Small Town in Mass Society.
by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman.
Princeton University Press. 329 pp. $6.00.
The urban-rural dichotomy and all its variants and examples are the heritage of all of us. The metropolis and the town, the city slicker and the country hick, the city’s excitement and the country’s friendliness. They are part of our folklore, arts, and social science. David Riesman suggests that UPA’s Mr. Magoo is the urban equivalent of Walt Disney’s animals. And C. Wright Mills has shown that individuals with rural backgrounds often write the books on “social disorganization” of the city. As we learn more about the urban, we learn more about the rural; learning more about the rural, we learn more about the urban.
A township named Springdale in upstate New York. A community with no movie house, no super-market, and no outside industry, with a central high school that eliminated twenty-six independent school districts. A population of approximately 3,000, more than one-third of whom arrived between 1940 and 1952, about 1,000 of whom live in the village—prosperous farmers of the 40’s and 50’s, less successful, scarcity-oriented farmers of the 30’s, independent businessmen, professionals, industrial workers, “aristocrats,” and shack people. Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman’s Small Town in Mass Society asks about the relations between this rural community and “modern, mass, industrial society.” The average Springdaler, the authors report, says that the community can “avoid the problems inherent in city life,” and its citizens can “select only the best parts”: “‘we may have our own troubles, but it’s nothing we can’t handle by ourselves.’” But Vidich and Bensman outline the community’s dependence, the outer world’s multiple constraints; then, accepting the Springdaler’s answer as the general truth of what once was, they ask a second question: How does the community integrate and its citizens adjust “in the face of social, institutional and cultural cleavages and conflicts which continuously threaten those social and cultural values which have served as bases of integration and adjustment in the past?”
Springdale sits in mass society like a sponge in water, its own structure permeated by the medium that surrounds it. Almost all working Springdalers depend on the outside—farmers on the Federal Milk Order, businessmen on both the mass distributors that determine price scales for commodities they sell and on the large retail outlets in near-by cities (the businessman’s trade “becomes more limited to the aged, the loyal, the infirm and those who must buy on credit”); and one-third of the population, industrial and other wage workers, work outside Springdale. Politically, the community depends upon the state’s highway construction and development programs and on its subsidies—“local assessment scales and tax rates are oriented to state equalization formulas.” Springdale’s village board “orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.” In terms of life styles, those who are “favorably linked to the mass society” (i.e., are economically successful) and have the leisure for it, establish new styles; in this case, professionals set the style of consumption and socializing they learn from their city cousins. In addition, Springdalers not only depend upon the mass media for some entertainment and almost all information (the media have reduced “the local paper to reporting of social items and local news already known by everyone”), but they also derive their own self-image from the media’s concept of small-town living. The fact that the composite media image does not indicate the industrial workers’ place in a rural community, Vidich and Bensman write, hinders the community in giving them one.
Vidich and Bensman find one institution, religion, and one social process, secular leadership, that heal and hold the community. Religion “serves to accentuate and emphasize the public values of the community and to surround those values with a framework of church activity which further accentuates participation in and commitment to those values”; through the community’s secular leaders “a wide range of community activities are coordinated simply because a small number of individuals are engaged in a wide range of leadership positions.” Individuals, they write, repress inconvenient facts by refusing to generalize and, occasionally, by using impersonal forces to explain personal failures; others substitute goals and forget what they once called their future; a few behave and find their “solution” pathologically; most work or socialize hard to avoid themselves. “Life, then,” Small Town ends, “consists in making an adjustment that is as satisfactory as possible within a world which is not often tractable to basic wishes and desires.”
Small Town is exciting as it details this dialectic: mass society’s impact on a rural community, the split it helps create between reality and ideology, then the devices that bridge the split. (Vidich and Bensman also discuss several reciprocal relations—for examples, the state and national vote and the farmer’s participation at Congressional committee hearings.) All high school English texts that still offer urban students the rural picture of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town should list Small Town as a more recent snapshot.
The analysis in Small Town offers some evidence for at least two hypotheses concerning the behavior of groups and individuals. Stated generally, the new, strong pressures on rural communities of a mass, industrial society tend to widen the distance between action and control for both individuals and groups. Secondly, in an unstable world, they help cause types of competition and personal anxiety that are alien to the ideology of rural life. This is one way of discussing the relevance of Small Town—its “basic research” value.
Several statements in the book point to the problem of its immediate, “practical” value. “Politics, whatever the social and economic background of the groups involved, expresses itself through individuals.” And: “Springdalers live in a world of rich and complicated values that are often determined by both the local and external societies and their major institutions.” (Italics added in both quotations.) In other words, does the book describe its title, “small town in mass society,” or does it describe Springdale in upstate New York? How much of Springdale’s contradictions are the result of outside pressures, how much of them are just Springdale? Does the analysis of Springdale and the pressures of an industrial mass society’s institutions apply to other communities?
Certainly the village’s political surrender to mass society need not have been so complete, even within the framework of state subsidy. Vidich and Bensman themselves are surprised that “in politics, at least at the village level, the political perspective of the small businessman is the dominant one”—a perspective of low taxes and minimal expenditures, a perspective that in itself diminishes political action. They point out, too, that the high school principal, an outside expert hired by the school board, “represents a major force in remolding the community,” not in the least way, by shifting the school’s agriculturally weighted curriculum. The newspaper’s reduced role, an additional factor in the political surrender, seems as much connected with its particular owners as with the media’s supersession of its function. Historically, how much non-local news did the newspaper ever print? Again, with or without the counter forces of industrial mass society, did equality ever reign in Springdale?
Yet some outside control is quite definite: the Federal Milk Order, the state’s highway construction programs, the subsidies, the community’s occupational insufficiencies. And Springdale does not escape what Vidich and Bensman call “the ubiquity of the mass media.” At least since the 1930’s, when the Federal Milk Order became law, the town has had to react to new, strong pressures of a mass, industrial society. Obviously many communities have had to react to and live within the same kinds of pressures. In this careful study of Springdale, however, mass pressures seem to have interlocked with the community’s own tendencies, but for examples of the complex relations between the new pressures and rural communities, this result does not mean that the mass media necessarily reinforce these trends or, more important, that all similar no-industry communities of about 3,000 population necessarily have similar tendencies. Nor do Vidich and Bensman say they do. They do claim that their study “views the community as a limited and finite universe in which one can examine in detail some of the major issues of modern American society.”