Helen Merrell Lynd

Sociologist and educator Helen Merrell Lynd (1896-1982) was a coauthor of the classic sociological study Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. With her husband, Robert S. Lynd, she studied the beliefs and practices of the residents of a small industrial town to provide a unique portrait of American life in the 1920s. They returned to the town during the Great Depression of the 1930s to observe changes in the community, a study which was published as Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts.

Helen Merrell Lynd, with her husband, Robert S. Lynd, coauthored the classic sociological work Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. A study of the lives of the citizens of an average American town in the 1920s, the book became a best-seller and a standard text for sociology students. The Lynds followed up on Middletown residents in the 1930s, producing the volume Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. In addition to these collaborative works with her husband, Lynd also had a successful independent career in academia. A longtime member of the staff of Sarah Lawrence College, she wrote a number of books on education, history, philosophy, and sociology.

Lynd was born Helen Merrell on March 17, 1896, in La Grange, Illinois. She was one of the three daughters of Edward Tracy Merrell, the editor of the Congregationalist Church publication The Advance, and Mabel Waite Merrell. Her parents maintained a strong emphasis on religion in their home, passing along to their daughters a commitment to humanitarian and social issues. Lynd spent her primary school and high school years attending classes in La Grange. After she had graduated from high school, her father took a new job and the family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts. There, Lynd enrolled in Wellesley College, where she developed an interest in philosophy. She excelled in her studies and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society before she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1919.


Studied Small Town Life

After leaving Wellesley, Lynd taught for a year at the Ossining School for Girls in Ossining, New York. It was while on a mountain climbing trip during this time that she met Robert S. Lynd, who was then in the publishing business. The next year she worked as a teacher at Miss Master's School in Dobbs Ferry, New York. In September of 1922, she and Robert Lynd were married; that same year she received a masters degree in history from Columbia University in New York. Robert Lynd had also decided to pursue advanced studies and was enrolled in Union Theological Seminary at the time of the couple's marriage. After he received his doctor of divinity degree in 1923, he and Lynd traveled to oil fields in the western United States where Robert Lynd worked as a missionary. After viewing the poor conditions of workers in the oil drilling business, the Lynds became interested in sociological aspects of small industrial towns. In the mid-1920s, Robert Lynd organized a series of studies on small towns for the Institute of Social and Religious Research. The institute then hired the Lynds to conduct a thorough examination of the religious life of an average small industrial town in America. The couple selected the town of Muncie, Indiana, as their subject.

The Lynds arrived in Muncie with a small team of researchers in January of 1924. They found it impossible to study just the religious aspects of the town; instead they spent the next one and a half years studying every aspect of town life. They used strategies familiar to anthropologists studying an unfamiliar culture, analyzing the activities the community engaged in to ensure its survival. These included employment, housing, education and training of children, religion, leisure, and community events. The Lynds, who coauthored the study, did not impose any evaluation or judgement on their subject, but simply presented objective observations. Their work did, however, reveal distinct class differences in the city. While the upper classes enjoyed habits of conspicuous consumption, the working class struggled to meet material needs, but maintained an optimism that hard work would allow them to change their social and economic position.


Middletown Praised for Research

Concluding their study in 1925, the Lynds submitted it to the Institute of Social and Religious Research and received a chilly response. The research was not what they had expected, and the organization refused to publish the work. The Lynds searched around for a publisher, and their work was finally accepted by the Harcourt, Brace Company. In order to keep the identity of their subject anonymous, they renamed Muncie as "Middletown" in their book. But upon the publication of Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture in 1929, the residents of Muncie immediately recognized their town and charged that the book was overly critical of the community. Others around the country praised the work, however, and it went through six printings in its first year. Sociologists found a successful technique in the Lynds' research that was soon emulated in studies of other cities. Social critics saw Middletown as providing evidence of the vacuousness of American culture.

Because of gender inequities in academia at that time, Robert Lynd received much of the acclaim for Middletown's success. He was named professor of sociology at Columbia University in 1931, receiving his Ph.D. in the subject by submitting a copy of Middletown under only his name as his dissertation. Helen Lynd joined the faculty of the new Sarah Lawrence College in 1928; she would remain with the institution until her retirement in 1964. During her tenure there, she helped to institute many of the nontraditional educational methods for which the women's college became renowned. In the early years of their college teaching careers, the Lynds had two children, their son Staughton, born in 1929, and their daughter, Andrea, born in 1934.


Studied Effects of Great Depression

With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Lynds were curious to see how the nation-wide economic strife was affecting the town of Muncie. They returned for a follow-up study in 1935. The resulting book, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, found that the family that owned the local factory had gained even more power in the local economy, creating a starker division between the classes. The tone of this second study was markedly different from the first; the Lynds no longer made any attempt to hide their leftist sympathies and expressed disappointment that the town citizens still felt that the hard work of the individual, rather than the solidarity of workers, was the key to a better life. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Lynds would become more outspoken on leftist and liberal ideas, leading them to support the position of the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War after World War II, even though they were never aligned with the Communist Party. Helen Lynd was particularly vocal in her criticisms of the American attacks on Communism that were highlighted by the McCarthy era trials of accused Communists. This led to Lynd herself being called before a Senate investigating committee during that time.

In the 1940s, Lynd returned to her work in history and philosophy, earning a Ph.D. in both subjects from Columbia University in 1944. Her dissertation was published in 1945 as England in the Eighteen-Eighties: Toward a Social Basis for Freedom. The work studied social and material changes among the upper and lower classes of England during a period of industrial and economic growth. It was hailed as a powerful book marked by its thorough research and flowing prose. A 1958 work by Lynd also displayed her continuing interest in sociological topics. In On Shame and the Search for Identity, she compared the idea of guilt, a feeling created by breaking a rule of society, with the concept of shame, the sense of having betrayed the self. Psychologists and psychiatrists saw the work as a valuable reevaluation of the ideas of identity presented by Sigmund Freud. The book also helped to link the areas of sociology and psychology by showing that they each played a role in creating the personality of the individual. Lynd also wrote a number of books on education during her career, including Field Work in Education in 1945 and Toward Discovery in 1965.

After retiring from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, Lynd continued to teach there on a part-time basis until just before her death. She died in Warren, Ohio, on January 30, 1982. Although best known for her collaboration with her husband on the Middletown studies, Lynd also left her mark as an outstanding academic. Through her teaching and writings, she contributed a number of new ideas that had an important influence on the fields of education and sociology.


Further Reading on Helen Merrell Lynd

Deegan, Mary Jo, editor. Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1991.

Horowitz, Irving Louis, "Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd," in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Biographical Supplement, edited by David L. Sills, Free Press, 1979.

Madge, John, The Origins of Scientific Sociology, Free Press, 1962.