Technology and Change in Rural America

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Course Description

This course considers the historical dimensions of rural production from subsistence to industrialization, both in America and in an international context, with an emphasis on the role of science and technology.

Topics include changing notions of progress; emergence of genetics and its complex applications to food production; mechanization of both farm practices and the food industry; role of migrant labor; management theory and its impact on farm practice; role of federal governments and NGOs in production systems; women in food production systems; and the green revolution.


Prof. Deborah Fitzgerald




Course Meeting Times Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


This class considers the intersection of science and technology with agriculture and food production systems in the 20th century. A basic premise is that, when things become industrialized and rationalized, they follow particular historical patterns that tend to play themselves out over and over in different locations. Another premise, however, is that local circumstances never quite fit the patterns that have evolved, and historians must pay close attention to the differences between the micro and the macro, the universal and the particular, the state and the farmer. We attempt to understand these things by reading historical and anthropological essays on the relation between rural life, scientific institutions, technological and managerial innovations, agricultural production, and politics in America and the third world.


Students are required to attend all classes and be prepared to discuss the assigned readings. Students take turns leading the weekly discussions. Although there are no exams, each student must write either an original research paper on a topic of interest to the student or a bibliographic essay on a set of outside readings.



  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Geography and Destiny
  • 3 Plants and Animals
  • 4 Land and Water
  • 5 Colonial Concerns
  • 6 Hunters and Prey
  • 7 The South and Slavery
  • 8 Production and Consumption
  • 9 Labor and Management
  • 10 Modernity and Its Discontents
  • 11 The Farm Crisis and Agricultural Policy
  • 12 Student Presentations


See the MIT Courseware session readings page for links to books and to contribute to MIT oOpen Courseware


1 Introduction
  • Film: Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City: A Film with Raymond Williams. 1979.
2 Geography and Destiny
  • Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780300078152.
  • Fitzgerald, Deborah. "Technology and Agriculture in 20th Century America." In A Companion to American Technology. Edited by Carroll Pursell. Oxford: Blackwell, in press, 2005. ISBN: 9780631228448.
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1996. ISBN: 9780486291673.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. "The Agrarian Myth and Commercial Realities." In The Age of Reform . New York, NY: Vintage, 1960. ISBN: 9780394700953.
3 Plants and Animals
  • Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World. New York, NY: Random House, 2002. ISBN: 9780375760396.
  • Schrepfer, Susan, and Philip Scranton, eds. Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. ISBN: 9780415945486.
4 Land and Water
  • Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN: 9780394751610.
  • ———. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780195174885.
  • Fiege, Mark. Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West. Seattle WA: University of Washington Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780295980133.
  • Stoll, Steven. Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2002. ISBN: 9780809064311.
  • Films: Lorentz, Pare. The Plow That Broke the Plains. Directed by Pare Lorentz. 25 min. Resettlement Administration (A U.S. Documentary Film), 1936. Videocassette.

———. The River. Directed by Pare Lorentz. 31 min. Farm Security Administration (A U.S. Documentary Film), 1938. Videocassette.

5 Colonial Concerns
  • Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. ISBN: 9780807844588.
  • Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Revised ed. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2003. ISBN: 9780809016341.
  • Kulikoff, Allan. From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780807848821.
6 Hunters and Prey
  • Warren, Louis. The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in 20th Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780300080865.
  • Jacoby, Karl. Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. ISBN: 0520239091.
  • McEvoy, Arthur. The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN: 0521385865.
7 The South and Slavery
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0674810929.
  • Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985. ISBN: 0252011473.
  • Foley, Neil. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997. ISBN: 0520207246.
  • Wilkinson, Alec. Big Sugar: Seasons in the Cane Fields of Florida. New York, NY: Knopf, 1989. ISBN: 0679731873.
8 Production and Consumption
  • Neth, Mary. Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN: 9780801860614.
  • Kline, Ron. Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN: 9780801871153.
  • Danbom, David. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0801850401.
  • Barron, Hal. Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870-1930. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780807846599.
9 Labor and Management
  • Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ISBN: 9780618127498.
  • McWilliams, Cary. Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California . Waltham, MA: Peregrine Publishers, 1971. ISBN: 9780879050054.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter. As You Sow. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1978. ISBN: 9780916672119.
  • Hahamovitch, Cindy. The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780807846391.
10 Modernity and Its Discontents
  • Fitzgerald, Deborah. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780300088137.
  • Stoll, Steven. The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. ISBN: 9780520211728.
  • Vaught, David. Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875-1920. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN: 9780801871122.
  • Tobey, Ron, and Charles Weatherell. "The Citrus Industry and the Revolution of Corporate Capitalism in Southern California, 1887-1944." California History 74 (1995): 6-21.
11 The Farm Crisis and Agricultural Policy
  • Dudley, Kathryn. Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America's Heartland. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN: 9780226169118.
  • Barlett, Peggy. American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780807843994.
  • Cochrane, Willard. Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. ISBN: 9780816609260.
  • Busch, Lawrence, William Lacy, Jeffrey Bukhardt, and Laura Lacy. Plants, Power and Profit: Social, Economic, and Ethical Consequences of the New Plant Biotechnology. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991. ISBN: 9781557860880.
  • Film: Ascher, Steven and Jeanne Jordan (dir.) Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern. Written by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan. Produced by Steven Ascher. 88 min., 1995.
12 Student Presentations


Each student will write either an original research paper on a topic of interest to the student, or a bibliographic essay on a set of outside readings.

Selected Student Paper Titles

  • Engineering Mass Consumption: Transportation and the Technopolitics of Industrial Agriculture, 1945-1967
  • Maps to the Market: United States Food Guides in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Saudade, Milking Parlors, and Globalization: Azorean Queijo Fresco in Historical Perspective
  • Whirlwinds of Beef
  • The Atomic Meal: The Cold War and Irradiated Foods, 1956-1963
  • Every Man His Own Weather Clerk!: Weather Information Systems, Local Communication Technologies, and a National *Weather Service for Agriculture, 1870-1891
  • Sugar Pie Honey Bun: The Industrialization of Honey in the United States in the Early 20th Century
  • Mechanization and the Small Farmer in Punjab



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