The Chronicle Review

'The Lonely Crowd,' at 60, Is Still Timely

Art Shay, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

David Riesman, 1953
September 12, 2010

For many Chronicle readers, the most relevant work of David Riesman may be the milestone book he wrote with Christopher Jencks, The Academic Revolution (Doubleday, 1968), on America's dual trends toward mass higher education and elitist meritocracy. But the book that put him on a Time cover was The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, published by Yale University Press in 1950, 60 years ago this October. (Riesman died in 2002, Denney in 1995.)

The Lonely Crowd was part of a stream of writing on tendencies in American "social character" that flourished between the 1940s and 1980s, peaking in the 50s and early 60s. It described a shift in the way Americans followed society's prescriptions, from a 19th-century "inner-direction"—behavior internalized at an early age from parents and other elders—to a mid-20th-century "other-direction," flexibly responsive to "peer groups" and the media. Key metaphors were the "gyroscope" of inner-direction versus the "radar" of other-direction. (During World War II, Riesman had been a lawyer for Sperry Gyroscope, makers of gyroscopic bombsights.) Inner-direction provided moral stability in a rapidly developing society. Unlike "tradition-directed" people, dependent on external rules in older, more static societies, inner-directed people could carry their precepts anywhere. But other-direction was more suited to a bureaucratic age of sales, services, and "human relations."

The book spoke to middle-class concerns about conformity and softness in the new, standardized suburbs of postwar America. For all its moralistic rigidities, the inner-directed type looked more individualistic, hence more attractive to many Americans, though Riesman insisted that in other-direction he did not depict more conformity but rather a change in "modes of conformity"—the way people were induced to conform.

At the time of writing, Riesman had only just moved into sociology (at the University of Chicago), from being a law professor and legal philosopher. So his two co-authors, more experienced sociologists, were important to him. Nathan Glazer helped him delineate more sharply the historical types. Reuel Denney, who was also a poet, weighed in on youth, sports, and popular music. But the book's overall conception was mainly Riesman's, and in a sense it was autobiographical. Raised under the demands of an inner-directed, upper-class Philadelphia family, he acquired the social antennae of the other-directed, but sought the book's ideal, an "autonomy," combining elements of both stages with an inner freedom to choose when to conform or not. The quest for authenticity—being true to oneself—recurred in several social-character books of the time.

Two themes—paradox and prescience—run through The Lonely Crowd's career.

First, paradox. The book's ruminative prose, albeit laced with catchy subheads, was much less readable than the big-selling sociological jeremiads of Vance Packard. Nor was Riesman a showoff. He paid his publishers to take off the book's jacket the claim that it was the most important book on American society since Thorstein Veblen. Yet it was estimated in the late 1970s to have racked up bigger sales than any other book ever by an American sociologist.

Among academics, response to The Lonely Crowd was always contradictory. In 1961 commentaries, pro and con, were gathered in a book, Culture and Social Character (Free Press of Glencoe), edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Leo Lowenthal. Studies of changing values in advertising, child-rearing-advice literature, and stories in children's reading textbooks on the whole supported The Lonely Crowd's claims. Many historians and social scientists, though, complained that the book lacked psychological evidence for the character change it asserted, did not say clearly when the change occurred, overgeneralized about social attitudes, and omitted survey data, though Riesman and Glazer had actually pored over National Opinion Research Center interviews. (In later editions of the book, the authors abandoned a theory linking character change to demographic shifts.)

From the late 1960s, moreover, the whole enterprise of generalizing about national character trends had to swim upstream against attacks on "consensus history," the rediscovery of minorities, and later the celebration of "multiculturalism." The Lonely Crowd did discuss imprisonments of race and gender—the way in which minority groups and women were constrained by stereotypes of how they were supposed to behave. But the authors mainly saved those comments for brief, if searching, remarks at the end of the book.

Even among those who accepted the book's kind of psychological generalizing, it ran into criticism, or at least a call for qualification. A study of college students by Elaine Sofer, published in Lipset and Lowenthal's book, found that the other-directed type did not entirely hold together. Students who most craved popularity and group belonging were also most dependent on media messages, as Riesman would predict, but they were not more sensitive to other people.

Much later, Riesman himself shed part of his thesis. At one point he had wanted to call the book The Continental Pueblo, stressing Pueblo-like cooperativeness rather than Kwakiutl rivalry. In the 1970s, however, social critics led by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, 1978) claimed that ostensible cooperation often masked egocentric self-assertion. In "Egocentrism: Is the American Character Changing?" (Encounter, August-September, 1980), Riesman conceded that, alongside genuine social activism, aggressive egoism was alive and well. The "rather timid ... corporate civil servants"—so strongly featured in The Lonely Crowd—had never been more than just one species in the business zoo.

For all its flaws, The Lonely Crowd's saving grace was its prescience. Like other social-character books, its enduring value lay less in its psychological generalizations than in what it said, along the way, about social change. Riesman preceded Lasch, for example, in noting the loss of clear-cut boundaries in modern life—between public and private, work and play, or, as Lasch observed, performers and audiences. Life had become more slippery.

But The Lonely Crowd's trend spotting went much further than this. It was the first book to stress a change in modern society from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption as a social act—from making things to relating to people, from "the hardness of the material," as the authors put it, to the softer touch of consumer-focused sales and services. In politics Riesman coined one of his many engaging labels, the "inside-dopester," to describe a person drawn to political life as a consumer, eager to be in the know rather than to make policy. (At the time of writing the book, Riesman and Glazer were much concerned about voter "apathy," which they connected to a passive, consumer view of politics.)

From the 1930s, other sociologists had written about the social effects of mass media and mass consumption, and The Lonely Crowd's other-directed type bore some resemblance to Erich Fromm's "marketing personality" (Fromm had been Riesman's analyst). But The Lonely Crowd made more of the way in which an older industrial culture of production and saving had given way to one of services, sales, and consumption—what Daniel Bell, a decade later, would call a "postindustrial" society.

And Riesman et al. were writing all this more than 20 years before a new phrase, "rust belt," signaled the decline of manufacturing in rich countries.

Riesman did not mean, of course, that no one made anything anymore. But making things was no longer what a growing white-collar population often talked about—or saw outside of DIY projects. The truth of this came home to me, in reverse, when driving across the country last year. Suddenly, outside the small Utah mining town of Roosevelt, we drove down a strip that was not, for once, full of stores, eateries, and offices but repair shops and small engineering works. My nostalgia was not unique. The loss of industrial culture is recognized in recent books by Richard Sennett and Matthew Crawford—and long before that by Robert Pirsig in the 1970s—calling for a return to the craftsman's virtues. Modern marketing harnesses the sense of loss by tricks of design and language, from "industrial chic" to corporate-speak that calls almost any service a "product." Even college departments sell conference events as "workshops."

The other big trend discussed by The Lonely Crowd was the rise of the "peer group," the importance of schoolfellows and contemporaries, along with the mass media, in socializing a young person. This mainly meant middle-class teenagers, as working-class youth gangs and college fraternities/sororities were not new. It was a picture of teenagers listening together to pop records or radio music—a milieu beautifully described in much the same way by Ella Leffland's novel, Rumors of Peace (1985), based on her own World War II girlhood. This was, of course, long before cellphones, the Internet, and social networking, but these features of our time support Riesman's assertion that consumer technology does not necessarily cut people off from one another. Though he thought the sociability it promoted was superficial, he differed from earlier writers on mass media, advertising, and consumption—especially Frankfurt School sociologists—who stressed the atomizing of people into self-centered buyers.

In linking cultural change to economic change, The Lonely Crowd did not limit its claims to America. The authors believed that the trends they described would eddy out through the modern world. That does not mean that they foresaw today's global capitalism. In 1949, the year the book was largely written, no one was predicting that Japan, of all countries, followed by others, would offer serious competition to America's big manufacturers, leading in turn to the rise of transnational corporate cultures. Yet The Lonely Crowd has some relevance to this new world. As Thomas Friedman describes it in The World Is Flat (2005), global business values the kind of person who is good at connecting and communicating, absorbing and using new facts, and persuading peers horizontally rather than obeying orders and dishing them out in a simple hierarchy. Global capitalism is not as devoid of tough bosses and bullies as Friedman implies, but the management skills he outlines more or less fit the other-directed type.

Global capitalism also fits, to some extent, The Lonely Crowd's picture of economic and political power. It differed here from another famous book of its time, C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, which painted a centralized picture of power, dominated by a big-business alliance. The Lonely Crowd saw power in modern society as more pluralistic, rewarding the social skills of the other-directed. Running almost anything required negotiation among different interest groups—what Riesman called "veto groups." At Sperry during World War II, Riesman was struck by the differing "atmospheres" of Sperry's various plants as well as the conflicts and trade-offs among the company, the government, and unions. Nobody was fully in charge. The Lonely Crowd's discussion of political pluralism was focused mainly on America's national politics, but it could be applied to global capitalism with its multiple power centers. We should not exaggerate this pluralism, though. The C. Wright Mills view survives in the way an international banker elite, for instance, continues to capture huge rewards, in bad times as well as good.

Finally, one phrase from The Lonely Crowd, perhaps its most memorable, really does apply to global capitalism, especially its threat to personal rootedness and sense of place. Other-directed people, said Riesman et al., were "at home everywhere and nowhere." They forged bonds quickly but not deeply. That is why the lonely crowd was lonely and one more reason the book is still worth thinking about today.

Rupert Wilkinson is a professor emeritus of American studies and history at the University of Sussex, in England. His books include American Tough: The Tough-Guy Tradition and American Character (Greenwood Press, 1984), American Social Character: Modern Interpretations (IconEditions, 1992), and Aiding Students, Buying Students: Financial Aid in America (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005).