Journalism — Not Sociology

Ellsworth Faris

MIDDLETOWN IN TRANSITION: A STUDY IN CULTURAL CONFLICTS, by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937, xviii+604 pp. $5.

This volume seeks to show the effects of the depression on the typical American small city. A former book was written from materials gathered in 1925, and this sequel assumes acquaintance with the earlier work The authors are at some pains to discuss the unfavorable reception of the first book by the members of the community described and conclude that the antagonism is due to the inability of the typical citizens of a city like this to endure criticism, and to their blind devotion to their own institutions which they are said to believe are the best in the world. The body of the work seems devoted chiefly to a defense of the earlier strictures, written in a tone which the citizens of the city resent as supercilious.

That a book which purports to be objective should produce such an effect calls for explanation. This can best be sought in the Preface, a reading of which is essential to the understanding of the book, where the investigators set down in specific detail the essential articles of their social creed and point out that, on every issue named, the typical American city holds the opposite and therefore the erroneous view. They are able to convict the city of a love for its institutions and an admiration of them, but their inference from this fact, that they consider their institutions "sacrosanct," is hardly borne out when one reads of the efforts to modify and improve them. People who consider their schools perfect would hardly appoint a commission to draw up a ten-year plan for the betterment of education in the city.

The task of scientific sociological research is to formulate problems, gather relevant facts about these problems, and form hypothetical conclusions which must be tested and verified, or modified, or even given up. Work done in this careful manner encounters none of the difficulties which literary artists meet, for the "impressions" of the writer are not presented, and demonstrated conclusions cannot be gainsaid.

In extenuation, it should be remembered that the authors labored under certain handicaps. In the first place, the attempt to present a scientific account of a city of this size was a task far beyond the resources available, both of funds and personnel. Second, even for the limits which had to be set, there was insufficient time. The size of the completed book cannot disguise the fact that the work was done hurriedly. More than half a hundred statistical tables are presented, editorials from local papers are quoted, and reports given of conversations held with various citizens; but there was no opportunity to interpret and verify these data, and recourse was had to guesses and surmises. Time and time again, the reader is presented with an interpretation of the meaning of the facts presented, in phrases of which the following are typical:

one suspects," "it probably involved," "it is unlikely," "it is the strong belief of the investigator," "there are probably," "one can merely speculate," and so on. Interpreting a statistical table of significance, in a single paragraph, there are actually four of these: "this is probably," "can it be that," it is possible," and it is probable" (p. 212). The result is that most of the findings can be interpreted by the reader in a different way, and the task of science, to give knowledge, is unaccomplished.

But in addition to the error of under-

( 230) -taking too large a task and to the lack of sufficient time to verify the interpretations, there is another and more basic difficulty. The first study was made in 1925, before the author had received any adequate training in sociology. Mr. Lynd received his doctorate in 1931, six years later, and the first study, as well as this one, reveals clearly the effect of the attitudes which are appropriate to the theological seminary. For the theologian is interested in pointing out what is right; often he is greatly concerned to show that whoever differs with him is wrong. Accurate description of phenomena and objective analysis of causes and relations often appear to him to be synonymous with moral indifference. The prophet must cry aloud and spare not. And when a book of 600 pages is written with this point of view, it is not surprising that it sometimes approaches mere faultfinding. It is no criticism of the investigator or of his seminary to point out that in science, including social science, the creed of the investigator should not only not be announced, it should be impossible to discover it. The ethnologists accomplish this in a similar field. Whether the ethnologist be Jew, Catholic, or Communist is impossible to discover from a properly conducted study.

There is a fourth difficulty that should be cited. The statistical tables are accurately verifiable but fail to give much that one needs to know in seeking to understand a city. For much of the material, it was necessary to rely on gossip and rumor. Some of the citations are reminiscent of a listener at keyholes, a type with which the readers of Walter Winchell are familiar. The reader frequently comes across statements of which the following are typical: "the city is full of whispered stories about," "it is freely reported," "one minister is reported," is said to have told," "is reported on good authority," and many similar expressions.

But unsatisfactory as this use of gossip as data for science proves to be, it is safer than the uncritical acceptance of a damaging statement which could have been refuted by using the methods of any ethical newspaper reporter. As evidence of administrative dominance of the schools it is stated on page 206 that eight administrators and no teachers had their expenses paid to the convention of the National Education Association. The superintendent did, as is customary, enjoy that privilege, but the other seven drove their own cars and paid for their own gasoline.

The extreme to which the author is led has an amusing illustration in his argument in the beginning of his discussion of leisure time, when in order to prove that the citizens of the typical American city measure everything by its money value, appeal is made to the idiom of the English language, "They believe in spending leisure profitably." One can recall the words of the Master who said, "what shall it profit a man," and who counseled us to lay up treasures in heaven. Idioms of speech can easily be misinterpreted. Does "fight the good fight" prove St. Paul a militarist?

The work of Mr. Lynd has received very high praise. This reviewer has yet to read an unfavorable comment, and it is with regret that he finds it impossible to make it unanimous. The gifted and earnest author, should his eyes see these lines, can be trusted to be unperturbed if one member of the throng, like Mordecai, cannot consent to bow down.

Middletown in Transition is journalism, and as journalism it should be judged by experts in journalism. It does not qualify as sociology.

University of Chicago


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2