The Lonely Crowd

The death of hegemony with the rise of the media.

My PhD supervisor Alan Costall always warned me about what we might call presentism in researching the literature. As he rightly said, it’s all too easy to only look at recent texts and those that recur again and again in citation networks and ignore what has gone before. David Riesman’s (1950) The Lonely Crowd is a case in point. Reputedly the biggest selling sociology book of all time (McLaughlin 2001), The Lonely Crowd was highly influential in the 1950s and early 1960s, but in later years it has been all but forgotten.

I came across it, as is often the case, by a circuitous route. Looking into the origins of the concept of SLOAP – sites left over after planning, I came across two books by Canadian geographer Edward Relph; Place and Placelessness (1976) and The Modern Urban Landscape (1987). In the former, he puts forward the concept of “other-directed places which suggest nothing of the people living and working in them,” (1976: 93) essentially what Augé, many years later (1992), would call “non-places”. Seeking the origin of other-directed led me to Riesman.

Riesman’s main argument concerns how society is organised at the individual level – how people get the values upon which they make decisions. He sees this as set against the demographic changes in the west since the middle ages – that a growing population changes how people interact. He divides societies into three phases; tradition directed, inner directed and other directed, the latter being, as of 1950, a very recent phenomenon. I’m not sure I entirely believe his temporal sequence (see below), but it is somewhat similar to the epistemes proposed by Foucault.

Tradition directed simply means that society is organised around traditional ideas and values, as in the middle ages (but this seems a little simplistic). Inner directed, he suggests, is typified by the Protestant Work Ethic of the Rennaisance/Enlightenment period (and here he was influenced by Weber). Rather than look to tradition, people act upon inner principles to decide how they should behave. One would assume that any ideological position would fit this – being a Marxist or a Fascist, as well as being a capitalist. Other directed is the phase of taking values from peers and society at large “keeping up with the Joneses” would be a good example of other direction.

Riesman rather neatly sums up the drives of the different phases. In traditional societies, shame forces people to adhere to tradition. In inner directed societies, guilt predominates – the failure to achieve perceived goals, not doing what one ought. In other directed societies, anxiety takes over. He also felt that inner-directed people tended to be more discontented and assertive, whereas other direction is accepting and passive. Riesman distiguishes the mechanisms of the two former types from the latter with another nice metaphor. Tradition and inner direction, he says, act like a gyroscope, stabilising values and beliefs in spite of forces that might perturb society. In an other directed society “the other directed person must be able to receive signals from far and near; the sources are many, the changes rapid…The control equipment, instead of being like a gyroscope, is like radar” (Riesman 2001[1950]: 25). Another neat metaphor distinguishes tradition from inner direction – traditional society is regulated by the striking of bells in the town/church clock, the inner directed by the pocket watch.

In a sense, written in the late 40s, Riesmans book sits on a cusp of social change. Whilst he sees other direction as a recently emerging trope, and one largely confined to the USA, it would be fair to say that its origins go much further back, and that with the growth of the media it has gone on to be all pervasive. Although one could cite earlier examples of a popular sentiment shaping values; the grief surrounding the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817, or the “Werther mania” that swept Europe in the late 18th century (see below) (see Graves Brown and Orange 2017, forthcoming), it seems to me that the rise of cheap newsprint at the end of the 19th century marks the point at which the societal radar begins its pervasive function. Titles such as the Daily Mail and Express in the UK, or the Hearst papers in the US are the earliest channels through which mass popular values are promulgated and constructed. This, of course, was acted synergistically with mass education to elementary and later secondary level, which became the norm in the “developed” world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might also add the physical mobility of populations since the advent of railways. In recent years, the emergence of social media has brought other-directedness to its apogee; the radar system through which we pick up on social mores and shifts in public sentiment has become all pervasive.

Riesman, Frankfurt and Debord

As McLaughlin (2001) suggests “Riesman’s work has played an important, if under recognized, place in modern North American sociology combining, as it does, American pragmatist thinking with European critical theory.” The origins of this lay in the fact that Riesman, at his mother’s suggestion, allowed himself to by psychoanalysed by Erich Fromm, a German emigree and former associate of Horkheimer and Adorno. From analyst Fromm became Riesman’s mentor, and despite the fact that the latter did not embrace Marxism, his work on the Lonely Crowd was clearly influenced by German Critical Theory. Particularly through Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) and Man for Himself: Towards a Psychology of Ethics (1947).

But further, during the late 1940s and early 50s, through corresponance and meetings, Riesman developed an intellectual relationship with Hannah Arendt, which revolved around their divergent views on the nature of totalitarianism (Baehr 2004). To which I shall return momentarily. But in passing I should also add that in turn, Riesman’s book influenced Guy Debord, who cites it in several places in The Society of the Spectacle along with another now forgotten volume, Daniel Boorstin’s The Image (1960).

Riesman, Gramsci and the Social Media Age

In retrospect, I think it’s best to think of Riesman’s sequence, traditional, inner, other, not as temporal periods but as potentially concurrent modes of social influence. Nearly 70 years on from The Lonely Crowd, and whilst the great ideologies, such as Marxism are said to be in decline, tradition and ideology still coexist with other directedness in our society. Rather, perhaps, it is a matter of changing emphasis based on changing modes of social interaction. Whilst Riesman based his thinking on demographics, we might better turn to the media theories of Innes (1950) or McLuhan (1964) to see how the moulding of popular opinion has changed. Moreover, there are examples, even in the pre-mass media period, when other-directed thinking had a powerful effect.

The death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817 is a case in point (see Berendt 2003). Charlotte, the only child of George IV died in childbirth, an event which led to an outpouring of public grief which bears a striking resemblance to the death of Diana in 1997. Inspite of the illiteracy of the majority of the population, and the primitive nature of mass media at the time, such an event could provoke an entirely spontaneous public reaction. The so-called “Werther mania” that arose following the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 is a similar case, although here we have a clear media source- the book itself sold in large numbers and was rapidly translated into other languages. Moreover, we might see both events as the products of an emerging mass society, as the demographics of Europe changed with the industrial revolution.

From Riesman’s perspective in 1950, mass media were just beginning to make radical changes in society and he saw other-directedness as a largely US phenomenon. Be this as it may, since the beginning of the 20th century, a range of new media have emerged which gradually shifted the ways in which the population at large formed its opinions. From the point of view of orthodox Frankfurt School thinking, this represented a growing “one-dimensionality” (Marcuse 1964); that mass media and popular culture controlled and degraded popular thinking and values. The new media were, in effect, as appeared to be the case in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, means of controlling the population, instruments of totality.

This is, I think, what Gramsci meant by hegemony, but I want to suggest that Riesman’s ideas are a challenge to both Gramsci and the more pessimistic Frankfurt thinkers. Briefly, as I understand it, Gramsci rightly believed that political power was not sufficient for authoritarian regimes to retain control. Rather they had to also control what we might call the social and cultural agenda, of civil society. To control how people think. In The Human Condition (1958) Hannah Arendt remarks that if a good citizen of Nazi Germany had a dilemma, they would ask themselves “what would the Fuhrer do?”. This is not only a good example of hegemony but also it seems to me a reflection of Riesman’s influence; a classic example of inner-directed thinking. Yet in his debates with Arendt, Riesman argued that Totalitarianism could never exercise complete hegemony; that there were always channels through which ordinary people resisted, or ignored the ideology of the state. This could take many forms; the Volksempfänger radio, introduced in 1933, was known by the general public as the Goebbels-Schnauze – “Goebbels’ snout” – among the average German population, a degree of contempt for the Nazi’s persisted. As Baehr (2004) describes in detail, whilst intellectuals and other groups had much to fear under totalitarian Nazism, the working class were surprisingly critical and did not seem to fear the attentions of the Gestapo. Similarly, and reflecting the view of Riesman versus Arendt, even in Auschwitz some forms of what we might call civil society persisted. In fact “staying human is more important than staying alive” says Baehr, quoting Todorov (1991).

Life in the Soviet Bloc was similar. In the early 1980s, a John Lennon Wall appeared in Prague. Whilst ostensibly memorialising the dead Beatle, the authorities probably rightly saw it as a pun on Lenin. Soviet Bloc citizens, whilst fearing the power of the state, none the less found ways around the system. Through graffiti, samizdat literature, petty crime, humour and many other ways, the other directed radar of society finds ways to construct a counter narrative (see Baehr 2004).

Riesman’s view is perhaps summed up in his disdain for Orwell’s 1984. Whilst the novel presents a view congruent with that of Arendt, that a totalitarian society can be all pervasive in its control; both politically and in terms of sociocultural hegemony; in the real world, Winston and Julia would have got away with it.

In recent decades, I would argue, these back channels of social order have come to the fore. When Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris, many, including me, were amazed and puzzled by the massive response. More than 2 billion people watched her funeral on TV. Popular reaction caught out some in authority (but not Tony Bliar); the sea of flowers at Kensington Palace being the most prominent practical means by which popular opinion crossed the established order. In my own work with Hilary Orange (see Graves-Brown and Orange 2017, forthcoming), memorials to dead celebrities also reflect the spontaneous, other directed ways in which reaction to events is constructed. Similarly, the elaborate ways in which private grief is marked, notably the rise of the so-called “pound shop” cemetery, reflects a popular construction of a more emotive and overt memorialisation of death than had been previously the case. Where once graves were visited with a simple bunch of flowers, they are now elaborately decorated with plastic windmills, lanterns, photographs, ornaments and other memorabilia.

One could also cite the abortive Arab Spring as a clear example of other directedness challenging authority through the medium of social media. Populism in the USA (Trump or Bernie Sanders) and the UK (Brexit, Farage or Jeremy Corbyn) also reflect the way in which the remediation of social and public discourse has wrong footed those in authority. I’m not sure this is a new thing. In my view, the extended duration of the First World War was a case in point; having used the new mass media of a cheap press to inflame public opinion with tales of babies on pitchforks, those in “power” found themselves unable to stop the war. In the words of John F Kennedy in his inaugural address “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

Other-directedness has its downsides, the fragmentation of concepts of truth and factuality are exactly the products of the triumph of social radar over the gyroscope of authoritative sources. One might add that the rise of asymmetric warfare is also related. The “clockwork” armies of the 18th and 19th centuries (see DeLanda 1991) are perhaps archetypal of the inner-directed mind, driven by rules that are drilled into the participants. Modern warfare, and guerrilla warfare, are the product of social and literal radar; the coordination of many small groups rather than the marching of serried ranks. Effectively the development of radar, as a response to the needs of a fluid situation, provides Riesman with the metaphor for the broader aspects of that situation in society. In 1950, Riesman could cite the Church Clock and pocket watch as regulating technologies for traditionally and inner-directed persons. But in a sense the defining technology of other directedness did not exist. Today we have the smart phone as our pocket social radar.


Thanks to Hilary Orange for comments on this


Arendt, Hannah 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. Revised ed.; New York: Schocken, 2004.

Arendt, Hannah 1958 The Human Condition Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Augé, Marc 1992 Non-Places: An Introduction to Anthropology of Supermodernity, Le Seuil, 1992, Verso

Baehr Peter 2004 Of Politics and Social Science ‘Totalitarianism’ in the Dialogue of David Riesman and Hannah Arendt European Journal of Political Theory 3(2)

Berendt Stephen C. 2003 Mourning, Myth, and Merchandising The Public Death of Princess Charlotte Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. 30(1)

Graves-Brown, P and Orange, H (2017) “The stars look very different today.” Celebrity veneration, grassroot memorials and the apotheosis of David Bowie, in Material Religion DOI: 10.1080/17432200.2017.1270590 

Graves-Brown, P. and Orange H. (forthcoming) “My death waits there among the flowers”: Popular Music Shrines in London as Memory and Remembrance” in, Sarah De Nardi, Hilary Orange, Eerika Koskinen-Koivisto, Danielle Drozdzewski, and Steven High (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Landscape and Memory. London: Routledge.

Innis, Harold. (1950) Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press

DeLanda, Manuel 1991 War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, New York: Zone Books

McLaughlin, Neil. 2001 Critical Theory Meets America: Riesman, Fromm, and The Lonely Crowd. The American Sociologist

McLuhan Marshall 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man; 1st ed. McGraw Hill, NY

Marcuse, Herbert 1964 One-Dimensional Man.

Todorov Tsvetan ([1991] 1996), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. New York: Henry Holt

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