Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Doubts and Reservations

David Riesman ( 1909-) was educated at Harvard College, then Harvard Law School, after which he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. After practicing law, including service as deputy assistant district attorney for New York County, Riesman began teaching social science at the University of Chicago in 1946. In 1957, he joined the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. He is now professor emeritus. In addition to his contributions to the study of American social character, Riesman is considered one of the foremost experts on higher education in the United States. The selection is from The Lonely Crowd, which Riesman wrote with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Since its first edition in 1950, the book has been an all-time best-seller among sociological studies. It remains the classic study of postwar American social life. Readers will note the references to Erich Fromm, with whom Riesman once had what he calls an unorthodox analysis. The range of Riesman's sources, from psychoanalysis to economic history, begins to explain the book's broad appeal.


Character and Society: The Other-directed Personality

David Riesman ( 1950)

What is the relation between social character and society? How is it that every society seems to get, more or less, the social character it "needs"? Erik H. Erikson writes, in a study of the social character of the Yurok Indians, that ". . . systems of child training . . . represent unconscious attempts at creating out of human raw material that configuration of attitudes which is (or once was) the optimum under the tribe's particular natural conditions and economic-historic necessities."

From "economic-historic necessities" to "systems of child training" is a long jump. Much of the work of students of social character has been devoted to closing the gap and showing how the satisfaction of the largest "needs" of society is prepared, in some half-mysterious way, by its most intimate practices. Erich Fromm succinctly suggests the line along which this connection between society and character training may be sought: "In order that any society may function well, its members must acquire the kind of character which makes them want to act in the way they have to act as members of the society or of a special class within it. They have to desire what objectively is necessary for them to do. Outer force is replaced by inner compulsion, and by the particular kind of human energy which is channeled into character traits."

____________________
Excerpt from The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character ( New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969 [ 1961]), pp. 4-8, 19-22, 24-25. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright 1950, 1961 by Yale University Press.

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