Cultural character and immigration

Seventy years ago, The Lonely Crowd appeared on the shelves of college bookstores.  As a sociological work that explored the evolution and impact of cultural character, its authors – David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney – hardly anticipated that the book would sell more than a few thousand copies to social scientists and college students.  Neither they nor their publisher, Yale University Press, could imagine in 1949 that the book would exceed more than 1.4 million copies in print and be the most widely read sociological work of all time.

The authors wrote about the evolution of cultural character, from the traditional society of the colonial period to the rapidly expanding postindustrial society of the postwar era.  Each type of society possessed its own cultural character.  Consequently, the society of Puritanical colonial America, where people navigated through society according to the mores of family and tradition, developed a cultural character known as "tradition-directed."  As America and the industrial societies of the West expanded economically and geographically, a cultural character known as "inner-directed" developed.  No longer bound by the mores of intimate family relations and tight communities, the children of a mobile, expansionist society needed an internal, moral gyroscope to guide their behavior.

In the postindustrial society, with mores and culture shifting frequently, cultural character requires a plasticity and a personal radar to be sensitive to change.  This is the cultural character of the type known as other-directed.  This type seeks to be emotionally in tune with peers, tolerant and sensitive to surroundings, and willing to admit those on the social periphery to social groups.  Emotionally in tune is not conformity, and unlike the inner-directed type who sought to be esteemed, the other-directed type seeks to be loved.

Although different cultural characters can exist in societies dominated by one character-type over another, especially as one type of society is transitioning to another, societies run best when there is harmony between the cultural ethos and the dominant cultural character.

Each character-type feels at home in its own skin.  Socialized to believe in the value, goodness, and appropriateness of their own character, immigrants often maintain their cultural character even when fleeing their own culture.  This explains the anomaly of many immigrants resurrecting the culture they allegedly abhor in a new and inappropriate setting.

The authors of The Lonely Crowd argued that different cultural characters could function within and adapt to different overarching cultures, and being academic liberals, they would have undoubtedly been proponents of liberal immigration policies.  But the implications of their own work belie this, especially in areas where a cultural character at variance with the dominant culture gains a strong foothold.

What is the value to a post-industrial, tolerant, other-directed culture of absorbing people whose cultural character is forged by the values of a tradition-directed society that places loyalty to clan and tribe above that of the nation state, or who believe that their religion is not really in America to be one of many, but to dominate?  How does a cultural character based on honor and shame function in one based on tolerance and sensitivity?

It is not surprising that imams stand in the streets of the capitals of Europe and proclaim that Islam will dominate, nor is it unanticipated, for there is little in the tribal and parochial socialization of these imams that would lead them to believe otherwise.  Their loyalty, by culture, cultural character, and historical circumstance does not extend to the multicultural nation state.

Seventy years after the publication of The Lonely Crowd, the issue of cultural character is as vital as it was in the beginning and should be an important part of the national debate on immigration.

Seventy years ago, The Lonely Crowd appeared on the shelves of college bookstores.  As a sociological work that explored the evolution and impact of cultural character, its authors – David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney – hardly anticipated that the book would sell more than a few thousand copies to social scientists and college students.  Neither they nor their publisher, Yale University Press, could imagine in 1949 that the book would exceed more than 1.4 million copies in print and be the most widely read sociological work of all time.

The authors wrote about the evolution of cultural character, from the traditional society of the colonial period to the rapidly expanding postindustrial society of the postwar era.  Each type of society possessed its own cultural character.  Consequently, the society of Puritanical colonial America, where people navigated through society according to the mores of family and tradition, developed a cultural character known as "tradition-directed."  As America and the industrial societies of the West expanded economically and geographically, a cultural character known as "inner-directed" developed.  No longer bound by the mores of intimate family relations and tight communities, the children of a mobile, expansionist society needed an internal, moral gyroscope to guide their behavior.

In the postindustrial society, with mores and culture shifting frequently, cultural character requires a plasticity and a personal radar to be sensitive to change.  This is the cultural character of the type known as other-directed.  This type seeks to be emotionally in tune with peers, tolerant and sensitive to surroundings, and willing to admit those on the social periphery to social groups.  Emotionally in tune is not conformity, and unlike the inner-directed type who sought to be esteemed, the other-directed type seeks to be loved.

Although different cultural characters can exist in societies dominated by one character-type over another, especially as one type of society is transitioning to another, societies run best when there is harmony between the cultural ethos and the dominant cultural character.

Each character-type feels at home in its own skin.  Socialized to believe in the value, goodness, and appropriateness of their own character, immigrants often maintain their cultural character even when fleeing their own culture.  This explains the anomaly of many immigrants resurrecting the culture they allegedly abhor in a new and inappropriate setting.

The authors of The Lonely Crowd argued that different cultural characters could function within and adapt to different overarching cultures, and being academic liberals, they would have undoubtedly been proponents of liberal immigration policies.  But the implications of their own work belie this, especially in areas where a cultural character at variance with the dominant culture gains a strong foothold.

What is the value to a post-industrial, tolerant, other-directed culture of absorbing people whose cultural character is forged by the values of a tradition-directed society that places loyalty to clan and tribe above that of the nation state, or who believe that their religion is not really in America to be one of many, but to dominate?  How does a cultural character based on honor and shame function in one based on tolerance and sensitivity?

It is not surprising that imams stand in the streets of the capitals of Europe and proclaim that Islam will dominate, nor is it unanticipated, for there is little in the tribal and parochial socialization of these imams that would lead them to believe otherwise.  Their loyalty, by culture, cultural character, and historical circumstance does not extend to the multicultural nation state.

Seventy years after the publication of The Lonely Crowd, the issue of cultural character is as vital as it was in the beginning and should be an important part of the national debate on immigration.