Welcome to Muncie: a city of 66,000 all-American laboratory rats

January 13, 2006

In 1929, a small Midwest community was the subject of a seminal survey.

Stephen Phillips looks at how it became Everytown USA

A post-industrial city roughly the size of High Wycombe in the unglamorous Midwestern Rust Belt seems an unlikely candidate for the mantle of "America's most-studied community". Muncie, Indiana, is about as far removed from New York's Gotham or Los Angeles's sprawl as you can get, but, per capita, it has spawned a body of scholarship eclipsing that generated by much more celebrated US urban centres.

It is precisely Muncie's ordinariness that has marked it out as a unique social science laboratory. Over 75 years, its community has been chronicled in at least seven books, multiple journal articles, a TV documentary series and innumerable meditations on America. No mean feat for a place whose population barely pushes 66,000.

The studies have been christened "Munciology"; the locals, "Munciekins".

But the city is perhaps better known by its ethnographic pseudonym, "Middletown", coined as the title of a bestselling 1929 sociological study to evoke the "middle-of-the-road quality" its authors found that first marked it out as a supposed microcosm of America. Since then, generations of social scientists have made pilgrimages to Muncie in search of an archetypal US community, and their work has yielded some of the longest-running datasets on variables such as car usage, childcare, housework and schoolchildren's religious attitudes, says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies, a research institute at Muncie's Ball State University that now houses the archives and co-ordinates current projects.

The original study by husband and wife Robert and Helen Lynd is a snapshot of a settlement at a pivotal moment in time, capturing the white heat of the 1920s economic boom that followed three decades of rapid industrial change. Returning for a follow-up in 1935, the researchers found a community in the grip of the Great Depression, but holding fast to its small-town conservative values and shunning the radicalism breaking out elsewhere in America.

By the 1970s, Muncie was the image of a declining community as its traditional industries closed. Today, service industries, the local hospital and Ball State dominate the local economy, Connolly says.

Since the original study, Muncie has also become a Mecca for journalists, pollsters and marketeers who see it as a convenient weather vane of national opinion and consumer trends. Obligingly, it has voted for the eventual president in every US election since the 1920s, bar two, Connolly says.

Theodore Caplow, emeritus sociology professor at the University of Virginia who conducted fieldwork in Muncie in the 1970s and 1990s, says one study found that the city trailed only the equally anonymous Sandusky, Ohio, in the closeness of its crime rate and other variables to the US average.

However, recent Middletown scholarship has turned to how far the community's anointment as Everytown USA is also the tale of the forging of popular ideas about America. It is a story that owes much to the Lynds'

groundbreaking, iconoclastic 1929 study, an instant and enduring hit and now considered a classic sociology text. Not bad for a project that started out as a humble religious survey, with all the makings of an obscure monograph, commissioned by oil baron John D. Rockefeller and written by a couple of twentysomethings with no postgraduate social science training.

The Lynds were not even first choices for the job. They got the nod only after Northwestern University sociologist William Louis Bailey was deemed unsuitable for the "participant observer" approach specified by the sponsor, Rockefeller's Institute for Social and Religious Research. But it was not just the lack of an academic pedigree that made them unlikely choices. Robert Lynd, fresh out of Princeton University's Divinity School, had been an outspoken critic of Rockefeller's industrial practices.

The Lynds threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm, for three years immersing themselves in the life of Muncie. Loitering on street corners before sunup, they recorded that the lights in manual workers'

homes came on around dawn, while the business classes enjoyed a lie-in, rising at a more leisurely pace. To determine how far professions were passed down within families, they combed employee rosters, noting the incidence of common surnames.

The study, described as "a total situation study of a contemporary civilisation", was unusual in that it used the analytical tools of anthropology to observe a US community and objectively examine its workings. The book documents a materially aspirational society with deeply drawn lines between business and working classes and a universal belief in the power of education to allow the young generation to rise above their parents' lot. It charted how new industries had replaced an old sense of vocation and connection to the land, leaving a void that was being filled by pointless consumption rather than any movement towards social reform. It represented "one of the first rigorous analyses of consumer culture and (how) class was a key fissure in US life," says Sarah Igo, assistant professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania.

On a lighter note, fascinating period details abound in Middletown , including discussions of the racy teenage craze of the day, "petting parties". But far from being a period-piece curio, the book still stands up today, Igo says. They just don't write them like that any more, she laments. "The Lynds were fabulous writers - wry, humorous, detailed and anecdotal. It's a way of writing about social life that no longer has a place in scholarly [work]."

In the late 1920s, Rockefeller's institute was less impressed. It pronounced the manuscript "positively bewildering", disowned it and signed over the rights to the Lynds, Connolly says. They shopped it around commercial publishers, and it was quickly snapped up by Harcourt and Brace, an imprint of the big New York publishing house Alfred Harcourt. With Harcourt's muscle behind it, Middletown drew rapturous reviews, and contemporaries soon came to see the place as a quintessential US community, Igo says.

It was the making of the Lynds. Robert landed a position at Columbia University, where he went on to become professor of sociology, while Helen went on to a professorship at Sarah Lawrence College.

But Middletown 's edgy social critique was largely ignored. Instead, Igo says, it set off a craze among marketeers, who saw it as presenting them with the ultimate US focus group. From the 1930s, companies such as McCall's Magazine descended on Muncie, turning it into a test-bed for marketing, advertising and new products, she says.

In fact, Muncie's "representative" tag was far from empirically grounded.

Seeking a venue to study the impact of industrialisation on "native (white) American stock," the Lynds explicitly singled it out for being atypical.

With its supposedly small, black and foreign-born population, Muncie was actually a peculiarly homogeneous community, offering the controlled conditions they were after, says Connolly. "They wanted to eliminate all considerations of race, by defining out immigrants and African-Americans."

Today, this suggests some fairly "loaded" assumptions about the US, Igo observed in the Indiana Magazine of History . But contemporaries barely batted an eyelid. "The interesting thing is that they acknowledged this explicitly, and it was unproblematic."

Race, however, has hardly been incidental in Muncie, says Eric Lassiter, professor of humanities and anthropology at Marshall University and co-editor of The Other Side of Middletown , an attempt to round out the Middletown canon with a portrait of the town's black community that recently won the American Anthropology Association's prestigious Margaret Mead Award. Despite their scant references to African-Americans, the Lynds acknowledged that mid-1920s Muncie was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. Their follow-up, Middletown in Transition , explicitly states: "The cleft between the white and Negro populations of Middletown is the deepest and most blindly followed division in the community."

The Lynds' preoccupation with class, a particular interest at the time it was written, set the focus for subsequent Middletown studies, many of which overlooked other issues, such as the town's vibrant local civil rights movement, Lassiter says.

The Other Side of Middletown , written jointly with Muncie's African-American community, was a long time coming for co-editor Hurley Goodall, who is now 78. Impatient with oversights in previous accounts, he self-published his own history of Muncie's black community, based on oral interviews, in 1976. Goodall was a civil rights veteran who went on to serve in Indiana's legislature and broke the colour bar to become Muncie's first black firefighter in 1958.

"Fifty-two members of the fire department signed a petition saying they didn't want to work with a black, didn't want to use the same toilet a black had used - the same old crap you always get," he recalls wearily.

Recent attempts to add more diversity to the Middletown archives include a study of Muncie's Jewish community. "No one would start with the assumption that Muncie was a representative place today," Connolly says, given its lack of diversity and the fact that it is little affected by some of the current US demographic trends.

But, according to Connolly, it may offer insights into "middle America", a constituency that, one year into the Bush Administration's second term, retains a powerful hold on the US imagination.

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