City Places, Country Spaces

Rhetorical Explorations of the Urban/Rural Divide

by Wendy Atkins-Sayre (Volume editor) Ashli Quesinberry Stokes (Volume editor)
©2020 Textbook XII, 306 Pages


Regional differences matter. Even in an increasingly globalized world, rhetorical attention to regionalism yields very different understandings of geographic areas and the people who inhabit them. Regional identities often become most apparent in the differences (real and perceived) between urban and rural areas. Politicians recognize the perceived differences and develop messages based on that knowledge. Media highlight and exacerbate the differences to drive ratings. Cultural markers (from memorials to restaurants and memoirs and beyond) point to the differences and even help to construct those divisions. The places identified as urban and rural even visually demarcate the differences at times. This volume explores how rhetoric surrounding the urban and rural binary helps shape our understanding of those regions and the people who reside there. Chapters from award-winning rhetorical scholars explain the implications of viewing the regions as distinct and divided, exploring how they influence our understanding of ourselves and others, politics and race, culture, space and place, and more. Attention to urban and rural spaces is necessary because those spaces both act rhetorically and are also created through rhetoric. In a time when thoughtful attention to regional division has become more critical than ever, this book is required reading to help think through and successfully engage the urban/rural divide.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Rhetorical Construction of Urban and Rural America (Wendy Atkins-Sayre / Ashli Quesinberry Stokes)
  • Part I Politics
  • 2 A More Purple Union: Visual Legacies of the 2004 DNC Keynote (Brandon Inabinet)
  • 3 Remembering Rural Rankin: Feminism, Pacifism, and Rurality in Jeannette Rankin’s Identity (Jennifer A. Jackson / Leland G. Spencer)
  • 4 Inventing Suburbia: Spatialized Constitutive Rhetoric in Richard Nixon’s Suburban Strategy (Laura Alberti / L. Paul Strait)
  • 5 The NRA, Hunting, and “Facing” the Rural (Owen Sayre / Wendy Atkins-Sayre)
  • Part II Culture
  • 6 Reclaiming the Rural South: Queen Sugar and African-American Regional Identity (Christina L. Moss)
  • 7 Upscale, Down South: Urban Southern Restaurants and the Rhetorical Limits of Rurality (Ashli Quesinberry Stokes)
  • 8 Southern Identity on the Fly: Carnivalesque Advocacy in Southern Fly Fishing (Daniel A. Grano)
  • PART III Place
  • 9 Meditations on Midwestern Identity: Rethinking Critical Regionalism Through Maharishi Vedic City’s Modes of Belonging (Joan Faber McAlister)
  • 10 Traveling the ‘A-Line’: A Rhetorical Journey from the City (Harry Archer)
  • 11 Reunion, Colorado: One City’s Brand-New, Old, Rural Hometown (Christopher Eisenhart)
  • 12 The Visual Rhetoric of White Abandonment (Joshua L. Guitar)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index


We are fortunate to have had so much support for this work. Thanks go to Mary Stuckey for her early encouragement of the project and Mary, Mitchell McKinney, and Peter Lang for including us in this important book series. We would also like to acknowledge the sharp minds and thoughtful opinions shared by those who attend programs at the Southern States Communication Association’s annual meeting, where this project began and where we always learn new ways to think about rhetoric and find new sources of inspiration. In particular, we thank two longtime mentors of ours: Kathie Turner and Roseann Mandziuk. Your support has meant the world to us and we hope to pay it forward. The contributors to this volume were creative in their approaches to the larger project and we are especially grateful to have been able to work with such a fantastic group of scholars. Our colleagues and departments have continually supported our research and we don’t take that for granted. Most importantly, our families have provided the space and time needed to think and write and we couldn’t have done any of this without your support.

Ashli would like to thank her esteemed co-editor for her command of Chicago style, recognition of the importance of good snacks and wine for writing weekends, and willingness to debate regional rhetoric in a changing discipline, whether on the Interstate, in a hotel room, or in the middle of the woods. Wendy is very happy to have a collaborator who can laugh when we continually mix up time zones, patiently waits for her when she needs to jump out of cars to snap photos of farm animals and wildlife, and who is a top-notch travel planner.

We have both been influenced by the small Southern communities that “grew” us and the larger Southern cities that we now call home. We are grateful for those meaningful experiences and owe much of our professional and personal growth to the communities that have embraced us.

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1 The Rhetorical Construction of Urban and Rural America

Wendy Atkins-Sayre and Ashli Quesinberry Stokes1

In what is recognized as an increasingly globalized world, it is difficult to know if regional differences still matter. Attention to regionalism as a rhetorical construct, however, has shown that viewing regions through that scholarly lens yields a very different understanding of geographic areas and the people who inhabit them. That scholarship examines everything from architecture, to statehood, music, and social movements.2 For much of our own academic work, we have studied the ways that the Southern United States is constructed through food, media, culture, and politics.3 Although the South is a distinct region in many ways, we are continually drawn back to the larger question of how rhetoric creates a sense of place and influences individual actions and beliefs based upon their perceived regional identities. How is it, for example, that Southern self-taught or “visionary” artists express the world surrounding them in what is considered to be “outsider art” yet meticulously reflect a sense of place? In food studies, scholars examine how the Southern sense of place drives regional belonging, consumption patterns, and production, shaped by race, class, ethnicity, and gender. Certainly, attachment to Southern regionalism is seen in the popularity of Southern bands like the Drive by Truckers, the Avett Brothers, and the Steep Canyon Rangers.4 Although we have concentrated on Southern regionalism and its myriad rhetorics, the notion of region is expressed nationally and globally.

One way that regional identities become most apparent is in the differences (real and perceived) between urban and rural areas. Although this division is not unique to the United States, with rural residents in Poland, Turkey, and Hungary tending to favor more conservative policies and leaders politically,5 Italians preferring foods based upon whether they live in the urban North or more rural South of the country, and leisure patterns differing ←3 | 4→among urban and rural Chinese,6 for example, it is certainly pronounced in this nation. Politicians recognize the perceived differences between the regions and develop messages based on that knowledge. Media highlight and exacerbate the differences to drive ratings. Cultural markers (from memorials to restaurants and memoirs and beyond) point to the differences and even help to construct those divisions. The places identified as urban and rural even visually demarcate the differences at times, as seen, for instance, when traveling through states with distinct urban cores and surrounding countryside. Skyscrapers and light rail in urban Charlotte, North Carolina, contrast with the eastern part of the state’s vast pig farming enterprises or western mountainous terrain.

This volume explores how rhetoric surrounding the urban and rural binary helps shape our understanding of those regions and the people who reside there. The chapters will explain the implications of viewing the regions as distinct and divided, exploring how they influence our understanding of ourselves and others, politics and race, culture, space and place, and more. Ultimately, we argue that scholarly attention to urban and rural spaces is necessary because those spaces both act rhetorically and are also created through rhetoric. More significantly, however, the rhetorical creation of urban and rural America is key to understanding divisions that exist and are enacted based on those images.

The Urban/Rural Divide

Discussions about whether the perceived urban/rural divide in America is real have increasingly made their way into our newspapers, magazines, journals, and other outlets. In the 2016 American presidential election, for example, this division was discussed continually in analyses of the campaigns and then the election results in ways that are now used to explain global populist political trends.7 Much of Trump’s success in winning the rural vote was attributed to his appeals to concerns of those living outside of the city and suburbs, such as “economic and cultural issues,” immigration issues, and “a feeling among rural voters that urban and even suburban Americans do not share their values, and that the news media disrespects them.”8 Although there are undeniable differences between the geography, offerings, culture, and so forth in the areas, the question remains how these differences may affect the overall urban and/or rural experience.

The first problem related to these perceived differences is that they have the potential to create a real division. Badger points out, for example, that recent surveys confirm that urban and rural Americans “both believe that ←4 | 5→the other group doesn’t understand their problems or share their values.”9 Appealing to this fundamental belief, as Badger points out, politicians can easily exploit this perceived division to their advantage, cultivating votes that may culminate in policy changes that are most certainly real. The Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama-era coal admissions standards provides an example of action based on perceived differences in beliefs, with efforts to stop the so-called “War on Coal” likely to reduce reliance on natural gas, wind, and solar power energy sources.10 Recent political differences, then, can be traced clearly to an urban/rural divide. Although these political/regional differences have existed for many years, recent research finds that the areas have become much more divided. “Adults in urban areas, long aligned with the Democratic Party,” a 2018 Pew Research Center report explains, “have moved even more to the left in recent years.”11 Likewise, “rural adults have moved more firmly into the Republican camp.”12

Although there is evidence for this divide, others have argued that the division is not as clear as urban and rural designations. For example, Colin Woodard put forward the argument that there are distinct sections of the United States that are created based upon their colonizers, with areas that have French, English, or Spanish colonial histories tending to display sometimes stark regional differences.13 Pointing out areas such as “The Deep South,” “Far West,” “Greater Appalachia” and “Yankeedom,” the divide is not as clear as state lines or even density, with Woodard instead arguing, “The cultural differences between these regional cultures have a greater effect on our politics than the size and density of our communities.”14 While the explanation for the political divides is still being debated, there is reason to explore the question, especially if perceptions of differences have some effect on voters.

Physical space also creates a difference between experiences. While rural dwellers might not regularly encounter as many people while out for a walk, for example, urbanites often comment on the density of humanity as a perk of living in the city. Davidson, for example, explains one urban experience:

For most of us, living in cities means living close to those who are both like us and not. Even just walking down a city block means having no idea who will cross your path, what they believe, or how they will behave. Strolling is a succession of chance meetings, the vast majority of them superficial … Urbanites take this haphazardness for granted. We have the ingrained habit of sharing space, of encountering difference, of swimming in the collective soup.15

Consequently, living in areas where people are more exposed to diverse individuals and are more likely to have chance encounters among diverse community members may have an impact on worldviews. Similarly, those in rural ←5 | 6→areas that are much less diverse may congregate regularly in community spaces such as restaurants, churches, and shopping centers, presenting opportunities to reinforce commonly held views and beliefs.

It is no surprise, then, that such examples of regional division have also been considered a root cause of the culture wars, with their fights between different beliefs and ideologies. As Washington Post columnists Jose DelReal and Scott Clement write, “The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege … ”16 Whether the division is real or perceived, the urban/rural differences are certainly discussed as being a part of our politics.

Although there is evidence that urban and rural voters differ in their typical support of political parties, there is still overlap between the groups on other issues.17 Both groups, for example, are concerned about widespread drug addiction problems, job availability, and affordable housing.18 Additionally, both urban and rural residents say that they value community involvement, despite a perception on the part of rural dwellers that city residents are less concerned about being involved in the community.19

As we will discuss later in this chapter, these real and imagined divisions are both created by rhetorical messages that emphasize certain perceptions and are also responsible for creating those persuasive messages. Although the reality of the divide between the regions may be questioned, the perceptions of division contribute to our understanding of these regions. The topic of space and place giving meaning to and communicating this division has been explored in recent years and an overview of that literature in the next section helps establish how regions speak in this way.

The Rhetoric of Space and Place

As rhetorical scholars began looking beyond traditional word-based texts to gain a fuller understanding of rhetorical activity, interest in analyzing rhetoric found in the field, in collections of objects, through experiences, visual content, performances, and the like grew. This work has much to offer rhetorical analyses about urban/rural tensions; indeed, as McKinnon, Asen, Chavez, and Howard point out, these less text-based artifacts “enable and constrain rhetorical possibility in ways that may not be perceivable in textual artifacts alone.”20 Thus, as part of this line of inquiry developed, rhetoricians brought attention to how space, and relatedly, place, communicate particular meanings, becoming “something living, breathing, operating” for audiences who receive or experience them.21

←6 | 7→

Space and place, then, became concepts of increasing attention both inside and outside of the rhetorical discipline. There are slight differences between the two concepts that should be considered, with some critics using these terms interchangeably in their work while others argue that the interrelation between them is a “matter of some dispute.”22 Typically, however, space is considered more abstract than the notion of place, with their connection moving from general (space) to particular (place).23 Space is sometimes described, for example, as an “ongoing construct of multiple and heterogeneous sociomaterial interrelations, which coexist and affect each other.”24 As Hart and Lim describe it, literal space is “just rocks and trees and streams and land, agnostic about meaning,”25 while Endres and Senda-Cook suggest that space involves a “more general notion of how society and social practice are regulated (and sometimes disciplined) by spatial thinking.”26 Nevertheless, some rhetorical scholars do connote space with symbolic meaning, a site(s) where people live and make sense of the world, adapting and transforming its significance.27 Indeed, scholars consider how space speaks, maintaining boundaries by keeping some people in and others out. Communal tables, for example, sometimes share messages of being welcoming and invite shared experience, while those same tables and other eating spaces (restaurants, dining cars, cafes, and roadside diners, etc.) also might enforce messages of segregation and hostility.28 This conception of space begins to take us into what Watts describes as the rhetorical quest for order creating and maintaining division, often visible in debates about how public space is used and created.29 The dispute about whether or not the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue should remain in its designated space on the campus of the University of North Carolina, for example, sends particular messages about whose version of history is shared and conveys different understandings about the experience of that university for particular audiences.

Consequently, scholars call on the concept of space to discuss everything from identity, to politics, to history, and more. Hart and Lim, for example, examine how ideas about space inform politics, observing how the Republican Party highlights space more than time (community, national pride), while the Democratic Party favors temporal over spatial references (progress, change, reform).30 As they point out, “politics is about more than space, but it is never not about space,” noting, for example, how there are “two Irelands in Ireland, Palestinians in Israel and Israelis in Palestine, Native Americans who feel like foreigners in their own land.”31 In another example of this kind of research, Ferris argues that seeing Southern kitchen spaces as “women’s domains” ignores Southern Black women’s historic work as domestics and café cooks.32 Thus, although some might consider space the more general, ←7 | 8→less “meaningful” conception of geographic locations, material forms, and physical dimensions, for others, it does mighty rhetorical work.33

In fact, when thinking about spatial configurations as locations where “otherwise unconnected narratives may be brought into contact, or previously connected ones may be wrenched apart,” we begin to shift into the idea that spaces with meaning added become rhetorical places.34 Indeed, places are often considered by scholars to be spaces invested with symbolic meaning.35 As Hart and Lim put it, places are the “secret haunts of childhood, the sacred shrines to which devotees make pilgrimage, the icons surrounding the nation’s battlefields,” all ideas loaded with rhetorical significance.36 Places ‘have a say’ about what meanings are created, where place-making organizes various objects, buildings, animals, etc., into particular arrangements of material mobilities, either by happenstance or strategically.37 For some scholars, then, space becomes place “after humans have made it meaningful through symbolic practices,” with place-making understood as either the result of making the geography meaningful or, more recently, as a “constellation of mobilities” where heterogeneous phenomena are “thrown together into a processual configuration.”38 This second conception of place-making deals with processes, while the former is more concerned with the narratives, memories, practices, personal meanings, etc., that have become associated with a particular locale.39 Still, places are not simply locales, rather they encompass experiences and sites of social interaction.40 Ultimately, then, though operating sometimes at different levels of abstraction, both space and place are created through rhetorical processes, are not opposites, and always influence each other.41

As critical work developed, scholars relied on space and place in ways that are particularly intriguing for better understanding how they shape rhetorical functioning of urban and rural spaces. We sometimes understand rural space as “pristine,” for example, contaminated by “outsiders;” similarly, urban spaces are “gleaming” and “efficient” or decreed “dirty” and “dangerous” depending on one’s perspective and relationship to place.42 Continuing to engage rural/urban rhetorics also allows us to contend with ongoing debates about space and place in our contemporary era. In light of burgeoning communication technologies, for example, scholars ask whether place is less relevant in a “borderless” world or if, in fact, technology delivers tribalism more efficiently.43 Globalization, too, threatens place or makes it more important, depending on the audience’s needs.44 Scholars also look increasingly at how place supports patterns of segregation, keeping people from interacting spatially, with place serving a productive, order-reinforcing rhetoric that may be supported or resisted.45 Moving in a different direction, Zagacki ←8 | 9→and Gallagher point out how material rhetorics create “spaces of attention” that forge a collective sense of civic identity by experiencing the landscape of public art through a series of mixed modalities.46 Of course, there is perennial interest in how public spaces construct shared public memory about the past that might invite reflection, engagement, or particular interpretation.47 Yet, as Tell warns, although these memorial places and sites may serve as reminders of a (perhaps) shared past, they also are transformed through the commemorative process itself.48 With the theoretically grounding topics of space and place more thoroughly explained here, the next topic to explore is a specific look at one type of space particularly important in the urban/rural tension: regionalism.

Rhetoric and Regionalism

While scholars in rhetorical studies only recently began investigating the topic of regionalism, that research has been critical to opening up a study of the ways that regions influence communication. Regions are material in some respects since there is generally a place that can be pointed to on a map, actual geographic boundaries to observe, or physical references. Appalachia is defined by its proximity to the Appalachian mountain range, while the “Rust Belt” label was used to connote those areas deeply influenced by factories and manufacturing. For the most part, however, these labels are largely rhetorical creations, created through a combination of messages and symbols. Although we often start from the assumption that urban and rural regions are largely distinct, there is certainly overlap between the regions. This volume explores the boundaries of the regions, exposing the overlapping areas and uncovering the ways that the rhetorical creations of the regions can work strategically for different entities. As Powell writes, “When we talk about a region, we are talking not about a stable, boundaried, autonomous place but about a cultural history, the cumulative, generative effect of the interplay among the various, competing definitions of that region. And in so doing, we are, inevitably, contributing to that cultural history, participating in the ongoing creation of regional identities.”49 In other words, the rhetorical work that creates regions can “come undone,” creating situations where those boundaries are not as clear. As Powell continues: “Region, then, is not a thing in itself, a stable and bounded object of study … ‘region’ is always at some level an attempt to persuade as much as it is to describe.”50

Rhetorical critics, specifically, have accounted for the symbolically structured and structuring nature of regions. In a 2010 Rhetoric Society Quarterly special issue on regional rhetorics (and published in book version as Regional ←9 | 10→Rhetorics: Real and Imagined Places), several critics point to the use of symbols to define regions.51 Jenny Rice, for example, argues that regions “must be unhooked from a necessary connection to terroir,” arguing that the rhetorical nature of regions means that they can be more flexible than a material connection might allow.”52 Regions are “ephemeral,” according to Wood and can also be “polysemic.”53 Consequently, regions are constantly constructed and reconstructed through rhetoric. As Wood writes, “Regions are shaped by discourse; their ephemeral markers of ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ‘us’ and ‘them,’ demand perpetual deliberation, interrogation, adjudication, and restoration.”54

Because of these rhetorical characteristics (and others), Rice also points out that regionalism can be strategic.55 It is “a rhetorical performance, a strategic interface, which stands in marked contrast to the perceived naturalism of the national, the local, and even the cosmopolitan.”56 Or, as Tell puts it, “At the heart of this construction is the building of contingent bridges, the forging of tenuous links, the articulation of people, places, institutions, and ideologies that would not otherwise coexist in the same formation.”57 Because the material markers do not speak as powerfully, regional rhetoric works strategically to create symbolic links. As Wood explains it, “A place is a fact; a region is a choice, and not necessarily one made by its inhabitants.”58 Thus, regional rhetoric is often intentional and strategic.

More recently, Boyle and Rice’s edited volume uses the case of the state of Texas as a more specific region to examine.59 That volume examines the idea of “poiesis of a body-place assemblage” in an attempt to understand the physical connection to place.60 As the editors explain, “Therefore, in this perspective, we do not ask what a single body knows better because of the way it moves through space, nor do we ask how that space helps shape, police, or discipline bodies. Instead, we turn our focus to what kinds of rhetorical effects are created in and through that relationship.”61 Although regions communicate and influence individuals in a number of ways, the essays in this collection look specifically at how the material and symbolic come together to communicate. But, as the editors note, Texas is only a case study here—it is not the only example of this kind of rhetorical regionalism. Instead, the state “stands in for places that have stubbornly brushed up against the bodies who live there, leaving sensational traces of those encounters.”62 Similarly, individuals may experience this interaction in their urban and/or rural experiences.

Finally, Wood puts forth the argument that regions should be studied as a process. That is, “Rather than studying region-as-place,” he argues, “we should concentrate on region-as-method. This process, which we may call regionalization, represents an intentional and tactical co-location of distinct ←10 | 11→standpoints.”63 This contention/observation is precisely the point that we wish to investigate through the current collection of essays. If regions are indeed rhetorical creations, how exactly does that regionalization occur? In particular, how are urban and rural areas created through our rhetoric?

Rhetorical Construction of Urban and Rural Identities

The scholarly study of urban and rural areas has gained steam in recent years and there is a need to understand the perceived differences from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Discussions about differences between the city and the countryside, the urban and the rural, are not new. In fact, many nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectuals attempted to explain these differences.64 Nor is this discussion unique to America. As Creed and Ching argue, “the rural/urban distinction underlies many of the power relations that shape the experiences of people in nearly every culture.”65 Despite these scholarly discussions, however, there is still much left to be explored. It is the discourse surrounding the regions that helps develop how individuals view themselves and others. For example, rhetorical constructions of rural regions influence the ways that we perceive the countryside.

Rhetorical Construction of the Rural


XII, 306
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 306 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Wendy Atkins-Sayre (Volume editor) Ashli Quesinberry Stokes (Volume editor)

Wendy Atkins-Sayre (PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of Rhetoric and Department Chair at the University of Memphis. Her most recent book with Ashli Stokes, Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South, explores the role that food plays in creating Southern identity. Ashli Quesinberry Stokes (PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the New South at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her award-winning scholarship explores identity, activism, and Southern culture.


Title: City Places, Country Spaces
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