In his 1972 'Foreword to the American Edition' of 'Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community', Paul Lazarfeld wrote that socio-economic circumstances were such that discussions regarding unemployment had changed considerably since the study was first penned forty years earlier. Indeed, he said, "now we talk more generally about poverty rather than about unemployment specifically". But with structural unemployment re-emerging as an issue in Western economies, the discussion has come full circle and the reader is reminded of how timeless the insights of this slim volume are.
Marienthal is a small community twenty miles outside of Vienna, set against a rural backdrop but dominated by industry. In 1930, the factories that provided employment for the vast majority of its population closed down. This was a community that had an unemployment rate of some seventy-five percent. And though the town may have been small, the attitudes, lifestyles and predicaments of its population are in many respects universally applicable to communities in which unemployment is an endemic problem.
The study undertaken by Lazarfeld, Marie Jahoda and Hans Zeisel was almost completely experimental. Not only were there few studies of unemployment as a social issue, but there were similarly no studies which fused both statistical analysis and "Dickensian" journalism. As such, the methodology pioneered in Marienthal was as novel as it was rough. The trio were also keenly aware that the study had limitations in the breadth of its applicability beyond the town itself; that, although mass unemployment existed in major cities such as Vienna, Vienna was not in itself an unemployed community. Indeed, Marienthal as an object of study probably bears more direct comparisons to small US communities such as Shubuta, Mississippi, than any metropolis of past or present.
Nonetheless, the insights here are still highly prescient. The study is a stark reminder that although governments may label the chronically unemployed "lazy" and "idle" - and that they should "get on their bikes" to find work - the reality is far more structural. Mass unemployment is an indication of a lack of opportunity, at least for a particular demographic. When endured over a period of time, it can become a deeply entrenched psychological condition, no different to a mental disorder. It is a reaction not only to a lack of possibilities, but also to an environment where time has no value: there is no need to economise on time when one has few responsibilities to which they must commit. Interestingly, in Marienthal this was not the case for women, who, although unemployed, were kept busy by domestic activities - a structured routine that hardly alleviated their outlook even if they acquired the dominant role in the family, albeit at the expense of leaving the man with a feeling of emasculation.
The study does not specifically address individual psychologies (it may disappoint in this regard), but certainly, it becomes apparent that depression and disillusionment are staple in unemployed communities (be that 'community' on the familial or local level). One particularly illuminating insight is the categorisation of families' overall attitudes - specifically, "unbroken", "resigned" and "broken" - where the prevailing number of people fell into the camp of simple resignation to their predicament. Their number of needs had decreased but remained fundamentally fulfilled. They drew their benefits; they subsisted; they lived - but notably without indulging in the luxury of planning for the future.
None of the study's insights will be surprising to anyone who has been unemployed for a prolonged period of time. But the sheer uniformity of human behaviour in these circumstances is fascinating, and conveyed especially well in the study, which is written in a non-scientific and unpretentious style. What makes 'Marienthal' a minor classic is that the immersion of the trio into the local community shaped a methodology which was able to capture the existential dimension of unemployment very powerfully - and the corresponding apathy and primitive thinking caused by such "blunting monotony".
Indeed, one observation has chilling echoes of the future: "The functionaries of all parties agree that political hostilities between the inhabitants have abated considerably since the period of unemployment began". More than anything, 'Marienthal' raises the question; with the rise of National Socialism occurring simultaneously elsewhere, was it simple apathy that led swathes of Europe to embrace fascism? Did disillusionment in the status quo lead apathetic communities such as Marienthal to vote "Ja!" to Nazism in 1938 because it was the only party that could guarantee employment? Were they prepared to turn a blind eye to everything else in the name of `compromise' and self-interest? Does employment take precedence to a paralysed but nonetheless democratic political system?
These are timeless questions and in this sense `Marienthal' has become an important historical document as much as it is a classic in its field.