Middletown

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Middletown means the average or typical American small city. Several states have places actually named Middletown, but this article deals with the ideal type, as presented in two highly influential sociology books by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. They dealt with the actual city of Muncie, Indiana.

  • Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, published in 1929.
  • Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, published in 1937.

The Lynds explained the name in 1929:

"The city will be called Middletown. A community as small as thirty-odd thousand...[in which] the field staff was enabled to concentrate on cultural change...the interplay of a relatively constant...American stock and its changing environment" (1929: p. 8).

In these studies, the Lynds and a group of researchers conduct an in-depth field study of a medium-size American urban center in order to discover key cultural norms and better understand social change. The first study was conducted during the 1920s, beginning in January, 1924, while the second was written during the later stages of the Great Depression.

Middletown

Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was primarily a look at changes in a small Midwest city between 1890 and 1925, the year the study was completed.

Although the book does not name the city (population: 38,000) in question, it was later revealed to be Muncie, Indiana. One criterion was that the city have a small ethnic population, because the Lynds were not prepared to deal with ethnicity. The problem was the the great majority of industrial cities of the right size had large ethnic populations. Muncie was an outlier.

The Lynds and their assistants used the "approach of the cultural anthropologist", existing documents, census and business statistics, interviews, and surveys to accomplish this task. The stated goal of the study was describe this small urban center as a unit which consists of "interwoven trends of behavior" (p. 3). Or put in more detail,

"to present a dynamic, functional study of the contemporary life of this specific American community in the light of trends of changing behaviour observable in it during the last thirty-five years" (p. 6).

The book is written in an entirely descriptive tone, treating the citizens of Middletown in much the same way as an anthropologist from an industrialized nation might describe a non-industrial culture. This gave a witty tone, and made the readers feel superior to the folks who lived in thetown, which added to sales. In this regards the book resembles Sinclair Lewis, Main Street and the amusing barbs of H. L. Mencken.

Overview of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture [1929]

Following anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers' classic Social Organization the study proceeded "under the assumption that all the things people do in this American city may be viewed as falling under one or another of the following six main-trunk activities:

  • Getting a living.
  • Making a home.
  • Training the young.
  • Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on.
  • Engaging in religious practices.
  • Engaging in community activities."

Overall, Middletown was described (like many other American cities of the period) as a farming community that, due to technological changes, became a factory town. The study aimed to examine the consequences of this change.

Working

In the 1920s the Lynds found a "division into the working class and business class that constitutes the outstanding cleavage in Middletown." They state:

The mere fact of being born upon one or the other side of the watershed roughly formed by these two groups is the most significant single cultural factor tending to influence what one does all day long throughout one's life; whom one marries; when one gets up in the morning; whether one belongs to the Holy Roller or Presbyterian church; or drives a Ford or a Buick....[pp. 23-4]

The study found that at least 70 percent of the population belonged to the working class. However, labor unions had been driven out of town because the city's elite saw them as anti-capitalist. Because of this, unemployment was seen among residents as an individual, not a social, problem.

The city government was run by the "business class," a conservative group of individuals in high-income professions. For example, this group threw its support behind Calvin Coolidge's administration.

Home and Family

86 percent of the residents lived in at least a nuclear family arrangement. Because of new innovations such as mortgages, even working class families were able to own their own homes. Home ownership is considered the mark of a "respectable" family.

Compared to the 1800s, family sizes were smaller, divorce rates were up. However, women still, by and large, worked as housewives. Having children is considered a "moral obligation" of all couples. However, at the age of six, the socialization of these children are taken over by secondary institutions such as schools. Also, taboos against things such as dating have been reduced.

Families tend not to spend as much time together as before. Also, new technology such as chain groceries, refrigeration, and electric washing machines have contributed to a downswing in traditional skills such as preservation of freshly slaughtered meat.

Youth

Almost a third of all children at the time of the study planned to attend college. High school has become the hub of adolescent life, both social and otherwise. There has been a rise in vocational studies, strongly supported by the community. This is a major demographic shift from the 1800s, when few youth received any formal education.

While the community claims to value education, they tend to disdain academic learning. Teachers are tolerated but not welcomed into the civic life and governance of the city.

Leisure Time

Although new technology has created more leisure time for all people, most of this new time is passed in "passive" (or nonconstructive) recreation.

The introduction of the radio and automobile are considered the largest changes. Listening to radio shows and taking drives are now the most popular leisure activities. Many working-class families formerly never strayed more than a few miles from town; with the automobile, they are able to take vacations across the United States.

With the rise of these activities, interest in such institutions as book discussion groups (and reading in general), public lectures, and the fine arts is in sharp decline. The introduction of movies has created another "passive leisure activity", although the most popular films concentrate on adventure and romance, while more serious topics are less popular.

About two-thirds of Middletown families now own cars. Owning a car, and the prestige it brings, is considered so important that some working-class families are willing to bypass necessities such as food and clothing to keep up with payments. A person's car indicates their social status, and the most "popular" teens own cars, much to the chagrin of local community leaders (one local preacher referred to the automobile as a "house of prostitution on wheels").

Overall, due to this new technology, community and family ties are breaking down. Friendship between neighbors and church attendance are down. However, more structured community organizations, such as the Rotary Club, are growing.

Religious Activities

Middletown contained 42 churches, representing 28 different denominations. The community as a whole has a strong Protestantflavor. A person's denomination is indiciate of one's social status: the Methodist church is considered the most prestigious in these terms.

However, strong religious beliefs (i.e., ideas about heaven and hell) are dying out. While the vast majority of citizens profess a belief in God, they are increasingly cynical about organized religion. Also, many of the clergy tend to be politically progressive, and as such, are not welcomed into the city's governance.

The more fundamentalist Christian churches tend to be more political and down-to-earth in their approach to life and in sermons. This is in contrast to the mainstream Protestant denominations, which tend to be more aloof and other-worldly. Overall, the city is becoming more secular. Youth are less inclined to attend church, but more likely to be involved with the YMCA and YWCA.

Government and Community

The city's "business class" - and therefore most powerful class - is entirely Republican. Voting turnout, however, is down (46 percent in 1924), even considering the recent passage of women's suffrage.

The main reason for this appears to be increased cynicism towards politics, and politicians in general (politicians are considered by many to be no better than crooks). Moreover, the more skilled legal minds in town tend to work in the private sector, not the public sector.

Despite the good economic environment, there is always a small group of homeless. These people are considered the responsibility of churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army - charity is generally frowned upon.

Newspapers serve as the main medium of communication in town, both the morning and evening editions. Due to recent innovations such as the Associated Press, the papers are able to carry more news. Also, journalism tends to be more "objective", in contrast with the highly partisan papers of a few decades earlier.

Overall the city is highly, but invisibly, segregated. Although the Ku Klux Klan was recently kicked out of town, whites and blacks still live separately. However, the largest divide consists of social class lines. Businessmen, in particular, are required to be highly conformist in their political and social views.

Middletown in Transition

In 1935, the Lynds returned to Middletown to research the second book, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. They saw the Great Depression as an opportunity to see how the social structure of the town changed.

While the researchers found that there were some social changes, residents tended to go back to the way they were once economic hardship had ended. For example, the "business class", traditionally Republican, grudgingly supported the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and accepted the money the New Deal brought into town. However, once they felt the programs weren't needed anymore, they withdrew their support.

The second study only used one-tenth of the researchers than the first, and as a result, it is not considered as in-depth as the first one.

Also, the second study is not as neutral as the first. The authors openly attack the "business class" and cite theorists such as Thorstein Veblen. They criticize the consumerism displayed by the citizens. They end on a strongly negative note, fearing that a dictator such as Huey Long or Adolf Hitler could conceivably draw support from such a population.

Implications

The Middletown study is often quoted as an example of the adage, "nothing really changes". Despite being conducted in 1925, the description of American culture and attitudes has remained largely unchanged. For example, even today, news agencies, when trying to figure out what the "average American" believes, occasionally visit Muncie, Indiana. Pollsters do as well - the city has, for the most part, successfully predicted the election of U.S. presidents.

This view was only furthered by the results of the second study - if the Great Depression was unable to cause major changes in the town's social structure, the implication is that nothing will.

While a growing number of sociologists and social critics (i.e., Robert D. Putnam) complain of less community involvement, their detractors point directly to the Middletown study. The argument is this: in 1925, observers were worried that new inventions such as the radio were destroying community ties, that morality was on the decline, and that the very fabric of American democracy was in danger. However, many modern critics repeat the exact same concerns as those raised by the Middletown studies, although these concerns have never come true. Supporters of the studies thus argue that every generation simply "reinvents" new problems without realizing that their ancestors had the same unfounded worries.

The Lynds were careful not to include any ideological biases to creep into the first study, presenting it as a neutral set of observations. However, more biased individuals have drawn from the study. To name just a few examples:

  • Marxists point to the "business class" and its ideology as the reason why workers and labor unions have never gained power.
  • Conservatives (including sociologists who followed the structural functionalism school) saw the study as a confirmation that a lack of change is good for society.
  • Critics of American culture, such as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, cited the Middletown studies as examples of the banality and shallowness of American life.

Criticism

The Lynds did not study the African-American population of Middletown. They justified this because this group only composed 5 percent of the total population. However, modern critics argue that this was a racial oversight conditioned by the era in which the study took place. A similar argument applies to the fact that they didn't study Jews who lived in the city.

Although the Lynds attempted to avoid ideology, theory, or political statements, the focus of their initial study can be construed as an endorsement (however faint) of Progressive Era politics. Also, the study is sometimes accused of being elitist and old-fashioned, as it seems to bemoan the rise of "popular culture" such as films and the fall of farm culture.

Because the study took an anthropological/scientific approach to Middletown society, and because at the time it was the first large-scale attempt to describe a modern town in this manner, some critics claimed that it was inherently condescending and degrading to the town's citizens. First, by treating humans as objects of study, they argued that it was immoral and degrading. Seccondly, they argues the study implied that its denizens were no more advanced than a primitive tribe. The study's approach to religion was specially singled out on this count. For example, in the introduction to the first edition of Middletown in Transition, the Lynds recounted an incident where town leaders placed a copy of the first book in the cornerstone of a building. Several pastors from the town's more fundamentalist congregations angrily argued that the book deserved to be burned rather than praised because of how it described (and, from their perspective, insulted) the town's religious activities.

The second study, in contrast to the first, is sharply political in tone and openly critical of American culture in general. Also, the Lynds made predictions (i.e., on the possibility of a future American dictatorship) that never came to pass.

Despite its title, there really was no real "conflict" within Middletown during the Great Depression. By the mid 1930s the authors were much more heavily influenced by the Amrxism rampant in New York City intellectual circles, and they assumed for the first time there must be a great deal of class conflict. They had trouble identifying it.

Above all, the Lynds were criticized for using one city to describe all of America. By doing this, for instance, they ignored the influence of larger cities, which grew in population throughout their era.

Rival cities

Sociologists studied several other cities that were poresented as "typical." Most were somewhat smaller than Muncie. One of larger size was Peoria, Illinois, which had the ethnic variety Muncie lacked, and became popular in the 1950s and 1960s as a place to test new products to see if the "average" American would buy them.

Bibliography

  • Bourke-White, Margaret. "Muncie Ind. Is the Great ‘U.S. Middletown." Life 10 May 1937, pp. 15-25.
  • Caccamo, Rita. Back to Middletown: Three Generations of Sociological Reflections (2002)
  • Caplow, Theodore, et al.. All Faithful People: Change and Continuity in Middletown's Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  • Caplow, Theodore, et al., Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (1982)
  • Caplow, Theodore. "The Measurement of Social Change in Middletown." Indiana Magazine of History 1979 75(4): 344-357. Issn: 0019-6673
  • Condran, John G., et al. Working in Middletown: Getting a Living in Muncie, Indiana. Indiana Committee for the Humanities, 1976.
  • Feagin, Joe R., Anthony M. Orum, and Gideon Sjoberg. A Case for the Case Study (1991)
  • Fox, Richard Wrightman, "Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture." In Richard Wrightman Fox and T. Jackson Lears, eds. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980 (1983)
  • Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Muncie: The Middletown of America. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
  • Gillette, Howard, Jr. "Middletown Revisited." American Quarterly (1983) 35(4): 426-433. Issn: 0003-0678 Fulltext online at Jstor
  • Goodall, Hurley and J. Paul Mitchell. A History of Negroes in Muncie. Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, 1976.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. Magic Middletown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Published in association with Historic Muncie, Inc.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. Middletown: The Making of a Documentary Film Series. Philadelphia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992.
  • Hoover, Dwight W. "Middletown Revisited: Social Change in Twentieth Century American Society." Old Northwest 1987 13(1): 47-65. Issn: 0360-5531
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Lynds Revisited," Indiana Magazine of History (Dec 1979) 75: 303-319, systematic analysis of Lynd's assumptions and methodology; online at [1]
  • Lassiter, Luke Eric. The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie's African American Community (2005)
  • The Middletown Film Series: "The Campaign," "The Big Game," "A Community of Praise," "Family Business," "Second Time Around " Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: WQED/PBS-TV, 1982; "Middletown Revisited, with Ben Wattenberg," Muncie, Indiana: WIPB/PBS-TV, 1982.
  • Rottenberg, Dan, editor. Middletown Jews: The Tenuous Survival of an American Jewish Community. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. excerpt and text search
  • Tambo, David, Dwight Hoover, and John D. Hewitt. Middletown: An Annotated Bibliography. Garland Reference Library of Social Science, Volume 446. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988. External Link
  • Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City. (1972, rev ed. 1995) online edition

Primary sources

  • Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1929. excerpt and text search
  • Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1937.

External links

notes