This important book provides detailed information about a form of community that few people still experience at first hand— the rural village. Those of us who live in cities are thus given an opportunity to check our conceptions of rural life against the report of two skilled observers who lived in an upstate New York village for several years. Their finding that small town life is completely dominated by influences from metropolitan centers might have been anticipated, but the circumstances surrounding this “rural surrender” deserve careful attention.
As Bensman and Vidich report in impressive detail, small town residents seem quite unaware of their dependence on cities. Their images of small town life, like those held by city people, are akin to and drawn from nostalgic movies and Norman Rockwell magazine covers. Indeed, the people of “Springdale” depend far more heavily on these prefabricated images for their conception of their own community than they do on the evidence provided by their everyday experience.
Springdale, the town studied by Vidich and Bensman, is as close to an authentic farm village as one is likely to find in present-day America. The total population of the township is 3,000, of whom 1,000 or so live in a village and the remainder on outlying farms. These farms are for the most part independent holdings, since the growth of large scale farms, which Carey McWilliams once aptly called “factories in the field,” has not taken place in this part of upstate New York. If the myth of the small town were to hold true anywhere in America, Springdale, with its tiny population, its independent farmers and its relative isolation from large cities, would seem a likely choice.
On the level of conscious opinion, most of the townspeople consider Springdale an ideal small town. They talk about its “neighborliness’ and are especially proud of the “rugged independence” and “grass roots democracy” which they feel to be characteristic of local political life. This favorable self conception is juxtaposed by them against an image of the big city as a place where political corruption and impersonality reign supreme. Once the validity of these contrasting images is 168 granted, then the choice of Springdale as a place to live is not only sensible but downright inevitable.
But when our two sociological observers disregarded what people told them the town was like and concentrated on what they saw in front of their eyes, an entirely different picture unfolded. Beneath the claims of “neighborliness” and “equality,” they found a set of clearly differentiated socio-economic classes having different life styles and life chances. These “friendly neighbors” render judgments of personal worth in terms of impersonal economic success exactly as do their urban counterparts. The cultural life of the community is dominate...
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