Robert Staughton Lynd

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Robert Staughton Lynd

The American sociologist Robert Staughton Lynd (1892-1970) greatly influenced American sociology through his "Middletown" studies.

Robert S. Lynd was born in Indiana. He wrote a sensitive account of the influence of his background in Middletown in Transition: "Although reared during his first 18 years in a city of 18,000 population in the same state as Middletown, the investigator came to Middletown in 1924 after fourteen years spent in the East. Accordingly, he may have had an outlook somewhat different from the modal outlook of Middletown, even though the culture of the East North Central and Middle Atlantic States are fundamentally overwhelmingly alike. The fact that he came from ten years of residence in New York City to a city of 36,000 in 1924 may have emphasized latent differences. The fact that, despite several years of business experience, he came as an 'academic' person undoubtedly made a difference."

The first book, Middletown, by Lynd and his wife, Helen Merrill Lynd, was the first elaborate study of an American community from a scientific rather than from a social-reform perspective. This is of special interest in the case of the Lynds because they were not trained previously in sociology. Lynd had been associated with the Commonwealth Fund, and Middletown was one of a series of social and religious surveys. Unlike the usual survey, Middletown was a study of an average American city with reference to the six main-trunk activities of a community: getting a living, making a home, training the young, using leisure, engaging in religious practices, and engaging in community activities. The Lynds described in some detail the nature of bureaucratic organization and the structure of power in Middletown. It was one of the first sociological analyses of bureaucracy and power in a local community setting.

Perhaps owing to its departure from the usual social survey format (and perhaps owing to the candor with which the Lynds discussed certain personalities in Middletown, which later was identified as Muncie, Ind.), there is reported to have been some doubt as to whether the study should be published until Clark Wissler, a highly regarded anthropologist, was obtained to write an introduction placing the study in the frame of reference of the anthropological method of studying a community and its culture. The success of Lynd's approach can be seen from a survey made in 1950 of 47 introductory textbooks, in which 304 sociology authors were indexed. Lynd was in the top 30 for number of times cited.

The publication of Middletown in 1929 was followed in 1937 by that of a follow-up study, Middletown in Transition, an unusual practice in itself even today among social scientists.

In 1938 Lynd delivered the Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton, which were published under the title Knowledge for What? He emphasized that man's biology imposes certain needs and rhythms on him and that social institutions reflect needs and rhythms insofar as man is able to make them do so. Another contribution by Lynd was his attempt to view power as a major social resource instead of chiefly as a concomitant of conflict of interests. Even today this approach still merits exploiting.

From a beginning as a nonsociologist, Lynd came to occupy a professor's chair in sociology at Columbia University, was elected president of the Eastern Sociology Society in 1944, and was elected to membership in the Sociological Research Association.

Further Reading

For information on Lynd see Robert Bierstedt, The Social Order (1957; 3d ed. 1970); Irwin Taylor Sanders, The Community: An Introduction to a Social System (1958); Alvin and Helen Gouldner, Modern Sociology: An Introduction to the Study of Human Interaction (1963); and Ritchie Plowry and Robert P. Rankin, Sociology: The Science of Society (1969). □