Consumers in the Country

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Ronald R. Kline. Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xii plus 299 pp. $ 22.50, ISBN 0-8018-7115-8.

Contents

Summary

Ronald R. Kline in his social history, Consumers in the Country, chronicles the effort to “modernize” and “urbanize” the American countryside. In so doing he grapples with issues of gender, rural culture values, consumerism, and a clash of cultures. Further, the work is an argument against technological determinism or the concept that technology is the primary driver of culture and values. Kline’s contention is that rural consumers had agency in initially resisting and adapting new technologies to augment existing cultural behaviors. Thus instead of technology instigating societal and cultural change in rural America, the end-users resisted, adapted and selectively applied the use of new technologies such as the automobile, telephone, radio, small appliances, and rural electrification to create “new forms of rural modernity— many of which were individual modernities.” (8) The themes of resistance, modernity, and adaptation are key to Kline’s argument against technological determinism.

Resistance is important to Kline’s work and it comes in two forms, active and passive. In both forms, resistance is exemplified by the push back of agrarian populations upon the rural reformers who attempted to thrust the forces of urbanization and modernity upon a culture that the reformists viewed as backward. This reformist agenda of urbanization is defined by Kline as the attempt “by promoters to create (what they considered to be) middle-class, urban standards of living in the country through the agencies of new communication, transportation, and household technologies.” (7) Kline asserts the Country Life Commission typified this mindset; an organization he claims was made up elite, urban males who steadfastly believed in the promise of science and technology in the cause of rural reform. Kline claims throughout the work that the rural population contested such notions from groups such as Country Life, through active and passive resistance. For example, in the chapter “Taming the Devil Wagon”, Kline documents active resistance in the early extralegal and legal efforts of the rural populace to thwart the automobile. Extralegal actions included sabotaging roads, shooting drivers, and placing “tire-cutting slag” and straw cover boards with exposed nails on the roads. (60) This extralegal resistance extended to various other attacks on technological infrastructures, such as cutting of telephone wires and sawing down utility poles. Kline shows that legal passive resistance was more often employed in issues of local autonomy. Kline uses examples of “shenanigans” (168) perpetrated on representatives of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Specifically, one representative of the REA, Elva Bohannan, complained of the resistance of electrical co-operative board members towards electrical education and utilization schemes: “Bohannan employed the rhetoric of rural uplift to complain that the co-op’s board was under the domination of a president and project attorney who tried to thwart the REA’s ‘progressive’ measures…” (169) Subsequently, Kline asserts that: “As in the case of our other technologies, rural people used age-old resistance tactics to ‘ domesticate’ the REA.” (155) Finally, Kline shows that the rural culture often refused to purchase items that were touted by the reformers as symbols of modernity. In taking this action, the farm consumer was showing resistance with the wallet or pocket book

In this work, Kline raises important philosophical questions concerning the notion of modernity. First, what was constituted a lifestyle that was modern? Secondly, who were the final arbitrators and who benefited in this definition? Kline states there was a significant amount of confusion over the issue of modernity even among the experts. Each seemed to have differing standards over what was truly modern in use and implementation. For example, in the chapter “Defining Modernity in the Home”, Kline notes that sociologist Ellis Kirkpatrick in 1929 conceded that advocates had differing standards of modernity. (87) He goes on to note that the reformers agreed on the ideology that centered on “saving the overworked farm woman” from the insane asylum by promoting the consumption and use of modern conveniences. (88) The question then became which of the labor saving devices and attending infrastructural changes would be conducive to achieving this goal. Kline questions the outcome of this using this modernization ideology. Pointing to studies carried out by researchers: “These studies provided data that was latter used to support the argument that although new household technologies might have reduced the energy required to perform specific tasks, ownership of these appliances did not correlate with less time spent on housework by full-time home workers.”(105) Also, he argues that laborsaving devices were more often used for farm work, the male sphere, rather than in the household. Subsequently, he shows that the modernity espoused by the reformers often did not benefit their intended target group, farmwomen. Further, Kline shows that instead of the rural population embracing progressive notions of an ill-defined urban modernity, they chose to pick elements to enhance their own notions of what it meant to be modern.

Kline documents numerous adaptations rural populations used to change technological innovations to suit and enhance their own culture. Kline begins by chronicling the adaptations that the rural populace made on communications. In the chapter, “(Re)inventing the Telephone” he begins by stating “rural folk often saw the telephone as a sign of urbanization.” (23) However, unlike other technologies, the telephone was embraced, but not in the fashion that rural reformers had anticipated. Where there was no infrastructure, some agrarians improvised barbed wire fencing to connect between farms and ranches to facilitate communication. Party lines, or lines that allowed multiple independent users, and telephone co-operatives were another adaptation that became a bane to large corporations, such as Bell, and smaller independent companies. because of what the corporations considered inappropriate use of their technology. Kline argues that these and other adaptations in the use of the telephone, e.g. broadcasting music, were not deterministic in shaping rural culture but an extension and enhancement of pre-existing communication patterns within the rural community. Further, he states that: “… commercial firms redesigned the telephone network to fit the social practices of this ‘class’ of consumer. In this case, producers, rather than consumers, adapted the new technology to fit the social patterns of daily life.” (48) Indeed Kline shows that at times these adaptations force producers to innovate and change designs to suit rural needs and uses of technology within distinct gender spheres. The Ford automobile exemplifies this idea, as it served as a power source for washing machines (a conjoining of the feminine sphere with the masculine), electrical generators and a mechanized wagon for hauling produce. Kline asserts that these unintended uses prodded manufactures such as Ford, to innovate existing automotive technology into trucks and tractors.

Kline concludes his work by using these themes to show why rural culture has persisted despite a cultural and technological onslaught promoting modernization. He asserts that this is best understood in interpreting this trend “as a mutual construction of technology and society.”(280) Thus the themes of resistance, an ambiguous cultural definition of modernity, and innovative adaptation by rural populations drove social change, rather than the technology in and of itself.


Commentary

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

As a social history Consumers in the Country makes a convincing argument against technological determinism. As presented, the structure of the book shows the argument of rural people having agency in the imposition of their culture is relatively exact and concise. Especially effective is the juxtaposition of the power in this agency to the schemes of governmental agencies and corporations to persuade wholesale adoption of their version of modernization, a technological utopia that is best represented by the book’s inclusion of “Current Comes to the Farm”, a scissors picture that is found in the preface to the work. (40)

However, other than a brief mentioning, Kline misses a major reason for resistance to so called modernization and urbanization. This is the fact that the farm, especially the family farm, is by its nature a hybrid between a business and residence. As a business economic decisions had to be made reflective of the enormous amount of risk that farmers and ranchers undertook, such as crop failures, adverse market conditions, etc… Subsequently, economic decisions had to be approached for the betterment of both. Usually this meant that extraneous consumer goods, such as household laborsaving devices, were foregone for technology that would promote efficiency in the business and decrease risk. This idea is touched on in the explanation of why farmers and ranchers chose certain consumer goods as opposed to others. (227). However, it does need more attention in the work. Refusal by rural populations to consume new technology can be interpreted in the work as passive resistance, but economic reality dictates that much of this innovation was unaffordable, even through the various credit schemes were offered by the federal government and corporations to create the country consumer.

Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

In his book, Consumers’ in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America, Ronald Kline argues that modern technology such as telephones, automobiles, radios and electricity were NOT “autonomous social forces that revolutionized rural life in ways predicted by promoters” (p. 6). Instead, Kline concludes that interaction between modernizers (attempting to introduce technological systems into rural areas) and farmers led to a gradual and selective integration of technology into rural life that was assimilated “into existing social patterns” and created new forms of “rural modernity” defined by the rural population.

Kline expertly integrates original research with the historiographical work of historians such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan and Lizabeth Cohen. Despite the strong case Kline makes regarding cultural resistance and adaptation, I have to agree with the criticism of Scott Abeel. In his 2011 commentary, he points out that Kline overlooks that farms were a business as well as a home. Kline defines the decision of farmers to delay acquiring modern farm equipment that ran on electricity until older equipment wore out as a decision based on culture. But, if you look at this type of decision from the perspective of a business with low profit margins, the interpretation of the delay is economic and not cultural. Another issue with Kline’s argument is that although there was resistance and adaptation, by the end of the 20th Century, rural farms were overwhelmingly large, corporate entities and rural inhabitants were increasingly non-farming commuters and consumers. Kline acknowledges this change in his discussion of “the growing number of suburbs on REA cooperatives” (p. 278). He concludes his book with a very brief and overly generalized summary of late 20th Century rural adaptation to technology as well as rural influence on urban and suburban cultures. But, to more fully support his argument of resistance and adaptation, a much deeper analysis of rural life after 1965 needs to be conducted.

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