The English Countryside (18th-21st c.): Identities, Mutations, and Representations

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ACE - University of Rennes 2

The English Countryside
(18th-21st centuries)
Identities, Mutations, and Representations

Research on British rural spaces is often given less exposure than urban studies (urbanisation, gentrification, inner cities, architectural feats, etc.). This may be justified by the fact that, since the Victorian era, the population, economic activities and jobs have been mainly concentrated in urban conurbations. Less than 15% of Britons live in the countryside, which nonetheless still makes up 80% of Britain.

The frontier between urban and rural areas is drawn according to statistical criteria that allow for a differentiated administrative management, but this division is becoming increasingly blurred by a series of phenomena (rural-urban continuum, periurbanisation, rurbanisation, exurbanisation, counterurbanisation, suburbanisation), along with shifts of population towards the countryside, and technical innovations that have contributed to mitigate the isolation of its dwellers (transport, internet). Despite strong regional disparities (between East Anglia and the Scottish Highlands for instance), rural spaces do have common characteristic features regarding employment, social classification, electoral behaviour, and standards of living. As far as collective representations are concerned, the countryside is often portrayed as a "rural idyll", with its beautiful landscapes and closely-knit communities. This image is reinforced by countryside planning (limited building permission), green tourism (National Trust, national parks, former mining valleys, registered sites), magazines (Country Life), or literary and audiovisual fictions (Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd [novel], Caryl Churchill's Fen [theatre], The Archers [radio], Emmerdale [TV], etc.).

Often described as a stronghold of traditional values as opposed to urban modernity, the countryside has nevertheless experienced major mutations: it is therefore relevant to examine the socioeconomic, political and even socio-linguistic (social markers) consequences induced by the arrival of new populations and by the development of new means of transportation and communication. In this respect, rurality may be understood as a socio-topographical element and rural spaces may be studied as "places" or "locales" (Anthony Giddens' The Constitution of Society, 1984) where interactions and social systems are being built (new communities, cohabitation of different categories of population, social/spatial relation). Natural, unbuilt spaces can be analysed through the prism of power and protest (from the domination of the landed gentry to the defence of foxhunting, from D. Lloyd George's land nationalisation project to D. Cameron's forestry privatisation plan, added to WW2's "Dig for Victory" campaigns, the environmentalist movement, popular mobilisations against road building or fracking, action taken to preserve green belts from greedy urban planners, and the NIMBY syndrome). Lastly, the discursive, iconic or fictional representations of these rural spaces can be studied from various, complementary perspectives, according to whether one interprets these representations as ideological, artistic, cultural, etc.

Following the one-day conference organised in Rennes (France) on 10 April 2015, the publication will focus on England (but does not exclude comparative studies with other parts of the UK or other Anglophone countries). Synchronic and diachronic perspectives are welcome. Following a cultural studies tradition, the chosen approach combines several disciplines: sociology, (social) geography, cultural history, art history, literature, media studies, discourse analysis, etc.

Please send your proposal (title and 10-line abstract) in English together with a short biography to David Haigron ( by 10th September 2015. Once the proposal has been accepted, the article (between 5,000 and 7,000 words + footnotes and bibliography) will have to be sent by 15th December 2015.