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Back to Middletown: Three Generations of Sociological Reflections

Rita Caccamo
Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA
0804734933 (hb)
27.50; $45.00 (hb)

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Sociologists belonging to the Chicago School treated their city as a laboratory in which to study wider processes of social change. Much the same could be said of Robert and Helen Lynd's attitude towards the small town of Muncie, Indiana. They selected it as an appropriate place to investigate the fortunes of American, protestant values in the changing conditions of modern urban society; and, in particular, as a context where those values were not under pressure from foreign immigration. In Middletown, published in 1929, they provided a picture of how the town had changed between 1890 and 1924, and documented the main facets of life there. Ten years later, in Middletown in Transition, they looked at subsequent changes, notably those resulting from the depression.

Rita Caccamo is an Italian sociologist who had the opportunity to visit Muncie and work in the archives at the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University. In her book, she begins by outlining Robert Lynd's life and work (there is less discussion of Helen Lynd, though this author has written about her elsewhere). Caccamo then looks at what the Lynds found, and at the implications for our understanding of socio-cultural change in the United States. In the final chapters of her book Caccamo briefly examines a further restudy of Muncie begun in the 1970s, and then reflects on 'the Nineties in Middletown', drawing on her own experience of the town. In these chapters she contrasts the 'critical' orientation adopted by the Lynds (especially in Middletown in Transition), of which she approves, with the more orthodox sociological perspective employed in the later restudy by Caplow, Bahr and their colleagues.

This book usefully highlights the importance of the Lynds' investigations of Middletown. In the later decades of the twentieth century, their work was neglected by comparison with that of the Chicago School; and yet it was among the first attempts to apply anthropological method to Western societies, and was very influential in its time. It stimulated a substantial tradition of community studies both in the USA and in the UK.

However, Caccamo's book is also disappointing. Perhaps because it has been translated from the Italian, it is not always well-written. Indeed, in a few places the meaning intended is not clear. Furthermore, most of the discussion is taken up with describing and evaluating the findings of the Lynds' studies, and speculating about their implications for understanding cultural change in the United States. There is little reflection on how the Lynds went about their work, or about the relationship between community study and currently more influential forms of sociological method.

Furthermore, in my judgement, the book tells us little that is new. The strongest claim to a contribution in these terms is a chapter on what Caccamo calls 'the Perrigo case'. This concerns Lynn Perrigo, a teacher from Muncie who later studied for a PhD in history, producing a graduate research paper on 'Muncie and Middletown, 1924-34'. He did this work before Robert Lynd returned to Muncie for the restudy, and it is clear that the latter drew on Perrigo's work; even though he is not explicitly cited. Perrigo's contribution is significant because it pointed to the power of one particular family in Muncie (the Ball family, who gave their name to the local university), and raised the whole issue of the community power structure. One of the team involved in the later restudy, Howard Bahr, wrote an article about the Lynds and Perrigo. In the course of her work in the archives, Caccamo came across a letter about this article from Robert Merton, who had been a friend of the Lynds. He was asked to referee it for the American Journal of Sociology. In this letter, Merton criticised its tone, on the grounds that it suggested a murky affair and perhaps even plagiarism - even though it was known that Perrigo himself had requested that the Lynds not mention his name. Merton's second criticism was that the focus on the power structure in Middletown was not simply a result of Perrigo's work but reflected changes in the sociological perspective of the Lynds during the intervening period. All this is interesting, but not of great significance, it seems to me; moreover, Caccamo uses it to make criticisms of Bahr which, on the evidence provided, are not justified.

For anyone unfamiliar with the work of the Lynds, this book may be a useful starting point and source of references; but it does not offer much more than this. One can still gain a great deal from the chapter on the Middletown studies in Madge (1963) and from Horowitz's (1979) encyclopaedia entry on the Lynds.

Martyn Hammersley
The Open University


HOROWITZ, I. L. (1979) 'Robert and Helen Lynd', International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Biographical Supplement, (D. L. Sills ed) New York, Macmillan.

MADGE, J. (1963) The Origins of Scientific Sociology, London, Tavistock.

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