Labor strife in the 1920s led many capitalists to search for ways to ameliorate worker discontent. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the legendary founder of Standard Oil, endowed a foundation that promoted religion as a cure for labor-capital conflict. This foundation, the Institute of Social and Religious Research, commissioned a comprehensive study of religion in single community. The man chosen to do the study was Robert Lynd, a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary.
Robert Lynd did not have graduate training in social science and had no real experience in social research. But Lynd had preached in Rockefeller-owned oil fields in Wyoming. He had recently married a graduate of Wellesley College: Helen Merrell Lynd. Together, they set out to find a "typical" American community where religion could be studied in its natural setting. Those chose Muncie, Indiana as a city that was big enough to have lots of parts and lots of activities, but small enough to be studied by a small team of people.
Shortly after arriving in 1924, the Lynds decided that it was pointless to study religion in isolation and decided to study the entire life of the community. They chose an anthropological framework that gathered information in six topic areas: Getting a Living; Making a Home; Training the Young; Using Leisure; Engaging in Religious Practice; and Engaging in Community Activities. The Lynds also devised a temporal framework: they decided to compare Muncie as it had existed in 1890 to the Muncie they found in 1924.
The Lynds used a wide array of techniques to gather data in Muncie. They used the 1890 census of Muncie. They looked at newspapers in 1890 and 1924. They compared sermons and interviewed ministers. They wrote questionnaires and administered to groups such as high school students and housewives. They visited meetings of practically every organization in the city. They kept detailed records and took nothing for granted.
They wrote a large report for the Institute, which rejected it as useless and unpublishable. Back in New York City, however, some of the Lynds' friends were impressed by the manuscript. Clark Wissler, at the time head of the American Museum of Natural History, encouraged a publisher to read the manuscript. Harcourt, Brace published Middletown: A Study in American Culture in 1929. It was a sensation. The book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. It was an overnight bestseller (it has never gone of print and is available today in bookstores). Both Lynds headed for academic careers: he at Columbia University and she at Sarah Lawrence College.
The principal findings of Middletown were numerous and important. The Lynds were charted the social effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization. By some measures, they were trying to document the most rapid social changes in history. Most of the adults in Middletown had grown up on farms with primitive technology: they pumped water from wells, beat clothing against a washboard, walked behind teams of plowing animals, were lucky to finish the eighth grade, and rode horses into the small town of Muncie.
But by 1925, they work at machines in factories in town. They live in houses inside the city limits. They listened to the radio, drove their new car on weekends, and their children went to the local high school.
The rough egalitarianism of the farmland had been replaced by a two-class system in the city. The Lynds found a business class, which worked with people and symbols, and a working class, which worked with things. And the Lynds found that these two groups were as different as two different tribes. They had different values, different expectations and did not mingle. Among the differences between the two groups was financial security: the working class was subject to frequent layoffs with no notice, while the business class was almost never laid off.