Understanding rurality in Australian education research

Year: 2018

Author: Roberts, Philip

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (Halsey 2018) provides a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  Notably, the review calls for further research into rural, regional and remote education, and in so doing invites the education research community to engage with this space in their work.  However, the rural is a difficult site to define, with the definitions engaged with implicitly linked to the construction of the research object, the methodologies engaged with, and the phenomena observed.   This I argue, necessitates bringing research from a wider educational audience into rural education debates, and the participation of this wider audience in these debates.
To illustrate this point, I introduce the idea that there are a multiplicity of meanings of the rural (Roberts & Green, 2013).  Indeed, determining just what is rural and what rural itself means a central pre-occupation of rural studies (Woods, 2011), and something that remains an ongoing topic of debate and discussion. Recognising this complexity, models representing the rural advanced in the rural social sciences tend to be multidimensional – encompassing statistical, cultural, spatial and cultural dimensions.  The resultant multiple ways of representing the rural tend to draw upon divergent epistemological traditions, emphasising that researching the rural must similarly draw upon various epistemological traditions.  
Building from these definitional dilemmas I introduce the relationships between rural studies (rural sociology & rural geography) and rural education.  I suggest that the rural education field has tended to work from within its own boundaries. Consequently the field has been becoming increasingly narrow and removed from the parent disciplines.  While rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography.  Important here I suggest that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.  Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields.  Supporting this claim I make reference to a recent empirical study (under review) of how the ‘rural’ has been referred to in the last twenty years of Australian education research. I also note recent theoretical advances in rural studies, and explore how these relate to rural education research.