Anti-Intellectualism Has Become An Identity for Some Rural Americans: Study

A study identifying anti-intellectualism as a growing part of rural identities has sparked a discussion about the best ways of encouraging rural communities to engage with scientific expertise.

The study, which originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Political Behavior, found that people with a rural social identification are more likely to view experts and intellectuals as outsiders, according to its author, Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a post-doctoral candidate at the Covid States Project of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Northeastern University.

"Feeling psychologically attached to being someone from a rural area shapes your attitude towards other groups in society," Lunz Trujillo told Newsweek. "People who have this rural identity see experts skeptically. There is a perception that these experts will come in from outside and impose their ideas."

In her study, Lunz Trujillo said anti-intellectualism "drives support for phenomena such as populism, a rejection of scientific consensus, and health and science misinformation endorsement." Understanding what encourages people to be anti-intellectual is important in understanding public behavior, she said.

By examing survey data, she found rural social identification could be used to predict anti-intellectualism, but that anti-intellectualism was not "significantly associated" with rural residency. As a result, she said the "psychological attachment to being from a rural area or small town" is a contributing factor to anti-intellectualism.

As a result, anti-intellectualism appears to be becoming part of the identity of some rural Americans.

The need for local "interpreters"

An article published on the political news website FiveThirtyEight said that Lunz Trujillo's work had highlighted the challenges of combatting anti-science attitudes, especially with regard to climate change or public health messaging, in areas where they were likely to be prevalent.

It suggested that local experts familiar with communities were likely to be able to find more effective ways of communicating with them.

rural town
Stock image of a rural town. A study has found anti-intellectualism has become part of the identity of some people living in rural parts of the U.S. Getty Images

"There are certain experts who are more valued in terms of the rural value of prioritizing practical experience and common sense over book smarts" Lunz Trujillo told Newsweek.

Examples might include an agricultural scientist or engineer working on local projects, she said, noting that in the past, many universities have used "extension services" to bring agricultural research from their universities to local communities, only to be greeted with skepticism.

Rural residents, she said, are much more likely to prize hands-on, first-hand experience. They are also more likely to distrust centers of power because they are so distant from them.

Rural communities have generally been more hostile to public health messages than their urban counterparts during the pandemic.

Research published in March showed Americans living in rural areas were less likely to have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The study, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, showed the rate of first dose uptake was 58.5 percent for rural counties, compared with 75.4 percent in urban ones.

Lunz Trujillo said outreach is one of the most effective ways of overcoming mistrust, particularly where there are trusted individuals in the community able to address people's concerns. In some rural areas, she adds, local experts who were trusted in the community held vaccine clinics in homes or other familiar places during the pandemic.

In order to achieve public health objectives, It is also useful for prominent individuals to try to go to rural areas to make an effort to show they are taking concerns and skepticism seriously and addressing underlying concerns.

Above all, experts need to be as transparent as possible.

Lunz Trujillo points out that in the case of COVID-19, "some of the views of experts were mixed, partly because some of the scientific advice was mixed."