Riesman’s early chapters of definition are essential to an understanding of the arguments presented later in the work. He identifies three broad types of character living side by side in the United States: the tradition-directed character, the inner-directed character, and the other-directed character. Each has valid and understandable reasons for its existence, as Riesman demonstrates. The tradition-directed personality has its roots in the past and is governed by intensive socialization and rigid etiquette. Traditional religious values play a major role for this person. The inner-directed figure is self-motivated and characterized by increased personal mobility; the “self-made” man is of this type. The other-directed character relies heavily on peer relationships and approval as standards of behavior; social skills are especially important for this person.
Riesman stresses the roles of both family and social milieu in producing these characters. In other words, a strong tradition-directed family may well produce tradition-directed offspring, despite other influences. Nevertheless, other environmental influences may outweigh family authority. Moreover, many characters are combinations of types; that is, they respond to different stimuli differently.
Taken as a whole, society’s composition is in a constant state of flux; at times, tradition-directed characters predominate, while at others, inner-directed or other-directed personalities may be in the majority. Riesman notes that these shifts are tied to history, mobility, and technology. In general, though, the shift in predominant character has been away from the tradition directed and toward the other directed. This shift has affected virtually every aspect of American life, from the way people worship to the way they vote, from the way they do business to the way they spend their leisure time.
Equally important to the way Americans are, in Riesman’s terms, is the way in which they see themselves. In other words, do Americans believe that they and their institutions are as they should be? Riesman explores in depth the ways in which Americans perceive various institutions, such as the political and business worlds, and the uses they make of those institutions according to character type. The inner-directed character views and uses politics for his own advancement, while the other-directed figure makes political choices based on his perception of what will produce the best social acclimation for him. The same principle can be applied to all aspects of life. It is in this way that American leaders—and followers—emerge; it is in this way that the United States undergoes social change.
Riesman illustrates throughout his study the impact that all this social structuring and restructuring has on the individual. At the same time that Americans have a collective identity, they are individuals. As such, they are faced with increasingly complex decisions to be made in an accelerating society. As might be expected, their adaptations vary considerably. Riesman does identify three universal personality types that have emerged: the adjusted, the anomic (Riesman eschews “anomie” because of its pejorative connotations), and the autonomous. He is quick to note, however, that these are ideal types, that is, constructions necessary for experimental work. In fact, these types probably appear seldom, if at all, in their pure forms. The personality types are related to the character types defined...
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The Lonely Crowd was one of the first analyses of postwar American society. Most important, Reisman makes a fresh application of established sociological principles to Americans living in a radically changed world while introducing new theories of personality to explain the changing American character and its impact on the individual. His work was well received: Reviews in The Journal of American Sociology, for example, praised the work highly.
In another book, Faces in the Crowd: Individual Studies in Character and Politics (1952), Riesman continues his exploration into the minds of the Americans he identified by personality type in The Lonely Crowd. Although Faces in the Crowd can be read as a separate volume, it is a valuable application of the principles established in the earlier study. In both works, the real importance is Riesman’s connection between theory and society.
Other works that may interest the reader of The Lonely Crowd include Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), a landmark study of the impact of the media on the American culture. McLuhan suggests that the agenda of popular culture is larger than the messages it conveys. Although a difficult work, Understanding Media provides a valuable follow-up to Riesman’s studies. Similarly, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), a popular best-seller when it was published, demonstrates the correlation between a bewildering world and anomic behavior. The Lonely Crowd, then, serves as a springboard for the application of sociological theory. As such, it has set a direction followed by many authors since its publication in 1950, and it is basic reading for any serious student of American culture.