Riesman's Lonely Crowd Reevaluated After a Decade

CULTURE AND SOCIAL CHARACTER: Work of David Riesman Reviewed. Edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Leo Lowenthal. The Free Press 1961. 466 pp.

One of the intriguing problems of modern Biology is that The Lonely Crowd, was written by a professor of social after several years of research and interviewing, should have been dismissed by so intellectuals as dilettante dabbling.

Our Martin Lipset and Leo Lowenthal have edited a volume of critical essays that, by its list of contributors, goes far to show Riesman as a publicly accepted members of his profession. It also makes equally clear that his confederates do not consider him a very good social theorist.

Riesman's informality does not disturb these particularly; indeed, several essays are devoted to defending his style and format. But as formidable assemblage dissects the Crowd concept by concept and definition by definition, this spectre of formal rigor re-Words like values, social character, social power are steadily and carefully redefined throughout the book, and author after author sets up a framework to discuss American society.

A GLANCE at the different points of departure from which Riesman is attacked reveals that the critics agree no more among themselves than with Riesman: he is not so heretic as another dissident. But the search for agreement on the meaning of words is still important--the theory of special relativity, for example, grew from a sophisticated examination of the word simultaneous. Still, it is disheartening for the layman to watch sociologists chasing each other, like so many out Little Black Sambo's tree, pur-definition of social character.

The obstacle to curt dismissal of such hair- splitting is that these matters of definition are more important than that: Sheldon Messinger and Burton Clark argue presuasively that Riesman has used social character to talk about personality when he should have centered his attention on schools, work, and nations in which people behave as if other-directed. Talcott Parsons and Winston White analyze the word values, and continuities in the evolution of American behavior which Riesman does not mention. These preoccupations with careful anlysis can be most frustrating (Robert Gutman and Dennis Wrong talk about property space and chop words with a microtome precision that reveals little but their capacity to ignore Riesman's central concerns). They can also be pointless (William Kornhauser's main point seems to be that neither Riesman nor C. Wright Mills has found a perfect description of politics).


Too, the conceptual frames these men establish with such pain really do serve a function in explaining their thought. Parsons and White, for example, make far more sense of the restricted role of the modern family than Riesman's vague awareness that the family is abdicating all responsibility for raising children. Because they proceed from a coherent theory of society, their closely reasoned (and extremely dense) essay leads them to put Riesman's observations in a very different and more coherent perspective. In examining the evidence Riesman puts out, they are led to believe that individual freedom has increased rather than ebbed in recent decades.

ONE of the strongest effects of this book of essays is a sense that, aggravating and obscure as methodology may be, it has a place in modern sociology that is not only inescapable but vital for those who want to talk about what happens in society. One bit of evidence for this is Riesman's almost casual assumption that the American character has altered radically, and several authors take violent issue with the subtitle of The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. As Ralf Dahrendorf explains, "Comte Alexis de Tocqueville and Mr. David Riesman share a number of their questions, and many of their answers too; but whereas Mr. Riesman does not mind the former, he seems rather less than pleased with the latter." Lipset documents the similarities of nineteenth-century observations to Riesman's description. Parsons and White talk about the continuity of values. Nobody doubts that changes have occurred, but these writers question whether Riesman has described them accurately, and whether the American character has really altered.

Riesman, as Norman Birnbaum observes, is difficult to write about. "Himself a master of ambiguity, he cannot be surprised that his colleagues are ambivalent about his thought." Riesman captures insights so true that his weaving them into a fabric of vague theory seems inescapably right--yet he expounds a point of view rather than an encompassing hypothesis, and his theories have a habit of melting like a sweet, decorated ice cream.

Riesman qualifies his statements almost continuously, and a little defensively. He seeks to hold a middle ground, neither condemning the other-directed nor exalting the inner-directed. Yet there is something a little disturbing in his generous tolerance, and in the utopia of autonomy. As Dahrendorf observes, the autonomous seems very like the inner-directed, and Riesman is disturbingly kind to the other-directed. The categories are ideal types, and they don't work well on real people--this much Riesman admits: they are, in fact, polarities of behavior. But much of this collection of critiques is devoted to showing something else: that imprecision in explaining other-direction, in contrasting real peer groups with theory, and in examining the modern role of the family has produced over-simplification that verges on the irrelevant.

WHAT remains is Riesman's approach to politics. There is a kind of intellectual predestination in the relative success of this work after a decade, for Riesman himself has become almost exclusively interested in political action. And in his more recent writing he pursues the threads of political action to a conclusion that negates much of the tolerance expressed in The Lonely Crowd.

Yet there is a magic in Riesman's book, an appeal to those who have read it, that insists on recognition. There is something more here than the phrase-maker and the occasionally able writer. It is not, Eric Larrabee to the contrary, that Riesman directly exposes his readers to the workings of a brilliant mind. And the difficulties are not explained by Larrabee's thesis that, "The Lonely Crowd is like many other books that have permanently changed men's minds. They begin, while the ideas they contain are fresh, by being incomprehensible; and they end, after the ideas have become familiar, by becoming unreadable."

Rather, Riesman has sought, with almost infinite patience and tolerance, to make sense of the intellectual climate of America, and to replace indignation against conformity with an understanding that might prompt plausible activity. Yet if one listens to Riesman's readers, or his students, it seems that a kind of intellectual self-pity informs most of their reactions.

Riesman has brought something very persuasive to his view of American national character--the idea that we live in a period of change, that the change is inevitable, and that it is the sacrifice we make for progress. Each element is vital: change because it is comforting to think that things are worse, or more difficult for us than our ancestors. How pleasant for the intellectual to realize that everyone about him is more conformist than their parents, and that modern taste is more subject to opinion leaders than ever before. Riesman did not discover conformity, but he gave it the respectable opprobrium of a scientific title and a social science theory. As important is the inevitability of change, for we are safely released from the obligation to act, particularly when we are also given a political philosophy proclaiming the death of political activism. And all this, Riesman's interpreters see, is the price we pay for a rising standard of living, better communications, and a more tolerant world. It is not a very comforting view, but it is very relaxing.

Beyond this, Riesman has touched a gnawing fear that Arthur Brodbeck captures brilliantly, "What is felt throughout the volume is an overpowering and painful sense of loneliness in American society. It is not so much that a great deal is said about loneliness. There are listed in the index rather disappointing references to only five lean remarks about loneliness. Yet the mood haunts almost every page, like an insistent and sorrowful background music."

Brodbeck looks beyond this theme to ask, very carefully but almost pensively, what would lead a nation to this sense of loneliness, and to the uneasy fear that accompanies it. He answers, almost elliptically, by recalling a theoretical link between fear of the unconscious and longing for membership, and then suggesting that a nation whose illusions are constantly shattered, and whose self-awareness is coming inexorably to dominate its thought, could scarcely avoid this fear. It is disturbing that Dahrendorf has commented, "I do not wish to be misunderstood...whatever criticism I may suggest of American society is praise by comparison to my views about my own country, Germany."

WHEN David Riesman quit medicine for the law, a superb clinician moved to a rather alien field. It is this image of Riesman that remains after all the criticisms of this book--a man who is, for all the lapses in reasoning and method this volume suggest, astonishingly perceptive of the disquiet that troubles American intellectuals. Perhaps Riesman will be of more interest to intellectual historians than sociologists of the future, but to either group he has an immediate message about his world that must not be obscured by the real but almost irrelevant lapses in his methods and definitions

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