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Howard Bahr Interview

Howard M. Bahr is a Professor of Sociology at Brigham Young University. 

Professor Bahr was director of field research for the Middletown IV study (1999). 

He is a co-author of Recent Social Trends in the United States 1960-1990; and Divorce and Remarriage. He is the author of Dine Bibliography to the 1990s: A Companion to the Navajo Bibiliography of 1969.

Howard Bahr

New River Media Interview with: Howard Bahr 
Professor of Sociology, Brigham Young University

QUESTION: Please explain your role in the various studies of "Middletown" [Muncie, Indiana]. 

HOWARD BAHR: On two Middletown surveys, I was one of two field supervisors, or co-investigators, officially, on the proposal. Theodore Caplow was the principal investigator. In the 1977 study, I went to Muncie with my family and lived for a year, directed the research there. We had an office there that we did the research out of, and I was responsible for the business management of that office, as well as the sociological oversight. And the following year, Bruce Chadwick, who was another co-investigator on the Middletown survey, replaced me in Muncie. In the current survey, the 1999 survey, I have filled essentially the same role again. Caplow is the principal investigator once more. I have been chief field supervisor. During one part of the study, Chadwick occupied his old role. He supervised the survey of the Middletown housewives in 1977, so he did that again. And I was happy for him to do that. And then I did the high school survey supervision, which I had done in 1976-1977. 

QUESTION: Howard, tell me about what happened to the families in Muncie from 1924 to 1977 to 1999. What kind of changes have we seen? 

HOWARD BAHR: There were some trends in the family between 1924 and 1978 that showed dramatic change. There were others that our data suggests that things are pretty much as they were. Between 1924 and 1977-1978, for example, business class - that is, white-collar wives, who did not work at all in 1924, entered the labor force. By 1977, we had more than one-third of all wives of the housewife survey and the mothers of high school kids who were working, who had full-time jobs. So that's a dramatic change. 

Working-class women had always worked. They had to so that their families could survive. The employment of the husband often was not trustworthy. He could get laid off. There was no unemployment insurance, and so on. So working-class women had always worked at about the same level they did in 1977, about 40 to 50 percent of them. But to have the business class of white-collar wives move into the labor force was new. 

From 1924 to 1977, you have the business class wives becoming like the working-class wives with respect to employment outside the home. From 1977 to 1999, you have that trend continuing for both, such that by 1999 you have three-fifths of mothers of high school children working full-time outside the home. 

QUESTION: Give us a time line of what has happened with respect to divorce. 

HOWARD BAHR: Well, as you probably know from the earlier Middletown families book, Middletown always had a high divorce rate - high in the sense that the divorce rate in the 1920s was not all that different from what it was in the 1970s. So, as we looked at things on the basis of Middletown III, the 1977 data, we were able to say, "Things don't look so bad. Here we've got a place that's had a relatively high divorce rate for fifty-some years." In fact, we were criticized. We were accused of being Pollyannas, because the country is full of gloom and doom about the status of the family, and we look at Middletown families and they seem to be functioning as well as they did in the 1920s, if not better. 

The divorce rate in 1977 is not significantly higher than it was in the 1920s. It had been much higher in the 1940s. You could argue that divorce was more acceptable in the 1970s, but if you're talking about divorce as a factor in the community, Middletown in the 1970s is not all that different. 

Middletown in the 1990s shows the result of that trend, the divorce trend, plus a trend in single-mother parenthood, some of it a consequence of divorce, some of it child-bearing and rearing outside of marriage. And so you end up with a situation where now, 1999, end of the century in Middletown, you have one-fifth of the school kids who are in step-parent homes, another fifth who are living with mother alone. You have only half - 52 percent - of the families of the Middletown high school children, who are in intact families with the mother and the father still married who are their biological parents. 

Now, that's down dramatically from 1977. In 1977 we had two-thirds; we had 68 percent of the high school kids who were living with both parents in an intact family. Twenty-three years later, you have only half. Now, that's only twenty-two years. You've got to remember here that when we talk about Middletown I, 1924, and Middletown III, 1977-78, you've got fifty-three years. Now we're talking about a span half that long. And so to say that we've gone from 68 percent high school children in intact families to 51 percent in intact families in that twenty-two-year period, that's a dramatic change. 

In the 1977 survey, parents of Middletown high school children, two-thirds of them were intact families. By 1999, only half of the high school children could report that they came from an intact family where mother and dad were both their natural parents. Now, over a twenty-two-year period, that's a dramatic change. That's one of the changes that you can look at now and say, "Well, maybe some of the doomsayers about the family were able to see into the future." And the question now becomes, "Has that particular trend run its course, or are we headed for a situation where we end up with only 30 percent of the high school kids living with their natural parents?" 

QUESTION: When the questionnaires went out to these moms, did you hear echoes or statements of distress and concern about that? 

HOWARD BAHR: No, I hear echoes of "I'm busy." I hear echoes of "It's hard to rear a family." Sometimes it's because "Dad's not here." Sometimes it's "I'm glad he's not here." You hear echoes both ways. But what you hear more is that these mothers are devoted to their kids. I was amazed, as I looked through the expressions of what keeps you going when times are tough. Almost never do they say, "Getting back at that so-and-so who left me," or a complaint about the structure - the circumstances that put them in this structure, living, supporting perhaps a family by themselves, certainly managing a household and children by themselves. No, they say, "When things get tough, what keeps me going is my children." 

And if you ask me, "Is family strong in Muncie?" I say, "Well, what do you mean by family?" If you mean, "Is dad there?" then a lot of the time he's not. If you mean intact family, then there's trouble. But if you mean, "Do you have here mothers who are committed to their kids, who are giving their lives an hour at a time, a day at a time for their kids?" I still come out on the positive side; what, in the 1978 study, we called the composite family. 

It may be that divorce, it may be that the changing patterns have produced a situation where sometimes you have a mother without a husband, without a father, but apparently the network of relatives, grandparents, and this intense commitment that we see of mothers to their children, stronger, if anything, than in the 20s. I can't prove that, but it gets mentioned more often. When you ask which is more important to Muncie families, their friends or their kin folk, it's the kindred. If you ask who do they visit when they have time to visit, they tend to visit kin folk. If you ask, "Does everybody have relatives somewhere?" in Delaware County, in Middletown, relatives tend to live close. They're accessible. 

QUESTION: What about the fathers? 

HOWARD BAHR: They don't show up much in the statements by these mothers about what keeps them going. Now, you know, this may be simply a matter of children being top priority. If you look through the statements by these mothers about "When times get tough, what is it that keeps you going?" there's a fair number that talked about God and religion and their faith. And when they talk about family, they talk about their kids. Now and then a wife will say, "My husband and the children" or "My husband and I together." But judging from their responses to this unexpected question, "What keeps you going?" husbands don't get mentioned very often. 

QUESTION: What has happened to the concept of "housewifery"? 

HOWARD BAHR: One of the clearest things to me is the continuing slide of the status of family work. When you ask the kids, "What makes a good mother?" it used to be that a large percentage of them said, "Being a good cook and housekeeper." And in 1977, that was down. And in 1999, it's down even further. Nobody is identifying with the skills that go with maintaining a home and preparing and cooking food. You ask the kids, "What's the best role for a woman?" and you give them options like mother, career. Three-fourths of the high school kids in 1999 say all three. And that's up from 1977. That wasn't asked in 1924. But it's clear that what a woman is to be at the end of the century is wife and mother and career, having it all. And the notion that that involves much housework, much family work, that simply is not there. 

QUESTION: Let's talk about religion and values for a moment. What are the changes you see there? 

HOWARD BAHR: Well, one of the interesting questions that we do have data from the three surveys is parents' ideas of what kind of characteristics they would like to instill in their children, what they see as important. And there are continuities there, but there are some really exciting changes, dramatic changes. One of them is on the issue of strict obedience. Strict obedience was important in the 1920s. It's down in 1977. It virtually drops off the chart in 1999. 

Tolerance is up. Individualism - I can't remember the way we stated it - independence is up. It's as if we have our kids becoming rugged individualists, except it's not a very rugged individualism because you ask the high school kids and they're in favor of big government as a safety net every time. If you can't get a house, the government should build you one. If you can't get medical help, the government should do it. You know, that's up. But at the same time, the high school kids are willing to blame you if you fail; 55 percent of them. That's more than in either of the previous surveys. Two-thirds of them in 1999 - and we were surprised at this - say it's the man's own fault if he fails. 

Now, the way the question was asked, there's not a lot of patriotism that shows up, because they were asked to pick the top three out of a bunch. But there were some who said that's one of the top three in 1924. There were a very few who said it in 1977. Almost nobody says it; almost no parent says that patriotism is important in 1999. The kids, by the way, are less patriotic in 1999 also. And, interestingly, working-class kids are more patriotic than business-class kids. 

QUESTION: Tell me about the changes in traits that parents try to instill in their children. 

HOWARD BAHR: In the early Middletown study, 1924, [Robert and Helen] Lynd gave a list of a dozen or so characteristics and asked parents to pick the ones that were important, that they thought were most important. And the ones that came up in 1924 as most important in the parents' minds were that their children be good church-goers, that they had religion, and that they learn strict obedience. 

By 1977, both of those had declined to somewhere in the middle [of the list]. They weren't nearly as important as they had been. They'd been replaced by creativity and independence. And by 1999, the characteristics that parents in Middletown are most keen to impart to their children, even though obedience would help them, are that their kids be tolerant and that they be independent. Now, you can see that as part of the trend that many have noticed toward American individualism and toward do your own thing. Whatever it is, the parents are behind it in part, because that's what they want in their kids these days more than anything else, they say, are tolerance and independence. 

On the other hand, if you look at church attendance, Middletown is as religious as it ever was. If you look at certain theological beliefs, it's less religious than it was in 1924 but as religious as it was in 1977. For example, there's the question that Christianity is the only true religion and everybody should be converted to it. You had 90 percent agreement with that in 1924. The change that took place there happened by 1977, so you have increased tolerance. You've got - what do you have? Maybe only 40 percent, you know, half agreeing with that. But that half now has continued since 1977. So that's a trend that somehow ends between Middletown I - stabilizes between Middletown I and Middletown II. Nevertheless, they think independence is more important than teaching their kids to be church-goers. 

QUESTION: As a student of Muncie, can you give us a description of the economic change? 

HOWARD BAHR: Muncie was an industrial town. It was essentially a manufacturing town when Robert and Helen Lynd went there in the 1920s. In fact, they chose it because it wasn't a very unusual industrial town. You had glass works. You had all sorts of blue-collar back and muscle work. That was what fueled the Muncie economy in the 1920s. You had, by the mid-30s, the glass factories, for example, kept Muncie at a little higher rate of employment than the rest of the country. It survived the Depression as well as it did because people were bottling fruit. But it was essentially an industrial town. 

By the 1970s, it was still an industrial town, but the nature of the industry had changed. The glass works had moved to where labor was cheaper. The management of the glass company was still there, and there were some glass factories nearby. But essentially, the labor had moved out of state. 

By 1977, it had become a college town. The chief employer by 1977 was the university, the state university there. Between 1977 and 1999, the auto industry, for example, was big. You know, the glass works had been replaced by Delco Battery, by Chevrolet. There were an enormous number of small businesses when we were there in the 1970s, the small machine shops, outfits, sometimes family outfits, that provided a single part to an industrial giant somewhere else. Our impression is that the whole auto industry complex, which was such a large part in the 1970s, is no longer as important to Muncie. By 1977, though, because of the flight of the glass factories to greener fields in terms of labor costs, the main industry in terms of the chief employer was the state university. 

That trend has continued. The state university, if anything, is more important today. And I guess this is a national trend as well; the service industries have become much more important in Muncie. The second-most important employer is the hospital. It is no longer primarily a blue-collar industrial-based city. And if you're looking for an underlying reason for some of the changes you find, it may be simply the change in the nature of the town. 

QUESTION: Describe for me the Lynds' view of the consumer revolution. 

HOWARD BAHR: There is a big chapter in their second book on the Middletown spirit. It consists largely of quotations from the Muncie newspaper editorials. They are criticizing this Middletown spirit in part because the Middletown spirit is an affirmation of how good life is. There are the problems that everybody recognizes, but both in 1924 and even in the Depression, there is the sense that things are okay, things are getting better, things will be all right. People seem to be buying that. The Lynds, if you read carefully between the lines in Middletown in Transition, [Middletown II] are frustrated that the people don't understand how much they're being exploited by the elites. 

You remember, it's in the second book that you get the 'X' family, the chapter where you have this impossibly rich family for whom everything or almost everything in town is named, and who make decisions that determine everybody else's life chances: the Ball family. The Middletown lower class is documented in the first book to live in really abject and often really frightening conditions. You could say, yes, they're getting cars, and yes, they do have radios and things are getting better. But as the Lynds compare that watershed between south of the tracks and north of the tracks, the lifestyles of the business and the working class, it's clear that the working class is getting the short end of the economic deal. 

Yet the Depression comes. The whole nation is plunged into what you could see as another one of those Marxian crises that is supposed to lead us out of capitalism. And the Lynds, who are themselves looking at things through pink-colored glasses, cannot understand why in the world the Muncie working man is willing to continue to mouth these platitudes about American opportunity, continues to be patriotic, continues to support a capitalist system that exploits him. 

QUESTION: Who was right, the people or the Lynds? 

HOWARD BAHR: The Lynds' initial picture of Middletown, with the railroad tracks and the south side and the terrible conditions that they describe as they sketch the working-class homes and contrast them to the business-class homes, they looked at that. They believed the picture that they had made. And they go back in the 1930s and the country is in a Depression; things are even worse. They've documented that the middle class has things better and they're stuck here, because they're looking at two processes. One is they show class to us - working class, business class. But the other is the progress of modernization. And the progress of modernization actually muddies up the class distinction that they want to make. 

Well, you look at Muncie today and you ask, "Where are those pockets of poverty?" There still are some, but it's poverty at a very different and a very more comfortable level than the poverty described in the 1920s. I think the Middletown spirit has triumphed. As I look at Muncie, and I have my own kind of spectacles, but as I look at it, I think the Lynds are wrong. I think that they were interpreting a reliance on what you might call the American dream. They would see it as false consciousness. They would see it as another opiate fed to the people so that the exploiters could keep exploiting; the capitalists could keep profiting. 

But if you look at Muncie today, the middle class is far better off economically than it was then. We documented in the Middletown Families book and in some of the other articles out of Middletown III that partly things were better simply because people were better off. They had better houses. They had better health care. They had better all kinds of things that were simply a fact of life in the 1920s and everybody accepted. Now they live better. And so who was right? The Middletown spirit has triumphed, I think. 

QUESTION: As you look at your 1999 survey compared to 1977 and earlier, is there more continuity or more change? 

HOWARD BAHR: A lot of the changes that made modern Muncie happen between 1925 and 1977 - actually, a lot more of the changes happened between 1890 and 1925. So much of the continuity we see between the first and the second Middletown study of this century between Middletown I and Middletown III, essentially, is the plateau of changes that have essentially already happened. 

Now, there are some other changes that are still underway. And so when you say, "Choose between change and continuity," I'm going to say continuity overall. I'm going to say between 1977 and 1999, there are a lot more numbers in there that are the same, as I look at the two columns of figures, a lot more things that are not statistically significantly different than that have changed dramatically. 

But I'm not going to say that there have not been some very important changes since 1977. I think that there are a few trends that are still working themselves out, and even that kind of phrase is scary, because what do I mean, working their way out? You know, if you buy into a cyclical series of change, they're going to continue. Change is going to continue to happen. If you buy into either the decline or the progress theory, you can sort of pick your horse there. 

But I see Muncie between 1977 and 1999 as essentially in a plateau, essentially a sort of maybe shoring up some changes that had been made earlier, maybe continuing some that were already underway; a couple of dramatic ones. Perhaps the most dramatic ones have to do with women's roles, as I see it; have to do with women in the home, women as mothers; has to do with attitudes toward families, attitudes toward careers and work. There is stuff going on there still. 

Now, there are some other really dramatic continuities. You ask a high school full of kids, thousands of kids in 1977, "What social class are you?" and "How important are your parents?" And you ask that very same question to totally different kids, different generation, twenty-two years later, the numbers come out precisely the same; same number of kids who think they're average, same number of kids who think that their parents make more money than others; a remarkable stability in the perceptions of what is going on there, period. 

What I feel is that it is really important that this decline, the status of the mother in the home, that's critical. We only have a few little indicators of that. Do you know what kids fight about most, what they say is the single source of disagreement? It's chores, household chores. Fifty-one percent mentioned that. That's just a sort of little outcropping. But if you combine - oh, what did I say - 61 percent of the mothers working outside the home full-time with a decline in the status of cooking and housekeeping - who's cooking for these kids? . . . We were stupid. We didn't ask in 1977 anything about the meals taken [by high-schoolers]. But there's other data that suggest that family meal is disappearing from the American family . . . I have a sense that it happens on weekends, but at no other time. I was amazed that nobody has breakfast at home with their family. It doesn't happen. I mean, we're talking there [about] big percentages, 90 percent who don't have breakfast at home. 

We raise at the very end of the Middletown Families book, we're not sure what people spending more time away from their kids means. We're not going to predict that that's a good thing. Well, that's worse now than it was then, I think. You can find the numbers from the wives who say they're still spending about as much time with the kids as they did. If you ask the kids, "How much time do you spend alone with your mom now, you and her?" as opposed to back then, it's down. It depends on who you ask and it depends on how you measure it, but it's not, I think, up from the kids' point of view. So the bottom line is, in general, 1977 to 1999, I read continuity. I read the continued plateau of the trends that had already pretty much worked their way out by 1977. But I see a few continued structural changes that have to do with parental time with kids, I think.


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