The growth and change of communities captured my interest from a very early age. For most of my youth, I envisioned a career in urban planning. So, it may seem ironic that my career path has been comprised of research, teaching and outreach about rural people and communities. However, as I learned in graduate school, cities are strongly interrelated with their rural hinterlands. In fact, urbanization — the growth and development of urban systems — is shaped and mobilized by these rural-urban interdependencies. Whether by studying internal migration and population redistribution or the social organization of the rural-urban interface, my career has been shaped by ideas of the dynamic interconnection between urban and rural communities.
Applied research for rural life
After completing my PhD in sociology and demography in 1974 at the University of Wisconsin I took a demographic research job with USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). During my 15 years at USDA I spent a significant amount of time “detailed” to other agencies. In 1979, I served as the staff demographer on the National Agricultural Lands Commission examining the association between rural population change and the supply of agricultural land. In 1980, I was detailed to the Domestic Policy Staff in President Carter’s White House to provide empirical support for the Rural Policy Act of 1980, the last national policy for rural people and communities in the US.
During the mid-1980s I began “moonlighting” as an adjunct associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. This scratched an academic itch that I had had since graduate school. In 1987, I applied for a faculty position at Cornell, and was offered the job.
My wife, Dr. Nina Glasgow, and I moved from Washington, DC to Ithaca where I was appointed associate director of the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES) and Professor of Rural Sociology. While directing CUAES I helped establish the Community and Rural Development Institute (CaRDI) to encourage values of applied research and engagement across teaching and practice. After five years at CUAES I moved into the Department of Rural Sociology as its chair, and Nina joined the Department’s faculty as a scholar of rural aging.
Research, teaching, and rural communities
My research focus explores the associations between population dynamics and the changing organization of local communities, and my teaching often closely aligned with this area. In fact, many of my research questions arose during classes. Cornell students have always been exceptionally curious with a knack for asking compelling questions. I found it important to admit when I lacked an answer, and then to do my best to find answers and report back. I made this a regular part of my classes, and called it, “stump the prof.” Of course, I was not always able to find answers, and these unanswered questions often became a focus for my future research.
Mentoring students is a critical role for any educator, and one I took especially seriously. Much of my research has been in collaboration with my PhD students, all of whom have gone on to stellar careers of their own. Working with PhD students was a highlight of my career.
During the 1990s, in collaboration with my PhD advisor Glenn Fuguitt, I conducted national surveys to examine how preferences for particular sizes and types of communities affected migration intentions, and hence population redistribution. This research contributed to a USDA multi-state research project on rural population dynamics (W-1001 at that time; now W-4001). This project, which I continue to participate in to this day, includes a multi-disciplinary group of social scientists from across the country. Collaborative relationships gained through W-4001 have nurtured my research throughout my career and presented career opportunities for some of my PhD students. The W-4001 multi-state research project was recently honored by USDA with the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award. W-4001 is the first social science research project to receive this high honor.
As I indicated above, my wife, Nina Glasgow, is an internationally recognized social gerontologist who focuses on rural aging. In 2002, we decided to merge our research interests and earned a USDA-NIFA grant to examine retirement-age migration to rural communities. Using census data, a national survey, and in-depth community studies, we investigated the determinants and consequences of older age migration to rural areas. This work culminated in the publication of Rural Retirement Migration. We showed that while many residents view older in-migrants as “grey gold,” their moving to rural communities can displace others in a variety of ways. Nina and I continue working together, and recently elaborated the path-dependent process through which retirement destinations are established. Another recent article examined the multi-scalar process of services delivery for rural older persons.
Taking my research abroad
As the world experienced fundamental political and social transformations in the late 1990s, so did my career. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the political-economic transformations that emerged within newly independent nations raised a host of questions and resulted in a large wave of US social scientists shifting their research focus to Eastern and Central Europe. I joined a large Cornell project in Hungary and Slovakia that was funded by the Mellon Foundation. With colleagues at St Istvan University in Hungary, I examined how the national-level transformation from state socialism was experienced in local communities. We investigated how the transformation affected household livelihood strategies, and how withdrawal of the nation’s welfare state might influence the volume and direction of internal migration. In 2004, I received a grant from the US Department of Education to develop a master’s degree in regional planning in Bulgaria. Almost a dozen Cornell faculty members participated in this successful program. In recognition of its success, I was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rousse University in Bulgaria in 2007.
With a desire to develop research collaborations with a new set of scholars and institutions, Nina and I set off for a sabbatical in Newcastle, England in 2006. While there, we began writing Rural Retirement Migration, and we developed a number of international comparative research partnerships that continue to this day. We also established the Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN), a collaboration with Cornell, Penn State and five UK institutions. With seed funding from Cornell’s Polson Institute for Global Development, TARRN published Rural Transformations and Rural Policies in the US and UK in 2012. In 2014 Nina and I returned to Newcastle to continue our friendships and fruitful collaborations. Even now, I am a visiting professor in Newcastle’s School of Planning, and I maintain an active research collaboration with Professor Mark Shucksmith, OBE. We recently signed a contract to write a book titled Rethinking Rural Studies.
Retirement and Beyond
In 2017, I became an emeritus professor, but I remain active in research because there is still work to be done. I love research, so for me I saw it as moving my vocation to my avocation. Dan Lichter, Professor of Policy Analysis and Management, and I continue to examine the social and demographic organization of the rural-urban interface, and I am co-PI on a USDA-NIFA grant with colleagues at Penn State that examines geographic variability of income inequality in America from 1970-2018 (see photo above).
While the US and other high-income countries are highly urbanized, rural areas continue to play important roles in the nation’s economy, society and polity. As we learned in 2016, the rural vote had a disproportionate impact on that year’s presidential election, and that continues to today. New factors are emerging, from forest fires raging in the rural-urban interface throughout the west, to the COVID-19 pandemic revealing critical health care deficiencies in many rural regions. Moreover, since most of the nation’s natural resources are located in rural areas, they are the geographic focus of many of the nation’s most challenging environmental issues. Rural dynamics run through the heart of the modern experience and the most pressing issues facing the nation and the world. Research is key to understanding, and I look forward to continuing to produce empirically-based knowledge in support of rural people and communities in the US and elsewhere.
David L. Brown is an International Professor, Emeritus in the Department of Global Development.
We openly share valuable knowledge. Often through email.
Sign up for more insights, discoveries and solutions.