Monday, April 29, 2013

The other-directed man

Recently I had to think of an article, or rather a book excerpt, that was one of the first pieces I had to read, when I started studying sociology: “The other-directed man” by David Riesman. It had been included in a reader with articles and book extracts and I read it again. It was just as I thought: Although it had been written 60 years ago, it was still very relevant.
Riesman distinguishes three types of persons: the tradition-directed type, the inner-directed type and the other-directed type. The tradition-directed person steers his (or her) life with the help of traditional values, norms and goals, as he learned them in his childhood. These values etc. give him his place in life and society and determine the scope for what he can and cannot do. This type of man is typical for strictly stratified societies where social change is at a minimum, such as the medieval society.
When such a traditional society begins to change more rapidly, as it happened for instance in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, a new type of man comes to the fore: the inner-directed type. Also this type of man learns his values, norms and goals in his childhood from his parents and other influential adults, of course, but the values etc. are no longer those prescribed by society, but they are individual and serve as lifelong orientations that guide the major decisions in life. The person’s internalized goals are very generalized (Riesman mentions wealth, fame, goodness, achievement as instances) and one may fail to reach them, but one never doubts their guiding value. Riesman calls inner-directed people “gyroscopically driven – the gyroscope being implanted by adults and serving to stabilize the young even in voyages occupationally, socially, or geographically far from the ancestral home”.
But today, now that society changes exceedingly quickly, another type of person comes up: the other-directed man. Such a quickly changing society requires a more resilient type of person; one who lets himself be oriented by the opinions of the people around him. His conformity to society is no longer an internally acquired guide of values etc. but a “sensitive attention to the expectations of contemporaries”. Goals have become fluctuating and short-term, and the other-directed person is no longer steered by an internal gyroscope but goals are “picked up … by a [internal] radar.” One gets this radar also in childhood from the parents and influential adults, but now these relevant others “encourage the child to tune in to the people around him and any given time and share his preoccupation with their reactions to him and his to them” (my italics).
Of course, “pure” persons, who belong completely to one type, do not exist, let alone that a whole society of people of one type exists. It’s a matter of degree to which type a person belongs, and he or she is always a mixture of types, as Riesman stresses. However, one type tends to gain the upper hand in a certain society or in a certain period.
Riesman’s analyses of types of persons help me understand what is going on in society today. Although in the days that Riesman wrote his sentences the other-direct man was yet a new type that was not yet very wide spread (Riesman thinks of the USA and parts of Sweden, of Australia and New Zealand), now, 60 years later, one gets the impression that it is becoming the general type of man – anyway in Western society (but certainly not only there) and among the younger generation. It is not difficult to give examples that underline the present other-directedness of modern man: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on are all expressions of the new type of modern man that is developing and that exists already to a high degree. Just these new media are used for telling your occupations to the world, sharing them with others, encouraging reactions from others, and participating in the occupations of others by giving your reactions. In this way, your internal radar picks up the expectations other people have of you, so that you can adapt your short-term goals and your behaviour to them. It’s what we do in our status updates or tweets and by sending our “likes” (or by our invitations to send them). Or in publishing our most private photos on the Internet, showing what we do to others and hoping that it fits what our relevant others think of us.
Source: David Riesman, “The other-direct man”, in Dennis H. Wrong and Harry L. Gracey, Readings in Introductory Sociology, The Macmillan Cy, 1967, pp. 610-616.

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