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Durham University

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Rural-Urban Dynamics in a Globalising World: Changing Livelihoods and Settlement Patterns in Frontier Regions of Africa and Asia

A research project of the Department of Geography.

Purpose and Rationale of the Research Programme

Scholars have been interested in rural-urban relations, rural-urban interactions, and rural-urban dynamics for decades. Work on themes such as urban peasants, the role of intermediate urban centres, and urban bias in development are all ‘old’ concerns. There is a strong case, however, that these old themes need to be re-examined in the light of new and intensifying processes. Lives and livelihoods are being profoundly re-worked as processes of globalisation, market integration, modernisation and industrialisations are brought to bear in new and more intense ways. Peasants are becoming post-peasants; households are being divided by generation and gender; livelihoods are becoming increasingly delocalised; interlocking livelihoods and occupational multiplicity are displacing more singular ways of making a living; and deagrarianisation is replacing the more familiar process of agrarian transition.

It is these changes which result in the need for a new look at old concerns. The proposed programme will do so by focusing on ‘settlements in frontier regions’ where rural-urban dynamics are particularly pronounced, in four countries, two in Africa (Ghana and Tanzania) and two in Asia (Thailand and Vietnam). Two of these countries, Ghana and Vietnam are core countries in the research programme, where greater manpower and resources will be invested, and two, Tanzania and Thailand act as supporting countries. The overall objectives of the research programme are:

  • To examine the implications of changing rural-urban dynamics on livelihoods paying special attention to emerging mobility patterns and settlement characteristics and how these impact on poverty reduction and local economic development
  • To promote policy dialogue on these issues between different levels of policy-makers (local, national and international), to support actions and initiatives that enhance the positive aspects of rural-urban dynamics and minimise their negative aspects
  • To promote cross-learning by encouraging and supporting a network of Southern and Northern researchers

Jonathan is coordinating the Thailand element of this four-country project with Suriya Veeravongse based at Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute.

Contextualising Rural-Urban Dynamics: Defining Frontier Regions

This research programme aims to study rural-urban dynamics within the context of a globalising world. The particular setting of ‘settlements in frontier regions’, where rural-urban dynamics are especially strong and directly linked to the global market has been selected for this task.

Frontier regions have traditionally been seen as areas which are opened up for agricultural or mining activities by the clearing of virgin or semi-wild forests. In this programme, however, we expand this concept to include all areas which are characterised by rapid changes in demographic structure, occupational possibilities and land use. These frontier regions are typically experiencing high immigration rates and changing livelihood opportunities, such as through the establishment of new commercial activities. Hence, in these regions previously stagnating economic activities are being replaced by new activities, predominantly the production of export-oriented commodities or processed goods which are experiencing increasing demand on the global market. Thus, the term frontier is not only used to denote areas that are advancing in a spatial sense but also includes areas experiencing social and economic fluidity due to new opportunities.

Associated with the influx of new people into these frontier regions are new settlement processes and patterns. Existing settlements are being consolidated and are correspondingly becoming both increasingly densely populated and are expanding on their fringes. In some cases new settlements are being established to house the migrants. Some of these settlement patterns defy mainstream views of the rural-urban dichotomy as they are difficult to characterise as either rural or urban. Others are overgrown villages or small towns that have experienced rapid and spontaneous expansion without developing the physical and functional infrastructure or organisational capacity linked to urbanisation. Some settlements may in time have the economic strength necessary to transform into regional growth centres and thus reduce the migration pressure on major cities.

A wide range of frontiers and their associated settlement types exist. Those identified in relation to this research programme are:

  • ‘Traditional’ frontiers where cash crops replace virgin or semi-wild forests, largely due to the inflow of migrant labour in the form of households or young single men
  • Agricultural frontiers where traditional cropping systems are replaced by export-oriented cash crops (for example, fresh fruit and vegetables or new food crop hybrids) requiring new labour practices and production systems
  • Mining frontiers where small-scale mining flourishes near existing active and abandoned mining areas due to the sector’s liberalisation and privatisation and to improved access to export markets, often via the inflow of foreign mining companies
  • Artisan frontiers where home-based labour in handicraft-based supply systems are linked to global commodity chains (baskets, embroidery, ceramics, furniture, etc.)
  • Trading frontiers where regional dynamics have been heavily influenced by the construction of transport corridors (primarily roads) giving rise to trade centres based mainly on imported goods
  • Manufacturing frontiers where rural labour is employed by large-scale factories that have moved out of congested industrial centres (‘reverse polarisation’)

Settlements located within these frontier regions provide an ideal location in which to explore the role of rural-urban links within livelihood strategies, both from the perspective of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in society. Central to such an analysis is gaining a historical understanding of the origins of rural-urban linkages and how they have been shaped by individuals and institutions over time. Livelihood strategies can be analysed in terms of three key parameters: locality, activity and mobility. At a certain point in time, the impact of an individual’s activities and mobility pattern centred on a specific locality can be conceptualised as their ‘multi-spatial livelihood footprint’. A sequence of an individual’s ‘livelihood footprints’ can be identified in order to explore the historical dimension of changing livelihood strategies. By mapping the livelihood footprints of settlement dwellers over time, it can be shown how poverty or prosperity are produced and reproduced within the context of the rural-urban continuum.

By acknowledging the diversified nature of livelihoods, mobility and settlements, the programme aims to explain the factors behind different trajectories of settlement consolidation and their impact on dwellers’ livelihoods. This research programme thus:

  • Questions the rural-urban dichotomy in the context of rapid global change
  • Focuses on new settlement patterns along the rural-urban continuum
  • Specifies the profound changes in the composition of livelihoods in a process of rapid de-peasantization
  • Identifies new mobility patterns and their implications for welfare and poverty
  • Focuses on winners and losers in relation to poverty alleviation
  • Identifies new entry points of interest for development aid focussing on settlement and mobility

Programme Design and Methodology

By focussing on case studies in both Africa and Southeast Asia, where the changes taking place are strikingly different, this programme will adopt a comparative approach to rural-urban dynamics and explore the similarities and differences in how they impact on livelihoods, mobility and settlement in the two continents. In Africa, as the manufacturing sector generally offers limited income-generating opportunities, most income diversification is confined to the service sector or to extractive enterprises like small-scale mining. In Southeast Asia, the expansion of the industrial and manufacturing sector offers a wider range of possibilities for productive employment, although this tends to vary depending on national and regional characteristics.

The selection of the four countries Ghana, Vietnam, Tanzania, and Thailand reflects the applicants’ long-standing research experience in these countries. In each case, frontiers and new settlement patterns are readily identifiable but have yet to be sufficiently documented. Each frontier project is envisaged to yield considerable new knowledge on rural-urban dynamics in its specific context (see Table 1 for overview of the frontiers).

Ghana has a long history of integration in the world market through gold, timber and cocoa, and the structural composition of exports has changed very little over the years even though some industrial development has occurred in the major cities. Settlements will be selected in frontier regions where 1) cocoa production is in its most dynamic phase, 2) gold is increasingly mined by individuals and small-scale companies, and 3) fruit production for the world market (e.g. pineapple) is rapidly expanding.

Vietnam is experiencing remarkable economic development with booming exports of both labour-intensive manufactured goods and agricultural commodities, including rice, the country’s main food crop. The economy has been undergoing a comprehensive liberalisation process since the mid-1980s, with the dismantling of state-owned enterprises and the steady reduction of central planning. Settlements will be selected in frontier regions where 1) planned settlement schemes based on coffee cultivation are gradually being eroded and replaced by spontaneous migration, 2) food crop production (predominantly rice) is being diversified and partly replaced by fresh fruit production for export, and 3) home-based handicraft production is being incorporated into global commodity chains.

Tanzania is going through a comprehensive restructuring process of its commercial base as conditions for peasant agricultural production are seriously deteriorating. Smallholder households have increasingly diversified into mining and trade in order to secure the necessary cash income. Settlements will be selected in frontier regions where 1) mining rights are contested among artisanal miners, small-scale miners and large-scale foreign companies and 2) new trading centres are expanding in connection to major transport corridors in Tanzania’s renewed internal and external trade network.

Thailand has for many years enjoyed a prominent position on the global market as an exporter of labour-intensive manufactured goods in addition to having an impressive portfolio of agricultural export commodities. The over concentration of industrial production in the Bangkok metropolitan area, however, has resulted in a trend towards the relocation of manufacturing production in rural areas. Settlements will be selected in frontier regions where 1) home-based handicraft production is being incorporated into global commodity chains and 2) factories and industrial estates are increasingly being located in rural areas.


From the Department of Geography