmer, that she is starving and that ‘you bloody farmers could not live if it was not for the poor, tis them that keep you bloody rascals alive.’ At the end of the play, the character Val who has died in the final scenes returns as a ghost and recounts tales of violence that namelessly bleed across temporal boundaries.  ‘I can’t keep them out’ Val cries as unseen spectres proliferate around her: ‘Her baby died starving, she died starving, who?’. These ghosts act as both the sign and effect of voices displaced from history because the recognition of these experiences would disrupt the claim of history as progress.

The agricultural labourer, like the midwife, is a constant social form that appears across history and geography.  (I make a distinction here between the labourer and the farmer, though some farmers are also labourers on their own land, not all make this connection with the soil and vegetative matter.)  In the richest as well as the poorest of countries, seed needs to be sown, stones need to be picked, and produce harvested. Despite myriad technological advances this is one job, that like the midwife has remained a constant reminder of mortality and human dependence upon the physical realm. Long before companies like Uber and Just Eat combined the gig economy model with mobile technology, the shifting seasonal demands of agriculture meant that short-term and ‘payment by task’ labour relations were standard practice.

In the East of England during the agrarian revolution, service providers called ‘Gangmasters’ provided landowners and farmers with workers at peak times. These labourers, have through history been ‘non-citizen’ individuals, people without suffrage or rights, many who are ‘just’ legal enough to pass inspection, many who are not.  In the late 19th century this population was made up of children and traveller and gypsy communities as well as the rural poor. In the mid 20th century gangmasters used the labour of rural working-class women.

After the expansion of the European Union in 2004, a web of employment agencies began to operate between some of the poorest areas of a newly expanded Europe and the furthest back waters of the rural UK. Modern slavery emerged in the small market towns that punctuate wide rural expanses in places like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. The figure of the agricultural labourer is the image par excellence of the labour that underpins the formal choreography of alienation – it is in rural social organisation that political forces and agri-technology constellate, always in motion and in relationship. The study of the arable is not a side pursuit, rather it anticipates and helps us grasp the dark present.

Agricultural oligopsony

In our present moment the horrors of the impending climate crisis appear in the interminable cycle of twenty-four-hour news across multiple devices. We find ourselves standing in the nexus of myriad ‘monocultural arrangements’ – precisely management systems that use technology to resist diversity and contingency. In these systems more and more of the same is produced. Human use of natural resources to produce goods currently affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface. Between one quarter to one third of this available land is used by society for the primary production of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy.

This is a situation that came to fruition during the twentieth century, though it has a longer pre-history. Data shows that since 1961 global population growth and changes in consumption patterns have together caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use. Agriculture currently accounts for two thirds to three quarters of global fresh-water use. Areas under agriculture and forestry have expanded dramatically during this period and have contributed to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and widespread loss of natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

About a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is currently subject to human-induced degradation. Soil takes a long time to form and conventional farming practises are eroding the soil at a rate more than 100 times faster than the soil formation rate. Drought and desertification are becoming steadily more commonplace. In 2015, the UN estimated that around 500 million people lived within areas which experienced desertification between the 1980s and 2000s. The effects of climate change and land degradation disproportionately affects areas in the Global South, and this process is resulting in exponential loss of diversity, and impending food crises in areas such as South and East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.  

Since the mid twentieth century the incessant production of more of the same has been facilitated by the limited attention given to the social and economic arrangements of rural communities and land use. This is a form of alienation that leads to the acceptance of apocalyptic events as everyday inconveniences, whilst simultaneously we accept day to day conveniences in return for climacteric conditions – the interminable by-product of splitting of the sensuous form from value.

Land ownership remains a key underpinning component of rural land use. Property rights are used to control the way that land is used or not used in rural areas and this has implications for sustainable development, resilience and ecosystem services. In the United Kingdom the right to private property is central to the idea of citizenship and trumps the right to public knowledge regarding the use of land. This becomes particularly pertinent when considered through the lens of agricultural land, because data protection laws mean that it is often impossible to find out which areas of land are home to specific crops and farming practices.  Due to privacy laws concerning land, particularly inherited land, knowledge about the production and economics of agriculture in the UK has long been obscured. Much of the history of rural policy and practice can be understood as a struggle between the rights and privileges of private landowners and state intervention in the public interest. These tussles have however, produced far less change than at one time seemed inevitable.

When it comes to land ownership, the UK is currently a more unequal country than Brazil – where there are regular land riots. In Europe only Spain is more unequal in terms of land ownership than the UK, through the maintenance of land patterns imposed by General Franco’s fascist regime.  English land ownership laws themselves date back to 1066 when William the Conqueror claimed all of England for the Crown, then leased estates to lords and nobles, who in turn leased the land to tenants and farmers. Today, England and Wales remain among the last countries on earth which continue these ancient patterns of landownership. Because these hereditary estates make up a large portion of the UK’s agricultural land, this means that the machinations of political and economic systems are obscured within UK food production and farming.

It is almost impossible to work out the extent of the assets and political influence enjoyed by the UK’s largest land owning families.  Whilst all land in England and Wales is required to be registered at Her Majesty’s Land Registry following any significant change in title, this does not apply to land that has not changed hands since registration was made compulsory. The Land Registry currently estimates that 20% of the land mass in England and Wales remains unregistered: most of this unregistered property is rural land.  Accurate statistics on the identity of landowners and the nature of land holding in the UK are therefore very difficult to produce. The aristocratic landowners exercise a huge amount of control over rural England. British land ownership and agricultural subsidies have been painstakingly kept out of the public eye by successive governments under the duress of the House of Lords. This is the non-elected arm of the British parliamentary system which is still dominated by hereditary peers whose families form the English land-owning class – referred to variously as the aristocracy or the nobility.

In 2016 Unearthed – an investigative journalism project run by the environmental organisation Greenpeace – ran an investigation into the top 100 recipients of direct EU farming subsidies. They found that UK hereditary land- owners as a group, received a total of £87.9m in agricultural subsidies in 2015, of which £61.2m came from the single payment scheme – this is more than was paid to the bottom 55,119 recipients in the single payment scheme combined.

The payments take up the vast majority of the farming subsidy pot. At least one in five of these single payments went to businesses owned or controlled by members of aristocratic families, including; the present Lord Rothschild (also known as a previous BSkyB director and the long-term friend of the monocultural media mogul Rupert Murdoch), and the Conservative MP Richard Drax.  Rumoured to be the UK’s richest parliamentarian, Mr Drax has a fortune that exceeds £150 million. Much of this wealth was accumulated through his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados established in the seventeenth century and run using slave labour for over two hundred years.

Richard Drax has consistently used his family’s wealth and his resultant position in the House of Lords to restrict support, education and individual freedoms to working people, as well as voting against environmental and democratic measures. This organisation of the landowning aristocracy and privilege of private property, is a germinate gem that has refracted, bent the force of the farmers field into another oblique source of force.  The global agri-food system can trace its origins back to the last quarter  of  the  19th  century  in  Britain,  which was then the world’s  dominant commercial power. In our current moment, although our supermarket shelves burst with culinary variety, the production, supply, and distribution of food is increasingly pooling in a handful of corporations, most notably in the hands of Associated British Foods, Cargill, Unilever and Nestle.

This pooling of force creates a dual process. On one hand these corporations operate an oligopoly—precisely a market with a small number of sellers; on the other, they also control an oligopsony – a market with few buyers. It is not only hard to grow grain, it is now difficult to sell it as well. Tenant farmers and other non- landowning agricultural workers grow poorer and less powerful each year. Max Weber’s (1918) classic definition of the state describes ‘a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,’ we have forgotten that issues regarding the production and distribution of food are a primary source of force and its uses.  Colonialism is usually understood in terms of the establishment of rule over a distant territory and the control of its people. However, the arable shows how colonial organisation grounds, founds, and exceeds itself ‘at home’ in the farmer’s field. 

Towards a radical rural?

The rural holds the accrued material of centuries of political and legal domination over subordinate people, the exploitation of human and natural resources and the construction of racial and cultural differences that privilege the nobility over the populations they rule. In other words, by identifying the urban as the primary site of social life we have understood the fruit of our social organism as the ‘evolved’ or ‘cooked’ form rather than as part of a wider organic form.

Put a different way, the rural does not underlie the city in an evolutionary manner. Society cannot evolve beyond the requirement of the organised production of food, and this need cannot be met predictably over a long term due to the inherent inconsistencies of natural forces. In other words, the foundation that the rural provides for the urban is always unstable and inconsistent.

In our current moment, economic and political spheres increasingly congeal in petrified unrest. Yet it is in the arable that the forces of nature that may provide an unsettling drama to halt the production of more of the same. Nature is frequently violent, and always generative.

References

Churchill, C. (1990) Plays 2:”Softcops”; “Top Girls”; “Fen”; “Serious Money”. London: Methuen World Classics.

Nelson, S., & Grene, D. (2008). God and the Land: the Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shucksmith, M. (2010). Disintegrated rural development? Neo‐endogenous rural development, planning and place‐shaping in diffused power contexts. Sociologia ruralis, 50(1), 1-14.  

Weber, M.  (2004). ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in Owen, D. S., & Strong, T. B. The vocation lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Wood, A. (2007) The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, C. C., Useem, J. H., & Zeigler, L. H. (1936). Littleville: a Parasitic Community During the Depression. Rural Sociology, 1(1), 54.

Rowan Jaines is an ESRC sponsored doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at The University of Sheffield. Her thesis Landscapes of Discontent: Petrified Unrest in the Fens of Eastern England interrogates the Fen region as site that reveals the discontinuities and disruptions inherent to the formation of Western political thought. Her work more broadly focuses on nature as a contested concept, as well as the use of creative methods in social research.

Header Image Credit: Author’s own

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Jaines, Rowan 2022. ‘The Social Life of Agriculture: History Passes into Setting’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1): 

Rural vets: what has happened to them all?

Sam Hillyard

What is the work of vet’s work and why are they in short supply.  Vet professionals have long acknowledged there is a staffing shortfall. The Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem.  Here I look at vets in a global context, as subject to consumer capitalism, and through an examination of the minutiae of their – dangerous and dirty – everyday practice. 

Of all the weird and not-so-wonderful consequences of the global pandemic, Barnard Castle tourism aside, a rise in animal ownership has been one.  This pet boom has led to a crisis within the veterinary profession as they struggled to meet the surge in demand.  The veterinary profession is well-established.  The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was granted its royal charter in 1844 (rcvs.org.uk) and some of the oldest universities in England, Scotland and Ireland provide training (vetschoolscouncil.ac.uk).  The British vet is also much loved, as the popularity of (both) series All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990, 2020) based on the novels by the late vet Alf Wight testify.  So, why the dearth of vets?  What has happened to them all? 

Pet boom

The president of a Canadian veterinary association argued the shortage problem is not new but has existed throughout her career and is now of global concern (Stiles 2014:441).  The reasons are not a straightforward issue, but represent a ‘wicked problem’ of overlapping issues.  Some of these sit outside of the profession (rising incomes and population = more pets), but she dismisses accusations from within that young vets are workshy.  

Indeed, data from her own organisation showed early career vets worked the longest hours.  Scottish vets have concurred, highlighting how long hours lead to a problematic work/ life imbalance and poor mental health (Stephen et al. 2020).  Old working practices involving a 60-hour week and being on-call for six of them is, as Stiles quite rightly puts it, is “OVERDOING IT” (Stiles 2021:442), original emphasis).  

The knowledge that a quarter of vets had considered suicide in the last year compared to a population average of 10% is sobering.  Solutions from within the profession have included streamlining and efficiency, including the utilisation of supporting professions and a consensus that more vets need to be trained.  Some have delivered tangible mechanisms to aid retention, such as a Scottish study which produced a smartphone app designed to help intervene when negative aspects of everyday practice outweighed the positive. 

The insiders view of the profession serves to make it clear that vet work is extraordinarily diverse.  It includes a wide variety of species (great and small) and hence treatment (inoculation and testing; and diagnosis/ treatment).  Vets’ working conditions vary enormously (consulting room to cow byre) and emergency service hours are inherently antisocial.  Such variety makes up the small triumphs and disasters, as Alf Wight put it, of everyday life as a working vet. 

The need to recruit more vets and the complexity of their work are therefore two sides of the same coin or ‘wicked problem’.  One clear tension is the rise in small animal practice.  As one vet put it, “I swapped over to the dark side and am a very happy, satisfied, non-stinky smallies vet” (Adam et al. 2018:5).  Indeed, Alf Wight’s former practice recently transitioned to specialise in small animals.  This move led to one of Wight’s trainees to leave the practice. 

So to understand vets is hence to grasp the corporeal nature of their work, the ‘intangibles’ of practice life and vets’ own values.  Vet Remnant (2021), in a solutions-focused piece, is clear on the latter.  Vets’ work sits inside the delivery of a safe and affordable food chain.  Recruitment therefore needs to include outreach work in schools and advocacy of both the farming and the veterinary professions – including to those with non-farming backgrounds. 

Inside the vets’ worlds

Vets’ working lives need to be understood as part of a wider canvas.  Rural geographer Enticott (2019:720) captured this assemblage as the “veterinary world of work” after Becker.  They are a profession working alongside supporting professions (veterinary nurses and technicians) and benefit from new technologies (i.e. pregnancy testing).  Vets’ worlds and careers are subject to global forces and inevitably Brexit.  Enticott suggested a new kind of language to capture this interplay – disease ecology:

In this historical work of the veterinary profession, disease ecology is […] similar to assemblage thinking and the kind of relational theory found within post-structural analyses of animal health […] [Disease ecology] allows veterinary professionalism to be conceived of as a relational achievement, emergent from and produced by a range of human actors, animals, technologies and institutions that are held to together in a ‘veterinary world of work’ (see Becker 1982). The focus becomes one of understanding the processes and practices […] this veterinary world of work attends to, the multiplicity of different forms of veterinary knowledge and subjectivity, the contests between them, and the characteristics and capabilities of different actors (Enticott 2019:720, emphasis added).

Vets’ worlds therefore merit sociological scrutiny beyond the possibilities of their own professional reflexivity.  Such scrutiny may yield a different kind of knowledge.  By way of example, Enticott (2012) studied bovine tuberculosis testing procedures.  He found, of over 77,000 bTB tests conducted by nearly nine hundred vets, gender was the only social variable:

Overall these data suggest that male vets are more likely to identify infected cattle than female vets during a bTB test […] disease reporting could vary considerably simply because of the gender of the vet conducting disease surveillance (Enticott 2012:563). 

In the same way sociologists of law have found that the apparel of a defendant and the timing of hearings matter, vets’ subjective judgement and organisational cultures vary and matter, too.  In the context of the wake of a global pandemic, sensitivity towards and confidence in testing and the professionals who carry out that testing has never been more acute. 

Sociologists of work have established that 21st work is no longer bound by time or location.  Work permeates our non-cognitive occupation of space and discretional effort and corporate responsibility are now commodified.  For example, Lyon and Back’s (2012) study of two fishmongers market stalls saw them vis-à-vis their communities and, too, communities undergoing change.  The veterinary profession has inevitably been exposed to these shifts, the question is with what specific and impact.

Enticott discussed emotional labour, after Hochschild (1983), and noted the lack of relational distance between vets and farmers.  Whilst not a new concept, emotional labour must now be linked to present-day consumer culture (Pettinger 2011).  Indeed, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons homepage includes the link ‘want to raise a concern about a vet or a vet nurse?’ (rcvs.org.uk). Paying for/ valuing authenticity the most, as it were.  In 21st century work, the power of the service user must be recognised, even for non-human exchanges:

‘Good workers’ are labelled professional precisely when they do more than just the job, in offering gifts beyond the market. Customers may expect workers to know what their desires are without these being fully verbalised.  This reflects customers’ implicit presumption of their own sovereignty and belief that they are themselves straightforward. […] service encounters are managed by customers as well as workers and management, and that customers’ judgements, which draw on gendered norms, affect market practices. […] Customers, in their interactions with service providers, are demanding and judgemental, and ‘make’ the encounter. We cannot understand the experience of service work without knowing this. (Pettinger 2011:239, emphasis added).

Vets’ worlds are corporeal, involve human and non-human actors and are often out in the natural environment:

Decentring humans to understand them as part of natural, technical, informational and economic entities is essential to relearning the position of the human.  Decentring unmasks the idea of autonomous human activity and reveals human dependency on nature.  Nature affects everyday life in dramatic ways through ‘natural’ disasters and in routine and habitual ways. It is not a pre-given entity on which humans act.  Nature has temporalities and material effects, it incorporates the existence and effects of human and nonhuman bodies, and it brings the unpredictability of weather, the transforming power of soil, coal and rare earth minerals (Pettinger 2019:157, emphasis added).

Vets are, perhaps more so than any other profession, inside this nexus.  Sociology can also be used to mine down into the nuances of the social setting – and reposition the vet within this assemblage. 

Chicago interactionist, Sanders (2010) has explored the nuances of companion animal-human interactions.  His exploration of the social world of large veterinary clinics showed the consultancy room had a sad and dangerous character and, too, involved an investment of self.  A dog owner himself, Sanders (2010) detailed the highs and lows of veterinary work firsthand.  The dirty work of handling treated and infected animals and dog waste and disposal (he described washing his hands when he leaves and his worry that he might bring a disease home to his own young puppy).  Plus, the decision-making process to euthanise an 11-year-old German Shepherd cross bitch after a series of treatments.  Too, he captures the ‘high’ of little ‘runty’ shepherd pups being brought to life during a caesarean. 

This work was inherently interactive and an accomplishment of social rituals and routines interlocking both human and non-human actors.  The emotional work was performed by both the vets’ and their technicians’.  Their occupational worlds involve managing such encounters and also doing some of their work backstage (i.e. cremations, autopsies). Their work involves the management of emotional highs and lows and coping strategies.  Working dog literature has long discussed this partnership (Moxon 1978, Cox 2014).  There is scope to explore this further in veterinary contexts.

The rural dimension

And to finally muddy the waters, vets work often takes place in rural spaces.   The localities of workplaces used so far in the article have been fishmongers and sex work, but the rural dimension has proven critical for other rural professions.  Rural professionals’ status inside their workplace communities is distinctive and nuanced.  My own work on headteachers of rural primary schools showed how much had changed for rural teachers and that they too face a recruitment problem.  Tied accommodation and long service have disappeared (Hillyard and Bagley 2013), but some welcomed more professional distance (and the anonymity to put their rubbish out in their dressing-gown, as one head put it).  The intensity of role vis-à-vis salary scales has led to federated headteachers who oversee a number of schools. 

Local spatial contexts are critical, too.  Remoteness and climate vary considerably.  In Nordic countries, remote summer homes are inaccessible in the winter months, very different to the 80% second-homes villages of England’s rural coastline.  The former are unreachable, the latter ghost towns outside the season.  The rural community within which veterinary work takes place is therefore nuanced.  Whilst the spatial layout of a village would be of less relevance to vets than the local head, are vet’s community relationships inherited and what of their own organisational cultures and relationship with the local economy?

To end on the thorniest of debates, there is the enduring question of what is the rural?  This Special Issue had the ambition to look at rural issues afresh.  What is all-too-dominant (monocultural vistas), what is less-than-tangible (ecotherapy) and territorial domains of food sources (wild or produced).  All are rural, but too demonstrate the sheer diversity of practices and processes. 

In recent work, drawing upon both W.I. Thomas’s theorem and Halfacree’s threefold architecture, I argue that definitions of the rural are plural.  That is, metaphorically, they are in the eye of the beholder.  Regardless of their accuracy, they are acted upon.  As one village ‘old boy’ describe of newcomers to the village when he greeted them on the street, “sometimes they speak, sometimes they don’t.”  The discussion as highlighted the new importance of the audience (the consumer) for the veterinary profession and situated their work on a wide, global canvas.  We need, too, to explore the possibility of taking all players seriously, including the non-human actors.

References

Cox, G. (2014) The gun’s dog.  Cheltenham: Pernice Press.

Enticott, G (2012) “Regulating animal health, gender and quality control: a study of veterinary surgeons in Great Britain.” Journal of Rural Studies 28(4):559-567.

Hillyard, S. (2020) Broadlands and the new rurality: an ethnography.  Bingley: Emerald.

Hillyard, S. & Bagley, C. (2013) “‘The fieldworker not in the head’s office’: an empirical exploration of the role of an English rural primary school within its village,” Social & Cultural Geography, 14:4, 410-427,

Moxon, P.R.A. (1978, 12th edition) [1952] Gundogs: training and field trials.  London: Popular Dogs.

Pettinger, L. (2011) “‘Knows how to please a man’: studying customers to understand service work.” The Sociological Review 59(2):223-241.

Pettinger, L. (2019) What’s wrong with work? Bristol: Policy Press.

Remnant, J. (2021) “How can we create a sustainable future for farm animal veterinary practice?” Veterinary Record, 189(9):371-372.

Sanders, C. (2010) ” Ethnography as dangerous, sad, and dirty work” In Hillyard, S. (ed.)  New Frontiers in Ethnography. Bingley: Emerald.  Pp. 101-124.  (2010)0000011009

Stephen, K., Henry, MK., Baughan, J., Duncan, AJ., & Bishop, HKB. (2020). An exploration of how vets cope with the daily challenges of farm animal practice and how best these coping mechanisms might be developed into tools which can be easily accessed by the livestock veterinary community. Sarah Brown Mental Health Research Grant. Available at:

Stiles, E. (2021) “The “wicked” problem of our workforce shortage.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 62(5):441. PMCID: PMC8048204

Sam Hillyard is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, where she teaches sociological theory and methods.  She is series editor of Studies in Qualitative Methodology (Emerald) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Qualitative Research.  Her current research includes work with rural GPs and colleagues in Lincoln’s International Institute for Rural Health.

Header Image Credit: BBC: Cast of All Creatures Great and Small (TV series)

TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:

Hillyard, Sam 2022. ‘Rural vets: what has happened to them all?’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (1):