Diving into Urban-Rural Prejudice

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In many Western countries, there is a significant divide between rural and urban attitudes. Does the same hold true for Germany?

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Ever since Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States, many in Germany have been wondering if German society is also crisscrossed by invisible divides. And whether here, too, the haves and the have-nots have become locked in adversarial conflict.

It is a question that also concerns the divide between urban and rural areas. Many cities and their immediate surroundings have become desirable locations to live in while some rural regions have fallen way behind. Broadband internet access or even just intact streets and bridges are hardly worth the expense anymore in some regions. Are these differences also reflected in the attitudes people hold?

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Could a situation develop in Germany similar to that in the U.S., where people speak derisively of the "flyover zone" when referring to the vast, rural American heartland? A situation in which those in the countryside view cities as being lawless pits free of morals? To answer these questions on the eve of the German general election, we have analyzed the data collected by two of the biggest and most comprehensive surveys available.

Not all large cities are prosperous, of course, and not all rural areas have been left behind. Plus, most Germans live neither in a large city nor in a small town but in a small or midsized city. Keep that in mind as we take a look at some of the most popular prejudices about city dwellers and country folk. Some are true, others aren’t.

What about this one, for example: The social fabric in rural areas is more tightly knit and people spend more time with their friends – that is one of the most popular preconceptions about life in the countryside. What do you think? Is it true?

If it’s not true that people in the countryside meet more often with friends, then might an additional prejudice also be inaccurate? Do people go to church more often in rural areas?

And what about the idea that many people in large cities are worldlier and have spent a greater amount of time abroad?

Frequency of church attendance, overseas experience, free-time activities – such differences are interesting to look at, but they certainly aren’t the kinds of things that lead to deep social divides. Those who warn about divisions between urban and rural areas usually mean something else. Such warnings come from a belief that city dwellers have completely different societal ideals than those in the country – that they are more cosmopolitan and further to the left on the political spectrum. Is that true?

Bremerhaven © Meiko Herrmann für ZEIT ONLINE

One might think that beliefs about gender equality would be an issue where differences would become visible. But on the question as to whether people think it is OK for a mother to pursue a career, rural and urban people have been largely in agreement for decades.

But how does that look in practice? A bit different. Everywhere in Germany, more men than women have full-time jobs, with men making up a larger percentage of those with full-time jobs in rural areas as compared with urban settings.

If you then ask who spends more time with the children, it becomes clear that women everywhere, in both the cities and the countryside, are responsible for the lion’s share of child care. Women in the cities may be slightly more likely to have full-time jobs, but they still take care of almost three-quarters of the child care responsibilities.

The second significant issue where most people suspect there is a significant difference between city dwellers and those in the countryside is the approach to Islam, integration and immigration. The more rural, many think, the more intolerant. Or, to put it differently: The larger the city, the fewer worries people have about integration.

Tönisvorst (Nordrhein-Westfalen) © Carolin Weinkopf für ZEIT ONLINE

Let’s go back to our prejudice quiz. The smaller the town, the lower the number of people who know foreigners. Is that true?

By contrast, many people have the idea that many cities, in part because of immigration, have neighborhoods that are considered "no-go" areas. Places that people avoid at night. Are there actually more such areas in cities than there are in rural areas?

How open people are to Germans with immigration backgrounds can also be seen by whether they would accept them in positions of political responsibility. How accepting would people be of a Muslim mayor in cities versus in small towns?

Such openness to people with different cultural backgrounds becomes even more obvious within families. When it comes to welcoming foreigners into one’s own family, rural residents are much more skeptical than city dwellers – it is said. Is that true?

The last few questions make it seem as though there is something to the cliché that people in cities are generally more tolerant when it comes to Muslims and foreigners. But it’s not quite that simple. It also depends on how such attitudes have developed.

The question regarding a Muslim mayor seems to confirm the idea that there are significant differences between urban and rural attitudes. Whereas no significant difference in the acceptance of a Muslim mayor could be measured in 2012, the 2016 survey – after the refugee crisis – revealed clear contrasts.

In cities, including small cities, the willingness to accept a Muslim mayor climbed. But in small towns of 5,000 residents or below, that willingness clearly fell. When it comes to Islam, in other words, it could well be that a polarization between urban and rural areas has in fact taken place recently.

Things look a bit different on the question as to whether people would be willing to accept someone with a Turkish background into their families. Here, attitudes have developed in parallel. Yes, there is a difference between urban and rural areas. But for decades, views have moved in a similar direction: growing acceptance between 1996 and 2006 before enthusiasm for having a Turkish family member began to fall again. Irrespective of the size of the city or town respondents live in.

City and country dwellers also hold surprisingly similar views when it comes to fears of having too many foreigners in the country. Whereas 27 percent of people in large cities say they sometimes feel foreign in their own country, 34 percent of those in small towns say the same.

Does this data allow us to draw any conclusions? Perhaps the following: Views in the city are not nearly as left-wing liberal as many might expect, and nor is the countryside a refuge of 1950s-era attitudes. Some shifts in sentiment have taken place in both urban and rural areas. There are growing divides in Germany, but presumably they can be found between regions, religious affiliations, age groups and income brackets rather than between city, town and village dwellers. The contrast between urban and rural areas isn’t something populists can profit from. At least not yet.

Saarwellingen (Saarland) © Ben Kilb für ZEIT ONLINE

In conclusion, let’s take a look at a much more important question: Who is actually more satisfied with their lives? Are people happier when they have more free-time activities to choose from, when things move faster and people are closer? Or do people find the peace and quiet of the countryside more attractive? The answer is quite amazing.

The share of people in Germany who are satisfied with their lives, in other words, is the same no matter where they live, in villages, towns, small cities or large cities. Quite an amazing discovery when you consider that people in the countryside sleep much better than those in the city do. Or is that just a prejudice?

Methodology and Sources

There are different models for differentiating municipalities that are subject to more urban influences from those with more of a rural character. Proximity to regions of economic activity is often considered as is the number of commuters. Because we were, for the purposes of this article, more concerned about lifestyles and social networks in the places where people live, we relied exclusively on the population of the cities and towns in question. We developed categories that we thought best reflected the different types of municipalities. Towns with a population of below 5,000 were considered to best reflect rural living.

To understand more about how people in Germany think and act, we analyzed survey data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), collected by the German Institute for Economic Research, and from the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS), collected by GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. For decades, both have been surveying the German population to learn more about the attitudes they hold. We asked the social researchers from both institutes to analyze their data in accordance with the population categories described above and to point out a few conspicuous differences between urban and rural areas.

Our Sources:
Index of all politically independent municipalities (with municipal administrations) in Germany; destatis; current as of March 2015
ALLBUS 1992–2016
Socio-Economic Panel 2015

Daryl Lindsey, Charles Hawley