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Riesman, David (22 Sept. 1909-10 May 2002), sociologist, was born David Riesman, Jr., in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of David Riesman and his wife, Eleanor Fleisher Riesman. The elder Riesman, who had emigrated from Germany as a youth, was a physician and a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The Riesmans were financially comfortable, and young David grew up in a household that valued intellectual pursuits. At the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia he was an excellent student, and upon graduation in 1926 he entered Harvard; there he majored in biochemistry with the intention of pursuing a medical career and had the distinction of being named a John Harvard Scholar. He also joined the staff of the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, and became its assistant managing editor. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated in 1931.

By the end of his undergraduate years at Harvard, Riesman had changed his career goal to the law. In the fall of 1931 he enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating in 1934 he attended the law school on a postgraduate fellowship, during which time he came under the influence of the faculty member Felix Frankfurter, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. Frankfurter and other professors, impressed by Riesman's acuity, advised him to pursue an academic career rather than practice law. Riesman did not immediately follow their suggestion; instead, after his admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1935, he accepted the offer of a prestigious clerkship with the associate U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. After serving Brandeis for one year, Riesman tried private practice, spending another year as an associate at a law firm in Boston.

In 1936 prior to joining the Boston firm, Riesman married Evelyn Hastings Thompson; the couple had four children. A year later the Riesmans moved to Buffalo, New York, where Riesman had accepted the offer of a law professorship at the University of Buffalo. He taught there for four years, during which time he was admitted to the bar of New York State. Intellectually restless, Riesman moved on yet again in 1941, accepting a one-year research fellowship at Columbia Law School in New York City. His work at Columbia focused on civil liberties, and he published several important articles on defamation and slander, but his interests were broad and eclectic, ranging over various aspects of the law. His first lengthy publication was a monograph, The American Constitution and International Labour Legislation, which appeared in 1941. In 1942-1943, with the United States now fully engaged in World War II, Riesman served as a deputy assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He then joined the Sperry Gyroscope Company on Long Island, serving as an assistant to the treasurer; he also oversaw the termination of government contracts at war's end for Sperry, a major defense contractor.

During Riesman's years in New York City he had come under the influence of leading social scientists affiliated with Columbia University, among them the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, as well as the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, who had coauthored the groundbreaking community study Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929). He had also made a study of psychoanalysis through informal association with the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan and the psychologist Erich Fromm. Like other American intellectuals, Riesman was now well aware of the pioneering curriculum in the social sciences and humanities being developed at the University of Chicago by its innovative president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and in 1946 he secured an appointment there as a visiting associate professor of social sciences. The following year he was named a tenured full professor in the program.

The Lonely Crowd

In 1948 Riesman was invited to direct a research project, ostensibly on mass communications, for the Committee on National Policy at Yale University. Taking a leave of absence from the University of Chicago, Riesman set out to assess "the American character" at mid-century, in collaboration with the sociologists Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. Though their task echoed the undertaking of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville more than a century earlier, the work that Tocqueville produced--Democracy in America (2 vols., 1835 and 1840)--was the subjective result of travel, conversation, and observation. Like Tocqueville, Riesman and his staff traveled extensively, talked with multitudes, and recorded reactions to thousands of encounters, but they performed their research rigorously, collecting and examining data on every aspect of the American population from voting records to work habits to preferences for leisure. In addition they read extensively in American literature--novels, plays, poetry, history, criticism--and also examined mass-market journalism, radio programs, and other aspects of popular culture in order to "get" what America was about. Most important, in gathering information they put to use a relatively new technique in the social sciences: the extended interview.

The results of this exhaustive study were published in 1950 as The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, with Riesman, Glazer, and Denney listed as its authors; in fact, it was generally acknowledged that virtually all of the text was written by Riesman. According to the book's central premise, three different types of social character are associated with societies at different times in their histories: Riesman called these "tradition-directed," "inner-directed," and "other-directed." The predominance of one of these three in any given population group is determined, he argued, by trends in the growth of that population. During periods of population stability, tradition-directed behavior--behavior based on established rules in the culture--predominates. With the growth of population, inner-directed behavior comes to the fore as people establish rules and goals for themselves based on personal and family experience. When the population again stabilizes, or even declines, people become other-directed as they look to the community for new standards of behavior and try to conform to them; driven by anxiety and benumbed by a seeming multiplicity of choices, their goal is social acceptance. This third phase was what Riesman and his associates identified as the prevailing mode in postwar, mid-century American society, a society beset by a consumerist ethic that in turn was reinforced by advertising and mass media. Though Riesman claimed to be offering observations rather than issuing a manifesto, his conclusion had an ominous ring: Americans, he wrote, risked the loss of "their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other."

Upon its publication The Lonely Crowd attracted considerable attention in academia, where its arguments were widely debated. One recurring criticism was that despite its avowedly broad sampling base, its conclusions were based on data from narrow and largely academic sources; for the most part, however, reviews were favorable, and Riesman garnered congratulatory blurbs from such influential commentators as literary critic Lionel Trilling, anthropologist Robert Redfield, and fellow sociologist Talcott Parsons. A sequel, Faces in the Crowd: Individual Studies in Character and Politics (1952), coauthored with Nathan Glazer, also received respectful attention. But Riesman's ideas attracted a far broader audience following the publication of an abridged version of The Lonely Crowd in 1953, and for a time the book was a best seller as the mass media served up simplified and often simplistic discussions of Riesman's thought. The phrases "inner-directed" and "other-directed" became part of popular discourse, and Riesman was assumed, incorrectly, to be declaring that America had become a nation of conformists when in fact he and his colleagues sought only to describe how conformity was being enforced. The nuances of Riesman's categorization were little understood and often ignored by the general public, much as would-be sophisticates a generation earlier had reduced the complexities of Freudian psychology to a few catchwords.

The Lonely Crowd and, to a lesser extent, Faces in the Crowd not only established Riesman's reputation as a major critic of American society but also popularized the field of sociology, paving the way for a series of best-selling critiques of national conformity by such nonacademic writers as John Keats (The Crack in the Picture Window, 1956) and Vance Packard (The Status Seekers, 1959). Riesman's next book was Individualism Reconsidered (1954), a wide-ranging collection of essays on various aspects of American culture, among them the status of youth, relations between men and women, and U.S. foreign policy. The volume also included discussions of higher education in the United States, a topic that thenceforth became the focus of most of Riesman's research and publications. His first book on the subject, Constraint and Variety in American Education, was published in 1956. Here and in subsequent studies of education Riesman described how changes in American society were reflected in the nation's colleges and universities.

Riesman had returned to the University of Chicago following the completion of his work at Yale and remained there until 1956, when he joined the Department of Social Relations at Harvard as the first Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences. When the department was later dismantled, he moved to the sociology department and remained there until his retirement in 1980. Riesman enjoyed teaching at all levels, and his undergraduate course "American Character and Social Structure" was a perennial favorite for Riesman and students alike.

Higher Education

Riesman wrote a number of books on higher education in America, the topic that engaged most of his attention from the mid-1950s onward. Two were especially significant and well received. The Academic Revolution, coauthored with Christopher Jencks (1968), describes how professional training came to dominate both undergraduate and graduate education in the United States. The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College, coauthored with Gerald Grant (1978), is a study of how student movements in the 1960s and 1970s transformed university curricula--not, according to Riesman, entirely to the good: though politically liberal, Riesman looked askance at the student-engendered violence that shut down campuses during this tumultuous period, and he was critical of wholesale abandonment of liberal arts courses in the name of "relevance."

Riesman's other books on higher education include Academic Values and Mass Education, coauthored with Joseph Gusfield and Zelda Gamson (1970); Education and Politics at Harvard, coauthored with Seymour Martin Lipset (1975); On Higher Education: The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism (1980); and Choosing a College President: Opportunities and Constraints, coauthored with Judith Block McLaughlin (1990). He also edited, with Verne A. Stadtman, Academic Transformation: Seventeen Institutions under Pressure (1973). In addition, Riesman was the author of Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation (1953), as well as Abundance for What? and Other Essays (1964). With his wife he coauthored Conversations in Japan: Modernization, Politics, and Culture (1967), which was based on a goodwill trip to Japan intended to form closer American ties with Japanese intellectuals.

In addition to his teaching and research, Riesman was frequently called upon for advice by many prominent educators in the wake of the student unrest that began in the mid-1960s; he was also a frequent consultant on curricula and on administrative appointments. Riesman was a member of the Carnegie Commission for the Study of Higher Education (1967-1973) and a consultant to the Carnegie Council Policy Studies in Higher Education (1973-1980). He received numerous honorary degrees, including a doctorate in law from Harvard in 1990.

A popular professor who was always accessible to his students and had friends across the political spectrum, Riesman was sympathetic to left-of-center causes, most notably the mid-century campaign for nuclear disarmament; for a time he served as editor of The Correspondent, an antinuclear journal. However, he eschewed the radicalism of the 1960s and its Marxist underpinnings: a trip through Stalinist Russia in the early 1930s, at a time when many American intellectuals were increasingly attracted to Communism, had made him a skeptic of its utopian promises, and he remained so. In later years he often expressed dismay at what he termed the "politicization" of sociology, as well as its increasing emphasis on quantification rather than the exploration of human values. A graceful and engaging writer, he also looked with both disdain and regret at the "academic-speak" that had come to characterize most discourse in the field. Yet The Lonely Crowd continued to be widely read and became a basic text in college classes on American culture: by the end of the twentieth century it had sold an estimated 1.5 million copies, and it remains in print today. He died in Binghamton, New York.



Biographical information on Riesman is limited to two autobiographical essays: "Two Generations," Daedalus, Spring 1964, and "Becoming an Academic Man," in Bennett M. Berger, ed., Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Biographies by Twenty American Sociologists (1990). See also entries under "Riesman, David," in Current Biography (1955) and Current Biography Yearbook (2002). In addition, see Todd Gitlin, "David Riesman: Thoughtful Pragmatist," Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 May 2002, and Orlando Patterson, "The Last Sociologist," New York Times, 19 May 2002 (see also correction, New York Times, 24 May 2002); see also Seymour Martin Lipset and Leo Lowenthal, eds., Culture and Social Character: The Work of David Riesman Reviewed (1961), as well as Herbert J. Gans, Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks, eds., On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman (1979). See also Peter I. Rose, "David Riesman Reconsidered," Society 19, no. 3 (Mar. 1982): 52-61. An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 May 2002.

Ann T. Keene

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American National Biography Online July 09-2008.
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