Commentary Magazine


Conformity, Past and Present

To the Editor:

I fully agree with Mr. Dennis H. Wrong in your April issue (“Riesman and the Age of Sociology”) that David Riesman’s work, while important, has been over-advertised.

In my opinion, there is still another weakness in Riesman’s work. The differences he tends to see between present-day society and that of former generations are partly imaginary. Like many young men, he has distorted ideas of the past. Actually, in former times neighbors, schoolmates, and colleagues were imitated just as much if not more than now.

In addition, I wish Riesman would extend his research to explore whether other-directedness is not partly caused by social mobility. There is a constant stream of families rising to higher social levels. Naturally they want to adopt the mores of their new colleagues and environment. Hence, for instance, the popularity of Emily Post and similar books. This may be the price we have to pay for our “classless society.” But is this price really too much?

In this connection it would be interesting to find out whether conformity is not generally limited to comparatively harmless matters, like clothing and manners, with a little snobbery thrown in for good measure. I would be inclined to argue that in Imperial Germany, for instance, there was perhaps less conformity and other-directedness in unimportant things, but more conformity in important moral and political matters, resulting in hurrah-patriotism, religious hypocrisy, and moral cynicism.

Frederick M. Stern
New Rochelle, New York

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