Sociologist David Riesman, best known for his influential study of post-World War II American society, The Lonely Crowd, died May 10 in Binghamton, NY, of natural causes. He was 92.
Born in Philadelphia in 1909, the son of a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Riesman attended Harvard College, graduating in 1931.
He earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1934 and embarked on a law career, which included clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and teaching at the University of Buffalo Law School.
As a research fellow at Columbia Law School, Riesman had the opportunity to discuss comparative social issues with anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and literary critic Lionel Trilling. Later he studied psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan.
In 1949, he was invited to join the social science faculty of the University of Chicago. The Lonely Crowd was published in 1950, and became a best seller, as well as winning the admiration of his academic peers. He co-authored the book with Nathan Glazer, professor emeritus of education and social structure, and Reuel Denney, but, according to Glazer, Riesman was the real author of the work. Riesman taught at Chicago until 1958, when he was named the Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard.
For almost 20 years he taught a popular undergraduate course, “American Character and Social Structure,” and, through his voluminous correspondence, continued to exert an influence on many of his students long after they had left Harvard.
Riesman’s other works include Faces in the Crowd (1952, with Glazer and Denney); Thorstein Veblen: A Critical Interpretation (1953); Constraint and Variety in American Education (1956); Conversations in Japan: Modernization, Politics, and Culture (1967); The Academic Revolution (1968, with Christopher Jencks); and many others.
His wife, Evelyn, passed away in 1998. He is survived by two daughters, Lucy Riesman Lowenstein and Jennie Riesman; a son, Michael Riesman; and two grandchildren, Amanda Riesman and Benjamin Riesman. Their father, Riesman’s son Paul, died in 1988.
Ken Gewertz, Harvard University Gazette Staff (reprinted with permission)
Editor’s note: See Orlando Patterson’s editorial tribute to Riesman, “The Last Sociologist,” in the New York Times, May 19, 2002.