Middletown Studies Throughout the 20th Century

By Suzanne Pekow

Robert and Helen Lynd from the personal collection of their son, Staughton Lynd.
Courtesy Staughton Lynd

Robert and Helen Lynd published their groundbreaking study of an ordinary American community they called "Middletown" in 1929. "Middletown" is actually Muncie, Indiana, and over the years many other researchers have returned to study the people who live there.

James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, says what really seems to distinguish Muncie is "how much it's stayed the same in terms of values and culture."

Below is a timeline of research projects focused on Muncie as Middletown.

Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd come to Muncie, Indiana as young researchers to study the population, and embark on what they call a "small city study." Muncie has undergone rapid change from a largely farming-based community in the 1880s to a factory town in the early 20th Century. The sociologists posit that Muncie is representative of contemporary Middle America-hence the pseudonym, Middletown. They seek to determine how cultural values and standards have changed there.

Middletown: a Study in Modern American Culture is published. The book is a narrative culmination of the Lynds' study, which finds that Middletown's (Muncie's) core values and beliefs have largely remained the same over the 35-year transition from farming town to industrial city.

The Lynds return to Muncie to examine the effects of the Great Depression on the community.

Middletown in Transition: a Study in Cultural Conflicts is published. The book finds that the social structure of Middletown has remained intact, despite widespread economic hardship.

Late 1970s
A team of sociologists led by a former student of Robert Lynd, Theodore Caplow of the University of Virginia, goes to Muncie to compile a new Middletown study. It's fifty years after the initial work. Caplow aims to examine changes in Muncie since the Lynds' original studies. This effort becomes known as Middletown III.

The Center for Middletown Studies is established at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The Center aims to develop more research on Muncie as Middletown, and to study other modern American cities.

Theodore Caplow's Middletown Families is published, drawing on the work of the Middletown III initiative. The book focuses on the state of the American family in the 50 years since the Lynds' studies were published. The authors conclude that the "composite family ... is in splendid condition in Middletown."

Caplow's All Faithful People is published, also based on the work from Middletown III. The book's central thesis: Middletown and American society in general are not becoming more secularized, contrary to the beliefs of contemporary commentators.

Producer Peter Davis releases "Middletown," a series of six separate films broadcast on PBS. Each part focuses on one area of the Lynds' original research: work, family, government, leisure, religion, and education. The series finds that core values and beliefs in Muncie, like emphasis on religion and family, have remained constant through 50 years of change in American society and culture.

Dan Rotenburg publishes Middletown Jews: The Tenuous Survival of an American Jewish Community. The book is an oral history of Jews who lived in Muncie when the Lynds were doing their research. Rotenburg attempts to document the story of the Jewish community of the 1920s and 30s, which he feels was left out of the original Middletown story.

Caplow and his research team return to Muncie for another study, with help from the Center for Middletown Studies. It becomes known as Middletown IV. This effort is produced in collaboration with Ben Wattenberg's documentary, "The First Measured Century," shown on PBS.

The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie's African American Community is published. The book is a retelling of the Middletown experience through the lens of Muncie's African American population. The authors attempt to compare the social and cultural experiences of Middletown blacks and whites, and to correct the image of small-town America as uniquely white.

Back to Hard Times in Middletown.

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