Book about Viroqua hits and misses

The difference a decade makes

WHEN I HEARD that a new book had been published earlier this year which was a sociological study of Viroqua, my interest was piqued right away, for two reasons: I am a resident of Viroqua and I am a sociologist with a specialization in community studies. The publisher, Cornell University Press, was gracious enough to send me a copy of Habits of the Heartland: Small Town Life in Modern America so I could take a look.

The author, Lyn Macgregor, moved to Viroqua in 2000 and stayed here for two years collecting data. This is a key point to remember. The book is based on that data so it is somewhat outdated. In fact, the community in 2010 seems significantly different from the community she describes in her book. Her study would have been much more useful if she had returned to Viroqua and done a follow-up to her original data and examined the changes over time. So, when reading this book, it should be viewed as an historical ethnography and not as picture of Viroqua as it is today.

The research methodology she used is called participant observation. This is a technique with a long history in sociology and anthropology. Her methodology was based on the participant observation methodology developed and used by Herbert Gans in his pioneer work entitled The Urban Villagers (1962). The Gans study is legendary among social scientists.

Participant observation is based on a simple premise: The researcher learns about the group being studied not only by collecting data using more formal methods such as interviews or questionnaires but also by participating as a member of the group. For this to work, the researcher must be accepted by the group and not just viewed as an outsider (which might bias the data.) For the author, this was not difficult in Viroqua as she was viewed as a person who had moved to town. If she had done a study like this in a different culture with a different language, her acceptance would have been more difficult.

However, sociologists using the participant observation methodology are more apt to study a segment of a culture or area, not an entire community. The Gans study, which inspired Macgregor’s model, was that of a segment of a community. In his case, it was Italian-Americans living in a neighborhood in Boston. Other studies, such as Street Corner Society by Whyte and Tally’s Corner by Leibow, are typical examples of participant observation studies of a segment of a community. Can a researcher successfully study an entire community stretching over a fairly large geographical area? Can a researcher observe all facets of community life over a long period of time? These are questions that the reader of this book will have to decide for him/herself.

After settling in Viroqua, Macgregor landed a job working as a bartender at the American Legion bar in town. Much of her data comes from her interactions with the clientele of that bar. The problem with this is that the clientele are not a cross-section of the community but just a segment of Viroqua. Many residents of Viroqua have never been to the Legion bar, or any bar for that matter. This certainly biased her data. Interestingly, she could have used this situation to limit her study to that group. However, this was not the case. She apparently was not aware, or did not see fit to model her study or include the findings, of another participant observation study of a blue-collar bar that had been published about another Wisconsin town. That well-known study is entitled Blue-Collar Aristocrats: Life-Styles at a Working-Class Tavern (1975) and was published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Instead, Macgregor applied her limited interactions to the entire community. She argues that there are three distinct groups in town. The first group she called the Regulars since the people in that group felt that they were just “regular people.” In reality, most of this group are native Viroquans, born and raised here, and are, for the most part, blue-collar. The second group she calls the Main Streeters. These are people who had moved here from other communities for a number of different reasons but mainly for what they saw as a better way of life and a stronger sense of community. The third group she calls the Alternatives. This group comprises people who don’t have a strong sense of community but came to Viroqua because it offered them a number of alternative institutions that fit their philosophy of life.

One thing that Macgregor missed is what I see as a fourth group of people that I call bedroom commuters. These are people who own homes in Viroqua but whose professional lives and jobs are in other communities to which they commute every day for work. The places they work might be Westby, LaFarge, La Crosse, and others. These residents shop in Viroqua and may participate in community affairs and events as well. The question is, how does this group fit into Macgregor’s typology?

Yes, there were and are some conflicts between different groups in Viroqua, but in 2010 they are not as pronounced or profound as they were almost a decade ago. There is much more crossover between the groups. I found this to be so in places like the local food co-op. I often see people from a wide cross-section of Viroqua coming into the Co-op to grab a cup of coffee or just to talk. I have made friends with people from all three of Macgregor’s groupings in this social setting.

Her study also omits another important part of the community and its impact upon all the residents, namely, the local political structure. While she does write about community decision-making among the Main Streeters, she barely mentions the political infrastructure. Here again, she fails to build on a very valuable study of community decision-making in another small Wisconsin city, Beloit. Small City Government: Seven Cases in Decision Making by Mills and Davis (1962) detailed how different groups in Beloit came together to make decisions on some key community issues, from local fire protection to local transportation problems.

Macgregor does provide some useful insight into such areas as local consumption patterns, education choices, business patterns, and local cultural issues. It is in these areas that the book is at its best. This section is well worth reading.

I also was uneasy because while she discussed her findings anecdotally, she did not show much of the quantitative data in the book. So while she reported many findings, there were virtually no tables quantifying what she found. I found too much of her data to be anecdotal and not hard sociology.

Overall, this is a useful socio-historical study of Viroqua. I found the book to be an interesting way for me, as a newer resident of Viroqua, to learn about issues and problems that have existed in Viroqua over time. However, I do see Viroqua as a different place today than how it was described in her book.

If you are interested in Viroqua during the key years of 2000–2002 and how many of the issues she raised still exist, this is a book that you should read. If you are interested in the Viroqua of 2010 and the issues of today, this book is not for you.

Dr. Irving Leif is a sociologist and Viroqua resident who is the author of five books and numerous articles and reviews.


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