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Middletown (cities, United States)

Middletown:1 Industrial city (1990 pop. 42,762), Middlesex co., central Conn., on the west bank of the Connecticut River; settled 1650, inc. 1784, town and city consolidated 1923. Its manufactures include brake linings, marine hardware, rubber footwear, clothing, computer parts, and textiles. Shipping brought early prosperity to Middletown, and during colonial days it was the state's leading shipping, commercial, and cultural center. It is the seat of Wesleyan Univ. A bridge (1938) spans the Connecticut River to Portland.

2 Industrial city (1990 pop. 24,160), Orange co., SE N.Y., on the Wallkill River; settled 1756, inc. as a city 1888. It is in a dairying, farming, and resort area. Among the city's products are furniture, clothing, electronic products, medical instruments, footwear, tools, perfumes, flavors and extracts, pig lead and alloys, and machinery.

3 Industrial city (1990 pop. 46,022), Butler co., SW Ohio, on the Great Miami River, in a farming area; inc. 1866. Steel, aircraft parts, and paper products are manufactured. A branch of Miami Univ. is in the city.

4 Rural and resort town (1990 pop. 19,460), Newport co., SE R.I., on Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay; set off from Newport and inc. 1743. There are dairy farms and nurseries. Its name is derived from its location between Newport and Portsmouth. During the American Revolution, Middletown was pillaged (1776) by the British.

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Middletown

Middletown in the US, an archetypal middle-class community. The term was popularized by R. S. and H. M. Lynd's Middletown: a study in contemporary American culture (1929), said to be based on Muncie, Indiana.

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Middletown (sociological study)

Middletown: see Lynd, Robert Staughton.

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Middletown

Middletown

Robert and Helen Lynd set out to study the spirituality in a representative American town in the late 1920s, but instead wound up studying the inhabitants' entire culture. Their work, one of lasting impact and the first "functionalist" study in American sociology, combined sociology and anthropology and considered society on a holistic level. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, first published in 1929 and named after the pseudonym of the place studied—Muncie, Indiana—was a work of both critical and popular acclaim, changing traditional disciplinary attitudes about sociological studies and exposing the public to the shifts in the social fabric brought about by burgeoning consumerism.

Ironically, neither Robert Lynd (1892-1971) nor his wife Helen Merrell Lynd (1896-1981) were formally trained sociologists. Robert Lynd, a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, began his work as a Christian minister, but soon became disenchanted by his own admitted agnosticism. Helen Lynd was a graduate of Wellesley and later completed a master's degree from Columbia in philosophy. Their collaborative work grew out of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Committee on Social and Religious Surveys (CSRS) organization, which conducted field surveys on people's religious practices. In 1923 the CSRS became the Institute for Social and Religious Research, which commissioned new studies; the group's ultimate goal was to unite all Protestant churches in the country in order to create a national network geared toward social service.

Eventually, the directors decided to conduct a more in-depth study of one town, and considered many small cities in the Midwest. They settled on Muncie, Indiana, because of its manageable population (38,000 in 1924) and its relative homogenization: at the time, the city was made up of 92 percent native-born whites and housed few blacks, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. While the Institute commissioned a study that focused on the religious practices of Middletown, the Lynds were more inclusive in considering what constituted a community's "spirituality." They believed that "cultural change" could better be measured without a racial component, and also that social progress resided in the efforts of people living in the "Heartland"—midwestern, native-born Protestants. The Lynds gathered their information from many sources, including participant-observation studies, documentary materials, statistics, interviews, and questionnaires; they also studied many details of ordinary life, such as what time people got out of bed, how the car was used, who went to the movies, how the laundry got done, who went to church, what was taught in school, and so on.

The study began in 1923 and lasted 15 months. Lynd himself stated that his goal was "to define and measure the changes in the life (i.e., habits or behavior) of a small city over the critical period since 1890 as those changes affect the problem of the small city church," and to conduct "a straight fact-finding study." In reality, the Lynds' goals went beyond this to not only study Middletown culture, but also to critique it, especially in light of the changes brought about by consumer culture. Rockefeller's Institute did not approve of the focus of the study, and therefore refused to publish it. Harcourt, Brace, and World published the work, Middletown, in 1929, and it went on to become one of the most popular and influential books of the twentieth century. It sold over 32,000 copies during the eight years of the Depression alone, and was both a study of and an addition to the growing self-consciousness of consumer society. As historian Richard Wightman Fox has said, "That book had such an enormous and immediate impact on its thousands of readers because it caught the subtle tensions and confusions of the early years of consumer society in America."

Significantly, the Middletown study, tinged with the irony of the Lynds' own critical voices, exposed small town America's increasing preoccupation with money and consumption. The townspeople embodied contradictions in that "they showed signs both of possessing the capacity to organize their own lives and of succumbing to the emergent national agencies of 'pecuniary' culture," according to Richard Wightman Fox. By himself, Robert Lynd returned to Muncie in 1935 for a follow-up study, later published as Middletown In Transition, an even more personally critical work that exposed Lynd's growing biases against advertising and small-town thinking. In this second work, Lynd contended that people were, in fact, not rational at all, and powerless and passive in the face of advertising.

While Robert Lynd's career foundered after this second major work, he had already left an indelible impression on American culture—he studied a population, unearthed the inner workings of people's daily lives, and exposed this to a vast readership. He also, and more significantly, established Muncie, specifically (the most studied town in America), and midwestern towns generally, as places characterized by the provincial, conservative, and largely ignorant groups of people who stereotypically inhabited them.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Fox, Richard Wightman. "Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture." The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. Ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears. New York, Pantheon, 1983, 103-141.

Hoover, Dwight W. Middletown Revisited: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. Muncie, Indiana, Ball State University, 1990.

Lynd, Robert S. Middletown in Transition. New York, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937.

Lynd, Robert S., and Helen Merrell Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929.

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