The central Indiana town of Muncie might not be the first place that comes to mind when embarking on an ethnological study. But when Robert and Helen Lynd set out in 1924 to chart everyday life in middle-America, the Delaware county seat was the perfect model of a small, culturally homogeneous city that had experienced rapid growth through industry. With backing from New York ‘s Institute of Social and Religious Research, the Lynds’ team of five investigators spent fifty months in Muncie, conducting interviews with and observing the activities of a sampling of the city’s 38,000 residents. They published their findings in 1929 as Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. The book, which did not identify its subject as Muncie, was so popular that it quickly went into six printings. In seeking to determine the impact of modernization on the average American, the Lynds grouped the data they collected into the categories of getting a living, making a home, training the young, using leisure, engaging in religious practices, and engaging in community activities. The objective stance of the cultural anthropologist alternates with a moralizing tone throughout the volume. The Lynds bemoaned the passing of a bucolic agrarian culture, and the nefarious influence of such innovations as the automobile and the radio. Middletown was largely ignored by urban sociologists at the time, who dismissed the work and its methods as unscientific. Critics have also argued that Muncie was atypical of American cities of its time, with regard to its low percentage of women working outside the home and its small immigrant population. Furthermore, the Lynds neglected to include Muncie ‘s black or Jewish residents within the scope of their study.
In 1937, the Lynds published Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, which studied the changes wrought by the Great Depression. Though the sequel was criticized for being more biased and less well researched than the first, the Middletown studies have nonetheless had a lasting legacy. When contemporary pollsters want to know what the average American thinks, they’ll often head to Muncie.