Richard's Reviews > The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman
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Nov 22, 14

bookshelves: social-political, nonfiction, classic, own, need-to-re-read, really-deep-thinking, to-read, sociology-classic
Recommended to Richard by: Prof. Raymond Miller
Read in May, 1996

Multiple updates, below.

I came across Reisman’s Lonely Crowd while studying International Relations, having stumbled on the important oft-neglected (but very dry and dense) writings of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen, as well as Organization Man: The Book That Defined a Generation — all by way of the delightful writings of economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Of all of these classic social studies, the one that seemed most prescient was The Lonely Crowd, with the discussion of social identification shifting from “inner-directed” to “other-directed”. The radicals and revolutions starting in the sixties seemed to belie Riesman’s thesis, but the trend again became apparent by the early eighties.

If I recall correctly, the definition was that inner-directed people judged themselves and acted in accordance to an internalized “compass”, moral and otherwise. An other-directed person, meanwhile, based their morality and identity on their social group.

A further implication that Riesman identified was the concurrent trend from a production-oriented society (“I am what I produce”) to one oriented towards consumption (“I am what I consume”).

Importantly, both of these trends are very apparent in the ‘net generation’, and the rise of the internet seems to be accelerating both the shift to other-directedness and social identification aligned with consumption. I don’t recall much discussion in the 1969 book of the long term implications of these trends, but they could be deep tectonic shifts in the nature of civilization, as profound as the shift from the days of a pre-industrial society based mostly on agricultural production.

(It is quite possible that I have forgotten essential details of this book’s message, or even fundamentally misunderstood them — in which case I hope someone will post a comment to my review alerting me to my mistake).

I hope to find time to re-read the Revised Edition and see if the Foreword, at least, has much to say about current evidence for these trends, but a browse of the book (via Amazon Reader’s preview) doesn’t show much commentary.

The Lonely Crowd is definitely relevant to our twentieth-century world, but so much of the subject matter, style and examples are antiquated that most people will find the book’s lessons difficult and obscure.

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In examining other, more recent books, a disturbing possibility has brought my attention back to Riesman. Americans are widely believed to be increasingly “anti-scientific” (e.g., viz. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future). Related trends include the shift of desirable professions from the “thinking” towards the “feeling” (e.g., viz. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future).

The shift to a “other-directed” mindset could be the underlying cause of much of this. As I remember Riesman’s thesis, the basis of this is the shift from an economy of production to one of consumption. As we get farther from an economy of scarcity, more people focus their attention away from “how to make and get stuff” and towards their social status. This isn’t a crude “keeping up with the Joneses” thing; its more like what the well-fed monkeys do: they study the more popular monkeys and spend more time grooming monkeys they think are cool and interesting (that is, “friending” them).

The problem with this happening in humans is that the worry over production concentrates us on the material world and its consequent attention to science and engineering. A shift to a consumption mindset could derail the very thing that made it possible, as people’s votes, purchases and career choices change. And the many crises facing humanity in the coming decades make this an especially inopportune time for such a transformation.

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I hadn’t noted this at the time, but the Economist pointed out that Riesman’s analysis also applies to the emerging and huge middle classes of China, India, and the rest of the developing world. See The Middle Class In Emerging Markets:
Two Billion More Bourgeois

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I was perusing the New York Times and concurrently reading about sociology, and so I idly searched for Riesman at and discovered two essays, one of them excellent. The first, The Last Sociologist , is an obituary written by a protege and explains how the field of sociology has, in its struggle to be treated as a “real” science, focused on quantifiable phenomena and in doing so lost its ability to be relevant to any non-academic's intellectual life (much as Economics is boring whereas the neglected field of Political Economy is fascinating).

The second essay, How Our Crowd Got Lonely was written just a few years before Riesman died and examines how important The Lonely Crowed was at the time, albeit harder to understand by more recent generations, since they have been raised completely within a world of "outer-directedness" and have trouble percieving how fundamentally different the world might be to someone with an "inner-directed" mind.

Both are worth reading.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Lindsay Yeah, as I read this (and as I was reading The Organization Man), I try to extrapolate the trend it describes to later generations. I think, with my generation (the under-30 crowd) and its embrace of social networking and creating and managing a public persona, the trend is a simple expansion of the "primary group" --- from family to local peer group to global peer group --- but I haven't been able to fit "the radicals and revolutions of the sixties" into the theory either.

Elly Hello, I like your review. Did you also review A Whole New Mind? Can I read it?

Richard I didn't read or review A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Two of my clever GR friends read it; Trevor gave it two stars; Jim gave it four. It didn't sound quite interesting enough to ever make it to the top of my to-be-read list.

Elly That's a shame, sounds like it'd be interesting to read a review from your persective (which seems close related to mine), but thanks anyway.

John E. Branch Jr. Your aside that began "It is quite possible that I have forgotten essential details of this book’s message, or even fundamentally misunderstood them" is one thing that impressed me about your review of The Lonely Crowd. I could say the same thing about many books I've read, especially in fields I haven't studied, such as sociology, and sometimes I do qualify my reviews with expressions such as "If memory serves." I remain undecided about how important such confessions are, but it's hard to say that modesty and honesty are wrong.

Judging from what you say here about Riesman's book, you might appreciate Richard Sennett's book The Fall of Public Man, which, I saw in skimming it yesterday, refers to Riesman early on and admits to taking a contrary view. Incidentally, the description on that book's Goodreads page leaves a little to be desired. The description you can find on Sennett's website strikes me as a lot better.

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