David Riesman wrote The Lonely Crowd with backing provided by the Committee on National Policy at Yale University. The committee supported a number of studies, beginning in 1946, which included those by members of the department of economics and political science and the school of law. Riesman, a Harvard University professor, was invited to Yale and given a free hand. In his preface to the 1961 edition, Riesman acknowledges his collaborators, Reuel Denney and Nathan Glazer, describes the methodology of their research, and discusses manuscript preparation. That preface emphasizes Riesman’s use of materials from many scholars, as well as his receptivity to the criticism of his colleagues.
Post-World War II America offered fertile ground for such studies as Riesman’s. In addition to the return of military forces to civilian life, many other changes took place. The national economy and nearly all major industries were making the transition from war efforts to the production of peacetime consumer goods, using newly discovered technology. The reintroduction of men into the domestic work force brought about changes in American sex roles. The baby boom began in earnest, making the building of new housing necessary nationwide. The political concerns of Americans were changing, although there remained a strong desire for national defense. The popular culture occupied more and more Americans’ leisure. The roles of economists, politicians, sociologists, educators, entrepreneurs, and many others were in a state of flux. The Lonely Crowd synthesizes these changes and seeks to extract meaning from them.
Riesman uses the format of many studies in sociology. Beginning with a section of definitions, the nearly four-hundred-page work is organized into eighteen chapters in three main categories. In each chapter Riesman directly applies his definitions to the American experience. He uses examples generously, including many from the contemporary popular culture. The chapters run the gamut of American life-styles and experiences, and Riesman’s final chapter offers a summation of his findings.