Helen Merrell Lynd


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Helen Lynd was an American ethnographer and social theorist whose most famous books, co-authored with her husband Robert S. Lynd, concerned life in a small Midwestern town. The Lynds lived in the community they studied (‘Middletown’—in reality Muncie, Indiana) 1924–6, and published the first volume of the work, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, in 1929. Their analysis is organized around major activities for community survival, including making a home, earning a living, training the young, and participating in religious and community activities. The second volume, a longitudinal study entitled Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1935), was published in the middle of the Depression. In this they described class strains and privileges as being more apparent, although there was little evident workers’ solidarity: the radical socio-economic changes of the time did not generate radical class movements. Despite the shared research and authorship, it is more often Robert Lynd who is given most credit for these classic studies.

Helen Lynd was also a teacher and political activist and was subject to harassment during the McCarthy witch-hunts. In 1958 she published On Shame and the Search for Identity, a critique of Sigmund Freud and Talcott Parsons, in which she argued that these writers failed to provide either a historical context for or a historical content to their sociological theories. She also published studies of student-teacher interaction in colleges, Field Work in College Education (1945), and a historical study entitled England in the Eighteen Eighties: Toward a Social Basis for Freedom (1944). Central to all her work was the investigation of human meaning and action.

Subjects: Sociology.

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