What is the "Midwest"? by Dana Williams


[Review of "The vernacular middle west", James R. Shortridge, from Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1985]


Shortridge observes that the cultural definition of the Midwest is changing, and is changing in ways unique to any other region in the US. The perceptions of this region have always been fuzzy, open to interpretation, and identified differently depending on where someone is from. In order to observe these perceptions, Shortridge surveyed university students from 32 states, asking for them to draw the region defining the Midwest on a map. He also had the subjects apply descriptive words to their views of the region.

People on the east coast identified the Midwest as right in the center of the US. North Dakotans viewed it as a small cluster south of it's own borders, while people from Michigan saw the Midwest as being to the Southwest of their home state. There is a historical region called the Midwest that, for all practical purposes, has been moving in American minds further west. Even though the regional core is being shifted, those in the classical Midwest region still carry an allegiance to the term "Midwest", and still identify themselves as Midwesterners.

The criteria used to identify their region, outside of isolines drawn on a map, were descriptive terms of the perceived Midwest. Terms related to agricultural, rural, and ranching came up more forcefully than others. Labels such as "friendly", "traditional", "easy-going", and "hard-working" were applied the residents of the "Midwest".

Thus, Shortridge concludes, that Americans have moved their perceptions of the Midwest farther west instead of redefining what "Midwest" means, when they discuss and refer to the region that is the "most American part of America". Thus, the vagueness of the words, the original usage of the term, and the difficulty in defining the nature of a cognitive map leads to this transfer.

The methodology of Shortridge's approach is an appropriate one, considering that since the "Midwest" is a mental region more than a physical one, it is imperative to explore personal perceptions of the region. By contrasting personal impressions of whether they live in the Midwest with how they define the region itself, he can compare both internal and external interpretations.

The means by which he extracted these perceptions and interpretations was also valid and revealing. By applying both a visually geographic and a more descriptive terminology to this test, he is allowing people to express their own mental maps in different ways. Therefore, a geographically anchored and vibrantly described Midwest is discovered. By doing so, it is apparent that the past perception of this area, first defined many decades ago, is moving throughout the US as it expands, urbanizes, and industrializes (and post-industrializes) itself.

The study also reveals much of the "American story" or how Americans would like to perceive their history and heritage. American reluctance to redefine the "standard" American Midwest also indicates the resistance to a changing of the American reality and "heartland", without manipulation of fantasy. In order to see how far this American story has advanced and perpetuated itself, it would be highly interesting to do this study today, 20 years later, also inquiring whether or not there even still is a historical Midwest rather than merely a geographical Midwest.


Regional Analysis