Robert Staughton Lynd (September 26, 1892 – November 1, 1970) and Helen Merrell Lynd (March 17, 1896 – January 30, 1982) were American sociologists, famous for their study Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929) and its follow-up work, which analyzed social change brought about by the Great Depression. Their publications became classics in American sociology. In their work the Lynds pioneered applying the methods of cultural anthropology to the study of a modern Western city. Their initial research revealed significant change as a result of industrialization and the change from a predominantly agricultural lifestyle to one based on technology and industry. They criticized the increase in consumerism and preoccupation with money and material things. While their follow-up study (which revealed little change despite experiencing of the Great Depression) has been criticized, the town they called "Middletown" continued to be used by those seeking to understand the life of typical American communities.
Robert Lynd was born on September 26, 1892, in New Albany, Indiana. He graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in 1914, and started to work as an editor of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly. He also worked for several publishing houses in New York City. His interest in theology and religion led him to enroll in Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he received his Th.D. degree in 1923.
Helen Merrell was born on March 17, 1896, in La Grange, Illinois, into the family of Edward Tracy Merrell, the editor of the Congregationalist Church publication The Advance, and Mabel Waite Merrell. Her parents tried to instate a strong religious sense in their children, and Helen grew up with a commitment to humanitarian work. After she completed high school her family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where Helen enrolled in Wellesley College. She graduated in 1919 with a B.A. in philosophy.
After college, Merrell taught for a year at the Ossining School for Girls in Ossining, New York. It is during that time that she met Robert Lynd, with whom she developed an intimate relationship. In 1921 she worked as a teacher at Miss Master's School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and in 1922 she received a master’s degree in history from Columbia University in New York. In September 1922, Robert and Helen Lynd married. They had two children; their son Staughton was born in 1929, and their daughter, Andrea, in 1934.
The Lynds started to work on their project in Muncie, Indiana in late 1923, as commissioned by the Institute of Social and Religious Research. They stayed there for 15 months, living among and studying the local community. Their book, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture was published in 1929 and achieved enormous success.
Based on the success of the study, Robert Lynd was named professor of sociology in the Graduate School of Political Sciences in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University in 1931. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia for the Middletown study. Helen Lynd joined the faculty of the newly founded Sarah Lawrence College in 1928, and would remain there until her retirement in 1964. She wrote numerous books on philosophy, education, and sociology. Robert Lynd was elected president of the Eastern Sociology Society in 1944, and was a member of the Sociological Research Association.
In 1944, Helen Lynd received a Ph.D. in history and philosophy from Columbia University. Her dissertation was published in 1945 as England in the Eighteen-Eighties: Toward a Social Basis for Freedom.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Lynds became outspoken leftists, advocating the need for class solidarity. They supported the position of the Soviet Union and criticized American attacks on communists. During the McCarthy era trials, Helen Lynd was questioned before a Senate investigating committee for her connections with the Communist Party.
Helen Lynd retired from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, but continued to teach there until her death. She died in Warren, Ohio, on January 30, 1982.
The Lynds started their collaborative work in the early 1920s, in John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Committee on Social and Religious Surveys (CSRS). The organization's ultimate goal was to unite all the protestant churches in the nation, through the network of common social services. In 1923 the CSRS changed its name into the Institute for Social and Religious Research, which immediately started on research and conducting of new studies. The Lynds were selected to undertake a study of religious practices of people of one small American town. The choice eventually settled on Muncie, Indiana (studied under the pseudonym Middletown) as a typical Midwestern town. The town consisted of 38,000 people, predominantly white Protestants.
The Middletown study started in 1923, and lasted for 15 months. 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.
The Lynds defined the goal of their study as to measure the changes in habits and behavior of people over the past thirty years. Although they were originally commissioned by the Institute for Social and Religious Research to strictly study religious practices, the Lynds went over their assignment and included different aspects of life into their research.
The Lynds collected information from different sources: direct observation, interviews, questionnaires, documentary materials, and statistics. They studied people’s habits and behavior in everyday situations, recording the time people arose and went to bed, whether they had a car and how it was used, how the laundry was done, how often they went to church, what material was taught in school, and so on.
The Lynds and their assistants used the "approach of the cultural anthropologist." The stated goal of the study was describe this small urban center as a unit which consists of "interwoven trends of behavior," 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 behavior observable in it during the last thirty-five years (Lynd and Lynd 1929).
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. The Lynds found:
[a] division into the working class and business class that constitutes the outstanding cleavage in Middletown...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 (Lynd and Lynd 1929).
The Lynds concluded that Middletown had changed significantly in the light of industrialization, and that the "consumer culture" increasingly influences people’s lives. They were rather critical of America's growing preoccupation with money and consumption.
After the completion of their study, the Lynds presented the results to the Institute of Social and Religious Research, but met with a cold reception. The Institute refused to publish their work for it did not follow their initial agreement. In 1929, the Harcourt, Brace Company finally published the work, Middletown: A study in modern American culture, which immediately became very popular. The book went through six printings in only its first year.
Robert and Helen Lynd returned to Muncie in 1935 for a follow-up study, and published their second book, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). 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 were no longer needed, they withdrew their support.
This work was not as popular as the first one, but it also sold in large numbers. In the second volume, the Lynds continued to criticize American preoccupation with consumerism, especially in the light of the growing advertising industry. They saw a contradiction in American society—on one side Americans being independent and capable of organizing their own lives, and on the other so powerless and passive in the face of advertising. They also criticized American workers for not exhibiting class solidarity.
The Middletown studies also received a number of criticisms, including the fact that the Lynds ignored minority populations (blacks and Jews). Above all, the Lynds were criticized for using a small town to describe all of America. By doing this, for instance, they ignored the influence of larger cities, which grew in population throughout their era.
The Middletown study was one of the first sociological analyses in the United States of social and cultural change in a modern, urban community. The Lynds’ book went on to become one of the most influential and most popular books of the twentieth century.
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, many news agencies, when trying to figure out what the "average American" believes, visit Muncie, Indiana. 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.
In the years since, many scholars continued to study Muncie, following up on the Lynds' work, making this local community perhaps the most studied in the nation. In the late 1970s, a team of sociologists led by Theodore Caplow went to Muncie to make a new study, some fifty years after the Lynds’ work. This became known as Middletown III. Then again in 1998-1999, Caplow returned to Muncie completing Middletown IV.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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