The Socioeconomic Condition of Rural Communities and the Effect of Renewable Energy Industries


CSE Logo


Historically, access to natural resources and the supply of comparatively inexpensive land and labor has prompted the vast majority of industries to choose to locate in rural instead of urban areas. Due to changes in the global economy, technological advancements, and communication improvements the economic health of rural communities has declined and thus the social context in which industries are situated has been transformed. This research attempts to provide a coherent analysis of the current condition of nonmetropolitan communities and then proceeds to reflect upon the socioeconomic impact or renewable energy industries operating in proximity to these areas. The intention of this exploration is to provide a theoretical framework to be utilized as an assessment base for the subsequent qualitative investigation into the condition of thirty Kansas communities that have recently begun hosting bioenergy, wind, and ethanol plants.

Experimental Method

CSE Logo

In order to assess the current socio-economic condition of rural communities, I have utilized the community capital framework outline by Flora and Flora (2004). The operationalization contests that the health of a community is manifested through a vital economy, a high degree of social inclusion, and by being a healthy ecosystem. In order for these characteristics to become apparent, a community must have sufficient supply and the capacity to balance and integrate economic (built and financial), political, social, human, cultural, and natural capital. Since the aim of this research was to use existing literature to analyze the current condition of rural communities, the methodology consisted of reading and analyzing different articles and books in order to develop an extensive understanding of each capital. Following this meta-analysis, additional literature review was conducted in order to assess the impact of renewable energy sources. After the completion of this project, my PhD mentor, Patrick Rissler will be conducting qualitative interviews with residents in those Kansas communities which have been affected by the presence of local wind, bioenergy, or ethanol plants.

CSE Logo

Results and Discussion

The phenomenons of globalization, increased dependence on communication and transportation, and governmental restructuring are accentuating the long established vulnerabilities of rural communities.Although nonmetropolitan counties differ tremendously not only from urban localities but amongst one another, a patterned set of inter-related challenges have effected many. The mechanization of agriculture, outsourcing of manufacturing, and consolidation of farms have caused great rural to urban migration. This population loss, changes within the remaining residential interactions, and depletion of rural resources has negatively effected the health of rural communities. In order to assess the condition of rural communities, I analyzed the condition of the different capitals outlined by Flora and Flora (2004).

CSE Logo

Summaries of these highly interdependent capitals- human, social, cultural, economic, political, and natural- can be found below by clicking on each world cloud image.

Human Capital

Definition: The skills and abilities of each individual within a community. A diversity of human ability, existence of social networks to engage these skills towards a collective vision, and employment opportunities that provide appropriate returns on education and training are vital to the existence of human capital within a community.

Rural Challenges:

-Vicious cycle of out migration of high human capital and diminished capacity of communities to attract high-skill industries, provide basic and specialized services, provide adequate schools and hospitals.

-Disproportionate investment in economic capital: Capital implications of race to the bottom for extractive, increasingly outsourced, low skill based industries.

-Education and employment inequality along race and gender lines

-Minorities: Greater restrictive set of occupational opportunities, lower wages, and less benefits

-Women: Stalled Revolution; The paradox between increased participation in labor force and emphasis on traditional gender roles in rural education.

-Decline in manufacturing and agricultural sectors and rise in service sector jobs

Social Capital

Definition: Social networks within and between communities that facilitates the conversion of individual human capital to community action and benefit. A community with strong social capital is characterized by norms of generalized reciprocity, trust, and information dissemination which allows for the function of private motivations of self interest to be externalized for the public benefit. Social capital, as the glue that connects civil actors, is arguably the most impactful capital in regards to the others and has the potential to mitigate low SES and lead to economic prosperity. There are three indicators of strong social capital; bridging, bonding, and synergy. Bridging refers to weak ties that are essential for economic development and inter-group/community networks that allow for information diffusion and broader identities. Bridging is essential for an entrepreneurial social infrastructure. Bonding are the strong bonds or the intra-group bonds that mobilize solidarity. Synergy is an inter-government trait which allows for the capacity of cooperate.

Rural Challenges:

- National decline of civic engagement as symptomatic of declining social capital

- High Bonding; potential of alienating newcomers, importance of moral capital and reputation, resistance to change

- Low Bridging; Intra-community relationships: competition over cooperation

- Consolidation of public services weaken community socialization and social capital, decrease social capital capacity of public institutions

- Professionalization/centralization of national associations

- Weaken political capital and social capital: isolated

- Walmart effect, weak tax base, economies of scale,

- Lower attachment to space and less gathering spaces

Cultural Capital

Definition: Definition: This vastly interwoven capital refers to the means in which community members construct their reality. Socialization agents such as families, schools, and religious institutions work to pass on the cultural capital of a community to the next generation. This legacy is comprised of skills that the community declares as vital to survival and an awareness or a perspective of social positionality. Cultural meaning creation and socialization is a complex process affected by all capitals.

Rural Challenges:

- Traditional gender roles impeding adjustment to economic restructuring

- Rural school problems: lack of resources/professionals, accountability to federal policies

- School consolidation; community disconnect

- Vitality of church; strong bonding social capital; exclusion

Economic Capital

Definition: This capital is comprised of the highly liquid capital (highly liquid financial assets that can be invested into the community) and build capital (infrastructure). Economic capital is largely affected by the number and size of businesses within a community, the amount of money that is reinvested, the presence of well-paying jobs, and the degree of outside assistance available.

Rural Challenges:

- Population decline and the diminished tax base

- Built capital deficiencies as obstacle for industry recruitment

- Decline of agricultural and manufacturing & rise of service sector

- Corporate monopolization of service sector

- Decentralization and decreased federal aid

- Changing spatial composition of central place theory

Political Capital

Definition: This capital refers largely to which group has the power, both internally and externally, to influence the distribution of resources within a community. Political power is derived from and has a large impact on other capitals. For instance, it ideologically reflects the dominant cultural capital, is largely economically-driven, collective power often requires a social capital base, and policies and industrial contracts can have environmental consequences.

Rural Challenges:

- High reliance on government aid; struggles of decentralization

- Inadequate professional human capital; comparatively weak political power

- Power dynamic between extractive industries; influence of economic incentive and race to the bottom

- Influence/perception of government (un)funded mandates

- Cooperation as best theoretical option but but reality is competition between counties

Natural Capital

Definition: The natural resources available within to a community due to its location. Natural capital is highly dependent on a the stock of other capitals available to a community. In order for a community to maintain a healthy ecosystem it must practice sustainable development, be aware of the limits of the environment as to limit water, land, and air pollution, attain a collective and sustainable vision, and invest in high road firms.

Rural Challenges:

- Long term trend of economic dependence based on extractive activities

- Insufficient economic, human, and built capital to attract high road firms

- Depletion of natural resources

- Interconnectedness/Complexity of Ecosphere

- Historic land use; economic incentive over sustainability and appropriateness


As farms consolidate, industries increasingly outsource, and rural to urban migration continues, the socio-economic health of rural communities is diminishing. To assess this socioeconomic condition, the research has focused on the community capital framework outlined by Flora and Flora in 2004. The assessment indicates that, due to the interdependence of human, social, cultural, economic, political, and natural capital, rural communities are facing a downward socioeconomic spiral. However, renewable energy and high road firms may offer relief. These firms have the potential to stimulate the economy, increase political capital, hinder extensive rural to urban migration, and prove more environmentally friendly than extractive industries. However, as with all influences on social contexts, the net impact of these industries is still unclear and positive as well as negative consequences may result.

About Me

CSE Logo

My name is Marie Deininger and I am going into my senior year at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. I am double majoring in sociology and psychology and minoring in education and hope to pursue either graduate school in either sociology or psychology after I complete my undergraduate degree. I enjoy spending time outside, exploring new places, and spending time with my friends and family. Although I am unsure of which field to pursue, I am very interested in political ecology and am thus grateful to the REU program for providing me the opportunity to conduct research on the interaction between rural populations and their surroundings.

CSE Logo


CSE Logo CSE Logo CSE Logo