Lonely Crowd, The

views updated

Lonely Crowd, The


The Lonely Crowd, published in 1950, was written by sociologist David Riesman (19092002) in collaboration with Reuel Denney (19131995) and Nathan Glazer (b. 1923). Initially expected to sell only several thousand copies, this study of the links between social structure and national character has sold over 1.4 million copies from its initial publication, making it the best-selling sociology book in the United States.

Writing in the postWorld War II (19391945) period, Riesman sought to understand what kinds of character structures were being encouraged by the social institutions of modern society, including capitalist corporations, political institutions, and the mass media. He proposed three different character types. The tradition-directed type was the product of unchanging societies in which social patterns were rooted in the past. The traditional character was rigid, insular, and not open to innovation. The development of industrial society, however, required a new character type. The nineteenth century saw the rise of what Riesman called the inner-directed type. This character received its essential structure in its youth, through strong family and community socialization. Unlike the traditional type, the inner-directed person could change and develop, but only following the direction of his or her inner gyroscope, whose essential pattern had been determined in youth.

Riesman argued that in the mid-twentieth century the inner-directed type was being replaced by a new character type. Modern organizations demanded people who took their cues from what other people expected of them. These other-directed individuals used their social radar, rather than an inner gyroscope, to guide their values and actions. They preferred to be loved rather than esteemed. Their character was not shaped primarily by family or religion, but rather was strongly influenced by peer culture and the mass media.

When it was first published, The Lonely Crowd received many critical reviews, but nonetheless resonated widely in American society. Readers could appreciate the social changes within twentieth-century American society; they experienced firsthand the growing power of corporations and the greater presence of the media, including television, which was then in its infancy. They couldor thought they couldidentify inner- and other-directed people among their relatives and friends, and detect differences between generations. Riesman himself, of course, proposed these terms as ideal types, with most people in modern society combining elements of the different character types.

The popularity of the book was also due to the clear, declarative writing style that artfully mixed interview data with evidence culled from magazines, movies, and even childrens books. The Lonely Crowd was a jargon-free, wide-ranging analysis of the sort that sociology has largely since abandoned. To some extent, it is a period piece. Many of its assertions have since proved wrong, most notably a demographic hypothesis that tied the rate of population growth to national character type, a hypothesis that Riesman himself abandoned in the 1969 edition. But other hypotheses about the tenuous balance between the social conformity demanded by society and desires for autonomy among individuals continue to demand attention, even as the paradoxical phrase, the lonely crowd, has entered into public discourse as an image of anomie within affluent society.

SEE ALSO Alienation; Conformity; Glazer, Nathan; Intersubjectivity; Organization Man


Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Leo Lowenthal, eds. 1961. Culture and Social Character: The Work of David Riesman Reviewed. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Riesman, David, with Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer. 1950. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Diane Barthel-Bouchier

Lonely Crowd, The

views updated


LONELY CROWD, THE. David Riesman's book The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Culture (1950), coauthored with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, was one of the most influential works of twentieth-century American sociology. It asserted that the prevailing social character of Americans had changed dramatically since the nineteenth century in response to changing demographics and the emergence of a service-and consumption-based economy. The change was from an "inner-directed" personality type, a self-reliant and purposeful person who was able to navigate through a changing world by relying upon the firm principles implanted by parents, to an "other-directed" type, exquisitely attentive to the cues of othersparticularly peer groups, coworkers, and mass mediain finding its way in the world. This change reflected the larger transformation in American life, the causes of which range from the increasingly abstract and corporate structure of the modern economy to the social homogeneity of the postwar suburbs, to the amorphousness of the modern democratic family. The book's popularity derived from a widespread concern that the American ethos of self-reliant freedom was vanishing as the newly prosperous nation became a land of anxious, oversocialized, glad-handing personality mongers and empty suits. Hence the paradox captured in the title: a throng whose individual members nevertheless felt themselves painfully alone, unable to claim independent meaning for their lives.

In fact, the book's actual arguments were more nuanced than many of its readers noticed. Far from calling for a restoration of the past, Riesman readily conceded the highly compulsive quality of much "inner directedness" and saw considerable merit in an "other directedness" that enhanced Americans' capacity for empathy. Nevertheless, the book's most salient message was its warning against the perils of conformism, expressed in a closing admonition that Americans "lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other." That message still resonates today.


McClay, Wilfred M. The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Pells, Richard H. The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and1950s. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Wilfred McClay

See also Existentialism .

About this article

The Lonely Crowd

All Sources -
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic