David Riesman

From New World Encyclopedia

David Riesman
BornSeptember 22 1909(1909-09-22)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
DiedMay 10 2002 (aged 92)
Binghamton, New York, United States
Alma materHarvard College, Harvard Law School
Known forThe Lonely Crowd
ParentsDavid Riesman

David Riesman (September 22, 1909 – May 10, 2002) was a sociologist, educator, and best-selling commentator on American society. Riesman was very concerned with American higher education, and was known for his care for his students with whom he maintained a connection long after they had graduated. He spoke not only to the academic ivory tower intellectuals, but also to the educated public.

Together with White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), written by his friend and colleague, C. Wright Mills, Riesman's book The Lonely Crowd (1950) is considered a landmark study of American character. The analysis contained in this work, describing changes in American culture from tradition-directedness (behavior and value determined by tradition) to inner-directedness (creating one's own goals and following them) to other-directedness (conforming to the values and expectations of others) provides valuable insights into contemporary society.

The character of society, like that of an individual, naturally goes through various stages of growth. For Riesman, the domination of other-directed people might have been the culmination of the evolution of American character in his time, but he did not regard it as necessarily the ultimate style nor was it the foundation for the ideal society.


David Riesman was born on September 22, 1909 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a wealthy German Jewish family. His father, also David Riesman (1867 – 1940), was a German-born American surgeon and professor. He is remembered for describing a clinical sign found in patients with Graves' disease. The elder Riesman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.D. in 1892, and founded a history of medicine course at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was professor of clinical medicine and later of the history of medicine.

Young David attended William Penn Charter School, and then Harvard College, where he served as one of the editors of The Crimson. He graduated in 1931 with a degree in biochemistry. Then he attended Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. After graduation, he worked with Carl Friedrich of the Harvard Government Department as a research fellow, and the following year, 1935 to 1936, he clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

After a year practicing law in Boston, he began teaching at the University of Buffalo Law School where he published noteworthy articles on civil liberties and the law of defamation and slander. He focused on the problem of group libel, particularly in relationship to anti-Semitic writings.

A year as research fellow at Columbia Law School allowed him the opportunity to further develop his interests in anthropology and change in American society, in conversation with Columbia University professors such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Robert Lynd and Helen Merril Lynd. He spent further time in New York City during World War II, serving as Deputy District Attorney for Thomas E. Dewey. During this time he studied psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan while working with Sperry Gyroscope Company.

Riesman spent several years after the war teaching at the University of Chicago, where he helped develop a course on culture and personality. A sabbatical year at Yale Law School in 1948 gave him the opportunity to work on his first major publication, The Lonely Crowd, which became one of the seminal works of the 1950s.

In 1958 he moved to Harvard, becoming the first Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences. There he published several significant works on American higher education. Riesman was known for his care for his students, many of whom he recruited as teaching assistants for his famous "American Character and Social Structure" course which he taught for 20 years. He held weekly meetings with them to discuss issues raised in class, and maintained a correspondence of lengthy letters with them long after they had graduated.

Riesman was not attracted to socialism, unlike many of his generation, and even became a strong critic of the Soviet Union after a visit there. His lifetime political concern was the consequences of the development of the atom bomb and the danger of nuclear war.

His wife, Evelyn Thompson, collaborated with him on many of his projects, including co-authoring Conversations in Japan (1967) based on their visit to establish relationships with post-war Japanese intellectuals. They had two sons, Paul and Michael, and two daughters, Lucy and Jennie. Paul gave them two grandchildren, Amanda and Benjamin; Paul died in 1988.

After his retirement from Harvard in 1980, Riesman assumed emeritus status and they continued living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Evelyn died in 1998. David Riesman died on May 10, 2002, in Binghamton, New York.


Riesman carved out a unique role for himself in American academic life. Although he held a law degree and practiced law, his interests spanned a much broader arena. During this early period of his career, he published significant articles on civil liberties and issues related to defamation and slander, with particular reference to anti-Semitic writings. His research of more than 30 years was concerned with higher education, making him an authority on the subject and much in demand for committees and searches for college presidents and the like. However, this was only one of his long-term interests. His most acclaimed work, The Lonely Crowd co-authored with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, was one of his many insightful works on developments in American society. His collection of essays, Abundance for What? published in 1964 elaborated his concerns, with particular references to the sociological effects of the Cold War. He maintained a strong interest in foreign affairs and American politics, ever watchful of the danger of nuclear war.

Intellectually he was influenced most by Erich Fromm, as well as Carl Friedrich, Hannah Arendt, Leo Löwenthal, Robert K. Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld, Paul Goodman, Martha Wolfenstein, and Nathan Leites. He also read widely in Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.[1]

The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd is a sociological analysis written by David Riesman together with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The book's title was chosen by the publisher, not by Riesman or his co-authors. Riesman wrote The Lonely Crowd during a sabbatical year at Yale Law School in 1948. Published in 1950, it is considered a landmark study of American character which:

quickly became the nation’s most influential and widely read mid-century work of social and cultural criticism. It catapulted its author to the cover of Time magazine in 1954, making Riesman the first social scientist so honored.... Riesman offered a nuanced and complicated portrait of the nation’s middle and upper-middle classes.... Riesman pictured a nation in the midst of a shift from a society based on production to one fundamentally shaped by the market orientation of a consumer culture.[1]

The book is largely a study of modern conformity. Riesman identified and analyzed three main cultural types: "tradition-directed," "inner-directed," and "other-directed." Tradition-directed social types obeyed rules and norms established in the past, and which may not longer be relevant to modern society with its dynamic changes. They follow the traditions of their family, religion, and society. Their purpose and value is derived from these traditions.

People who are inner-directed act not according to established norms but based on what they discovered using their own inner "gyroscope." They have discovered the potential within themselves to live according to their own guidance. This ability to set their own goals and act on them was needed in the early days of American culture, as people pioneered new lands and a new way of life.

Riesman and his researchers found that other-directed people were more flexible and willing to accommodate others to gain approval. They are more conformist towards their peer group in behavior and attitude, and will adjust their values to conform to those of their group when they change. As Riesman writes, "The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed." Their purpose and value comes from others. Because large organizations preferred this type of personality, it became indispensable to the institutions that thrived with the growth of industry in America.[2]

Riesman argued that the character of post-World War II American society impels individuals to other-directedness, the preeminent example being modern suburbia, where individuals seek their neighbors' approval and fear being outcast from their community. That lifestyle has a coercive effect, which compels people to abandon inner-direction of their lives, and induces them to take on the goals, ideology, likes, and dislikes of their community.

Riesman traced the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, one that moved in a direction defined by preceding generations, to one in which people were inner-directed, and finally to a society dominated by other-directed people. But since the other-directed could only identify themselves through references to others in their communities (and what they earned, owned, consumed, believed in) they inherently were restricted in their ability to know themselves. He argued that although other-directed individuals are crucial for the smooth functioning of the modern organization, the value of autonomy is compromised. Society dominated by the other-directed faces profound deficiencies in leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential.

American higher education

Riesman was also a noted commentator on American higher education. His seminal work, The Academic Revolution, co-authored with Christopher Jencks, was published in 1968. Riesman concludes: If this book has any single message it is that the academic profession increasingly determines the character of undergraduate education in America.[3]

Riesman highlighted the effects of the "logic of the research university," which focuses upon strict disciplinary research. This both sets the goals of the research university and produces its future professors. Riesman noted that such logic isolates any patterns of resistance that might challenge the university's primary purpose as disciplinary research, dashing their chances of success.


David Riesman represents an early example of what sociologists now call "public sociology."[4]

He was ... a reformer, even if an unconventional one. He valued utopian writing. He was deeply troubled by conformist tendencies in modern mass society and wrote passionately in defense of an empathic individualism that was responsive to civic obligations.

[H]e became the most famous sociologist of his generation, and wrote the most widely read book on American society of the twentieth century, The Lonely Crowd, (with the collaboration of Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney) published in 1950 and still in print.[5]

Riesman's book The Lonely Crowd is considered a landmark study of American character,[6] bringing into common vocabulary the three cultural types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and outer-directed. He analyzed the progress of American society according to these orientations, providing deep and valuable insights into the development of contemporary culture.

More than a sociologist, Riesman is acknowledged as an important contributor to the intellectual heritage of twentieth-century America:

It was Riesman, more than Fromm, Bloom or various post-modern social critics and social theorists, who best combined the role of public intellectual, social critic and theorist, while maintaining the proper respect for evidence and the craft of empirical sociological research. When Riesman met Fromm, American social criticism and pragmatism met the grand tradition of European critical theory and America came out pretty well.[4]

Major Works

  • Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character.
  • Riesman, David, and Nathan Glazer. 1952. Faces in the Crowd: Individual Studies in Character and Politics.
  • Riesman, David. 1953. Thorstein Veblen, a Critical Interpretation.
  • Riesman, David. 1955. Individualism Reconsidered: Selected Essays.
  • Riesman, David. 1956. Constraint and Variety in American Education.
  • Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney. Foreward by Todd Gitlin. 1969. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, abridged and revised edition.
  • Riesman, David. 1964. Abundance for What? And other Essays.
  • Riesman, David, and Evelyn Thompson Riesman. 1967. Conversations in Japan.
  • Jencks, Christopher, and David Riesman. 1968. The Academic Revolution.
  • Riesman, David, Joseph Gusfield, and Zelda Gamson. 1970. Academic Values and Mass Education.
  • Grand, Gerald, and David Riesman. 1978. The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College.
  • Riesman, David. 1980. On Higher Education: The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Daniel Horowitz, David Riesman: From Law to Social Criticism Buffalo Law Review 58 (2010): 1005-1029. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  2. Robert Fulford, Robert Fulford's column about David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd The National Post, July 3, 2001. Retrieved October 21, 2019.
  3. Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, The Academic Revolution (Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0765801159).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Neil McLaughlin, Critical theory meets America: Riesman, Fromm, and the lonely crowd American Sociologist (Spring, 2001): 5–26. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  5. Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Christopher Jencks, Ezra Vogel, and Orlando Patterson, Memorial Minute: David Riesman, author of ‘The Lonely Crowd’ The Harvard Gazette, November 13, 2003. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  6. Todd Gitlin, David Riesman, Thoughtful Pragmatist The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 24, 2002. Retrieved October 16, 2019.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Galbo, Joseph. "From the lonely crowd to the cultural contradictions of capitalism and beyond: The shifting ground of liberal narratives." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 40(1) (Winter 2004): 47–76
  • Gans, Herbert J. Gans, Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks (eds.). On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.
  • Geary, Daniel. "Children of The Lonely Crowd: David Riesman, the Young Radicals, and the Splitting of Liberalism in the 1960s." Modern Intellectual History 10(3) (2013): 603–633.
  • Horowitz, Daniel. David Riesman: From Law to Social Criticism Buffalo Law Review 58 (2010): 1005-1029. Retrieved May 19, 2020.
  • Lee, Raymond M. "David Riesman and the sociology of the interview." Sociological Quarterly 49(2) (2008): 285–307.
  • McLaughlin, Neil. Critical theory meets America: Riesman, Fromm, and the lonely crowd American Sociologist (Spring, 2001): 5–26. Retrieved May 19, 2020.

External links

All links retrieved January 28, 2024.


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