It’s More Complicated Than That…

A recent controversy reminded me that confirmation bias isn’t confined to the political Right. Those of us who lean Left engage in it too, and–unfortunately– so do serious observers of the political scene who ought to know better.

One reason for the academic process known as “peer review” is to ensure that scholars have accurately interpreted the work of other scholars, and to check that the methodologies they’ve employed have been correctly applied. (Errors in methodology aren’t necessarily intentional–they can be the result of the researcher seeing what she is convinced she’ll see.)

What triggered these reminders was a recent article from The Atlantic, pointing to serious flaws in the arguments and conclusions in White Rural Rage, a recent best-seller by political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman. I was particularly interested in the article and the scholarship it cited, because my own reading has convinced me that urban-rural divisions are indeed a significant part of America’s current polarization. But the critique of this particular book looks to be firmly grounded.

In the weeks since its publication, a trio of reviews by political scientists have accused Schaller and Waldman of committing what amounts to academic malpractice, alleging that the authors used shoddy methodologies, misinterpreted data, and distorted studies to substantiate their allegations about white rural Americans. I spoke with more than 20 scholars in the tight-knit rural-studies community, most of them cited in White Rural Rage or thanked in the acknowledgments, and they left me convinced that the book is poorly researched and intellectually dishonest.

The Atlantic author, Tyler Austin Harper, says he was initially frustrated by the book’s resort to familiar stereotypes, but when he dug deeper, he found significant problems with White Rural Rage that extended “beyond its anti-rural prejudice. As an academic and a writer, I find Schaller and Waldman’s misuse of other scholars’ research indefensible.”

I won’t go through all of the misquoted scholarship that Harper enumerates in the linked analysis, but the largest error he identifies by far is the failure to define their use of the term “rural.”

The most obvious problem with White Rural Rage is its refusal to define rural. In a note in the back of the book, the authors write, “What constitutes ‘rural’ and who qualifies as a rural American … depends on who you ask.” Fair enough. The rural-studies scholars I spoke with agreed that there are a variety of competing definitions. But rather than tell us what definition they used, Schaller and Waldman confess that they settled on no definition at all: “We remained agnostic throughout our research and writing by merely reporting the categories and definitions that each pollster, scholar, or researcher used.” In other words, they relied on studies that used different definitions of rural, a decision that conveniently lets them pick and choose whatever research fits their narrative. This is what the scholars I interviewed objected to—they emphasized that the existence of multiple definitions of rural is not an excuse to decline to pick one. “This book amounts to a poor amalgamation of disparate literatures designed to fit a preordained narrative,” Cameron Wimpy, a political scientist at Arkansas State University, told me. It would be like undertaking a book-length study demonizing Irish people, refusing to define what you mean by Irish, and then drawing on studies of native Irish in Ireland, non-Irish immigrants to Ireland, Irish Americans, people who took a 23andMe DNA test that showed Irish ancestry, and Bostonians who get drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day to build your argument about the singular danger of “the Irish.” It’s preposterous.

Serious scholars confirm the existence of a very real urban/rural divide, and cultural differences between urban dwellers and Americans living in thinly-populated, economically-struggling parts of the country. But careful scholarship has distinguished between residents of non-metropolitan areas who fit the book’s “rural” stereotype and those who do not. In 2019, I cited a fascinating study from the Niskanan Center that focused on attitudinal differences linked to residential density–the lengthy study found that values of small town residents of “rural” America who lived close to others in the hearts of those communities differed from those of their more isolated neighbors.

The bottom line here is twofold: it’s important to avoid stereotyping, and essential to define our terms. As our political battles heat up, too many of us use language to label opponents rather than as vehicles to convey information.

Is there an urban/rural divide? Yes. Is it important to understand its roots and effects? Yes again. But as I used to tell my students–and as someone should have told the authors of this book–it depends upon how you are defining rural, and it’s more complicated than you want to understand.


  1. It is a fact that many Americans who do not live in cities or suburbs feel that the current political system does not work for them or help them solve the problems that are unique to them. The feeling that they/we have no voice in decisions that affect their/our lives goes far to explain the reasons for frustration and discontent.

  2. I’ve lived in a homes surrounded by corn and soybeans. I’ve lived in the inner city on crumbling streets without sidewalks and I’ve lived in the suburbs between both of the above. I’m not sure how I define rural other than I know it when I feel it and when it comes out of someone’s mouth.

  3. It seems that clearly an error in judgement evolved here, but I have a couple of questions. First of all, isn’t an issue like that within the purview of an editor to uncover? Perhaps that did happen and, to my second question, it turned out that there was a huge difficulty in determining how exactly one does define rural in America. By avoiding the definition the point surely loses its meaning.

  4. A couple of federal agencies have put out lists of Census Tracts that are defined rural. The lists don’t exactly match but there is wide overlap. The authors should have started with these lists to define the rural geography and then gone on to study the people who live there. The data are there and rich with telling information. This revelation about this book is so disturbing and sad.

  5. I just googled the definition of rural, and there are many definitions, but mostly government definitions like the USDA. To write a book about rural, you would certainly need to pick a solid definition upfront.

    There are even “rural states,” which I would describe as the Midwest and Plains states. Flyover states. Even urban areas would be considered rural communities. If the point of your book is to compare rural and urban areas, you’d have to clearly explain upfront what you were using as definitions of both for it to make sense.

    As for embracing the echo chamber, both the political right and left look for sources confirming our beliefs. MSNBC appeals to Democrats, while Fox News appeals to Republicans. Confirmation bias is easily picked up in social media, blogging sites, and podcasting. One look at a user’s profile can determine where they lean.

  6. 1. Thank you for trying to keep all of us honest. Excellent example.
    2. The other takeaway is that our society would benefit from policies which create or foster diverse connections. [Certain previous generations benefited from the silver lining of war-related, massive national mobilizations. For THOSE generations, the vigorous shaking & stirring forced eye-opening awareness and human connections, and resulted in broader, more unconditional empathy (once stripped of its limiting, blinding particularistic identity and unquestioned prejudices). A sustained national mobilization for positive national purposes (eg, domestic human infrastructure; skills & trade exposure, training, and apprenticeships, etc.) would help depolarize and departicularize our society while improving “we the people’s” future general welfare.

  7. Alison @ 8:06 a.m.; I live in a very small low-to middle-income neighborhood in the shadow of Raytheon facility on the east side of Indy which is slowly declining. Using only the Trump Census Form I received as my source which, filled out and returned; I still have not figured out what use it could possibly be anythng but tracking Trump’s Hispanic targeted racism. After a few basic questions regarding my personal information there were TEN questions; #1 asked for the names of any Hispanics living in my home, #2 asked for the names of any Hispanics living in my home not listed in question #1. Question #3 through 10 asked for the race and ethnic origin of anyone else living in my home. What may have appeared as a simple form was actually, “It’s More Complicated Than That…”

    I had always dreaded the day the Census Form came in my mail; questions required some answers which I had to check my personal information, financial information, education level, etc. I almost ignored the form I received to wait for a Census Taker to come to my door for my information but didn’t want to buck heads with Trump’s administration because any dealings with them was…and is… “It’s More Complicated Than That…”

    “Serious scholars confirm the existence of a very real urban/rural divide,…” The divide within both urban and rural must be considered when looking for answers because today that has rendered the divisive level in this country as “It’s More Complicated Than That…” on all issues.

  8. IMO it has never been about geography; it always has been about mindset and the degree to which one sees oneself as either belonging to the whole or being an outsider.
    If you see yourself as a part of the whole world, as a part of your own country, as a part of the government then there is no “other”. There is only us.
    If, however, you see yourself as an outcast, as apart from, as picked upon by ones own society and government then the “other” is your enemy, and that “other” is everyone who does not have this mindset the way you do. You are ripe for the picking by anyone who tells you that you need to “take your country back”, “that the government is the problem”, and that they themselves are “outsiders” so vote for me.
    Driven by resentments that are blown into anger and hatred by power hungry politicians, the self-diluted “outsiders” among us have found a place to belong to at last… the Republican Party.

  9. Life is complicated, period. If one thinks that it is simple, one is missing much. Those living in bubbles will tend top see things as simple.
    I live in a suburb, have driven through some of Florida’s “cow country” and would certainly see those folks as living in a rural area. I am talking about a trip of no more than 2 hours from here, in Arcadia, Fl. The last time I went through that area was to attend a rodeo, on March 9th (this year)…not an urban thing, not a suburban thing, to my perception.
    BTW, the original American “Cowboys” were Floridians.
    Sheila brings to our attention some very important points about “research,” and doing it right.
    I believe that when one lives in what some of us would call “The country,” and are relatively self-sustaining, or sees oneself that way, one is apt to belittle government “interference,” and not at all understand what it is like to live in a densely populated area, where people are much more apt to recognize the total interconnectedness of society…and see those others as something between Liberals and Communists.
    On a bit of a tangent, Sen. Rick Scott has been putting out campaign ads clearly designed to scare the Hispanic population, here. He states that many Floridians have lived through Communist regimes, and claims to care about them.

  10. Let’s see – the well off techies living in “rural” Idaho, working from home and hiking and skiing? The horse farms here in “rural” NC? Etc.

    When are we going to use the REAL thing that separates folks – class/money? You can guess who doesn’t want us to look through that lens…

  11. In her book Superior, Angela Saini points out the same problem with racism: There is no way to define race objectively. What we consider as skin color and other apparent factors like hair texture or eye color exist over broad spectrums, so many people might be judged one race by observer A but a different one by observer B.

    Yet most people use the concept of race all of the time to categorize humans. We tend to use it like the AKC uses pedigrees that are expected to have specific characteristics bred into their being. On the other hand, genetics see it as a tiny percentage of the human genome. It’s simply irrelevant to behavior and capability.

    It’s appropriate to question the value of any means of categorizing humans for studies unless it is made clear what the physical, emotional, behavioral, and cultural basis is for the research and everyone using or considering what is concluded by the study is based on actual measurable differences to both categorize the data and apply the conclusions.

    Doing what is presented as science is a very complex task. Applying science to human behavior may employ statistical probabilities and possibilities, but humans often think in black and white.

  12. Pete…hat tip – been waiting to post this. As you noted, it ain’t complicated at all:

    Race has no biological reality. The Human Genome Project confirmed in 2003 that the genetic makeup of all human beings is 99.9 percent identical. The DNA of white people is indistinguishable from the DNA of Asian people — and of Black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, and Native American people. Unlike sex, which is etched into our chromosomes, race and ethnicity are subjective social constructs. Racial categories are objectively meaningless. There is no gene for race, and differences in skin color, hair texture, or eye shape have no more significance than any other physical variations among human beings.

    This needs to be “carefully taught”….

  13. When I moved from the south side of Indianapolis to rural Boone County about 20 years ago, I was a little concerned about what kind of reception my partner and I would get. My experience here reinforces what Sheila says. It’s more complicated than the stereotypes suggest. Overall, I have not met with any more discrimination and hostility than I did during my teaching career in Marion County. My rural neighbors have been welcoming and helpful. The closest family was quick to contact us and let us know they wanted to establish a friendly relationship. The only negative vibes I have noticed have come from people who do not know us.
    The urban/rural tensions that do exist in the U.S. have been encouraged, nurtured and used by right wing extremists to create divisions they can exploit for their own benefit. We should take care, especially in our language to avoid deepening those divisions.
    I haven’t read “White Rural Rage” but it sounds like it was written in the service of those who want to tear our country apart.

  14. I have a well earned reputation of engaging everyone around me all of the time. From that I’ve learned is that virtually everyone responds to positivity in a positive way face to face.

    Not so when we regard others in an abstract way as a category.

  15. Having lived in very large cities, a small town/county seat and a medium sized city, I can tell you that I would much prefer living in an urban area. On a strictly anecdotal basis, I view small towns are insular, and exclusionary even while presenting a polite and welcoming and even warm initial greeting to newcomers.
    Sundown laws have become illegal but are often enforced in more subtle ways. If someone is not born there, has a family member born there, or is related directly with someone born there, decades can pass with the outsider label still being applied. Race, religion, politics, occupation, gender, financial status still come into play when interacting with those with deep local roots in small towns/rural communities.
    Locals distrust and generally view with suspicion anyone with different backgrounds or ideas. They may be polite but keep those they view as outsiders at arm’s length.
    Living in diverse and close quarters can mean more interaction with neighbors just by proximity. I trust or distrust neighbors because I see them often and have more opportunity to interact due to that closeness. I can ask for or offer help when needed.
    Unfortunately, my small town/rural experience proved otherwise. Doors were shut and faces turned away when hard times came. Even after 5 years, my family had few who could be considered friends.

  16. After “The Bell Curve”, I’ve been deeply suspicious of people who put out books like this rather than peer-reviewable papers. After all, academics write papers all the time that collate other sets of papers, so that’s not an excuse. So, in my opinion, when authors choose to go the book route, then the book should be approached with serious caution and skepticism.

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