Fwd: David Riesman, Sociologist Whose 'Lonely Crowd' Became a Best Seller, Dies at 92

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sat May 11 2002 - 16:10:42 BST

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    A father of memetics passes.

    - Wade


    David Riesman, Sociologist Whose 'Lonely Crowd' Became a Best Seller,
    Dies at 92



    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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