Both in practice and policy a new model of rural development is emerging. This paper reflects the discussions in the impact research programme and suggests that at the level of associated theory also a fundamental shift is taking place. The modernization paradigm that once dominated policy, practice and theory is being replaced by a new rural development paradigm. Rural development is analyzed as a multi-level, multi-actor and multi-facetted process rooted in historical traditions that represents at all levels a fundamental rupture with the modernization project. The range of new quality products, services and forms of cost reduction that together comprise rural development are understood as a response by farm families to both the eroding economic base of their enterprises and to the new needs and expectations European society has of the rural areas. Rural development therefore is largely an autonomous, self-driven process and in its further unfolding agriculture will continue to play a key role, although it is a role that may well change. This article provides an introduction to the nine papers of this ‘special issue’ and the many reconfiguration processes embodied in rural development that they rural development