The Autonomous Man in an Other-Directed World

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“The struggle between the autonomous few and the non-autonomous many – is only beginning.” ~ The Lonely Crowd

First published in 1950 as a sociological analysis of American life, The Lonely Crowd became a surprising bestseller; its authors, David Riesman and his collaborators, had expected it to be of interest only to fellow academics, and yet the book touched a nerve in the American public, resonating with a concern many felt about the changing character of the country.

In the book, Riesman sets forth three types of “social character,” three mechanisms by which people conform to the society in which they live: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed.

The tradition-directed type dominates in primitive societies. Rituals, routines, and kinship ties ensure each generation does things as they have always been done.

The inner-directed type dominates in industrial economies. This type is guided by an inner set of goals and principles. These values are planted within the individual by his parents during his childhood, and act as an inner gyroscope – spinning throughout his life and keeping him on course. The inner-directed type is focused on producing more than consuming. He enjoys going it alone, and while he conforms his outward behavior to match societal norms, the opinions of others have little sway on his inner life. He would rather be esteemed than loved.

The other-directed type dominates in a service, trade, and communications-driven economy. This type is very sensitive to the preferences and expectations of others. He always has his antenna up to receive the signals of other people, and watches what they are doing, thinking, and feeling on his radar. The other-directed type is focused more on consuming than producing. He looks to his peers and the media for guidance on how to live and is group and team-minded. He would rather be loved than esteemed.

Riesman takes pains in The Lonely Crowd to point out that the above are types, not individuals, and that all societies and people are a mix of the types. This is not like a quiz in Cosmopolitan Magazine where you can figure out which one you are:

“There can be no such thing as a society or a person wholly dependent on tradition-direction, inner-direction, or other direction: each of these modes of conformity is universal, and the question is always one of the degree to which an individual or a social group places reliance on one or another of the three available mechanisms. And you can move from greater dependence on one to greater dependence on another during the course of your life.”

Also, knowing that most people would be drawn to the cowboy-esque inner-directed type, he stresses that the inner-directed are no “better” or less conformist than the other-directed. For while the inner-directed sticks by his internal gyroscope, that gyroscope was implanted by his parents; he lives their values, not his.

Instead (and this often gets ignored), at the end of The Lonely Crowd Riesman argues that the ideal to strive for is a fourth type: the autonomous.

The autonomous has “clear cut, internalized goals,” but unlike the inner-directed, he chooses those goals for himself; his “goals, and the drive toward them, are rational and non-authoritarian and not compulsive.” He can cooperate with others like the other-directed, but “maintains the right of private judgment.” He’s involved in his world, but his “acceptance of social and political authority is always conditional.”

Essentially, the autonomous “are those who on the whole are capable of conforming to the behavioral norms of their society…but are free to choose whether to conform or not.” The autonomous stands outside and above the other types; he understands them, can reflect on them, and then can freely choose when and if to resist them or act in accordance with them. He is able to transcend his culture – by turns overruling it and joining in with it as he himself chooses in order to further his goals. The autonomous man is both idealistic and pragmatic.

Riesman argued that societies tend to move from tradition-directed, to inner-directed, to other-directed as they develop. At the time The Lonely Crowd was published, he posited that most of the country remained inner-directed, but observed the growth of the other-directed among the upper-middle classes along the coasts and in urban areas. He predicted that the other-directed type would continue to expand and become the country’s dominant mechanism of social character.

In this prediction, and many others, Riesman was quite prescient. In today’s society, other-direction represents the chief mode of conformity and pulls at us in ways that Riesman could not have imagined. The man who wishes to become autonomous must understand what those ways are, so that he can reflect upon them, transcend them, and choose to conform with them only when he truly wishes to do so.

Challenges to Autonomy in the Modern Age

Socialization Through Taste and the End of Privacy

Inner-directed types flourish during periods where society places a good deal of importance on etiquette, while other-directed types rise when the rules of etiquette have waned.

This may seem contradictory; after all, aren’t those who are concerned about etiquette the kind of people who care a lot about what others think of them? This is how we see etiquette through a modern lens, and following the rules of etiquette could certainly bolster your reputation with others back in the day. But etiquette could also be used as a buffer by the inner-directed to keep people at arm’s length and to guard one of the inner-directed’s most prized possessions: his privacy. Riesman argues that “Formal etiquette may be thought of as a means of handling relations with people with whom one does not seek intimacy…Thus etiquette can be at the same time a means of approaching people and of staying clear of them.”

In a largely other-directed society, training in etiquette is replaced with training in consumer taste. Other-directed individuals define themselves by their taste in music, food, travel, and so on, and find marginal differences between their own tastes and the tastes of others in order to differentiate themselves from their peers. Socialization among the other-directed centers on “feeling out with skill and sensitivity the probable tastes of the others and then swapping mutual likes and dislikes to maneuver intimacy.” Did you like that movie? Have you heard of this band? Do you like this restaurant? Have you seen this funny Youtube clip?

This “swapping of mutual likes and dislikes to maneuver intimacy” has of course taken an exponential leap forward since Riesman’s day with the advent of social media. Sites like Facebook and Pinterest exist almost exclusively to foster this kind of interaction, allowing users to display their tastes and see if they get a thumbs up from others.

Riesman argues that “this continual sniffing out of other’s tastes,” becomes “a far more intrusive process than the exchange of courtesies and pleasantries required by etiquette.” In the days of inner-direction, “certain spheres of life were regarded as private: it was a breach of etiquette to intrude or permit intrusion on them.” In contrast, in an other-directed society “one must be prepared to open upon cross-examination almost any sphere in which the peer-group may become interested.”

This opening up of every sphere of your life to the public is today called “transparency,” a buzz word these days for those who seek “authenticity.” Social media has allowed people to share many more personal details with a much wider group of peers, extending far beyond one’s intimate friends and family. Those who like to keep some things private, who enjoy sometimes being alone, and who are not as connected (“He doesn’t have a Facebook account???”) are viewed with suspicion.

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