From 'Hicks' to High Tech: Performative Use in the American Corn Belt

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Virginia Tech


This study traces the history of how farmers have used technologies from the eighteenth century to the present to form identities, not simply as ways of making greater economic profits. Using technologies becomes a way to 'perform' a person's sense of him or herself. This insight serves historians because it suggests that users, not just important inventors, drive technological change. My study also suggests that the relationship people have with technology (and how they use it to form their identities) has historical genealogies. Engineers and business people will also find my history useful because the notion of 'performative use' means that people's views of themselves can influence the way they adopt and employ technologies. Policy scholars will gain from my study because I show that the way people use technology to understand themselves has consequences in determining how they participate in controversies over science and technology policy.

This narrative begins in the eighteenth century by analyzing how elites like Benjamin Rush viewed the agricultural practices of German farmers, regarded by many in the upper classes as backwards. I show how observances of German farmers by elites created a pattern repeated throughout American history where rural people would use technology to perform their identities for an outside observer. In addition, I describe an identity, which I call 'German agrarianism,' and contend that this rural self-image migrated to the Midwest when German farmers moved westward. German agrarianism had several important features including the association of morality with family-based production practices, an obsession with owning personal property, the inclusion of women in farming and land ownership, and the practice of performing identity through the use of material objects. Next, I describe a rural identity with English origins, one that other scholars have named 'Jeffersonian agrarianism.' This Jeffersonian identity saw farmers as heroes who conquered the frontier, preserved American democracy, and supported less moral urban dwellers. I argue that Jeffersonian agrarianism in the nineteenth century began to reject technological and social change and that this view of rural people as anti-modern has influenced the way observers of rural life have viewed farmers up to the present.

This study then analyzes the rural-urban conflict of the 1920s, contending that farmers used technologies to develop their own rural modern identity, which I call 'rural capitalistic modernity.' Farmers used technology this way to combat a version of modernity, which I name 'urban industrialism.' This modern identity, arising from the cities, advocated improving rural life by making farms resemble urban factories. This factory model threatened German and Jeffersonian rural identities that existed prior to the 1920s because it removed the family as the center of production and advocated work processes that took control and property ownership away from farmers. In addition, urban industrialism saw farmers as backward and in need of reform, which offended farmers who saw themselves in heroic terms as a result of Jeffersonian agrarianism. I argue that many rural people in the 1920s used technology to perform an identity of rural capitalistic modernity as a means of combating these urban efforts to restructure farms as factories and stereotype farmers as 'yokels' or 'rubes.' This rural modern identity became reinforced during the Cold War because the farmer saw Soviet collectivized agriculture as posing the same threats as previous urban industrialism. In addition, the way farmers used technology to reinforce their views of themselves as modern became valuable to government actors in the United States who saw increased agricultural production as a weapon in defeating the Soviet Union.

By the 1970s, farmers formed an identity called 'rural ultramodernity' in which they began to think of themselves as more modern than urban dwellers because of their design and use of advanced technologies and their role as producers in the global food network. This ultramodern identity incorporates aspects of previous rural identities, including an obsession with combating urban stereotypes of farmers as 'hicks.' In addition, this rural ultramodern identity views farmers as having an inborn modernity inherited from previous generations of farmers. I argue that this ultramodern way farmers think of themselves explains why rural people in the Midwest have embraced the erection of wind turbines, unlike residents of other regions in the U.S.

From a policy perspective, this study also contends that debates over science and technology, such as efforts to render agriculture more sustainable and organic, are impacted by unexpressed fundamental views about nature and morality. Statements about these controversies often take the form of proxy arguments that sound 'rational' but mask these unstated ideas, and they often alienate those with opposing views. Current debates over genetically modified organisms, from a rural perspective, are actually unspoken clashes over rural ultramodern and organic identities hidden by 'objective' points made by both sides involving science or economics. This study also challenges the common notion that technology and production are male domains by showing how both men and women have used technology to construct their identities as producers on Midwest farms. This insight illustrates how disagreements over gender roles underlie current policy debates about agriculture. Farmers view organic discourse as threatening rural women's identities as modern producers by framing farming as an immoral, industrial, and male domination of a moral and female nature. Rural people view organic discourse as carrying on the tradition of urban industrialism, which saw farmers as backwards and farm women as unhappy and occupying an exclusively domestic sphere. This study suggests that any effort to reform agriculture must include farmers and incorporate the way rural people use technologies to form and reinforce their identities. At the same time, the conclusion advocates for a new rural identity that avoids farmer's tendencies to view all technologies as 'progress' regardless of their environmental or social impacts.



Performativity, Agricultural Technology, Identity, Modernity, Farmers