One Small Town, Three Moralities

A new study of one Wisconsin town finds that small-town residents see community -- and their place in it -- in three strikingly different ways.

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Book review

Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America
By Lyn C. MacGregor
280 pp., Cornell Univ. Press, 2010, $22.95

In my home discipline of anthropology, multi-sited research is in: fieldwork bounces between different cities, regions, or even continents to track global processes and flows. Next door in sociology, though, a handful of scholars are still working in the tradition of community studies, where researchers immerse themselves in the life of a single village or town. It isn’t just a question of staying put; a community study tries to make sense of how different social institutions work together to form a cohesive whole. In classic studies like Helen and Robert Lynd’s Middletown, “community” as place and “community” as category of experience are both under the microscope.

Lyn MacGregor, studying Viroqua, Wisconsin (pop. 4,335), works proudly within the community studies tradition. MacGregor lived in Viroqua for two years, sitting in on city council meetings and tending bar at the American Legion to observe a broad swath of local life. She found that, while most of her informants shared an appreciation of Viroqua’s slow pace and neighborliness, their social interactions and patterns of consumption were organized around three very different cultures of community. “Each,” MacGregor writes, “was tied to a set of moral orientations…, and each came with a specific set of possibilities and constraints.”


Of course, the idea that small towns contain factions isn’t news to anyone who’s lived in one. But MacGregor argues that what divided people in Viroqua, rather than race or religion or even the length of time that they’d lived in the town, was what she calls “moral logic.” Viroquans took different approaches to making community: differing ideas about their obligations to family, to Viroqua, to themselves, and to the world, and different viewpoints “on the importance of exercising personal agency.” MacGregor found that these sets of ideas, these first principles, shaped where her informants were likely to shop for groceries or send their kids to school. And, she concluded, the good people of Viroqua tended to seek out others who looked and shopped and thought like them.

Bill Bishop explored this kind of lifestyle segmentation on a national scale in his 2008 book The Big Sort. But Habits of the Heartland shows that segmentation can also take place within a small Midwestern town. For instance, the group of Viroquans that MacGregor calls the Main Streeters rallied around institutions like the public schools and the historic downtown, guided by the logic that “good people worked to improve the town” through volunteerism and civic involvement.

The Alternatives, on the other hand, invested themselves in a set of parallel institutions, including an organic food co-op and a private Waldorf school. MacGregor observes that both Main Streeters and Alternatives exhibited a strong ethic of agency; they believed that their actions could and did make a difference. But the two groups had different logics of commitment; Main Streeters were committed to Viroqua as a place, while Alternatives were more invested in the community of like-minded souls who happened to roost, for a time, in Viroqua. They saw the town as “an instrument in their pursuit of a life in line with [their] values.”

MacGregor’s third group, the Regulars, viewed the other two with considerable suspicion. They tended to doubt that individual action could make much of a difference in the world, and so they regarded the volunteerism of the Main Streeters as little more than trying “to get their names out there.” Yet the utopianism of the Alternatives wasn’t much better; the world was the way it was, Regulars believed, and self-conscious efforts at building community were less important than providing for one’s family and trying to have a little fun now and then.

A trout from Read’s Creek, near Viroqua, Wisconsin.

There is a class dimension of the Regulars’ resentment that MacGregor chooses to downplay, and it connects to one of the book’s broader failings: MacGregor argues that it is “tastes” for different cultures of community that separate Viroquans into Main Streeters, Alternatives, and Regulars, as though affiliation with these groups was freely chosen from a civics-salad bar. But taste, most sociologists agree, is always bound up with other factors like class and social status. To say that individual Viroquans had a “taste” for different sets of ideas and values is not an explanation for why those ideas and values had the traction they did in that particular time and place, with those particular people.

Habits of the Heartland also overlooks some unexpected continuities between Viroqua’s cultures of community. Both Alternatives and Main Streeters, in their own ways, believed that the problems facing Viroqua could be solved at the local level: by living intentionally, for the Alternatives, and by sprucing up the town’s infrastructure, for the Main Streeters. Yet one informant’s nostalgia for an earlier era of prosperity alluded to the profound structural changes affecting rural communities across the Upper Midwest:

“I think about, as a child, Friday nights were such a huge thing in Viroqua. It was just a huge social scene. You didn’t go downtown looking like I look now. You combed your hair and you put on clean clothes—your clothes for downtown—and you went as a family. You went shopping. And it was just a huge deal. And then to see, just a few years ago, the downtown was literally dying out. And then all of a sudden, the Main Street Program came in, and how it’s picked everything up, and it was really encouraging, and it’s something I really believe in.”

Viroqua has become a center for organic farming. More than 50 local producers sell at its Saturday farmers market downtown, May-October.

MacGregor never really addresses the connection between the collapse of the area’s farm economy in the 1970s and the lights on Main Street going dark, even though the threat to community in Viroqua was, in part, economic in origin. Nor does she broach the dirty little secret of the Main Street Program: that well-preserved, quaint downtowns can’t support local businesses unless people have jobs and money to spend. With these omissions, MacGregor uncritically adopts the local scale of explanation favored by her informants and glosses over the regional and global dynamics that are continuing to shape community in Viroqua and so many other small towns.

Despite these weaknesses, Habits of the Heartland succeeds in offering a new twist on  community studies and a vivid glimpse of rural life in all its plurality. In her introduction, MacGregor admits that she set out in search of “the kind of place where we think community is easiest to have—the iconic small town.” But, to its credit, the book argues against flattening real, evolving places into icons, and insists on approaching them in all their specificity and individuality. MacGregor’s Viroqua is no picture-postcard refuge from the stresses of modern life; it is an America more familiar than strange.

 

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