By Mary Giorgio

In 1929, the city of Muncie, Indiana, became famous when it served as the research subject for Robert and Helen Lynd’s famous sociological study, Middletown. Although the Lynds attempted to keep the city’s identity a secret by referring to it simply as Middletown, it didn’t take long for Americans to figure out that the city in the study was Muncie, Indiana. The revelation catapulted Muncie into the national spotlight.

Robert and Helen Lynd wondered if American culture had changed significantly as a result of the rapid economic progress of the Second Industrial Revolution. They chose Muncie because it was an average American city. The Lynds extensively researched the city, pouring over old newspapers, city documents, and statistics. They also conducted interviews and surveys of Muncie’s white residents. The Lynds ignored African-American culture in the study, claiming it was too small a population.

ROBERT & HELEN LYND

The resulting book, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, received rave reviews. The Lynds categorized their findings into six groups, under which they found that all American activities fell: making a living, keeping house, caring for children, leisure, practicing religion, and community activity. This was true for both working-class and upper-class people.

One of the most important findings in the Middletown study was that the American myth of upward mobility did not ring true. The city was split into two main residential areas – a wealthy enclave and lower class residential section. Which side of town a person was born on determined future opportunities or lack thereof. A staggering 70% of the city’s population was working class, but the best career opportunities and political power were almost exclusively reserved for members of the upper class.

The Lynds were also extremely curious about the social effects of major leisure inventions, such as the radio and the automobile. The Lynds found the inventions had redefined the way Americans viewed and experienced leisure time. For example, automobile ownership allowed families to take vacations across America. About 2/3 of Middletown residents owned cars, although the type of car owned depended on economic means.

The study concluded that for the most part, cultural norms did not change in conjunction with rapid economic and industrial development. In the 1930s, the Lynds were approached by their publisher with the idea to write a sequel to their Middletown study. With the economic upheaval of the Great Depression, the second study explored the extent to which this turmoil had impacted social and cultural norms. Published in 1937, the study concluded that while Americans temporarily changed their ways during times of economic hardship, as soon as that hardship had lifted, they fell back into familiar patterns. The takeaway, then, was that America’s cultural norms did not change over time despite periods of rapid development or economic upheaval.

Today, the Middletown studies continue to be regarded as classic sociological investigations into American culture. Sociologists have flocked to Muncie in the ensuing decades to conduct their own research in what has come to be regarded as the quintessential American city. Ball State University established the Center for Middletown Studies in 1980 to continue the city’s tradition of sociological scholarship. The original Middletown study may be 90 years old, but remains a legacy for the Muncie community.

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