The Canon: Middletown. By Robert and Helen Lynd

February 11, 2010

Unlike other social scientists of the early 20th century who studied particular "problem" or "alien" groups and cultures, the Lynds consciously set out to make a case study of life in the most unproblematic and middle- of-the-road place, finally choosing Muncie, Indiana as their representative of average America.

Researchers entered into and became part of the community, living locally in rented accommodation and attending dinners, meetings, rallies and parties, and then writing up records of these experiences. Census data, surveys, city records, business reports, local histories, newspapers and the minutes of various meetings provided additional statistical information, while diaries, scrapbooks and casual conversations provided more anecdotal or personal perspectives. Divided into six "life activities" - working, homemaking, education, leisure, religion and community - Middletown (1929) was the first popular social analysis of the ordinary aspects of US life and thus heralded the beginning of American studies.

Setting the trend for mass-observation research, the book was unique in the way that it examined various class, age and gender differentials in income, social and religious beliefs, diet, education, leisure, group memberships and other common aspects of human culture.

Offering detailed descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life, such as what people read, what their houses looked like, the art on their walls, whether they had carpet or linoleum, or servants or machines, as well as their pastimes, Middletown gently exposed the network of consensual and habitual activity that keeps capitalism functioning effectively, even when its rewards are unevenly distributed.

Although a snapshot of an era, the book is far from irrelevant today: using self-reflective methodologies, rather than imposing their beliefs on the community, the researchers openly questioned and experimented as they proceeded, becoming more aware of the limits and problems of their work as they progressed. This has been my own experience as a researcher in American studies, a field that nonetheless has allowed me great flexibility, freedom and experimentation.

While it is impossible to conceive that such an academic case study, one that even described some of its own flaws in its appendix, could become a bestseller today, that aspect also makes it seem possible that such research can be widely read. More broadly, the book's popularity upon publication shows the roots of a deeply human desire for "reality" observation that has since spread way beyond the academy and the printed text, but which remains fundamental to the fascination humans have with themselves.

There are other reasons Middletown is salutary today: the Lynds' unacknowledged reliance on the funds of those they later criticised - in their case, John D. Rockefeller - hints at the precarious relationship between academic work and the foundations, corporations and national governments that fund and publish it.

Published in the year of the Wall Street crash, the Lynds' study of prosperous middle-American life reminds us that consumer credit had already become the ritualised glue that cohered national culture, but also pushed it to the edge of catastrophe: published at the onset of the worst economic crisis in the 20th century, it is a most surprising and enduring bestseller.

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