Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America

Author(s): Lyn C. Macgregor


"So, how do Americans in a small town make community today? This book argues that there is more than one answer, and that despite the continued importance of small-town stuff traditionally associated with face-to-face communities, it makes no sense to think that contemporary technological, economic, and cultural shifts have had no impact on the ways Americans practice community life. Instead, I found that different Viroquans took different approaches to making community that reflected different confluences of moral logics-their senses of obligation to themselves, to their families, to Viroqua, and to the world beyond it, and about the importance of exercising personal agency. The biggest surprise was that these ideas about obligation and agency, and specifically about the degree to which it was necessary or good to try to bring one's life into precise conformance with a set of larger goals, turned out to have replaced more traditional markers of social belonging like occupation and ethnicity, in separating Viroquans into social groups."
-from Habits of the Heartland Although most Americans no longer live in small towns, images of small-town life, and particularly of the mutual support and neighborliness to be found in such places, remain powerful in our culture. In Habits of the Heartland, Lyn C. Macgregor investigates how the residents of Viroqua, Wisconsin, population 4,355, create a small-town community together. Macgregor lived in Viroqua for nearly two years. During that time she gathered data in public places, attended meetings, volunteered for civic organizations, talked to residents in their workplaces and homes, and worked as a bartender at the local American Legion post. Viroqua has all the outward hallmarks of the idealized American town; the kind of place where local merchants still occupy the shops on Main Street and everyone knows everyone else. On closer examination, one finds that the town contains three largely separate social groups: Alternatives, Main Streeters, and Regulars. These categories are not based on race or ethnic origins. Rather, social distinctions in Viroqua are based ultimately on residents' ideas about what a community is and why it matters.
These ideas both reflect and shape their choices as consumers, whether at the grocery store, as parents of school-age children, or in the voting booth. Living with-and listening to-the town's residents taught Macgregor that while traditional ideas about "community," especially as it was connected with living in a small town, still provided an important organizing logic for peoples' lives, there were a variety of ways to understand and create community.


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"In researching her book, the author lived and worked for nearly two years in Viroqua, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, where she tended bar at the American Legion and even served as vice president of the historical society's museum. This kind of work stands or falls by the vigilance and precision of the ethnographer's observations. Macgregor acquits herself brilliantly; she draws subtle distinctions within and between social groups, yet her analysis lets readers generalize about what some idealize and others castigate as small-town American values. For all their differences, the longtime residents (who might drive ATVs and snowmobiles) and the progressives (who favor Subaru Outbacks, the local Waldorf school, and organic produce) share a belief that raising children in Viroqua helps protect them from the 'excesses of consumerism.' Indeed, readers from non-flyover places will be struck by the subdued and skeptical consumerism and the commitment to thrift that Macgregor finds among Viroquans. Here's an unintentional paean to midwestern modesty that's especially noteworthy in our post-crash era."-Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly, October 2010 "Lyn C. Macgregor shows how communities are made in a rural place and, through the three cultural groups identified (Alternatives, Main Streeters, and Regulars), gives important insight into the production of community as well as community identities and individual and collective agency. Habits of the Heartland is a real contribution to the fields of community studies, rural studies, and cultural studies."-Cornelia Flora, Iowa State University "A rich, multilayered ethnographic portrait of a Wisconsin town emerges from Macgregor's keen insights drawing on two years spent living there and working as a bartender. She uniquely focuses on local patterns of consumption to show that ordinary shopping or entertainment choices are motivated by a distinctive sense of community among each of its factions, allowing us to see how multiple cultures coexist within the shared boundaries of this small place."-Sonya Salamon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Lyn C. Macgregor, formerly Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Montana, lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

General Fields

  • : 9780801476433
  • : Cornell University Press
  • : Cornell University Press
  • : April 2010
  • : 229mm X 152mm X 18mm
  • : United States
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : 307.7209775
  • : Paperback
  • : Lyn C. Macgregor
  • : 280