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A father of memetics passes.
David Riesman, Sociologist Whose 'Lonely Crowd' Became a Best Seller,
Dies at 92
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
David Riesman, the sociologist whose 1950 scholarly book, "The Lonely
Crowd," unexpectedly tapped a deep vein of self-criticism among
Americans and became a perennial best seller, contributing ideas and
descriptive phrases to popular culture, died yesterday in Binghamton,
N.Y. He was 92 and had lived for many years in Cambridge, Mass.
"The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character," written
with Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer, prompted millions of Americans to
begin characterizing their friends, neighbors and associates as
"other-directed," "inner-directed" or, occasionally,
In "The Lonely Crowd" Professor Riesman identified those character types
and declared that the prevalence of each within a society was determined
by trends in population growth. The book contended that during periods
or in cultures with a relatively stable population, a balanced social
order and little technological change — the Middle Ages, for example, or
contemporary countries relatively untouched by industrialization — the
dominant character type was tradition-directed.
Such people, he said, based their lives on rules "dictated to a very
large degree by power relations among the various age and sex groups,
the clans, castes, professions — relations which have endured for
centuries and are modified but slightly, if at all, by successive
Professor Riesman said that in periods of technological progress and
population growth, like the Renaissance and the Reformation, people
developed a capacity to go it alone and set lifelong goals for
themselves based on values like wealth, fame, the search for scientific
truth, the quest for religious salvation and the creation of beauty.
But in periods in which consumption overtook production and the
population was leveling off or even declining, he said a society became
less dynamic, and its members more other-directed. In these
circumstances, people seek to become accepted into the mainstream by
conforming to the expectations and preferences of peer groups. Professor
Riesman thought the United States was in this third phase, becoming a
culture of more and more other-directed citizens.
The intention of "The Lonely Crowd" was primarily to analyze American
life rather than to point with anxiety to its deficiencies, but as the
sociologist Dennis H. Wrong observed, "it was widely read as deploring
the rise of the psychological disposition it called `other-direction' at
the expense of `inner-direction.' " Professor Wrong said the combination
of urgent warning, however misinterpreted, and manifest learning "came
across as a trumpet call to some sort of remedial action" and helped to
account for the book's phenomenal success.
"The Lonely Crowd" was among the first of the postwar classics written
by academics who gained unanticipated fame and fortune because an
anxious public believed that their works had uncovered some
deteriorating and alarming condition in American society. Other such
books include "The Greening of America," by Charles Reich; "The Other
America," by Michael Harrington; "One-Dimensional Man," by Herbert
Marcuse; "Life Against Death," by Norman O. Brown; and "The Closing of
the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and
Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students," by Allan Bloom.
In 1950, Yale University Press printed 3,000 copies of "The Lonely
Crowd," only to have to order 13 additional printings before the book
appeared in an abridged version as one of the first "quality paperbacks"
in the Anchor Books series, where it became an even greater success.
In the 2001 abridged paperback edition, also published by Yale, the
foreword by Todd Gitlin notes a 1997 study by Herbert Gans that called
"The Lonely Crowd" "the best-selling book by a sociologist in American
history, with 1.4 million copies sold."
The book generated academic debate, opposition and occasional derision.
Its champions considered it a brave and unusual effort to define the
shifting relationship between the general culture and individual
behavior. The philosopher Jacques Barzun said the book "not only
describes but also explains" and concluded that its command of the
literature relevant to its varied topics was encyclopedic, and its
imagination "like Zeus's thunderbolts."
The writer Irving Howe thought that Professor Riesman was "often
strikingly brilliant" when he described the effects of other-directed
values on American culture.
But Russell Kirk criticized "The Lonely Crowd" in his 1954 book,
"Program for Conservatives." Its "facile analysis of change is
interesting; but it is undemonstrable," he wrote.
Allan Bloom said later that "The Lonely Crowd" was "a good example of a
source of vague and unhelpful ideas about virtue."
In 1952, Professors Riesman and Glazer produced a companion volume to
"The Lonely Crowd" called "Faces in the Crowd: Individual Studies in
Character and Politics." The book provided numerous portraits of
Americans and tended to support the theories of the first book.
Professor Riesman was the author with other specialists of more than a
dozen other books, as well as essays and articles. His works included
"Thorstein Veblen" (1953), "Individualism Reconsidered and Other Essays"
(1954), "Constraint and Variety in American Education" (1956),
"Abundance for What? And Other Essays" (1964), "Conversations in Japan"
(1967), "The Academic Revolution" (1968), "The Perpetual Dream" (1978)
and "On Higher Education" (1980).
David Riesman was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, 1909, the eldest of
three children of Dr. David Riesman, an internist and professor of
clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the former
Eleanor Fleisher, a graduate of Bryn Mawr.
He attended the William Penn Charter School, a Quaker preparatory school
in Philadelphia, then enrolled at Harvard, where he concentrated on the
biochemical sciences. He received a B.A. degree in 1931, was elected to
Phi Beta Kappa and was an editor of The Harvard Crimson. He went on to
Harvard Law School, "more out of aimlessness than out of any passion for
the law," he recalled, and became an editor of The Harvard Law Review.
He found time to study government, economics and history as well, before
receiving his law degree in 1934 and a fellowship the following year
that enabled him to study with Felix Frankfurter.
He was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, the District of Columbia
and New York; served as a law clerk to Justice Louis Brandeis on the
Supreme Court; practiced law in Boston; taught at the University of
Buffalo; and was a deputy assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
During World War II, Professor Riesman was an official with the Sperry
Gyroscope Company, where, he said, "I had the chance to get out of my
system the kind of executive energies many lawyers have." He resolved on
an academic and writing career, which he fulfilled as a lecturer at many
leading universities and as a professor of social sciences at the
University of Chicago from 1949 to 1958 and, after that, at Harvard.
For a time he edited The Correspondent, an antinuclear journal, and was
identified with liberal causes. But when student protests erupted at the
University of California at Berkeley in 1964, triggering demonstrations
on campuses across the nation, he opposed the student radicals,
maintaining that the establishment they opposed was actually a delicate
if flawed social web that was necessary to the continuation of a free
In the late 1960's, he particularly criticized his own field, sociology,
contending that it was "becoming so politicized, it's hard to bring
sober people into it."
"Sociology is the soft underbelly of the soft underbelly of society," he
continued. "It is interesting that all over the world, student
revolutionists have been led by sociologists; from Tokyo to the Free
University of Berlin, sociologists have been the vanguard."
Professor Riesman married Evelyn Hastings Thompson, a writer and art
critic, in 1936. She died in 1998. He is survived by two daughters, Lucy
Lowenstein and Jennie Riesman; a son, Michael; and two grandchildren.
In "Individualism Reconsidered and Other Essays," he wrote: "What is
feared as failure in American society is, above all, aloneness. And
aloneness is terrifying because it means there is no one, no group, no
approved cause, to submit to."
Professor Riesman urged Americans to find "the nerve to be oneself when
that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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