University of Missouri Rural Sociology Professor David Obrien originally hails from Boston, but if you go back to his grandparents, they had a rural lifestyle, although it was in Ireland. Obrien was an urban sociologist prior to coming MU in 1987, but at that time the collapse of the mid-sized farms across the country caught his attention. His initial forays into rural sociology were driven by one question: Why did some communities adapt and survive through the farm crisis well, while in other places the entire town practically closed up shop across the board?
It was the beginning of methodical process in which they looked at multiple communities that they ranked a viability scale.
Obrien recalls being in a mayor’s office, which featured a calendar on the wall of a pin-up girl from the 1950s, that read, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wherever they want.”
“I thought, ‘I can see how this might not be the best environment for a city government to partner with women who are leaders in the community’,” he said.
He also recalled hearing stories of warring factions, in which one group would do something like plant trees, and when they were voted out of office the opposing group they would take the trees back out. It’s anecdotal but indicative of a community that wasn’t making much progress.
The studies started looking at the network of leaders in community who were often also the leaders in local churches, and how successful they were at bridging to resources outside of the community and how successful they were at networking among themselves, within the community.
In each town, researchers started to look at various categories of leaders. “In a town of 1,200, we might have the names of 300 leaders at the beginning,” Obrien said.
They would work that list down until they reached the top 15 community leaders then did face-to-face interviews. They looked at things like “Have you worked with these people (the other leaders) on projects?”- an indicator of internal networking, “Are you active members of statewide organizations?” external networking, and researchers looked at whether there were women in leadership roles.
Although Obrien expected the key factor to be bridging to outside resources, that wasn’t it.
“The big thing really seemed to be how well connected people were internally,” Obrien said.
Towns like Gallatin and Glasgow that were doing better than most had very strong internal networks.
A challenge in some communities is when you have an existing network that is strongly influenced by someone in a blocker role rather than a facilitator. Looking at a broad spectrum of factors, things like resources in the community, or even education of the residents, made little difference.
“What was really making things work was people who were willing to listen to each other and work together,” Obrien said.