MIDDLETOWN FAMILIES: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity by Theodore & Others Caplow
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MIDDLETOWN FAMILIES: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity

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Continuity overpowers change in this sociological return to Muncie, Indiana--site of Robert and Helen Lynd's classic Middletown studies of 1929 and 1937. The new research team, headed by Univ. of Virginia sociologist Caplow, relies on questionnaires, interviews, and observation of Muncie families. Such techniques, aimed at answering basic questions, also raise more complex issues. Is Muncie truly ""Middletown""? Can we generalize from its family forms and values to those of Middle America at large? Can questionnaires penetrate the deep structure of family life or do they fail to uncover what one resident-critic called ""the rich tapestry of individual and sub-group interpretations of existence""? Not insignificant concerns, considering that the message here (as in Mary Jo Bane's 1976 Here to Stay) is that the family is not just alive but ""in exceptionally good condition."" Putting aside such issues, the actual findings interest for their portrayal of a Middletown only minimally affected by or concerned with major currents of social and political change. Remarkably sanguine about their personal hopes and plans, ""young workers look forward to promotion, old workers to a comfortable retirement."" Middletowners are pessimistic about the rest of the world and its future, alarmed as they are by nuclear proliferation, environmental pollution, and inflation. ""Faced with these discouraging prospects, they avert their eyes and return to the felicities of family life, the comforts of religion, and the wide range of private pleasures available to them."" Despite feminism and the entrance of middle-class Middletown women into the labor force, sex roles remain distinct. Said one typical housewife: ""We've never really had any problems. . . . I know what I'm supposed to do, he knows what he's supposed to do."" Teenagers do experiment more with drugs, but their rebellion forms part of a familiar pattern of ""partial rejection of parents and their values, followed by subsequent acceptance and reidentification."" While attitudes toward divorce have liberalized (actual rates show no clear rise), the common wisdom is that divorce represents ""the removal of a destructive relationship with the expectation that a more satisfactory one will be substituted."" Middletowners are more tolerant now of sexual diversity than they were in the 1920s, but extramarital affairs are still sufficient cause for the termination of a marriage. Such findings support the researchers' comparison of Middletown to a ""tribal society"" held together by powerful family and kinship ties. (For better or for worse, they don't ask.) The Lynds, one felt, were more involved; but on its own terms this is a highly accomplished, unpedantic study--already the subject of news stories, dated for further exposure as a PBS series this spring, and certain to be widely discussed.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Univ. of Minnesota Press