The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Culture

The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Culture” (1950) written by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, is considered to be one of the most important sociological books of the twentieth century. Sociologists Riesman and Glazer focused their criticism on the erosive capacity of suburbanization. “The Lonely Crowd,” according to the authors,. referred to Americans whose behavior was driven by competition for material goods rather than the “inner directed” motivations of family, religion, and morality. (Patterson, 338-341.)

Critics of the 1950s such as Riesman and Glazer, argued that employees of large corporate organizations learned to dress alike, to pattern their lives in similar ways, to adopt similar values and goals, to place a high value on “getting along” within the hierarchical structure of the corporation. In fact, complaints about the conformity, the homogeneity of the culture of organization became one of the staples of social criticism in the 1950s, as social scientists came to see in this culture a challenge to the capacity of individuals to retain any psychological autonomy. The organization, they argued, was a debilitating force, creating alienated conformists afraid to challenge prevailing norms. They were people who would take no risks; people who feared to be different. 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.”

Riesman and Glazer’s view was that “people went from being ‘inner-directed’ to ‘outer-directed,’ from heeding their own instincts and judgment to depending on the judgments and opinions of tastemakers and trendsetters.” The inner-directed person consults the internalized voices of a mostly dead lineage, while the other-directed counterpart heeds the external voices of her living contemporaries. Fitting in is all important to other-directeds. This need to fit in has consequences for how modern people go about their lives. In politics, for example, those who are inner-directed believe they can change the world and even believe they can be President – modern people are not so confident that we can really change things and also prefer not to stand out quite as much. Life is more about being marginally different from those around you – the world is changing so fast that it is hard to be provided with a moral compass, but encouraging kids to be not too different from those around them seems a fairly safe strategy.

What Riesman and Glazer actually suggested was that we think of social organization in terms of a series of “ideal types” along a spectrum of increasingly loose authority. On one end of the spectrum is a “tradition-directed” community, where we all understand that what we’re supposed to do is what we’re supposed to do because it’s just the thing that one does; authority is unequivocal, and there’s neither the room nor the desire for autonomous action. In the middle of the spectrum, as one moves toward a freer distribution of, and response to, authority, is “inner-direction.” The inner-directed character is concerned not with “what one does” but with “what people like us do.” Which is to say that she looks to her own internalizations of past authorities to get a sense for how to conduct her affairs. Contemporary society, Riesman thought, was best understood as chiefly “other-directed,” where the inculcated authority of the vertical (one’s lineage) gives way to the muddled authority of the horizontal (one’s peers). The inner-directed person orients herself by an internal “gyroscope,” while the other-directed person orients herself by “radar.”

Gradually an other-direction took hold, that is, the social forces of how others were living—what they consumed, what they did with their time, what their views were toward politics, work, play, and so on. Riesman and his researchers found that other-directed people were flexible and willing to accommodate others to gain approval. Because large organizations preferred this type of personality, it became indispensable to the institutions that thrived with the growth of industry in America. As Riesman writes, “The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed,” not necessarily to control others but to relate to them. Those who are other-directed need assurance that they are emotionally in tune with others. According to Riesman and Glazer, by the 1940s, the other-directed character was beginning to dominate society. At the time of the book’s printing (mid-1950s), the triumph of this type of social personality was almost is complete. If one applies the other-direction criteria to everyday actors as portrayed in modern culture, for example, the other-directed person is easy to identify.

This defined the middle class that no longer had the material needed to cling to past life standards to form a cohesive society. 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. Riesman and Glazer’s book argues that although other-directed individuals are crucial for the smooth functioning of the modern organization, the value of autonomy is compromised. The Lonely Crowd also argues that society dominated by the other-directed faces profound deficiencies in leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential.

To summarize, 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.