Wuthnow finds resilience, opportunity in America's small towns

July 25, 2013 by Michael Hotchkiss

Small towns are home to about 10 percent of the U.S. population but continue to play an outsize role in American culture, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow.

The nation's 15,000 small towns are sometimes portrayed as idyllic places that are "the real America" and sometimes as dying communities to be escaped at the first opportunity, said Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Social Sciences and a professor of sociology. Too often missing from the discussion, he said, are the voices of small-town residents themselves.

That's part of the reason Wuthnow undertook a research project that included interviews with more than 700 people in small towns around the country and analysis of Census and . Results of the research are detailed in a book, "Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future," released this month by Princeton University Press.

Small towns are generally defined as those with fewer than 25,000 residents that aren't part of a larger . Wuthnow's work doesn't identify the towns where residents were surveyed to protect the privacy of the interview subjects.

Wuthnow, who studies social and cultural change in communities, is the author of about 30 other books. Recent titles include "Remaking the Heartland: Middle America Since the 1950s," "Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation and Other Threats," and "Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches."

In this video, Wuthnow describes his findings about where small towns fit into American society today, what's ahead and what helps the towns succeed.

"[This issue] matters mostly because any segment of the population, especially one that includes some 30 million people, is one that we need to understand, whether we are attracted or not attracted to small towns," Wuthnow said. "My main hope in doing this project was first of all to encourage greater understanding of the variety of small towns, the complexity of small towns and secondly to engender a certain degree of respect so that there was an appreciation of what small towns have to offer."

Wuthnow said there's reason for optimism about the future of many of those towns, pointing to the resilience of their residents, opportunities for small-scale economic development and lower cost of living.

"A lot of people have predicted the death of small towns. It is true that many small towns are declining, especially if they have already become quite small or already were declining. My view is a little more mixed than that," he said. "There is also a social resilience in small towns. A town of anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000, up to 10,000 people is likely to do pretty well. I would predict that in the next 10 years or 20 years there will still be at least 30 million people living in small towns."

Explore further: City life trumps tree change

Related Stories

City life trumps tree change

December 12, 2012

Inner city Australians enjoy a higher standard of living, higher incomes and are more socially engaged than their suburban and rural counterparts, according to new research from UNSW's Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC).

Racial and ethnic diversity spreads across the country

September 7, 2012

Increasing racial and ethnic diversity has long been apparent at the national level and in our nation's largest metropolitan gateways. Since 1980 over nine-tenths of all cities, suburbs and small towns have become more diverse. ...

Mexico volcano covers towns in ash

May 8, 2013

Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano has spewed ash over several towns in the central state of Puebla, just 55 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Mexico City, but the country's capital was spared.

First 'plural' towns and city outside London revealed

January 10, 2013

The latest analysis of 2011 census data in England and Wales, published today by University of Manchester researchers, has revealed the first local authorities outside London where no ethnic group is in the majority.

Recommended for you

Violence a matter of scale, not quantity, researchers show

December 11, 2017

Anthropologists have debated for decades whether humans living in tribal communities thousands of years ago were more or less violent than societies today. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame wonder if the question ...

Nuclear technology unlocks 50-million-year-old time capsules

December 11, 2017

A scientific analysis of fossilised tree resin has caused a rethink of Australia's prehistoric ecosystem, and could pave the way to recovering more preserved palaeobiological artefacts from the time of dinosaurs or prehistoric ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (10) Aug 07, 2013
This is a fascinating article, not because it says anything new or interesting, but because it is so clearly and shamelessly an advertisement for Wuthnow and his book. Researchers' names are almost never mentioned in article titles, but here the first word is Wuthnow. Then, there's a list of books Wuthnow published.

Who is Michael Hotchkiss, anyway? Is that a pseudonym or a real name? Is he related to or associated with Wuthnow somehow? Did Wuthnow or Princeton pay for this ad?
1 / 5 (10) Aug 07, 2013
Oh, there's the answer: http://www.prince...tchkiss/

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.