The Enabling Conditions Study

The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies :: The Enabling Conditions Study


“Communication needs to be explicitly built into development plans and social change projects. …The emphasis now is on the process of communication and on the significance of this process at the local [rural] level.” (Servaes and Malikhao, 2016)


Synopsis: Rural areas cover 72% of land in the U.S., and 60 million human beings live there. Although the humans in these areas impact the rest of the country—indeed, the rest of the world—outsiders know very little about the cultures in which these U.S. citizens live and grow. The scant U.S. rural research that exists focuses on top-down processes and patterns: social media use by humans; voting patterns of humans; economic patterns that impact humans; consuming patterns of humans.

What is sorely missing is an understanding of the relational patterns between those human beings themselves. This study is interested in relations: those everyday fleeting interactions between humans, often in public places like the health clinic, the grocery store, the DMV, etc. Relational patterns are identifiable recurring instances of similar interactions. These relations create the social soil in which we all exist.

The enabling conditions study focuses on rural cultures in the U.S. to compile “relational big data” in order to understand its healthy and unhealthy patterns. (A rural culture, for this study, is defined by its geography and its norms.) Studying the relationships between, for instance, “relational big data” and digital big data in rural cultures can help identify how social media patterns affect human relational patterns. More generally, understanding rural relational patterns writ large can illuminate how enabling conditions for change can be created.

Background: It is an understatement to suggest that how humans relate with one another in the U.S has been under extraordinary stress during the past decade, particularly since the 2016 election. We live in a country where trust has eroded and most have closed off their emotional worlds to anyone who is not family or friend. The damage done to human connection and to our capacity for well-being is only waiting to be felt in its full weight after the dust settles.

I felt some of that weight when I moved rural on October 24, 2016. I spent 19 months in Southern Josephine county, Oregon, a culture in which I was isolated and mostly without access to the electronic world, like most of my neighbors. I lived as a participant in the culture, but without benefit of a recognizable title, position, or any power in that context. Without the distraction of technology or the barriers of status and privilege, I was immersed in how the humans in the rural culture I inhabited relate with one another and how they communicate that relation, to each other and to outsiders.

As an obvious outsider, my role functionally became an expectations violator: the norms of the culture lit up when I violated them (mostly inadvertently, at first). What I experienced first-hand and what I observed and noted in those around me were relational patterns that create, nurture, and amplify everyday authoritarianism in this culture. This study is an extension of The Rural Chronicle, my ethnographic and autoethnographic research.

Justification: Research focusing primarily on “voters,” “consumers,” “business owners,” or “social media users” assume that change comes from above, from those structures from which voters, consumers, business owners, and social media users are produced. What researchers have found recently, however, points to fundamental “enabling conditions” that need to be present for change efforts to succeed. Relational communication patterns between human beings create those conditions; they are the social soil in which change efforts are planted. More broadly, relational patterns are the bottom of the universe—they are the underlying force fundamental in change processes. Studying and understanding those patterns in rural areas is the basis for intervening in unhealthy patterns that enable everyday authoritarianism.

Site: Southern Josephine County, Oregon is home to three national high poverty “hotspots.” According to the Oregon DHS Office of Forecasting, Research, & Analysis in May 2015, a poverty hotspot is “a census tract or contiguous group of tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more.” One of those hotspots is the area including the towns of Cave Junction, Kerby, O’Brien, and Williams. Unemployment here is high. For years, there was little law enforcement in the area because there was no tax money to pay officers. Power is scarce and the top-down cultural systems and processes enforce that scarcity.

This study will focus primarily on Cave Junction and Kerby. In particular, the initial focus will be on publicly observable relational patterns at the local health clinic, main grocery story, larger hardware store, and the downtown area.

Aim & Methods: This study aims to understand how humans in this rural area relate with one another and how they communicate that relation in order to understand healthy and unhealthy relational communication patterns and their connection to change potential. This study includes 19 months of ethnographic and autoethnographic data collection. Additionally, five participant interviews and focused field observations will be conducted in 2019-2020.

Affiliation: Independent (no political, religious, academic, or business affiliation)

Findings: Subscription-based access; free access to rural communities

Timeframe & Scope: 2019-2020; small, quiet, and focused on actual conditions