Mobilities and Ruralities: Analysing Rural-To-Urban Youth Migration

Mobilities and Ruralities: Analysing Rural-To-Urban Youth Migration

To the reader: The paper is an attempt to synthesise several articles which I have published previously about rural-to-urban migration. While these have been very empirical in character, the present paper focuses more on the theoretical implications. However, I am not really satisfied with the paper as it stands, and I would very much appreciate any comments on how to improve it :-) Looking forward to see you all in Wageningen in August!

Johan Fredrik


Johan Fredrik Rye, Centre for Rural Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology


The paper takes as its point of departure the interrelationships between rural social structure and rural actors' conceptualisations of rurality, and how these generate specific rural-to-urban migration practices. I thus combine class and social constructionist perspectives to discuss the out-migration of rural youth from the countryside. The paper appraises how rural mobility is embedded in the late post-modern economic, social and cultural context of present-day rural societies, and how this challenges the traditional academic discourses of rurality. The paper's key proposition is that the heterogeneity in rural actors' understanding of the rural, as well as their actions, results in migration practices which are less organised in accordance with traditional rural social structures. However, the new practices are impacted by deeper structures of social inequalities that characterise the modern countryside, and are also analysed in terms of these structures. The analysis makes use of quantitative data from a survey, ‘Youth culture and migration in the Mountain Region’, which was conducted among 653 students attending upper secondary school in the Mountain Region, a remote area in the centre of eastern Norway.


Every year in late August a stream of cars leaves the rural areas of Norway, carrying high school graduates about to embark on their new lives as students in the country's university cities. Their travel takes only a few hours on the road, yet the distance between their past childhood and adolescence in the countryside and their future lives in the cities is vast. As for most other rural youth who leave the countryside, the decision to migrate from rural to urban areas will have profound implications for their lives – in terms of education and jobs, finding a spouse, where to raise their children, and their lifestyle. Rural-to-urban migration is about far more than moving in physical space, from one place to another. It is just as much a journey in social space. The students’ drive through the mountains is pregnant with new lives that will set them apart from the peers who they leave behind.

This paper discusses the journey of these rural youths within the rural-urban hierarchy; how such geographic mobility is integral to the construction of their life histories and the ways in which social circumstances influence their migration practices. Every move from one place to another emerges from actors’ reflections, calculations and decisions in their everyday life – conscious and not so conscious ones – but in the background hide the burdens and benefits of their location in the rural social structure, only rarely acknowledged by the individuals travelling along the road to get to their next home. The point of departure of this paper is an interrogation into the workings of these social structures in relation to the migration practices of these rural youth, as well as the results of these interactions: Why do many rural youth decide to leave the countryside – and how are their migration decisions influenced by the structural properties of their everyay lives?

This paper reflects on the debate within the social sciences on actors and structures, the interplay between individual choice and societal forces (Hollis 1994; Moe 1994; Gunneriussen 1996; Grimen 2000). This is a tension also very much present in the field of migration studies (Boyle et al 1998; Orderud 1998; Grimsrud 2000). Whereas rural migration theory is historically focused, in realist science vein, on a range of social properties in order to account for migration behaviour, contemporary ‘post-ish’ approaches have revived the status of the acting and empowered actor. The paper attempts to mediate between these approaches in rural migration research, by discussing the ways in which migrants make history, their own and their societies’, but – quoting Marx – 'not in circumstances of their own choosing'.

1.1. Structure of the paper

The paper starts with an overview of some key theoretical developments within contemporary rural sociology, and their impact on studies of rural-to-urban migration. In particular I address the contemporary focus within the social sciences on 'free' actors who, in the spirit of the cultural turn within the disciplines, 'choose' their own migratory trajectories. In contrast to this literature, I present some empirical material from Norway, which suggests that a class perspective is relevant in the analyses of contemporary migration streams. Further, drawing on the findings from a survey among rural youth in one remote region in Norway, I show in detail how rural youth's conceptualisations of 'rurality' may be related to their social background, and also have an impact on their strategies of action, e.g. residential preferences, along the urban/rural-continuum. Using Bourdieu’s theoretical approach, in particular his concept of habitus, I then discuss how traditional structural analyses may be combined with the newer 'post-ish' perspectives – how social class and social constructions may be seen as complementary rather than as competing approaches in the analysis of rural-to-urban migration by young adults. The paper concludes that youth migration practices are less organised in accordance with the traditional rural social structure. However, these new practices are impacted by deeper structures of social inequalities that characterise the modern countryside, and should preferably be analysed in terms of these structures as well.


There is a rich literature on rural-to-urban migration within the tradition of rural studies (see Rye 2006a for an overview). In the following discussion, I will focus on developments in the contemporary literature which relate rural-to-urban youth migration to more general issues within sociology, in particular the descriptions of a new post-modern countryside and the reconceptualisation of 'rurality'.

2.1. Diversified migration practices

In contemporary rural migration research, three macro-level social changes have been seen as general underlying explanations of the out-migration of young people from rural areas. Firstly, in many respects people in Western society today are more mobile than previous generations: physically, economically and socially. The distance between peripheries and the core has been dramatically reduced. For example, for most high school graduates, migration from the rural periphery to a university centre is no longer a venture into the unknown. The travel distance in time has commonly been reduced to only a few hours.In most countries the state provides some kind of financial support for students in higher education, and the journey has been made by plenty of other people in the locality already. In principle, most rural teenagers are able to leave their home municipality and to enrol at a university. if they choose to, after finishing high school. In short, barriers to migration are fewer than previously.

Secondly, the development of a knowledge-based economy has increased the demand for education, from the perspective of the society as much as from that of the actors. More people want or need higher education, which by and large is available only in larger centres, including university cities and the regional urban centres which host colleges. Pulling in the same direction, there has been concentration of jobs in urban centres. In other words, more people have more business to accomplish in urban areas than previously.

Thirdly, the departure of rural youth from rural societies is interpreted in the context of the individualisation theory within the social sciences. Prominent social theorists such as Giddens (1990, 1991, 1992), Beck (1992) and Bauman (2000) have argued that contemporary societies are characterised by the actors' disembedding from traditional social constraints, releasing them from pre-written scripts for how to live their lives (see Krange 2004 for a review of the individualisation theory in youth research). In this analytical perspective, rural youth feel free – and really are free – to explore the world outside the rural communities where they spend their childhood and adolescence. A farmer’s son will not necessarily become a farmer – he has to choose how to construct his life biography without the solid guidance of tradition by which his forefathers were constrained. ‘In post-traditional contexts, we have no choice but to choose, how to be and how to act’, concludes Giddens (1996:28).

Thus, rural youth are more able to out-migrate (due to increased mobility), have more reasons to do so (education and jobs in the cities), and are free to make their own individual decisions about whether to go or not (the individualisation thesis). The result has been high rates of out-migration from rural areas.

These migration practices are more diversified than previously. They are also less predictable and so are open to scientific inquiry. If rural actors are conceived of as 'reflections' of social structures, the researcher can interrogate the workings of these structures in the quest to understand migration. However, if the post-modern actor is completely released from the constraints of tradition and other collective guiding principles, the search for systemacy becomes more difficult.

2.2. The post-ish countryside

In parallel, contemporary rural sociology seems to be characterised by increasing heterogeneity in theoretical as well as methodological approaches. However, a common denominator may be the emphasis on the ‘post-ish’ character of its subject matter, the countryside and its changing economic base. The contemporary Western countryside relies on a post-agricultural economy, where farming has become just one among a number of occupations. Service production is the new economic base of the rural. The countryside nowadays is just as much a site of consumption as of production. Rural tourism is the paradigmatic trade in this development (Urry 1990), as it emphasises the importance of the aesthetic value of the rural landscape for the economy of rural societies. It is the interpreted and imagined – the socially constructed – qualities of the countryside that matter the most.

Furthermore, the shift in the economic base of rural societies is intertwined with processes that more or less efface the traditional social and cultural distinctiveness of rural societies. Contemporary ways of rural life become more varied and amenable to diversity. In the Norwegian context, Hompland (1991) uses the concepts of local nationalisation and local heterogenisation to summarise these processes. As rural societies and actors are exposed to the same national social forces as their urban counterparts, they develop similar social and cultural practices. However, the integration into wider social structures leads to disintegration of the previously coherent rural societies. The rural population has become more heterogeneous (Almås 2002; Villa 2004), and their identity often includes urban elements. They may even conceive of themselves as city people, as expressed by Pahl, who noted that ‘some people [...] are in the city but not of it [...] whereas others are of the city but not in it’ (1966:307).

Differences between rural and urban localities are thus diminished, and in some respects may even be non-existent. Many rural actors have more in common with people living in cities than with their next-door neighbour.

The greater diversity of rural populations is on the one hand the result of the increased migration between city and countryside, as more and other kinds of people locate themselves in rural areas, e.g. urban commuters. On the other hand, this heterogeneity adds to the diversity in observed out-migration practices, as these reflect the larger heterogeneity in rural societies. There is no longer one rural population; there are many rural populations, each having their own social logic and practices including residential preferences and migration decisions.

2.3. The cultural turn

The debates about how to define the concept of rurality reflect these changes in the countryside (Pahl 1966; Newby 1980; Mormont 1990; Halfacree 1993; Murdoch and Pratt 1993; Hoggart et al 1995; Cloke 1997; Phillips 1998). If the rural has no distinct character, as claimed by several of these authors, why and how should it be treated as the subject matter of sociological analysis?

In the 1990s, a new round of conceptual debate arose, which further questioned the traditional and generally realist understanding of the rural. Inspired by the ‘cultural turn’ within the social sciences, several writers proposed conceiving of the rural as mental categories, located in people’s minds, rather than as outward reality (Cloke 1997; Phillips 1998; Berg and Lysgård 2004). For example, Mormont (1990:36) concludes that 'rurality is not a thing or a territorial unit, but derives from the social production of meaning'. Halfacree (1993:23) in a similar tone defines 'the rural in terms of disembodied cognitive structures which we use as rules and resources in order to make sense of our everyday world'. Thus, the research focus seems to have shifted towards the processes underlying actors' constructions of the rural and the outcome of these processes. Rather than asking what rurality 'is', the pivotal question has become: how do actors socially construct their rurality?

This reconceptualisation also has implications for migration research. Here, the challenge has been to understand the ways in which social and cultural representations of the rural may be interwoven in the everyday lives of people (Fosso 2004:120). Key concepts include: life phases and lifestyles; biographies and life projects; identity and meaning. The underlying premise is that actors’ understanding of their rural environment as positive or negative also explains their migration acts (Berg and Forsberg 2003:175; Berg and Lysgård 2004:73; Haugen and Villa 2006). People do not leave the countryside because of abstract and anonymous structural forces, but because they do not perceive the rural to represent the means for them to achieve the good life.

It is people’s perceptions of reality that matter, as for example Grimsrud emphasises in her study of whether the male ‘greybeard culture’ explains why rural women move to the city: She writes: ‘The aim of the report is not to examine whether the countryside is more patriarchal than cities but to investigate whether the women see it this way, and if this influences their choice of residential location’ (Grimsrud 2000:13, see also Grimsrud 2001).

Thus, today’s key questions within rural migration research focus on the actor’s interpretation of their socially constituted space. In what ways do people socially construct ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’? Why do people choose to move to the city? In other words, the depopulation of rural communities is not primarily understood in terms of restructuring of regional labour markets, for example, but by inquiring into the inhabitants’ conceptualisations of rurality and how they use various symbolic resources (i.e. representations of rurality) in their everyday struggle to establish biographies and life projects.


One result of the focus on the empowered agent in rural migration studies, following from the individualisation thesis and the emphasis on the 'post-ish' countrysides combined with the reconceptualisation of the concept of rurality, has been a reduced interest in more structure-oriented analyses. Nevertheless, there are strong patterns in the out-migration practices of rural youth that appear to follow 'old-fashioned' traditional structural divides. For example, arising from the growth of feminist sociology, researchers have studied the differences in migration practices between genders (see Rye 2007 for an overview), including the fact that women are more migratory than men.

In this paper, I discuss another such supra-individual structural property of social life in some detail: social class. This approach makes use of analyses of the experiences of the Norwegian rural birth cohort of 1965. Using individual-level data from Norwegian censuses and other public registers, it is possible to map the social and geographic mobility of the cohort over more than 30 years. The data also allows for linking the persons' mobility to factors such as the educational and income levels of their parents.

For example, Rye and Blekesaune (2007) document the presence of a strong class dimension to the rural-to-urban migration processes, as the migration careers of rural youth are strongly related to their social class position as defined by their fathers' capital resources. In short, those originating in the rural upper social classes are much more likely to migrate than others. The relative distribution of migration destinations also varies, as those from rural lower social classes more often migrate to semi-urban areas. However, it is primarily the cultural capital component of the social background that matters. Fathers' stock of economic capital, when measured in terms of income, has less influence on their offspring's migration careers.