David Riesman

The American sociologist, writer, and social critic David Riesman (born 1909) was a leading authority on higher education and on developments in American society.

David Riesman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1909. His father, also named David Riesman, was a well-known physician and professor of clinical medicine and later of the history of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Young Riesman attended William Penn Charter School, Harvard College, where he was one of the editors of The Crimson, and Harvard Law School, where he was one of the editors of the Havard Law Review. In the following year he was a research fellow and worked with Professor Carl Friedrich of the Harvard Government Department, and the next year he served as a law clerk to Justice Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a year of law practice in Boston he spent four years at the University of Buffalo Law School. Riesman's interests were, from the beginning wider than research in, and the practice of law. During his years in Buffalo he published important articles on civil liberties and a major series of articles on the law of defamation and slander. He discussed in the latter, among other things, the then key question of whether a right to suit for group libel should be recognized, as in the case of anti-Semitic writings attacking Jews. By the mid-1940s these articles had been widely noted. In a year as a research fellow at the Columbia Law School he was able to discuss his rapidly developing wide-ranging interests—in community studies, in the new culture and personality orientation in anthropology, and in change in American society—with Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and Robert and Helen Merril Lynd. In a further stay in New York during World War II as deputy assistant district attorney for New York County and with Sperry Gyroscope he was able to study psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan.

After the war Riesman joined the staff of the University of Chicago, then perhaps the most exciting enterprise in undergraduate education in America, and helped develop a course on culture and personality. In 1948, on a leave at Yale Law School, he began work on his first major book, The Lonely Crowd (with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney), followed by Faces in the Crowd (with Nathan Glazer). Riesman combined some new techniques in the social sciences, in particular long qualitative interviews, with analysis of popular culture, radio, and magazines and books to describe what was happening to American character. The Lonely Crowd, published in 1950, became (especially in a revised and shortened version published by Anchor Books-Doubleday in 1953) one of the seminal works of the 1950s and established Riesman as a leading commentator on trends in American life.

His style in inquiry was to take a conventional viewpoint and to question it sharply. He himself called his mode of analysis "counter cyclical." He continued to sharpen a unique and remarkably insightful view of American society in discussions of youth, the relations between men and women, American education, and American foreign relations. His essays on these and other subjects, collected in Individualism Reconsidered (1954) and Abundance for What (1964), had wide influence. The latter volume in particular reflected his deep concern with the dangers of an uncontrolled nuclear arms race, which had led to his becoming one of the founders of the Committees of Correspondence in 1960, a group organized under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee.

In 1958 Riesman moved from the University of Chicago to Harvard, where he became the first Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences. He made a deep and long-lasting commitment to undergraduate education at Harvard, teaching a famous course on "American Character and Social Structure," serving on the faculty committee supervising the undergraduate social studies program, and connecting himself, both in research and as a faculty associate, with the life of the undergraduate houses at Harvard.

He had begun to work on higher education even before going to Harvard. He published Constraint and Variety in American Education in 1956, and from then on was engaged almost continuously in research and publication on American higher education. He published (with Christopher Jencks) the important Academic Revolution in 1968, Academic Values and Mass Education (with Joseph Gusfield and Zelda Gamson) in 1970, The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College (with Gerald Grant) in 1978, and On Higher Education: The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism in 1980, Choosing A College President: Opportunities and Constraints, and he contributed to and edited many other volumes on higher education.

Riesman carved out for himself a unique role in American intellectual life. While his research for more than 30 years centered on higher education, and he became known as perhaps the leading authority on this subject, serving on many committees and often consulted on searches for college presidents and other high officials, this was only one side of his interests. As the writer of some of the most insightful works on American character and society, he was regularly asked for his views on developments in American society. And because of his permanent concern with what he saw as the greatest danger facing mankind—nuclear war—he maintained a strong interest in foreign affairs and the development of American politics. In all this, he escaped labels. If any label was suitable, it was that of old-fashioned liberal, but he enrolled under no banner and his distinctive voice could never be mistaken as being part of a crowd.

Further Reading on David Riesman

The work of David Riesman is discussed in a volume published in his honor, On the Making of Americans (1979), edited by Herbert J. Gans, Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks. This volume has a complete bibliography of his works up to 1979. Riesman wrote a number of autobiographical pieces, among them the essay "Two Generations," which appeared in Daedalus in Spring 1964, and "Becoming an Academic Man," which is to appear in a volume of autobiographical essays by sociologists edited by Bennett M. Berger.