Sociologists walking every block not just in New York City

A sociologist who walked every block of New York City drew attention but can you also learn from walking every block of Tyler, Texas? One sociologist explains:

Because of his interest in the community, Moody said, he has walked every street in Tyler twice. “It took 12 years to do it the first time; 11 years the second time,” Moody said…

“It (walking) is part of my research interests in society,” Moody, who taught sociology and other subjects at different times in six area colleges, said…

“I’m sure there are people who have lived here all their life and never been in parts of this town. If we understand and love one another, we will have a better community and I believe we will have more unity. We should never turn down an opportunity to learn from someone, whether it’s a homeless person, a wino or a wealthy billionaire,” Moody said…

n his walks around town, Moody said he has attended services or toured every church, synagogue and mosque, although he is a Southern Baptist.

Moody added that he has toured every hospital in Tyler, day care centers, nonprofit agencies, television and radio stations, the newspaper office and nursing homes as well as East Texas juvenile correctional facilities, state mental hospitals and prisons.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Tyler may not be New York City but it is still a sizable city of around 100,000 people. Sociology has a long history of community studies and the experiences of people in places like Tyler may hold a lot of interesting research potential. Yet, I’m not sure the field is really interested in the sorts of Middletown studies that once were more common.

2. People who really want to know their communities could use this method. This may be a sort of fad but not for those really invested in their community. I’m thinking of local politicians who claim this but this is typically based on their social connections. While these certainly matter, it is another thing to physically walk everything.

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…

The sociological guide to giving Christmas gifts

Here are nine sociological rules for giving gifts at Christmas. Several things to note:

1. This comes out of the long-running study of “Middletown,” otherwise known as Muncie, Indiana. I am still amazed at all of the material uncovered over the decades in this project.

2. These rules were originally published in a 1984 article in the American Journal of Sociology titled “Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown.” I tend to think of AJS as being austere so I’m not quite sure what to make of the inclusion of this article…

3. I wonder if some of these rules have changed in recent years.

4. One final question: if a sociologist started explaining his or her family’s gift giving practices in this way to the participants, how many families would have a favorable reaction?

Bringing the Middletown study to the stage at Ball State

The Middletown studies are classics within the field of sociology. Students at Ball State, located in “Middletown” itself, are adapting the project for the stage:

Almost a century later, 40 theatre and sociology students join in an immersive project to take the social experiment and put it in motion in live theater.

“The thing about the Middletown studies and what Robert and Helen Lynd were trying to accomplish was ground-breaking,” Jennifer Blackmer, associate professor of the Department of Theatre, said. “They came to Muncie to study Middle America like they would a tribe in New Guinea.”…

Beginning in spring 2011, the students conducted around 60 interviews with Muncie community members and studied various records of the Middletown studies, including the products of the Lynds studies: “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture,” published in 1929, and “Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts,” written as the couple revisited Muncie in the midst of the Great Depression. Students admit they were skeptical at the project’s start…

The couple serves as two personalities in the play among a cast of four main characters; the Lynds who are conducting their study in the 1920s, and two fictional Ball State sociology students trying to copy the Middletown study process. There are sixteen voices in the play of both students and community theater actors.

I would be interested in seeing this. It could bring life to some classic studies that most (all?) college students have never heard of but in their time revealed a lot about “normal” America. Plus, it allows students to connect with their community, linking art with real life. Just as some sociologists have started pursuing video projects and blogs, could theater (and art more broadly) become a way that sociologists share their findings?

Though the study isn’t referenced much in sociology these days, I am including it in current lectures in my American Suburbanization class. When talking about the rise of the automobile, the Middletown studies reveal some interesting details: people basically changed their lives so that they could drive around. The American love affair with the car started early and changed cultural patterns and values as well in addition to the obvious changes in development patterns.