U.S. Intellectual History Blog

David Riesman goes to Australia and attends a footy match


DARWIN, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 04: Matthew Kelly #15 of Tracy Village FC (top) and Rene Persichetti #21 of Banks FC fight for the ball in wet conditions during the Top End Australian Football Association Preliminary Final at the Garden Oval March 4, 2007 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) es102 *** Local Caption *** Matthew Kelly;Rene Persichetti

Having recently returned from my second tour of Australia, I would like to set forward a conceptual framework for thinking about the primary divisions in what we will call, without any interrogation of the term, the “Australian character.” Based on my observations, it seems clear to me that we are witnessing a major evolution of the Australian population into two general “types” – footy-directed Australians, and cricket-directed Australians.

A few caveats and disclaimers before we proceed. First, I do not want to give the impression that I did extensive empirical research before coming to my conclusions. Or really, much of any research at all, save for what will be shortly discussed in the course of the essay. Indeed, it should be emphasized that this book is based on my experience of going to Australia two times, for a grand total stay of five weeks, and attending one footy game at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. Thus, I draw from the people I have met, the walks I took, the newspapers I flipped through, the game that I saw, and the landscape.[1]

Second, I do not assume, of course, that any of these character types exist in a pure state, although I will conduct the following analysis as though they do. But more to the point, I do not plan to delay over the many ambiguities of the concept of social character – whether it may properly be ascribed to experience rather than to heredity, or whether there is any empirical proof that it really exists.[2] Seeing as I am ensconced at Yale, given a generous grant precisely so that I might observe the expansive culture and diversity of an Ivy League academic department and record such thinky thoughts as come to mind, we’ll assume these concerns of secondary importance as clearly, my reflections on these matters has been requested. Now, with all those trivial matters properly accounted for, let us proceed.

Footy-Directed Types

The first thing that strikes one about footy-directed Australians is how their character reflects the frantic, poorly executed nature of their sport of choice. Indeed, just as footy players chaotically chase after an unpredictable ball bouncing this way and that – resembling nothing so much as a game of hot potato – so do footy-directed Australians appear incapable of maintaining a focus and investing in any strategy for longer than a few moments. Indeed, the uncertainty of play in our day is certainly a factor in the refusal of Australians to commit themselves to long-term goals.[3] Second, footy-directed types are overly aggressive, for, just as players usually opt to assault their opponents to obtain the ball rather than choosing to employ skilled trickery or coordinated team effort, footy-directed types possess neither guile nor diplomacy, but rather negotiate relations with others by issuing short, guttural expressions such as “BBAAAALLLL!!” Finally, following from this characteristic is a tendency towards simplistic thinking and limited horizons – as the endless stacking of easily-got points represents the end goal of Australian Rules Football (offering inexhaustible opportunities for players to receive the adoration of the crowd they so slavishly crave), so too are the footy-directed not eager to develop talents that might require more difficult decisions – whereas the cricket-directed person, to whom we will now turn our attention, tends to push himself to the limit of his talents and beyond.[4]

Cricket-Directed Types

As you might have guessed by now (due to my incredibly helpful and sophisticated sorting of “types” I’ve worked out here), cricket-directed people tend to the exact opposite of footy-directed people in every way. To begin with, they excel in patience and display a remarkable aptitude for long-term planning. Having been reared in an ethic that does not demand immediate results but, rather, is willing to put in the hard work of a two, three, four or five day game in order to resolve the matter fully and decisively, they are not distracted by short-term rewards or setbacks. Likewise, cricket-directed types obtain their success through skill rather than force, using strategic strategies (or stategery, if you will), to gain their literal and figurative runs. Finally, as opposed to the sloppy and imprecise maneuverings of the footy-directed, cricket-directed Aussies display a remarkable capacity for detail and complexity, with each individual embracing their specific vocation as enthusiastically and competently as the many position players of cricket embrace their particular role, without losing sight of the whole. Thus, the cricket-directed person becomes capable of maintaining a delicate balance between the demands upon him of his goal in life and the buffetings of his external environment.[5]

Examples of sources and evidence

Although, as I indicated in the introduction, this study relies on little to no empirical evidence (at least not any subjected to rigorous, peer-reviewed testing, as is often the norm these days), I do want to give a few quick illustrations of some other sources I cobbled together to illustrate my analysis.[6]

First is the AFL (Australian Football League) flyer I flipped through during the one game I attended. Filled with player profiles, gossip about their wives, and speculation as to the odds next season, it was not surprisingly exactly reflective of the kind of trivial and ephemeral entertainment one would expect from a fan base enamored with a sport founded a measly 158 years ago. And although this remains, much like this entire essay, a matter of pure speculation, it is highly unlikely that it is simply a coincidence that the publication was printed on thin, low-quality paper hardly made to stand the test of time or provide a reliable basis for long-term character development. There are perhaps other equally plausible interpretations of the flyer, of course, but these will be ignored.[7]

Secondly, I have polled all of my Australian contacts on this numerous times and have found that they almost all consistently disagree with me. At first blush one might think this evidence against my framework, but actually it is evidence for it, because since they cannot, of course, be expected to be competent observers of their own society (at least not as competent as myself, obviously) the only plausible explanation for their response is that they are actually so enthralled with footy that they are the perfect representatives of that which I have been discussing. To detect the truth, after all, would require a character more patient and attuned to subtlety and detail than most footy-directed Aussies possess. Thus, so blinded, they rather view the matter quite differently.[8]

Offensive comparisons to Native societies

Naturally, no mid-twentieth century sociological analysis would be complete without a puerile comparison to societies deemed more primitive and generally inferior to western civilization, whether they be rural African Americans or native peoples. This is necessary in order to display anthropological seriousness and indicate that despite moving almost solely within white middle-class circles, the author is not unaware of other cultures and is willing to recognize the usefulness, as teaching tools, of their virtues and vices, seeing as how they offer pure and simple examples of what are, in our society, much more complex phenomena.[9]

During my time in Australia, I had a conversation with an acquaintance where he described to me the greater social cohesiveness and therefore prosperity of the New Zealand natives, the Maori. Apparently, due to greater social unity and a culture rooted in more consistent traditions, the Maori were much more successful in resisting the worst of European colonialism, resulting in higher levels of integration and prosperity today. Note that I have not looked into the literature on the Maori extensively – actually, not at all, so this characterization may or may not be true – but I trust my source was a worthy one, seeing as he was a well-educated and respected member of the Australian middle class. So, it is instructive to think of cricket-directed Aussies as patterning their characters more after the Maori.

The population of indigenous people in Australia, on the other hand, are a diverse group with (I am told) many different languages and traditions. Perhaps due to these distractions they failed to plan for long-term resistance and today occupy a despised and poverty-ridden segment of the population. They also have not adjusted to modernity nearly so well, and, under the Australians’ tutelage, have proved less friable than other indigenous tribes, more resistant if not more resilient.[10] Surely a better comparative framework for understanding the footy-directed could not be found.


Despite the lack of empirical evidence, sociological grounding, or rigorous thinking involved in this study, I predict that, due to the way it flatters the frustrations and sensibilities of cricket fans, it will enjoy the status of a thoughtful and informative study for generations, regardless of its “oh, kids these days” grumpiness and its near complete failure to predict the future of American Australian politics for the next five decades.

Epilogue to the second posting:

Upon consideration, it is clear why no one writes books like this anymore. They are, for very good reasons, obviously a very bad idea.[11] But such were the days, before the barbarians took over the university, that reasonable men with minds attuned pragmatically to the reality around them could use the monograph form as a mode of spinning off ideas as casually as graduate students do today after a few drinks at a local pub. Naturally standards have risen since then; but such has been necessary to ensure that excellence, not childish demands, keep the departments of free inquiry free from posers, impostures, and dogmatists[12] who never even bothered to get the full qualifications and training required for serious thought.[13]

[1] David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character (New Haven & London: Yale Note Bene, Yale University Press, 2001), lxxi. Original: “These interviews…were drawn on only to a slight extent for the writing of The Lonely Crowd. Indeed, it should be emphasized that this book is based on our experiences of living in America – the people we have met, the jobs we have held, the books we have read, the movies we have seen, and the landscape.”

[2] Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 4. Original: “I do not plan to delay over the many ambiguities of the concept of social character – whether it may properly be ascribed to experience rather than to heredity; whether there is any empirical proof that it really exists…”

[3] Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 138. Original: “The uncertainty of life in our day is certainly a factor in the refusal of young people to commit themselves to long-term goals.”

[4] Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 234. Original, on his other-directed students: “They want social security, not great achievements. They want approval, not fame. They are not eager to develop talents that might bring them into conflict; whereas the inner-directed young person tended to push himself to the limit of his talents and beyond.”

[5] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 16. Original: “The inner-directed person becomes capable of maintaining a delicate balance between the demands upon him of his goal in life and the buffetings of his external environment.”[5]

[6] Despite his frequent references to Margaret Mead, Riesman’s work, I’m afraid, follows much more closely the type of poorly interrogated swapping of memes described well in Mical Raz’s book on “cultural deprivation.”

[7] See David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 152-153 for his tortured interpretation of a story in a women’s magazine that is at least (and that is being charitable) as much indicative of the era’s sexism than “other-direction.”

[8] See David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 225-229, for his insistence that his supposedly clueless students merely provide more evidence for his own argument.

[9] See David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 225-235 for an entire chapter of this, helpfully titled “Americans and Kwakiutls.”

[10] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, xlvi. Original: “Under our tutelage, the Pueblo Indians have proved less friable than other Indian tribes, more resistant if not more resilient.”

[11] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, xxi. Original: “These nonprofessional readers need to be reminded that few scholars of even moderate sanity would sit down today to write a comprehensive, empirically oriented work like The Lonely Crowd. Studies of such scope are understandably out of style.”

[12] David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, xxii & xxix (both from the 1969 preface): “In however small a degree, the book has contributed to the climate of criticism of our society and helped to create or reaffirm a nihilistic outlook among a great many people who lay claim to moral or intellectual nonconformity, or who simply want to be ‘with it’ in order to escape being considered geriatric cases.”…“With the continuing decline in the legitimacy of adult authority, the hegemony of the peer group has continued to increase. In terms of social character, this many involve some measure of other-direction. But the others to whom one responds tend to be drawn from a narrow circle of intimates; hence there has not been an increase in other-direction in its aspect of openness to others. Tolerance and openness are extended only to small, marginally connected networks, whose norms include intolerance toward others outside the networks. / A small minority of this minority has thrown itself into politics, finding in the antiwar, civil rights, and antiuniversity movements a new secular religion and often a new family, for they are freer than heretofore of their parental families, their ethnic or religious backgrounds, and local neighborhoods.”

[13] David Riesman did not hold a PhD in the social sciences (but did have a law degree).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is so good. I remember coming across his book when I was 19 or so. I was really impressed until someone was kind enough point out its intellectual pratfalls.

    Of course, I don’t see people for their directedness anymore. I’m “post-directional” …

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