Advances in Applied Sociology
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 13-21
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/aasoci.2011.11002
In No-Man’s Land. Community, Identities and Moral Lives in
Depopulated Settings in the North of Spain
Angel Paniagua
IPP-CCHS-CSIC, Madrid, Spain.
Received November 17th, 2011; revised December 22nd, 2011; accepted December 29th, 2011.
The purpose of this article is to study the different ways depopulation is reflected from moral or ethical perspec-
tives of geographical thinking. The objective here is to determine how moral lives (that reflect different opinions
about the situational justice, spatial-environmental identity, affective morality and individual trajectory) are
maintained in depopulated regions. It has been acknowledged that socio-cultural traditions in each space orien-
tate the moral construction of depopulation, both in relation to socio-ecological repercussions, and also to con-
struction of the community, or in processes of intra or extra-area socio-political negotiation. Some case studies
are presented which have been analysed from a qualitative methodological approach, which considers residence
in the area, systematic observations and semi-structured interviews.
Keywords: Depopulation, Identities, Moral Lives, Spain
Depopulation is an old phenomenon that goes back more
than one hundred years in international geographical studies and
appears simultaneously with other debates, such as the urban-
rural relationship. Since it first appeared it has been tackled from
different approaches in the geographical literature. Since it is
considered to be a geographical occurrence, it can be tackled
from positivist approaches—the most frequent—and also from
cultural, and even moral approaches. Through these latest ten-
dencies it is possible to reformulate the phenomenon, classically
perceived negatively and associated with a loss of population
from a given space—often to favour an urban environment—
together with a loss of the traditional lifestyle, and to substitute
these for more positive and enriching perceptions, such as the
creation of new cultural types and moral lives in spaces that
have a certain tradition of depopulation.
From the beginning of the Nineties, geographical approaches
clearly started to pay heed to the lost, missing or disperse social
groups, in an attempt to call attention to communities or life-
styles undergoing evident transformation processes (Little, 1999).
Depopulation is one of the processes that significantly affects
rural communities and individuals living in rural areas, and is
commonly associated with significant social, environmental,
spatial and cultural changes (Carson et al., 2011). The purpose of
this paper is to make a comparative study of depopulated so-
ciocultural settings as manifest from a moral perspective, and
the dynamics of change in the constitution of different classes
of individuals, creating parallel moral lives at the level of the
microspace (that reveal different points of view about issues such
as situational justice, spatial-environmental identity, affective
morality and the individual trajectory) in depopulated and re-
mote areas. This process has given rise to some of the major de-
bates in Geography, associated with the spatial-society (com-
munity), individual-society (community) and individual-culture
Space, Community, Identity and Moral Lives in
Depopulated Setti n gs.
Community, identity and marginal space(s). Reflections on
community, identity, culture or moral lives are quite frequent in
the field of Geography and there is no clear consensus about
how they should be applied. Here, these concepts are associated
with “marginal spaces” (Shields, 1991) linked to depopulated
sociocultural and remote settings as a category that permits the
creation of more open, flexible and even alternative frames of
reference, making it possible to advance from the moral perspec-
tive in critical geographies that singles out the odd ones out, or
those who are different or excluded. From a spatial perspective
these refer to marginal or excluded spaces, not only from the per-
spective of urban spaces, but also in relation to other spaces not
affected by a loss of population in rural areas. Therefore, the
position of these areas in a space largely determines, not only
its material conditions linked to a small population, but also the
existence of certain social classes and immaterial identities,
often constructed from this spatial position that is perceived, or
may be perceived, as discriminatory (Paniagua, 2009; Carson et
al., 2011).
Binary associations in the study of space have been relatively
common in modern geography (Cloke et al., 2005), especially
in relation to processes that associate dynamics linked to space
with global dynamics. There has been a degree of controversy
about studying marginal spaces from this perspective (Sibley,
1998). According to some of the more recent approaches the
concept of marginal, in geographical terms in remote areas, does
not exist. This would be considered an anachronism today (Ny-
seth, 2009:1), since these same marginal spaces have the ability
to organize themselves and many people live in these areas be-
cause they want to (Holloway & Hubbard, 2001:225). From
other perspectives, one common approach is to distinguish be-
tween geographical or spatial margin and remote areas (Shields,
1991). Not all marginal spaces are remote or peripheral (Brown
& Hall, 2000), but this concept is linked to the existence of
centres (of power or finance) (Conradson & Pawson, 2009) and
concerns several positive characteristics that include: financial
marginalization linked to agricultural decline, a reduced popu-
lation, an elderly population, relatively few services and infra-
structures, significant distance from centres of decision-making,
resulting in a lack of power, a rural and remote character, and
often the existence of exalted scenic values. In any case, all these
material characteristics are regarded differently, in their imam-
terial attributes, by different social groups and individuals (Hol-
loway & Hubbard, 2001). Consequently, these kinds of spaces
do not have a strictly topographical or geographical virtuality,
but should instead be perceived as more of a cultural or moral
attribute, constructed both by the communities and the indi-
viduals living in the areas, and also by the individuals or social
groups these areas attract; even by people or social groups who
do not live there but who may hold an opinion or image about
the area.
Culture is a complex concept. As Castree (2005) suggests, in
a geographical framework it is linked to a transformation of the
material world into a world of symbols that acquire different va-
lues or dimensions from different people or communities. Con-
sequently, culture or cultural processes mediate all or nearly all
aspects of social life. In any case, as Agnew points out (1993:
262), experience in life is not acquired in the context of an ab-
stract space, but rather as an interaction with a reduced number
of people. Daily life delimits and endows with contents a social
life conditioned by social groups of reference. According to Morris
(2004), culture in geographical studies (rural) can be under-
stood in two ways, either more associated with the life trajec-
tory, mediated by beliefs and values, or characterised by the
social group to which someone belongs. Both types of analysis
are valid in the present work, since the former would be more
associated with the different lifestyles that are embodied in the
different discourses that compete or complement each other in
depopulated sociocultural settings, while the latter would be
linked to a discourse that concerns everyone—the commu-
nity—who lives in a given depopulated sociocultural setting,
determined by a reduced population. In other words, the former
would be more associated with “lifestyles” in the area, while
the latter would be determined by the distinction of the com-
munity in relation to its immediate and more remote context.
According to Smith (2000), the community constitutes an asso-
ciation between locality and morality, and all the debates that
associate community with morality usually do this in the con-
text of a place. In the context of rural geography in rural spaces,
a cultural change is more associated with aspects of rural life
and rural spaces and places. There is a shift away from a con-
cern for a material life, and a greater interest for the immaterial
dimensions of the social life (Holloway & Kneafsey, 2004).
One dimension of this change in geographical studies corre-
sponds to the so-called ‘politics of place’, which can generate
conflicts and restrictions in some rural areas wand, consequently,
condition different positions of communities, social groups or
individuals in a given space or place, resulting in some disad-
vantaged situations compared to others (Philo, 1992; for de-
populated areas Paniagua, 2009). Hence, marginalization proc-
esses relate to a given dimension of the others (Philo, 1992),
and would be practiced on a daily basis but would not always
have a clearly material substrate. Individual marginality has
subjective foundations and is associated with a differential per-
ception. Identification of the differences between morally sig-
nificant people or groups within a community is a key issue in
the study of processes or territorial justice. This shows that
identities and discourses which are in a process of constitution,
rearticulation and contestation around different issues that af-
fect and can generate conflicts in depopulated rural areas “on
the margin” constitute an important point of interest from a
fluid or hybrid perspective. Here, they converge and questions
are required that reflect the place they live in (Whatmore, 2002),
together with a past cultural perspective, based on a view of the
past in the present, linked to an undermining or change in tradi-
tional values and the loss of past lifestyles. From this perspec-
tive, attention to, or reinterpretation of, new materialities be-
comes significant based on the process of population loss, such
as lost spaces, alternative spaces, constructed closed spaces or
new materialities that function seasonally in depopulated areas.
To some extent, depopulated sociocultural settings would re-
veal, in an extreme way, some of the issues of interest arising
from the cultural transformation of Geography.
Place, Moral Lives and Rural Individual
Very recently, Woods (2011) showed that the adoption of
representation as a perspective in rural studies can reveal, not
only the association between the material world and the discur-
sive world, but also the individual and his daily activities—
used here in the moral sense of the term—and can incorporate
emotions that are often difficult to represent. Similarly, repre-
sentation of rural daily life can help us to establish different
perspectives from different types of individuals characterized,
largely by their precedence (local, seasonal returners, newcom-
ers) and their occupation, but also by their microposition in the
place and the existence or not of a family structure. Sack (1980)
describes how place is essentially a moral concept and should
be analysed from a complex perspective, interrelated with the
self and dominated by moral concerns (Sack, 1997). Individuals
and social organisations in a given place interact and, conse-
quently, produce specific spatial manifestations that generate a
spatial segmentation of daily life (Sack, 1997), a perspective at
least partially maintained by Holloway (2002).
In depopulated settings, it is important to capture individual’s
daily lives. Consequently, moral or ethical approaches that go
one step further than cultural approaches assume a greater sig-
nificance, from the normalisation of daily lives in depopulated
sociocultural settings to the emergence of alternative lifestyles
in depopulated areas. Hence, we return again to the association
between marginality and rural otherness (Philo, 1992). As Cloke
indicates (2002), moral geographies relate to individual as-
sumptions about matters of justice or injustice, referring to dif-
ferent issues in a given place and population. The place is con-
ditioned by the moral positions of the different individuals liv-
ing there (Sack, 1992). These individual judgments are com-
posed of spatial and environmental issues, and also issues asso-
ciated with the people of the community, and together consti-
tute a moral perspective that conditions daily life, personal de-
cisions and even professional conduct. From a post-modern
outlook, debates on moral geography have focused on margin-
alised populations and places, which develop their existence in
extreme conditions obliging them to confront moral dilemmas,
which can be largely irrelevant for local populations (Holloway
& Hubbard, 2001:245). Depopulated regions or marginal spaces
may show, not only the perspective of “the others”, but also the
wide range of perspectives or values that coexist in a given
place or space (Little, 1999), resulting from a disparate decod-
ing and value of daily life in marginal spaces with a reduced
population. Ultimately, a given view of life and the conditions
of this life may be shown in (material) conditions that are often
associated with adversity (Sibley, 1995) and daily strategies to
tackle these conditions (Pile, 1997). This results in a plurality
of parallel moral lives, linked by unequal points of view about
the cultural and material conditions of the place where they
coexist, associated with ideas of justice, inequality, expecta-
tions and position in the community (moral relationships) etc.,
but also to an unequal and parallel experimentation of matters
difficult to represent, such as emotions, habits, experiences or
expectations (Woods, 2011). In other words, different spatial
existences can be experienced in each place, resulting from
unequal sociocultural and material affinities (Bondi, Davidson,
& Smith, 2005; Valentine, 2008). Part of the exclusion proc-
esses, especially the most extreme socio-spatial ones, are asso-
ciated with different experiences of them, partly through the
emotions (Sibley, 1995). This has already been shown in rela-
tion to marginalization processes affecting some individuals
compared to others (Little, 1999), but is still being manifest
within rural studies from a Geographical perspective.
This more moral perspective can reveal individual perspec-
tives in relation to collective discourses, or discourses related to
power in spatial identities, so can facilitate progress in the mi-
croanalysis of a place and of rural populations. Hence, it can
help to establish greater levels of complexity in microrural
studies, by enabling two levels to be set up, one associated with
the construction of structural spaces that would be reflected in
the identities (Lawrence, 1999), and another associated with
moral lives that coexist in relation to competence, interaction
and complementarity. Lee and Smith (2004) show that the mo-
ral values relate to specific populations (defined above in rela-
tion to precedence and employment), in specific places and which,
consequently, are significantly affected by local circumstances.
Some authors have considered this moral or situational rela-
tionship as a central axis around which an individual’s identity
is formed, and also to re-examine professional practices (Riley,
2011) in the form of lifescapes (Convery, et al., 2005). Hence,
there is a certain plurality of moralities, which in the present
text we refer to as “moral lives” in each place, and which inter-
act in a permanent re-equilibrium under the influence of intrin-
sic forces that give rise to different interpretations of the con-
cept of difference.
In this context, this paper aims to reveal, comparatively, the
coexistence in different depopulated spaces (places) of various
collective or community microidentities constructed in compe-
tition (situational) and collaboration with others, but also with
collective expectations, upon which there have been superim-
posed a multiplicity of parallel moral lives, which reflect dif-
ferent points of view about situational justice, spatial-environ-
mental identity, affective morality etc. Consequently, it aims to
unite social, cultural and moral study approaches, interpreted as
Methodology and Study Areas
Cultural and moral geographies are usually associated with
qualitative methodologies (Crang, 2002), but for the present
paper, the case study ground system (Creswell, 1998) has been
developed. This technique aims to find an equivalence between
the permanence of the researcher in the area (knowledge, emo-
tions, interaction), occasional (events) and systematic observa-
tions (cultural dynamics) and the semi-structured interview
about the individual’s (moral) position in the area. This tech-
nique aims to increase the consistency of using the semi-struc-
tured interview alone, and to give an ethnographic character to
the research, by enabling the researcher to “observe” and “ex-
periment” with certain findings, judgments or emotions that are
expressed in the interviews. It also permits a degree of ethical
or political implication in the research work (Crang, 2005).
The selection of interviewees responded to a specific profile,
or type, that was considered to be representative of the area,
based on the experience of staying in the area and analysing
interviews with local leaders. Several individuals were inter-
viewed within each profile in an attempt to reveal all the possi-
ble past and present moral perspectives of people living in the
area (Leyshon & Bull, 2011). Memory was used, not only in
reconstruction of the place but also in reconstruction of the
interviewee’s life until the present day (Jones, 2005). Therefore,
the number of individuals interviewed depended on the com-
plexity expected.
Interviews were designed as structured narratives in blocks
and aimed to reveal, as shown before, an individual’s perspec-
tive about the past, in other words, to place the trajectory of the
individual in the trajectory of the place (Elwood & Martin,
2000). Attempts were also made to define aspects of life that
were difficult to represent, such as emotions, feelings, percep-
tions about the future (Woods, 2011) and, ultimately, feelings
that support a complex degree of contingency with the place
(Davies & Dwyer, 2007). Hence, the intention was to reveal, in
a special way, the variable value of the positionality of a given
place (Doel, 2010). The blocks considered were: the individuals
own perception of the spatial and environmental context, in
relation to personal position, the perception of scale, linked to
the position of place in a broader context, the identity of this
position, the social-environmental substrate, and characteristics
of the marginality and depopulation in the context of significant
change, the value of the sociocultural setting, linked to the per-
ception of authenticity and local cultural identity and associa-
tions between authenticity, identity and marginality, in an at-
tempt to situate the value of the depopulation in the identity,
perception of the alternatives, expectations for the future and
relationships of power.
The study was carried out in two phases: the first in 2009, by
field work consisting in staying in the area and contacting key
informants with a position in the community and, secondly,
between April and June 2010, by interviewing individuals with
typical moral lifestyles representative of the area. The number
of interviews of different types of people depended on the plu-
rality, and continued until the categories established had been
saturated (Creswell, 1998).
In order to develop a comparative perspective, two depopu-
lated border areas were selected, far away from any significant
urban nucleus, that were characterised as marginal areas (Fig-
ure 1): 1) The first study area corresponds to the Valderredible
valley (Cantabria); and 2) the second study area corresponds to
the Sedano valley (Castile and Leon), both areas are in the re-
gion of the Highland Ebro river, situated in the North of Spain
between Cantabria and Castile and Leon (Collantes, 2009). They
are two neighbouring depopulated and remote valleys, but with
Figure 1.
Localization study area.
different socioeconomic and geographical characteristics. A to-
tal of 48 recorded interviews were carried out during 2009 and
2010, with duration of between 30 and 60 minutes and an ex-
tended stay with each interviewee.
Results and Disccusion: Culture, Community
and Moral Lives in a Comparative
Situational Perspective.
As mentioned previously, the objective of this work is to
study, from a comparative perspective, how community micro
identities in different depopulated settings based on a situational
co-construction, either in collaboration or competitively, are
revealed and how moral views of the place are structured that
reflect different perspectives linked to ideas associated with spa-
tial justice, self-identity or relationships with the community.
Residents could have different perspectives related to differ-
ent factors, such as their precedence—work premises, if they
were descendents of villagers, immigrants—and also their type
of work. Taking into account these two factors, different types
of micro discourses can be established relating to lifestyles and
moral lives and issues relating to spatial identity, nature, the
community, the family and individual or group expectations for
the future.
Case Study 1. The Valderredible Valley.
Cantabria. Spain
The Valderredible valley is near the edge of the Cantabria
province in the North of Spain and shares a border with the
Castile and Leon province. It is a depopulated valley within a
densely populated region. Since the Nineteen Forties its popu-
lation has dropped from 8000 to around 1200 inhabitants, of
whom only 700 spend the winter there. This has also resulted in
it decreasing in importance in the provincial context, and to a
degree of spatial marginalization. This decrease in population
has been accompanied by a reduction in the area of cultivated
land and a transformation of cattle farming systems, together
with a timid appearance of tourism activities. It is one of the
largest municipalities in Spain, with around 52 population nu-
clei (Map 1).
Types of Moral Discourses
Cattle and Arable Farmers
Valley Farmers, the exodus has resulted in a concentration of
the remaining farms, resulting in few large farms of more than
100 hectares. This trend started after the mass rural exodus, at
the end of the Eighties, by farmers renting or purchasing smaller
properties from other farmers who retired or left the area. Ar-
able farms are rare in a mainly cattle farming area and are basi-
cally dedicated to growing quality potato crops. Since the activ-
ity first started, it has improved greatly owing to mechanization,
but still has a low profitability. There are only 6 farmers in the
entire valley. It is very difficult to start this type of farming at
present because of the large investment it requires and the only
access to this profession is through family inheritance. On the
whole, regional authorities tend to look after these farming areas,
and the farming activity is only profitable because of subsidies.
Continuing in the farming activity is often regarded in the
context of giving the children an opportunity to carry on the
farm, consideration of the farming profession as worthwhile, and
a degree of anti-urban sentiment “I couldn’t stand going to the
city every day for just 700 euros etc.” (Merche & Ruerrero,
April 2010). In any case, now the farmer is regarded with little
social value, in the context of a deteriorated sense of commu-
nity and a largely mobile population.
Retired farmers. Some retired farmers still participate in the
farming activity and tend to keep on the same property. They
often describe themselves as almost the only ones left after the
mass exodus. In social terms, life before the exodus was lively.
There was a feeling of community. People left the area because
there were few resources. After the exodus, there was often only
one farmer left in each village. There are few of us left, but the
farms now are bigger than before, around 10 - 14 hectares.
“The ones who had to stay, have stayed behind” (Isi & So-
brepeña, April 2010). The farm is often cared for and main-
tained as a possible employment for returning descendants who
emigrated to the cities. Keeping on the farm and the existence
of descendants are regarded as a kind of refuge. If the farm is
dismantled they won’t be able to return to the valley because of
the huge investments needed to start the activity again. There is
also a dependency on subsidies. When there are no descendants
everything takes on a tragic air: “I’m alone here, there’s no-one
left. I will leave everything behind me, I haven’t sold anything,
I don’t even know if the farms will carry on. All the villages
will disappear ···” (Mar & sobrepeñilla, April 2010).
However, now people acknowledge that they live better than
they used to, they live as well as people do in “the city”. Al-
though, the lifestyle is conditioned by the permanent residents.
The summer festivities have stopped, the feeling of community
doesn’t exist any more. If village life is to be maintained, it is
also necessary to keep on the village committees, and for these
be managed by the permanent residents. “Those who have left
the village only come back for a month, or a month and a half,
in the summer. Those of us from the village are okay, but the
ones coming from outside are the worst, they don’t integrate
with the locals ···” (Mar & sobrepeñilla, April 2010).
Mixed cattle and arable farmers in the valley. Most of these
inherited the activity from their parents, and are sad to see their
brothers emigrate from the region. They never thought they’d
stay there for their whole lives, it was more of a gradual process,
and then they realised that they could do this for a living. Now,
life is on a par to life in the city, and cattle and arable farming is
a common profession in the valley. There haven’t arisen many
conflicts as those who stayed behind kept the land and the
rights of those who left. Because of this concentration process,
it is very difficult now for anyone to start farming unless they
inherit a farm. Now the cattle farmers in the area are also the
landowners, given that a viable cattle farm needs at least 100
cattle and each farmer needs at least 200 hectares of pasture.
Before the exodus, there were around 40 cattle farmers in each
village, and now there are between one and three. What these
cattle farmers have now has been earned over a whole lifetime.
In any case, at present, cattle farmers are just members of the
community and their social recognition is linked to their re-
ceiving subsidies. The cattle farmers are the ones with the most
interest in continuing the village committees, because of the
grazing rights of each village.
Their future is linked to subsidies, from which they obtain 60
to 70 percent of their income, since production levels are ex-
ceeded by costs. This has resulted in a gradual concentration
and selection of farmers.
Commuter farmers are professional farmers from the valley
who live in the urban nucleus –the provincial town—and travel
to the farm every day, about one hour away. Some of these
have returned from industrial areas, they never totally lost con-
tact with the village and started with a small family property.
With the passing years the property and grazing rights have
increased by 10 or 12 fold and they now keep around 120 heads
of cattle. They describe how their farms have changed greatly:
there has been a shift from dairy to beef cattle farming, because
of the grants, costs and reduced workload. Nowadays, you can
only start up with a large farm. Everything has become concen-
trated and this is one of the main reasons why it’s difficult to
start up a farm: because of the huge investments you have to
make. All the new cattle farmers inherit their parents’ farm.
Also, because of the grazing rights there is usually only one
cattle farmer in each village, if another one appears in a village
then conflicts can arise. They depend up to 60 per cent on grants
and financial assistance. Moreover, cattle farmers do not tend to
carry out other complementary activities, they refer to them-
selves as “pure cattle farmers”, suggesting a degree of symbol-
ism for their self-identity as a group. A cattle farmer is a com-
mon profession in the valley, there are about a dozen of them,
but being a cattle farmer is still an idiosyncrasy, because of
their association with the land: there is no urban-rural distinc-
tion, but there is certainly a distinction between the cattle farm-
ers and the rest.
Opinions about social organisation tend to have a sectorial
perspective in most cases, based on the land and grazing rights
of the village committees. They express the existence of some
problems with the seasonal inhabitants visiting in the summer.
Cattle farmers from the higher villages have always lived in
the region and stay there because of family roots, tradition and
lifestyle. They don’t contemplate another kind of life and each
day revolves around work and the cattle. In these cases, there
are usually three or four cattle farmers who share the rights in
one municipality, in a traditional manner, but with relatively poor
land. It is very complicated now to start farming activity in these
areas, owing to the high investment required and the low prices.
The sectorial administration does not support this lifestyle but
resorts to applying rules which are often difficult to comply
with on a daily basis, especially those related to sanitation.
Today, this is one of the reasons some farmers give up the farm.
Life changes from one season to the next. In summer, many
of those who emigrated, or their descendents, return to the area.
They tend to integrate well with the permanent inhabitants,
although there is no real feeling of community as they live par-
allel lives. A frequent complaint is that there are less and less
people and the population is getting older all the time. But to
some extent they are used to living like that, with few people.
“We’re used to living in this way. The city also has its prob-
lems, not only the villages ···” (Fer & rubanales, April 2010).
They rarely leave the village, only occasionally for some for-
mality or other. They consider their job as cattle farmers to be
linked to their ancestors and their roots, and regard this as
something special, not only to do with material benefits. They
often describe the village committees as being “for the cattle
farmers’ affairs”, and associate this micro government of the
space with a given lifestyle and activity. “The committees
should be kept going, with the cattle farmers ···” (Fer & ruba-
nales, April 2010). On the whole, the cattle farmers have lost
some of their social prestige and strength because of the subsi-
dies they receive.
Isolated cattle farmers are cattle farmers in the higher vil-
lages and are often the only inhabitant left in the village in
winter. On the whole, they have always lived in the village.
Some of them experienced a short period of emigration, coin-
ciding with the urban-industrial exodus of the Sixties, but when
they didn’t find the right atmosphere for their personal devel-
opment, “it wasn’t for me”, they longed to return to their homeland.
The farms are a family inheritance and are mainly mixed farms,
and their management has been simplified and converted into
cattle farming, in order to adapt to personal characteristics of
the owners.
In these villages, there is a certain degree of identification with
the environment “Where am I to go at my age. It’s my world
and my lifestyle, there’s no-one to talk to here. But I can’t re-
member Bilbao at all, although I did have a good time there···
(Fel & Renedo, April 2010). This is combined with a signifi-
cant professional identity: “You are a cattle farmer by vocation,
for the freedom of it, to be your own boss (···). In these villages
(the higher ones) there’s only one cattle farmer in each village,
we’re close to the border. When we pack up, weeds will grow
over everywhere and it’ll be like it was a long time ago. The
Ministries don’t realize this. Nobody wants it to happen. It’s
impossible to carry on this type of work, it’s getting more dif-
ficult every day. Farmers have been abandoned (Fel & Renedo,
April 2010)”. Death of the parents and brothers or sisters has
led to loneliness in every case.
Within the sectorial discourse bureaucratic problems are im-
portant, such as senseless red tape and/or the numerous requi-
rements to be able to receive a subsidy and, worst of all, having
to live off subsidies, being dependent on others. They also men-
tion complications associated with the farming activity itself,
such as permanent dedication for 365 days a year.
Daily life in the village is extreme and is characterized by lone-
liness on a daily basis: ‘you go out to the street and there’s no one
to say hello to. None of the houses are open except for the summer
when a few are, especially those of the retired people who come
back seasonally. There is more social life in the summer, but the
feeling of belonging to a community has disappeared. Their pres-
ence keeps the councils open and maintains the village rights.
New Activities in the Area
Recreational activities were initially associated with return-
ing migrants and more recently with newcomers, both with
different discourses. In the case of those returning to the area,
this return was motivated by nostalgia, of feelings for the area.
Opening a business means investing savings made in the city,
but businesses have suffered because of the reduced population
and the seasonality of tourism. They acknowledge that winter is
difficult, and very lonely. They compare daily life to that in the
city, even considering it to be of better quality, but largely de-
pendent on having their own vehicle.
In the case of newcomers, their location in the valley is de-
termined more by chance and they come from metropolitan
areas. Their arrival is often based on the decision to improve
their conditions of family life and bringing up the children.
They fit well into the area, especially because of the small
population, but also experience problems with the seasonality
of business and valley life. They have often had to look for
extra work to supplement their income, as their business plans
are not completely fulfilled. Many maintain links with their
place of origin. They are resigned to a neighbourhood feeling of
passiveness: “there is no feeling of belonging to a community,
it’s every man for himself”.
New Businesses are usually started by newcomers, who stay
an average of 5 - 6 years, and are centred around doing up old
village properties. In their incorporation to this rural life they
value the environment and the possibility of being their own
boss. They also value the setting for having a family and bring-
ing up their children, and for the absence of disputes or squab-
bles in the valley.
Retired People
Seasonal retirement. These are retired people who share their
lives between the place they emigrated to when young and their
village of origin in the Valderredible valley. Because of this, in
Winter the village may only have two inhabitants and in the
summer it can have up to 20. These seasonal retired people
emigrated from the area to go to the cities at the end of the Fif-
ties. There was a great feeling of sadness when they left, “we
all abandoned the area”. From then until now, life has changed
greatly “before, people had nothing, and now they’ve got their
own cars, they come and go ···” (ubal & serna, June 2009). The
return to their place of origin is often motivated by their love of
the area, or a wish to return to their origin and roots. They also
value the community. During their time there they often grow
vegetables and tend a few fruit trees. They describe how “peo-
ple don’t meet up any more. The people in La Serna come and
go, and mostly get together in August. The rest of the year,
there’s no-one here. It’s essential to have a vehicle ···” (ubal &
serna, June 2009).
Permanent retired residents. These are retired people who
have always lived in the valley. They remember a very difficult
life when they were very young and then they recall working in
the country. Living conditions were very bad and the village
had around 50 inhabitants, we didn’t even have a road. During
the Fifties there was a mass emigration. The ones who stayed
behind did so because of work opportunities, they inherited
properties or because they wanted to carry on living in the coun-
tryside. With the appearance of the tractor, farming tasks were
made a lot easier: “the tractor did the work. In any case, until the
end of the Sixties there was no mains water or electricity. Now,
there are around 6 or 7 permanent retired inhabitants”.
Partially retired inhabitants are people who take early re-
tirement but have never left the area and like life in the coun-
tryside. They regarded the exodus with mixed feelings of pity
and envy, but then later their expectations were fulfilled by
staying behind. “Those who left don’t live half as well as I do.
We live very well in the villages (···). Some of those who have
left really miss that. Now, we live better here than in the city
···” (Osor & Hito, April 2010). They consider that to do well in
the village you need to be able to adapt to changes and to have
certain values or self-confidence that not everyone has. Nowa-
days, these people tend to feel that their quality of life is better
than in the city, they have more freedom, a better place to bring
up a family. Also, you need less money to live. However, they
do acknowledge that you need relatives there to be able to settle
down in the area, since most of the cattle farms are inherited.
Now only a few of the young people want to leave. The farms
have been passed down to the children, especially the cattle
Case Study 2. T he Sedan o V all e y. Bu rg os. Cas ti l e and
Leon. Spain
This is a large valley located around the centre of the Castile
and Leon province, which shares a border with the previous area.
It has also been affected by depopulation processes which have
reduced the population to around 400 inhabitants. It has been
one municipality since 1978, when the 11 traditional munici-
palities of the valley were united under one council (Map 1).
Types of Moral Lives
Recent immigrants are those who arrived in the valley over
the past five years by chance and have taken the opportunity of
buying a house in the area and transforming it into a business.
Their arrival in the countryside is a result of factors that have
expelled them from the city and others that have attracted them
to the rural setting: the former include hard working conditions
and the latter include the desire to make a living in which they
can run their own business and be their own boss, and the fact
that they consider the village to be an ideal place to bring up a
family. This has resulted in a degree of separation from the
urban world they have come from, which is often embodied and
symbolised by the sale of their urban goods, such as their house
or flat. They describe how they have similar possessions or
properties to those they had in the city, but have freely chosen a
new location and way of life. In spite of this, they still refer to a
feeling of remoteness, of “being far away from everything”,
which leads to negative feelings about insufficient access to
essential services, or is expressed positively in its more social
or moral dimensions. None of these expressed a feeling of iso-
lation, but instead a mobile life based on a dependence on their
own car for many aspects of life.
They often express a difficulty becoming truly integrated,
since “the local community in the village and the valley don’t
really welcome newcomers···” (Iñk & Val, May 2010). Some-
times they only feel settled in the area after having been there
for several years.
The main problem they have living and running a business in
these areas is getting through the winter months, when the
population and all activity are greatly reduced. The population
not only fluctuates seasonally, but also weekly. “There’s no-one
around during the week, only at weekends or holiday weekends
and the summer holidays”. This entire fluctuating population,
“the invisible inhabitants”, cause problems for the permanent
inhabitants, as they are not officially recorded on the census but
increase the real demand for services.
The hippies are older immigrants to the area. They mainly
arrived during the Seventies and saw the depopulation process
as a chance for them to live an alternative lifestyle. Their rea-
sons for leaving the towns and cities included not conforming
to the lifestyle and idealising the rural way of life that was
coming to an end, especially in areas suffering a pronounced
depopulation process, and also a desire to be in contact with
nature. Their choice of the area and almost-abandoned villages
in the most peripheral and isolated regions of the valley was
largely accidental. They arrived in tents and purchased “real
ruins” of houses in very bad conditions. During the first two
years they didn’t even have a car and travelled into the village
by donkey, they had no electricity or mains water, but stayed
there because they liked the way of life. Those who managed to
survive the first three or four years have nearly all stayed. But,
··· the truth began to sink in after a few years. At first we wanted
to live like the local people, from cattle and arable farming, but
then we began to find other ways of making a living. Some
made candles, another had a restaurant, others made handicrafts.
Cattle farming was a very hard and enslaving way of making a
living. It was difficult to give up this idea. But then we didn’t
have any worries because we didn’t own anything ···” (Pac &
Orbaneja, May 2010). They were referred to as “the hippies”.
Now they have become integrated, many have had children and
feel like any other member of the community. Today, they have
restaurant and tourism businesses, and small companies dedi-
cated to restoring property or making handicrafts. They con-
sider that newcomers arriving in the rural areas now come for
other reasons, they no longer share the romantic visions or feeling
of personal exploration that they had: “When I arrived there
was no-one here ···”. For years now people don’t live off the
land and trees and shrubs are taking over the farmland, but the
services are much better and daily life is easier. “We have a dif-
ferent lifestyle to city life, we have better living conditions and
feel privileged” (Gal & escalada, June 2010).
The future is regarded as uncertain because of the natural
limitations of the area and the seasonality, but they express a
feeling of being satisfied with their lives, now people aren’t
leaving the area and the children have also put roots down. They
acknowledge a feeling of community, although this is affected
by conflicting interests of the permanent and seasonal popula-
tions in the area. The role of the authorities is regarded nega-
tively, associated with too much regulation and paperwork.
Returned immigrants come back to the village to look for
their own employment after experiencing work-related prob-
lems in the city. They have a different discourse that has a per-
sonal aspect as they have family roots in the area “now I wouldn’t
change this for anything in the world, I feel happy here ···”. For
these inhabitants the area provides a refuge and an ideal envi-
ronment to bring up the family. However, their discourse is also
tainted with a degree of resignation and sometimes pessimism
about the economic outlook for the future, “this region hasn’t
got enough for many more people” (Sus & Quin, April 2010),
associated with a feeling that the valley is somehow going
backwards, in relation to its tourism attractions and quality.
This has created a feeling of uncertainty for the future. The
main obstacles are the seasonality of the area and a shortage of
dynamic activities. On the other hand, the authorities’ environ-
mental protection initiatives are also regarded as a threat to the
local population. Decisions are made without consulting the
local inhabitants.
Retired new comers are people who take early retirement in
the city and discover the area without having had any previous
contact with it. They are a minority group and the choice of
location has been made after systematically looking around the
region. The final choice is usually motivated by the depopula-
tion, the relative proximity to the capital and the landscape. It
often takes them a long time to settle in the area owing to the
numerous administrative licenses and permits they need to ap-
ply for. This excess of bureaucratic procedures significantly hin-
ders the dynamics of the area. Daily life is quiet, everything
plods along slowly, but there are few expectations for the future
and the feeling of community is becoming lost.
Small Businesses correspond to the occasional case of old
immigrants who have set up small local businesses of direct
sales and also some with international or global business. They
chose the area by chance, placing value on the rural lifestyle,
the small population and the quiet location. They were also
attracted to the small size of the village as an ideal place to
bring up a family and set up their first place of residence.
They usually combine setting down roots in the area, with a
significant degree of mobility. They value nature, interpreting it
as the whole environment together with an understanding of the
loneliness of the place, and associate it with personal freedom
and movement. The community is considered to be important
for daily life, especially when it is free from conflict, in spite of
the limited social life and small population.
They describe significantly better conditions compared to
when they arrived. Now there are utilities: electricity, mains wa-
ter and telephone lines, which weren’t there before. They also
appreciate the improved communications with the provincial
capital, less than an hour away.
They place great value on the peacefulness in daily life, the
little influence from outside, control of the micro space, exten-
sion of the self in the natural environment, and effective man-
agement of time. There is even a degree of mistrust of the wealth-
ier visitors to the area. Social uncertainties are more linked to
schooling of their offspring and mobility between the village
and the provincial capital.
They describe how the social life is conditioned by their jobs
and their precedence: children of villagers, outsiders, and the
ones who never left. “It’s a heterogeneous society made up of
few very different individuals, a more individualistic society, in
which the demands are shared but daily life is not ···” (Mig &
turzo, April 2010). Expectations of problems of rural life are
associated with actions of the authorities.
The Farmers
Farmers, old and new, have a professional discourse, but
also a rural and moral one, which varies depending on the type
of farming activity and their age. Before the rural exodus they
remember how all the land was cultivated, even the hill slopes
and there were 100 farmers alone in the valley’s largest town,
with farms covering from three to five hectares it was possible
to make a living. Now, there are less and less farmers, about
five in the whole valley who need to farm large areas to survive.
If the subsidies did not exist they would have to give it up im-
mediately. Much of the previous cultivated land is now used for
pastures or woodland. Only 10 - 15 percent of the land is farmed
and the rest is uncultivated. The last farmer to start up in the
area arrived ten years ago, returning from the city to farm his
father’s land and other land he rented. “··· It’s unbelievable that
we have to live off government subsidies, we should all really
close down. He sold the tractor, it’s better to get others to do it
for you, it’s more profitable, this is a widespread phenomenon
all over Castile and Leon (···), just one farmer can do all the
work of the Sedano valley (···). It feels like the farmer is living
off hand-outs. We’re living off grants, the situation of cattle farm-
ing is getting worse and worse ···” (Gal & Sedano, April 2010).
On the other hand, the farming profession is also associated
with ambivalence towards environmental issues. On the one hand,
until the present day farmers have been almost solely response-
ble for maintaining the landscape without anyone’s help. On the
other hand, they also hold a pessimistic view about the prob-
lems associated with environmental regulations that have caused
many farms to disappear. They describe excess regulation, not
only for the professional activity but also for their daily lives:
“you have to ask permission for anything you want to do ···
(Ber & Esc, April 2010). “When there’s no-one here things
don’t get done. The authorities often hold you back, they don’t
make things easy, everything takes ages to do, there are more
and more meaningless rules and regulations. Sometimes it’s
impossible to know all the rules, it takes a long time to get all
the paperwork through ···” (Ber & Esc, April 2010).
Other areas of discourse are shared with other groups of in-
dividuals. They are also linked to the dynamics of the depopu-
lation process: the small population in each nucleus, and the
large seasonal population. The outlook for the future is associ-
ated with uncertainty related to the depopulation and agricul-
tural policies. It has even been suggested that farmers may dis-
appear altogether from the area. This pessimism is also dis-
cerned in other areas of work in the valley, especially tourism,
owing to its seasonal nature. Now, 30 people work in the ser-
vice sector and only five in agriculture.
Retired farmers present a discourse that is closely linked to
all types of changes that they have witnessed taking place since
their childhood. They started working on the farm early on from
7 to 10 years old and remember the harshness of daily life. They
explain how, in most cases, they stayed because they wanted to,
“I like the village life more than city life ···” (Jose & mora, May
2010) and also to carry on their father’s work. None of them
thought that they would end their days in the village, but they
never thought of going anywhere else either. They don’t seem
to have many worries now either, because the village life is
coming to an end. A degree of nostalgia and melancholy can be
noted in relation to changes in the landscape or associated with
the population loss. Before the exodus, “···all the land was cul-
tivated, along the hillsides, but now it’s been abandoned. There
used to be lots of people, and now there are just enough. Only
the vegetable gardens are looked after now, by the old people.
But life is much better now, before we even didn’t have soap to
wash the clothes with, or oil to cook with ···” (jos & mora, May
2010). There has also been a big change in the lifestyle, in the
family and religious life, also in the work, now it’s easier be-
cause of the mechanisation, but subsidies have had a negative
effect on the professional morale, which has led to less care and
dedication in farming.
There is a subgroup of farmers who immigrated to small vil-
lages at the time of the depopulation and exodus and have not
moved from there since the Seventies. They have brought up a
family and have made a living there. These are exceptional cases
of individuals who associate the community with the family
and the constructed space to the place. One family, one village.
They agree that farming activities are done better now than they
used to be. They agree about the value of the depopulation, in
living alone: “The city is for short visits”, but they feel out of
depth there.
Traditional Families and Tourism Activities
Traditional families and tourism activities. These correspond
to traditional families who set up there to develop tourism ac-
tivities. The decision to stay there was completely voluntary
and with time they began to enjoy living in the place, because
of the setting, family roots, self-organisation and self-employ-
ment. All this tends to be linked to a certain anti-urban feeling:
“I only want to spend a bit of time in the city. I’ve got used to
this life now” (Rob & Pes, April 2010). They do not view the
past with nostalgia, since they have been through much worse
stages, with less population, and more abandonment of con-
structed spaces and the landscape. They explain how the deci-
sion to stay was originally made by their parents, when they
were born, in the Seventies there was no-one left. They have
become the pioneers of the tourism industry. They have inher-
ited family businesses and have adapted to new demands. They
consider that it is possible to live off these tourism activities but
only by working hard. They describe how life has a faster pace
in the summer. With the depopulation process they envisage a
problematic future, and the problem of finding seasonal work-
ers. They also talk about a loss of community and relationship
among neighbours.
The critical aspect of their discourse targets the public au-
thorities and excess regulation of these areas that make it diffi-
cult to live a normal life.
This paper aims, from a cultural and moral geographical
perspective, to show how “marginal spaces” (Shield, 1991) are
a flexible and fluid category that permit the setting up of open
and comparative frameworks of identity in the context of de-
populated settings. Hence, in addition to their topographical
characteristics, these areas have a cultural and moral dimension
constructed by the individuals and communities living in the
areas, and also by those from outside. In these spaces, it is use-
ful to combine cultural and moral perspectives, as shown pre-
viously, in an attempt to study the coexistence of collective or
community micro identities and a multiplicity of parallel moral
lives. Empirical analysis has revealed the existence of collec-
tive or community identities of different levels, among which
variable tensions may exist, which coexist with moral discourses of
variable degrees of complexity. It is, therefore, possible to ar-
gue that two planes exist, a cultural and a moral one, on the same
spatial materiality. The first is associated with spatial and com-
munity micro identities that compete with, or complement each
other or other places and the existence of a multiplicity of in-
teracting moral lives in the place, of diverse level and relevance.
In each study case, these are shown with different discursive
contours and complexities. In the first case, 11 categories have
been distinguished that present different individual trajectories
and moral lives, while in the second case a total of eight have
been identified.
Here it is shown how a representation of past and present ru-
ral life can establish the different perspectives upheld by dif-
ferent individuals. These are, largely, characterised by their pre-
cedence and permanence in the area and their employment, but
also by their micro position in the place (central or peripheral)
and the existence or not of a current family structure. Moral
lives are conditioned by a degree of seasonality of the depopu-
lation between winter and summer. This produces a segmented
social life that is mainly limited to the summer months. The
loss in population and the seasonality largely determine social
relationships, associated to a degree of individualism and also
the emotive memories of a lost cultural past. There is also a cer-
tain reencounter, not exempt from conflict, between the sea-
sonal inhabitants of the valley and its permanent inhabitants. As
explained above, the depopulation has especially affected the
farmers, who now cultivate lands in better conditions, many
dairy farms have been changed into beef cattle farms which has
led to changes in the management of common lands. These new
initiatives, however, are still limited.
Thanks to the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation
for supporting this research (research project code CSO2008-
Agnew, J. (1993) Representing space: Space, scale and culture in social
science. In J. Duncan and D. Ley (Eds.), Place/culture /representa-
tion (pp. 251-271). London: Routledge.
Bondi, L., Davidson, J., & Smith, M. (2005) Introduction: Geography’s
“emotional turn”. In L. Bondi, J. Davidson and M. Smith, (Eds.),
Emotional geographies (pp. 1-16). Aldershot: Ahsgate.
Brown, F., & Hall, D. (2000) Introduction: The paradox of peripherality.
In F. Brown and D. Hall (Eds.), Tourism in peripheral areas (pp.
1-6). Channel View Pub: Clevedon.
Castree, N. (2005) Nature. London: Routledge.
Carson, D., et al. (2011) Demography at the edge. Remote human
populations in deve l ope d n at ions. London: Ashgate.
Cloke, P. (2002) Deliver us from evil? Prospects for living ethically and
acting politically in Human Geography. Progress in Human Geog-
raphy, 26, 587-604. doi:10.1191/0309132502ph391oa
Cloke, P., et al. (2005) Introducing Human Geographies. London:
Hodder Arnold.
Collantes, F. (2009) Rural Europe reshaped: The economic transforma-
tion of upland regions, 1850-2000. Economic History Review, 62,
306-323. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.2008.00439.x
Conradson, D., & Pawson, E. (2009) New cultural economies of mar-
ginality: revisiting the West Coast, South Island, New Zealand.
Journal of Rural Studies, 2 5, 77-86.
Convery, I., Bailey, C., Mort, M., & Baxter, J. (2005) Death in the
wrong place? Emotional geographies of the UK 2001 foot and mouth
disease epidemic. Journal of Rural Studies, 21, 99-109.
Crang, M. (2002) Qualitative methods: The new orthodoxy? Progress
in Human Geography, 26, 647-655.
Crang, M. (2005) Qualitative methods: There is nothing outside the text?
Progress in Human Geography, 29, 225-233.
Creswell, J. W. (1998) Qualitative inquiry and research design. Choos-
ing among five traditions. London: Sage.
Davies, G., & Dwyer, C. (2007) Qualitative methods: Are you en-
chanted or are you alienated? Progress in Human Geography, 31,
257-266. doi:10.1177/0309132507076417
Doel, M. A. (2010) Representation and difference. In B. Anderson and
P. Harrison (Eds), Taking-Place: Non representational theories and
Geography (pp. 117-130). Farnham: Ahsgate.
Elwood, S. A., & Martin, D. G. (2000) “Placing” interviews: Location
and scales of power in qualitative research. Professional Geographer,
52, 649-657. doi:10.1111/0033-0124.00253
Holloway, L. (2002) Smallholding, hobby-farming, and commercial
farming: Ethical identities and the production of farming spaces. En-
vironment and Planning A, 34, 2055-2070.
Holloway, L., & Hubbard, P. (2001) People and place. The extraordi-
nary geographies of everyday life. Harlow: Prentice Hall.
Holloway, L., & Kneafsey, M. (2004) Geographies of rural cultures and
societies: Introduction. In L. Holloway and M. Kneafsey (Eds.), Ge-
ographies of rural cultures and societies (pp. 1-15). Aldershot: Ash-
Jones, O. (2005) An ecology of emotion, memory, self and landscape.
In J. Davidson, L. Bondi and M. Smith (Eds.), Emotional geogra-
phies (pp. 205-219). Aldershot: Ahsgate.
Lawrence, M. (1999) Contested countryside cultures. Journal of Rural
Studies, 15, 237-239. doi:10.1016/S0743-0167(98)00059-X
Lee, R., & Smith, D. M. (2004) Introduction. In R. Lee and D. M.
Smith (Eds.), Geographies and moralities. International perspectives
on development, justice and place (pp. 1-12). Oxford: Wiley-
Leyshon, M., & Bull, J. (2011) The bricolage of the here: Young peo-
ple’s narratives of identity in the countryside. Social and Cultural
Geography, 12, 159-180. doi:10.1080/14649365.2011.545141
Little, J. (1999) Otherness, representation and the cultural construction
of rurality. Progress in Human Geography, 23, 437-442.
Morris, C. (2004) Lost Words, Lost Worlds? Cultural geographies of
agriculture. In L. Holloway and M. Kneafsey (Eds.), Geographies of
rural cultures and societies (pp. 241-261). Aldershot: Ashgate.
Nyseth, T. (2009) Place reinvention at the Northern rim. In T. Nyseth
and A. Viken (Eds.), Place reinvention: Northern perspectives (pp.
1-14). Burlington: Ashgate.
Paniagua, A. (2009) The politics of place: Official, intermediate and
community discourses in depopulated rural areas of Central Spain.
The case of the Riaza river valley (Segovia, Spain). .Journal of Rural
Studies, 25, 207-216. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2008.12.001
Philo, C. (1992) Neglected rural geographies: A review. Journal of
Rural Studies, 8, 193-207. doi:10.1016/0743-0167(92)90077-J
Pile, S. (1997) Introduction. Opposition, political identities and spaces
of resistance. In S. Pile and M. Keith (Eds.), Geographies of resis-
tance (pp. 1-32). London: Routledge.
Riley, M. (2011) “Letting them go”—Agricultural retirement and hu-
man-livestock relations. Geoforum, 42, 16-27.
Sack, R. D. (1992) Place, modernity, and the consumer’s worlds. A
relational framework for geographical analysis. London: John Hop-
kins University Press.
Sack, R. D. (1997) Homo geographicus. London: John Hopkins Uni-
versity Press.
Sack, R. D. (1980) Conceptions of space in social thought. A geo-
graphic perspective. London: MacMillan.
Shields, R. (1991) Places on the margin. Alternative geographies of
modernity. London: Routledge.
Sibley, D. (1998) The problematic nature of exclusion. Geoforum, 29,
119-121. doi:10.1016/S0016-7185(98)00002-5
Sibley, D. (1995) Geographies of exclusion. London: Routledge.
Smith, D. M. (2000) Moral geograhies. Ethics in a world of difference.
Edimburg: Edimburg University Press.
Valentine, G. (2008) Living with difference: Reflections on geogra-
phies of encounter. Progress in Human Ge og ra phy , 32, 323-337.
Whatmore, S. (2002) Hybrid Geographies: Natures, cultures, spaces.
London: Sage.
Woods, M. (2011) Rural. London: Routledge.