Lynd, Robert and Helen
Lynd, Robert and Helen
Robert Stoughton Lynd was born on September 26, 1892, in New Albany, Indiana, and died on November 1, 1970, in Warren, Connecticut. In 1921 he married Helen Merrell, who was born on March 17, 1896, in LaGrange, Illinois, and died on January 30, 1982, in New York City. The two social scientists were best known for their community studies Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). During World War I, Robert, a Princeton graduate, turned to the ministry as the only institution working for spiritual values. After doing missionary work at a Standard Oil camp, he launched a muckraking attack on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Both infuriated and impressed by Lynd, Rockefeller’s chief aide for the social sciences, Raymond Fosdick, hired him to undertake a study on the church in a small city for the Rockefeller-funded Institute of Social and Religious Research. That work became the basis for Middletown.
The Lynds began their study in Muncie, Indiana, in 1923 after choosing it as a representative American city. They quickly convinced the institute that one could not study the church in a vacuum but had to study it in an integrated fashion. They argued that one should study modern society as one would examine a primitive culture. Adopting the British school of functional anthropology, they concentrated on how the culture as a whole worked.
The Lynds split Middletown culture into six activities: getting a living, making a home, training the young, using leisure, engaging in religious activities, and engaging in community activities. Indebted most of all to Thorstein Veblen and his concept of pecuniary culture, the Lynds demonstrated how that culture dominated Middletown society. Everything followed from occupations and the consequent split into business and working classes. The way one earned a living dominated the culture from one’s leisure time to one’s church denomination.
Despite a lack of methodological training, the Lynds produced a sophisticated work of sociological research. They used well-conceived questionnaires for all organizations, interviewed representative samples of the population, and innovatively included the questionnaires in an appendix. Despite its methodological rigor, the institute refused the work because of its admitted biases and use of class perspective and for being, as William F. Ogburn noted, “too interesting to be science” (quoted in Lynd 1929).
As the Lynds attempted to gain control of the manuscript, Robert wrote the section on consumerism for inclusion in a book for the President’s Committee on Social Trends, “Recent Social Trends.” That piece followed the emphasis in Middletown on spending as dominating American life and used empirical techniques to argue for a change in society. The Lynds’ works were among the first not only to identify a consumer society but also to criticize it. After the release of the Middletown manuscript in 1928, it quickly became a best seller, winning praise from social scientists and the general public.
In 1935 the Lynds decided to restudy Muncie. They recognized that American sociologists had not conducted follow-up studies of communities and had paid insufficient attention to social change. Furthermore, they felt that the Great Depression would provide an excellent case study in how outside forces compel local areas to alter the status quo. They also realized that like most American social scientists of their time, they had overlooked the issue of social and political power.
In Middletown in Transition (1937) the coauthors discovered that Middletown in fact was not in transition. The most noticeable change, apart from the infusion of federal funds, was the total resistance of the community to change and the solidification of existing attitudes and institutions. In regard to power, the dominant Ball family had come to control even more of the economic and political structure. Producers of canning jars, one of the few products more in demand during the Depression, the Balls used their profits to buy up local bankrupt industries, contributed heavily to local charities, and controlled both political parties.
Although the first Middletown book has had greater influence as a pioneering community study and historical source, the second volume also influenced later social scientists in the study of power. Although the concentration of power in one family in Muncie was not characteristic of larger communities, both Floyd Hunter’s study of Atlanta, Community Power Structure (1953), and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956) saw power as being concentrated in small groups. Later pluralistic views such as Robert Dahl’s 1961 examination of New Haven, Who Governs?, questioned the Lynds’ results and biases.
The Middletown works represented the apex of the Lynds’ influence, although both of them continued to produce important theoretical works independently. During the 1950s both Lynds were accused of being Communists, and the Middletown books were removed from United States Information Agency libraries around the world. Both Robert and Helen were committed social activists and students of Marxism. They were also extremely popular teachers, Robert at Columbia and Helen at Sarah Lawrence. As fear of communism increased in the United States, several congressional committees subpoenaed the left-wing faculty to testify before them. While Helen testified before the Jenner Committee and kept her job, Robert suffered a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. Their son Staughton would go on to become one of the leaders of the new left academia during the 1960s and 1970s.
SEE ALSO Case Method; Case Method, Extended; Community Power Studies; Dahl, Robert Alan; Hunter, Floyd; McCarthyism; Occupational Status; Political Science; Power; Sociology; Survey; Veblen, Thorstein; Working Class
Etkowitz, Henry. 1979–1980. The Americanization of Marx: Middletown and Middletown in Transition. Journal of the History of Sociology 2: 41–57.
Fox, Richard Wightman. 1983. Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture. In Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880–1980, ed. Richard Wrightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, 101–142. New York: Pantheon.
Igo, Sarah E. 2005. From Main Street to Mainstream:Middletown, Muncie and “Typical America.” Indiana Magazine of History 101: 239–266.
Lynd, Robert S. 1929. Problems of Being Objective. Social Science Research Council. Charles E. Merriam Collection,University of Chicago: August.
Smith, Mark C. 1994. Robert Lynd and Knowledge for What. In Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918–1941, 120–158. Durham, NC:Duke University Press.
Mark C. Smith
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