Drifting Along: Unemployment and Interwar Social Research, from Marienthal to Muncie

Crosspost from Migrant Knowledge

In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1

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