Throughout this book, we motivate why crime and safety perceptions in rural areas are important issues worthy of attention. We also provide evidence from a rich body of criminology literature extending over four decades, a scholarship that has engaged researchers and practitioners across the globe. However, despite an increase in the research, most aspects of crime and safety perceptions in rural contexts have been overlooked until recently. There exist several avenues of research that remain open for further investigation in general, and from a sustainability perspective in particular. In this chapter, we propose a research agenda based on a selected most pressing research areas.

Concept and Theories

Crucial questions are not yet answered regarding whether a new set of concepts and definitions, theories, and methods is necessary or even desirable to capture the reality of crime and safety in rural contexts. There is an emergent call for theoretical frameworks that can provide a better understanding of crime and safety in rural conditions, and that recognize the hybrid, globalized nature of these spaces, their contextual differences, and the safety needs of their residents. Despite some clear efforts in the past decade, the process of establishing specific concepts and definitions, theoretical frameworks, and methods tailored for rural contexts is still a work in progress, as the urban-centric theories and models continue to dominate criminology research. The legacy of the rural-urban dichotomy is still very much present in rural crime research. Future research could explore new conceptualizations of “the rural” that capture the complexities of areas exposed to various degrees of rural-urban interlinkages in order to better explain these areas’ crime and safety conditions. For example, as a starting point, we suggest the term rural-urban continuum as a focus area of analysis. The rural-urban continuum encompasses heterogenous and interlinked areas from remote and desolated spaces to accessible connected environments of the urban fringe; often globalised and not self contained. Interdisciplinary approaches might be more appropriate to conceptualize and understand problems of, for example, organized crime and the impact of climate change on crime that can take different shapes in areas on the rural-urban continuum.

Data and Methods

Future studies should further develop the very fundamentals of rural crime research. In order to be able to compare areas on the rural-urban continuum, methods should be tested which better characterize these areas, and which avoid sharp demarcations in the degree or quantity of rural/urban differences. Methods also need to be able to capture the flows of people, activities, and goods in space in areas on the rural-urban continuum. Steps forward have already being taken in this direction; see, for instance, the work by Shimada and Suzuki (2021).

There also exist related issues of data scarcity and methodological adequacy in rural contexts which should be discussed. It is not always easy to identify patterns of human activities in rural areas that are criminologically relevant because these patterns are fewer, sparser, than those found in urban areas. The scarcity and sparsity are not only spatial but also temporal, which means that current environmental criminological theories and analytical tools that typically fit urban environments may not be adequate to the study of crime in remote, sparsely populated rural environments. Crime goes under-detected in rural areas, and this is also problematic. Some types of crimes may never be discovered or revealed (Ceccato and Uittenbogaard 2013). When crime is detected, it may not be reported to the police for any number of reasons. Long distances to a police station (or lack of access to the internet) make crime reporting practices more difficult in rural areas (Stassen and Ceccato 2019). In particular rural areas, the lack of nearby structures (such as a house, farm, roads, forests) makes it particularly difficult to register the exact location of a crime. The problem of denominator when representing rates of crime is also a recurrent problem. The scarcity and sparsity of events is also a limiting factor when modelling a phenomenon in rural areas. Standard statistical methods of analyzing crime rates are inappropriate for such data, because the population sizes are small relative to the rates. This problem can be resolved with specialized statistical techniques such as negative binomial regression models that take into account the contribution of population size (see, e.g., Kaylen and Pridemore 2013; Osgood and Chambers 2003). In summary, the way official data are recorded and manipulated – as the urban dictates the norm for data collection – leads to potential inaccuracy issues and biases; therefore, more research should be devoted to the topic.

Research on Teaching Rural Criminology Skills

Not many studies focus on teaching the skills needed to study rural criminology. An exception is the work by Barclay et al. (2016), who suggest among other things the importance of connecting and contextualizing specific cases of rural crime to general criminological theories and concepts. Further research is needed on the applicability of fieldwork inspection with protocols (Ceccato 2019), safety surveys, and use of apps to collect data as teaching techniques in rural criminology, as well as their usefulness to engage students. There is a vast number of subjects in rural criminology that demand special attention from researchers interested in improving teaching the skills.

Endemic Offending and Criminal Motilities

An “eternally” under-researched topic in rural criminology is to what extent offenders are outsiders versus endemic to the community. Local criminals may be accepted as “part of the community” and their crimes not reported because their actions have become normalized. Studying criminal motilities is important for crime prevention but requires access to data that are currently either incomplete, scarce, confidential, or unavailable due to geoprivacy regulations. In addition, there do exist a few studies on women as rural offenders, including a few historical studies, but otherwise the gendered nature of breaking the law has been relatively neglected in rural crime studies.

The “Illicit Spaces” of Organized Crime in Rural Areas

Several researchers have called for more research on the “illicit spaces” of organized crime (e.g., Hall 2012; Yarwood 2021). The expectation is that the study of organized crime groups could not only reveal much about the spatiality and regulation of global crime, but also inform about the processes, flows, and impacts of globalization in areas on the rural-urban continuum. Illicit spaces for drug-related crimes and endangered species, or prostitution, are already found in rural areas across the globe and deserve more attention as research topics.

Situational Conditions of Crime and Fear

The situational-based perspective can be applied to prevent crime and other events, such as injuries, in rural areas. Although most situational crime perspectives are poorly tested in rural contexts, a few examples are emerging in the international literature (Hodgkinson and Harkness 2020; Stassen and Ceccato 2020). Also, little is known about the use of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environment Design) in its original form (Crowe 2013; Jeffery 1977) in small towns and villages. CPTED is about using design and planning principles to prevent crime and promote safety by positively influencing human behavior through natural surveillance, territoriality, access control, target hardening, activity support, and maintenance. The second generation of CPTED applies design-appropriate, community-based prevention strategies to improve the security of women living in rural areas and help protect them from abuse by spouses and partners (see, for instance, DeKeseredy et al. (2009).

Three new developments within CPTED show potential for areas on the rural-urban continuum. The first is CPTEM (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Management by Ward et al. (2019)), which involves the maintenance of existing CPTED measures but also longer-term planning and adjusting for new uses of space. The second is HPTE (Health Promotion Through Environmental Design by Kent and Wheeler (2016)) and, finally, the third is IPTE (Injury Prevention Through Environmental Design by Thodelius (2018)).

Safety in Privately Owned, Public Places

More knowledge is needed about the nature of crime and safety in privately owned, public places in rural areas, such as bus and train stations, outlets, bars, and restaurants. Issues of public conduct and surveillance but also of integrity are also relevant to be further insvestigated from a criminological perspective. Key questions include who is accountable or responsible when “something happens” and when police forces cannot be present. The impact of an increasing share of voluntaries as well as private security services in rural policing deserves further research. Such matters are of particular importance for municipalities that receive large inflows of tourists and have strong, nightlife-based economies.

Risky Homes, Risky Paths

Previous research has long shown that women and individuals with special needs are victimized more often and feel less safe than the rest of the population. Violence may be common in domestic environments in rural areas (see the vast body of research by for instance, DeKeseredy et al., 2008; DeKeseredy, 2021) but also tolerated in public spaces or over the internet. Older adults may be overrepresented in some rural areas; therefore, it is crucial to investigate the interplay of local norms and actions of local actors in supporting the more vulnerable groups, both in their homes and/or in public spaces. These different, yet interrelated topics, lack in the most recent criminological research. Regardless of where one lives, in big cities or rural villages, people must feel safe in their daily activities and trips, from door-to-door. For people living in areas on the rural-urban continuum “the whole journey approach” to safety should also be considered given the United Nations 2030 Agenda and its goals for sustainable development.

Another topic needing further research in rural contexts is the relationship between safety perceptions and the use of various spaces by different users. As illustrated in Chap. 5, safety perceptions in rural areas are dependent on multiscale factors and are often not well matched with patterns of victimization or individual characteristics. More research into contextual factors is recommended as they might prove better at explaining people’s overall anxieties in rural environments (Ceccato 2018), for example, job loss, poor health, as well as more structural factors such as population inflows.

Gendering and Queering the Rural

LGBTQ+ safety needs and the othering process they experience is an emerging field of research that has gained more attention in the past few years. The imposition of binary gender norms in rural environments is not well researched in terms of both those who transgress those norms in their daily lives and those whose lives are lived within such constraints. Yet, the rural “other” has been presented in a number of studies on sexuality and safety, but remains an area of interest in criminology. Bell (2000), for instance, which is a seminal study on cultural constructions of rural gay masculinity in the United States, showed a blurred rural-urban divide. More recently, Conner and Okamura (2021) illustrated the advantages of living in rural areas for LGBTQ+ rights advocates, while DeKeseredy et al. (2014) showed that the way the media has portrayed the sexuality of rural inhabitants in the United States (no matter their gender or sexual orientation) is distorted and serves the interests of particular rationalities of abuse. Missing in the current criminological research is a better understanding of why certain rural places impact positively on LGBTQ+ safety, while others, negatively. 

Technology, Offending, and Crime Prevention

New information technologies have implications for offending but also for crime prevention and delivery of emergency services in rural areas. On the one hand, the police’s use of social media to communicate with the public has passed the “public information channel” stage (Dai et al. 2017) as it affects the public’s perception of the police as well. Research should delve deeper into the evolution and nature of information sharing via social media by police officers in both rural and urban areas, and whether such practices improve police legitimacy. On the other hand, it is also unclear which (new) types of crimes are facilitated by these information technologies. For example, the county lines drug trafficking in the UK, overdose cases linked to apps used for drug delivery to one’s door via traditional mail in northern Sweden (Stenbacka 2021), or drones used to support emergency services (Schierbeck and Claesson 2021).

Police, Policing, and Digitalization

Future research should focus on investigating how ICT and digitalization in general are affecting the ways in which people interact with the police, as it is unclear how to best adapt current methods of policing to changing technological conditions. These issues are especially important for those living in sparsely populated areas that are becoming more reliant on digital access to police services, from recording crime to issuing passports. Traditional police work remains a current challenge in the rural, much due to geographical restrictions but also limitations of police resources and preparedness (Helsloot and Ruitenberg 2004). Issues of police accountability and legitimacy, and of the relative institutional importance of the police, are also important considerations that should be further investigated.

Weisheit et al. (1993) suggested long ago that rural areas still miss the tools and resources necessary to combat drug-related crime, and the latest ICT and digital technologies can certainly be added to that list. Parochial community policing practices may not be enough to tackle problems faced by the police with regard to drug trafficking (see, e.g., Yarwood (2021) and other organized crime problems that also manifest in the most remote areas; see, for example, Stenbacka (2021).

Even though there has occurred a pluralization of police functions in many Western democracies, as well as increased cooperation between public, private, and civil society in policing activities, there remains a fundamental question about the role of the police as the “main” security providers. Because rurally located police and police stations still have a role to play, as they positively contribute to public reassurance among other things (Stassen and Ceccato 2021), it becomes increasingly important to reassess the role of police given the increasing participation of, for instance, private-sector and voluntary organizations in police work.

Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in the Rural

Prostitution , despite being a prominent social problem, is rarely considered in rural contexts. Scott (2016), for instance, noted that the high informal control in rural areas may have minimized street prostitution but had not reduced such activities in private homes or brothels. The author also suggests that a closer examination of rural prostitution could improve the understanding of how social control is practiced in rural areas. In general, research is needed to understand the contexts which simultaneously encourage and/or criminalize prostitution. Possible links between arranged marriage and violence against women (Ceccato 2015), human trafficking (in particular, sex trafficking), and prostitution in areas on the rural-urban continuum should also be investigated further.

Corruption and Financial Crimes

Corruption in rural contexts was the focus of several criminological studies in the past decade. An example was the study by Cheng and Urpelainen (2019) who provided a look into criminal politicians and their effects on communities in rural India, where politicians with criminal charges were linked to exacerbating household poverty. Similarly, Banerjee et al. (2014) assessed criminal politicians in India, but from the perspective of rural voters and whether they were unconcerned or ignorant of the corruption. Meng (2016) studied corruption related to land use expropriation led to protests and violence in rural China, while Nasrin (2011) contributed with a study of rural dowry practices in Bangladesh. Further research is needed on the relationship between corruption, poverty, environmental crimes, and quality of democratic institutions in rural areas across the globe.

Animal (Ab)Use and Farmers’ Victimization

Further research is needed to explore the interplay between animal rights, animal rights activists, and farmers, including criminalization and victimization. As this has strong ties to the rural, studying it is essential to a gaining a comprehensive understanding of crime in rural areas (Lovell submitted). Previous research suggests that techniques of neutralization (Sykes and Matza, 1957) can be successfully applied in a range of different contexts, such as “wildlife crime connected to agriculture, rationalizations are culturally complex and do not simply rely on economic motivations” (Ceccato et al. 2021, submitted; Enticott 2011). More research is needed to provide a better understanding of how individuals rationalize the offence, namely, whether and how they defend the act is necessary, deny there are victims, and appeal to the value of preserving values.

Increased integration of human-animal relationships (Philo and Wilbert 2000) and rural criminology may be valuable. Research has previously shown links between violence against animals and violence between humans, for example, domestic violence (Cleary et al. 2021; McPhedran 2009), and further investigations of the implications of rural contexts of this are encouraged. Additionally, a less anthropogenic perspective on rural crime, such as viewing animal abuse a worthy area of study on its own, may provide additional opportunities for empirical investigations, development of new theories, and practical applications (Flynn 2011).

Impact of Increased Energy Demand on Rural Crime

We face an imminent global energy crisis, much due to an escalation in energy demand, a dependency on fossil fuels, and an increase in the global population (Coyle and Simmons 2014). The demand for natural gas is projected to steadily increase, and while the increase in the demand for oil is slowing, oil production is expected to continue to expand over the coming decades (IEA 2021). This development is expected not only to impact the climate, but also may have considerable social impacts, not the least in rural areas. One reason is that, at least in the United States in the 2010s, much of the expansion in fossil energy extraction took place in the rural (Opsal and O’Connor Shelley 2014). Such expansions are often welcomed by local authorities, as they may lead to “boomtowns,” that is, rapid economic and population growth in small towns (see, e.g., Ruddell 2017). Boomtowns often enjoy low unemployment and increased business, although these benefits are often only short term (Jacquet 2014). Additionally, while the impacts of the growth differ from area to area, boomtowns can experience increased rates of violence and other crime compared to non-boomtowns (see, e.g., Archbold 2015; Ruddell et al. 2014). Ruddell (2017) noted that besides crime, additional negative impacts on quality of life can also be observed, such as environmental pollution of air, water, and land, and increased rates of traffic accidents. The author points out that it is often the most vulnerable and marginalized (such as women, indigenous peoples, and youth) who are impacted the most by these negative effects. In general, concerns have been expressed that rural areas lack the basic infrastructure, access to services, and ability to police and govern the sudden increase in population (Heitkamp and Mayzer 2018; Jacquet 2014). Further research is needed to understand how future energy developments will affect rural crime in the long term. While there needs to exist parallel efforts to find solutions to the energy crisis, it is also important to assess how to maximize rural community preparedness and minimize the negative effects of rapid booms (and potential busts) in rural areas.

Environmental and Wildlife Crime and Green Criminology

An area of research that is bound to grow is the study of environmental and wildlife crime (EWC). Such crimes are a global issue, not only because they often have a transnational dimension, but also because environmental problems ultimately affect people’s lives on a global scale. EWC is not often considered within rural criminology, even though such crimes often take place in the most remote areas of the globe. Despite an increasing global awareness of the scale of the problem, this topic of research is still in its infancy. To help investigate EWC, new data-related advances are being made; for example, GIS and remote sensing data are being used together with newer types of data, such as crowdsourced data (often involving different sensors, imagery, and complex spatial mapping) as well as with other spatial analytical tools, including network analysis and machine learning (for a review, see Ceccato, 2022).

The emergent field of green criminology (White, 2013; Nurse and Wyatt, 2020) has already recognised the impact of extensive extraction of natural resources in parts of the Global South. This includes deforestation, pollution of water, and loss of biodiversity, which have resulted in the illegal occupation of the land, the sexual exploitation of women and children, and the murder of indigenous and rural peoples (Böhm 2020; Global Witness 2020; Goyes 2021). There are examples of research on the effects of globalization and illicit spaces on rural environments that go beyond the common boundaries of traditional research disciplines, but further efforts are required. For more examples of research needed in this area, see Ceccato and Trujillo (in press).

Effect of Climate Change on Crime and Safety

Researchers and policy analysts have argued that climate change will increase social conflict, especially because of competition over scarce resources, including fresh water, food, fuel, and land. The impacts of global change have already been observed such as flooding, drought, and heat. As an emergent and ever more urgent topic with potential future effects on all levels of society, from individuals to governments, across the globe, it demands serious consideration in future research. For instance, crime in general has been positively linked to temperature levels (Anderson and Anderson 1998; Ranson 2014). Climate change will cause hotter weather increasing irritability, aggressiveness, and more violent crimes (Anderson et al. 2000). Rural areas of the Global South may be of special concern, as both relatively high temperatures and high rates of violence can already be found there.

Rural Safety as a Public Health Issue

The physical and mental health impacts of crime and fear of crime on rural residents is still an area that needs further attention. Although most rural areas are attractive places, where people’s access to nature and sense of community are often associated with good health, this picture oversimplifies the complex conditions of those living in areas on the rural-urban continuum.  As previous research indicated, the reduction of farmers’ mental health reflects increasing stressors due to environmental, structural and economic changes in agriculture and society in general. In other parts of the world, rural areas are contested spaces where violence may be part of the part of daily life. Therefore, we expect that research into this topic can inform researchers, practitioners, and policy makers and help them make rural places more safe, inclusive, and sustainable.