U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Other Riessman

Frank Riessman is not a very well known name. Unlike his contemporary and colleague, David Riesman, he never published a massively popular work of social science that historians would, in the decades to come, continually point to as emblematic of an intellectual moment or inclination. Nonetheless, in many ways the double-s Riessman is just as important to understanding post-war thought as the famous Riesman, and he popped up continuously in my research on the liberal discussion about poverty in this period.

Like many other social scientists who later participated in liberal policy debates, Riessman was an alumnus of the City College of New York, and after WWII he went on to earn a degree in social psychology from Columbia. Throughout the 1960s, Riessman both wrote on issues related to poverty and participated in the programs – developed first by private foundations and then by the federal government – that intended to address them.

Riessman adjusted quickly to trends in the emerging poverty research industry, and his publications are marked by a willingness to reconsider, or at least cast in a different light, some of his earlier positions. At the turn of the 1960s, for example, he published The Culturally Deprived Childbut when the concept of “cultural deprivation” revealed its ability to easily morph into victim blaming, he shifted his focus. In 1964, he published the article “Low-Income Culture: The Strengths of the Poor,” and in the following years continued to emphasize the importance of avoiding paternalistic and condescending poverty policy. Indeed, Riessman was among the many voices who spoke up – not in an hysterical or blindly ideological manner but with well-founded and reasoned objections – to criticize Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the black family, arguing that the single-mother home, far from being a pathology, actually functioned as a creative bulwark of stability for black families stricken by poverty. Thus, “to overlook this adaptation and instead to emphasize one-sidedly the limiting aspects and presumed pathology of this family,” he wrote, “is to do the Negro a deep injustice.”[1] In many ways, then, it appears Riessman made a purposeful effort to distance himself from some of the implications of his earlier work on the deprived culture of the poor.

However, Riessman’s flexibility never stretched to the point of questioning capitalism or seriously tackling institutionalized racism. Rather, much of his work focused on the potential of new types of occupations for incorporating the poor, financially and psychologically, into the mainstream. After urban riots had become a regular feature of American life, Riessman suggested that creating semi-professional jobs for the black poor would “provide an essential deterrent to the alienation which lies behind various forms of protest in our society, including ghetto upheavals.”[2] Indeed, when it came to concerns about alienation, Frank Riessman struck similar chords as David Riesman, making sure not to overemphasize the material aspects of poverty. “Jobs alone will not produce the necessary reorganization of our society,” wrote Riessman, “nor the automatic improvement of our services, nor the reduction of the rampant new nihilism, anomie, disillusionment, and mindless anger that pervade large sections of the middle class and the disadvantaged segments of the population in different forms.”[3]Perhaps not surprisingly, then, later in his career Riessman shifted to a focus on self-help – a logical place, for liberals who remained hopeful about the potential for personal change in the context of neoliberalism, to land.

It is possible that Riessman’s appearance in so many of the key themes of post-war liberal thought on poverty is due at least partially to a desire to always participate in the latest policy debate, even if this meant not being an expert on any one topic in particular. As Francis Fox Piven wrote to sociologist Herbert Gans in 1964, “[Riessman] doesn’t stay with a problem long enough to explore it with any thoroughness.”[4] However, this tendency is itself emblematic of the type of post-war social scientist Riessman exemplified so well – clearly a product of the academy and yet constantly moving in circles of policy makers and opinion setters, Riessman spoke to an educated liberal audience with the assumption that they would take his perspectives seriously. And despite never writing a famous monograph or capturing the imagination of future historians, he had an astute ear for the underlying themes of political discourse as liberals struggled to understand the persistence of poverty in the post-war years. Indeed, he tuned into this frequency so dependably that he also ended up reflecting the ultimate failure of liberals to grapple with the structural underpinnings of social and racial injustice. Thus although he might not be as famous as the author of The Lonely Crowd, Frank Riessman is, in his own way, just as important to understanding the post-war liberal mind.

[1] Frank Riessman, Strategies Against Poverty (New York: Random House, 1969), Chapter IV “The Moynihan Report and the Compensatory Approach,” 44. Also see, Frank Riessman, “In Defense of the Negro Family,”474-475, in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T Press, 1967).

[2] Frank Riessman, Strategies Against Poverty, 30.

[3] Frank Riessman, Strategies Against Poverty, 30.

[4] Francis Fox Piven to Herbert Gans, November 17, 1964, Francis Fox Piven Papers, Box 2, Folder 1, Sophia Smith Collection (Northampton, Massachusetts).

One Thought on this Post

  1. Robin: What do you know about Riessman’s background—i.e. training, influences, personal experience with poverty and race, etc.? Also, what did Piven and Gans like about Riessman’s work, if anything? …Just curious. Thanks for the post. I love insights, small and large, on connecter figures in the history of thought. – TL

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