Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426

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.

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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 early in the study, and Riesman indicates that every human being will be one of these types to some degree. The “adjusted” personalities are those which fit the culture as if they were made for it, regardless of which culture they fit—tradition, inner, or other directed. They reflect their society, its values, and its self-perceptions. The anomic person is a characterological nonconformist, frequently neurotic, who pays a high price for his conformity. The autonomous are those who have the choice: They are capable of conformity but are comfortable with nonconformity. Riesman is careful to point out that these personality types may not reveal themselves in overt behavior; they do, however, have much to do with how one sees oneself and one’s society.

Personality types are not always visible; as indicated above, they may not manifest themselves overtly. Indeed, the responses shown by any personality type may not be in keeping with that type. In a confusing society, the autonomous personality may manifest apathy or the anomic personality may demonstrate heroism. Moreover, occupation has relevance for personality, both in shaping it and in the ways which it finds acceptable for self-expression. In other words, work roles affect both personalities and behaviors. This is especially true for the other-directed character.

Riesman also discusses at length the problems experienced by the autonomous person or by the person attempting to become autonomous. Because of the shift toward an other-directed society, the pressures on the autonomous are to conform, not to deviate. Autonomy and peer approval are not always compatible in many situations, especially those which are heavily laden with role expectations. While the true autonomous personality may choose to be a team player, the would-be autonomous personality may be pushed toward the anomic. Thus, although the autonomous personality may be the most desirable, the anomic personality is far more common. Ironically, the anomic person may not see himself accurately; instead, he may feel only frustrated or apathetic. In a society which increasingly defines personality by role, this growth in anomic personalities seems inevitable. The drive for success, when measured in terms of conspicuous consumption, increases the chances of this growth happening. Riesman stresses the greater prestige, thus importance, that Americans accord work activities over play activities.

Throughout the work, but especially in the later chapters, Riesman is careful to note that what is true for the white, middle-class, male American is even more true for other segments of the population. In particular, he describes the shift toward the anomic personality type among women and blacks. Inasmuch as they are measured by—and measure themselves by—the standards of white male culture, their dilemma increases. They are frequently blocked from adjustment by the definition of work. In his chapter “Glamorizers and Featherbedders,” Riesman indicates that American society conspires to deny this inequity. Through what Riesman calls a process of “false personalization” individuals become increasingly anonymous.

Americans adapt to this anonymity in a variety of ways. Some revert to craftsmanship as a way of demonstrating to themselves their own autonomy. Riesman calls those who practice this adaptation to extremes “folk dancers.” They tend to eschew mass-produced consumer goods in favor of the handmade; they tend to prefer reading to radio (they abhor television); they do not understand the meaning of play.

In fact, Riesman notes, most Americans are uncomfortable with play. As an example, he cites the growth of avocational counseling; Americans increasingly devote their “play” hours to learning something useful, from sports to carpentry or cooking, often employing an avocational counselor to assist them in learning to play constructively.

Riesman does not denigrate the American ability to achieve great things under oppressive conditions, as in the Great Depression. He does, however, note the large numbers of Americans who create their own “dire circumstances” so they may thrive on them while turning their backs on the greater leisure and affluence of American society, suggesting that some find identity in hardship. Although he finds genuine autonomy in the do-it-yourself people, he notes that many anomic personality people regard any “soft,” that is technologically advanced, way to perform tasks with aversion.

On a more positive note, he uses numerous examples of Americans who have developed secondary skills, who have become connoisseurs but not artists. He uses the man who has critical knowledge about jazz, but who is not himself a musician, to illustrate his point. Such people, although often other directed, can achieve autonomy without becoming folk dancers. Indeed, people’s critical skills, and the self-confidence they have in those skills, have increased dramatically. They no longer feel the need to understand the techniques of filmmaking in order to discuss the merit of a film, for example.

Riesman’s final chapter, “Autonomy and Utopia,” offers speculations about the future of American society, although he notes the difficulties in forecasting which result from the culture’s complexity and diversity. Although Riesman is not pessimistic about the future of the United States, and although he admits that he is unsure of many of the things said in his study, he is certain that increasing conformity will change the shape of American society. His last line puts the rest of the study into perspective: “The idea that men are created free and equal is both true and misleading: men are created different; they lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other.”

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Critical Context