Jan 27, 2010

Hard times in AK villages

In class today we discuss the demographic changes that have occurred in rural areas over the last few decades, and we made predictions for Alaska's future. The majority of the class predicted growth overall in Alaska's population, depending, of course, on certain factors such as military bases and the global economy. A few people thought Alaska would lose population, and two folks were firmly on the "it depends" fence.

Folks seemed clearer when talking about rural Alaska. It is true that rural Alaska communities are under additional stressors: higher fuel prices, declining ability to hunt locally, youth out-migration, persistent lack of modern services, stress on traditional culture, etc.

I thought you might find this CNN article from last year interesting. The article describes a "perfect storm" of circumstances--poor salmon runs, unexpected weather patterns, high fuel prices--that combined to give a grime picture of rural Alaska life in winter 2009.
The portrait it paints of rural Alaska is heartbreaking. Nowhere in the article can I find the nostalgia for the old ways, or any glimmer of hope that things will be different in the future. How would sociologists analyze the portrait of rural Alaska as described in this article? Is a subsistence way of life possible anymore? Can rural Alaskans integrate modern technologies--such as snowmachines and oil heat--into their lives and yet keep some of the traditional technologies--such as hunting and gathering food? Is the picture really as bleak as the article describes? Or is it even worse? Does the state of Alaska have ultimate responsibility for ALL of its citizens, or only its urban citizens?

Photo courtesy of Dennis Zaki and CNN.

Jan 21, 2010


Welcome to our class blog, Rural Sociology. We will use this blog as a forum to discuss issues related to Rural Sociology that we encounter this semester. Rural Sociology is a fascinating area of study, and I know that you will enjoy the things we talk about this semester.

In Alaska, and particularly at UAF, most people think "rural" is code for Alaska Native and/or for Alaskan villages. Elsewhere, "rural" means not-urban, and has no ethnic connotation. Because we are in Alaska, but also because I was educated in a sociology graduate program that thought of "rural" as being about Midwestern farms, I have decided to take a both-and approach to the study of Rural Sociology. We will spend about one third of our time examining Alaska rurality, and about two thirds of our time studying non-Alaska rurality. I think you will discover that many rural issues crosscut regions, and even cut across time and historical periods. So, for example, rural communities have struggled to create vibrant local economic cultures in competition with urban areas for centuries. Matters of ethnicity and inequalities based on ethnicity and race have also plagued rural communities for generations. These issues are not new. But they are fascinating to study using sociological ideas, and that's what we will do together this semester on this forum. And many of the ideas we will talk about are new ways to look at rural issues. For example, we will analyze wolf control policies in Alaska by discussing masculinities. We will extend our analysis of rural masculinities to talk about drinking in rural pubs.

My particular focus on Alaska rurality is on the myths of Alaska. There is comparatively little sociological research that has been published on Alaska rural issues, and in trying to understand why this is, I came to realize that much that has been written and filmed about creates and sustains myths. We've all heard these myths: there's a moose behind every tree in Alaska; rural Alaska is the last frontier, where people can be true individualists; Alaska Native villages are either 1) crumbling into oblivion through inevitable forces, or 2) thriving by continuing their traditional ways. Which myth one believes depends partly on personal experience, and partly on who one listens to. The reality about Alaska villages probably lies somewhere in between these two poles, as we will talk about this semester.

I invite you to discuss the issues with me on this blog. Please see the guidelines for commenting and posting to the blog. I'm excited about our upcoming discussions, and I hope you are, too.