One of America’s most important sociologists and social commentators, Nathan Glazer has written or edited influential books on many subjects. His subjects of inquiry have included ethnic character, architectural preservation and urban design, affirmative action and welfare, school choice, Soviet and American Jewry, and the history of the American Communist movement.

Persistence of Ethnic Character

Glazer is best known for his book Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (1963), an examination of the widely varying patterns of life among immigrant ethnic groups. It won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award.

Partly co-written with former Harvard University colleague and eventual United Nations Ambassador and United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot looks at the manners, habits, and mores of five American ethnic groups in New York City. Showing that they differed greatly in their patterns of behavior over multiple generations, it counters the once widely-accepted notion that the country’s assorted minority and immigrant populations were gradually assimilating into an indistinguishable mass.

Rather, the book’s extensive research shows that the values, customs, and beliefs held within families and groups have ongoing influences that may prove far stronger over time than the application of government policies meant to alter them or, for that matter, economic trends within the larger society.

Read More: Urban Life


Glazer first gained wide public notice as a co-author of The Lonely Crowd (1950). The book deals with the subject of individualism and its historic but possibly faltering role in the American psyche and character.

Although Glazer contributed to The Lonely Crowd, most of the work and the ideas of the book are generally credited to his colleague David Riesman. Nonetheless, its ideas are important in the evolution of Glazer’s thought and for their own great influence.

Glazer had been a Marxist in college, but in The Lonely Crowd he and his co-author acknowledge the central role that self-willed, independent personalities have played in the creation of America’s rich and vital culture and in the health of our civil society.

The authors studied changing methods of school instruction and other aspects of daily life in the United States in the late 1940s. This research is presented as evidence that American culture is undergoing a profound shift in which an emphasis in schools upon socialization is overtaking the traditional focus on character formation and academic instruction. The book suggests that three basic personality types exist. These are referred to as outer-directed, inner-directed, and tradition-directed. The authors associate the tradition-directed personality with the Old World peasant, a person whose life is focused upon carrying-on of pre-existing ways and ancient rites and rituals. This personality is said to be marginal and rarely encountered in American life. The outer-directed personality, the authors argue, is one focused upon acquisition of that which impresses others—say, social status, approval, and popularity—but who is lacking in independent values, goals, or beliefs. As such, the outer-directed personality is a persistently dissatisfied and unfulfilled personality. Yet, the outer-directed personality, it is proposed, is increasingly supplanting the independent, self-willed, inner-directed personality upon which American society has previously been based.

Read More: America

Affirmative Action Policies

Glazer made the decision to title his study of racial preference policies Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy (1975), rather than relying on the euphemism ordinarily used for discussion of the subject: affirmative action. As a strong believer in the goal of racial equality, and deeply conscious of the history of prejudice in the United States, Glazer is sympathetic to the aims of affirmative action. However, his discussion in the book sees the problem in light of the limitations of government policies, and he recognizes that differing outcomes by no means prove that discrimination is taking place. He is also aware that affirmative action policies may conflict with existing laws and with the broader goal of equality of treatment, that these policies may provide relatively modest benefits when enforced, and that they present real costs to those discriminated against—as well as to their intended beneficiaries.

Read More: Social Science

Failures of the Great Society/Need For Constitutionalism

The Limits of Social Policy (1988) was written in the aftermath of Charles Murray’s groundbreaking study of the failures of the Great Society and the so-called “War on Poverty,” Losing Ground: American Social Policy: 1950-1980. Like Murray’s book, Glazer’s has as its focus the question of whether the anti-poverty programs that were expanded or implemented in the 1960s actually benefited the members of the underclass whom they were meant to serve. The wide array of data Glazer cites points to some of the same conclusions as those reached by Murray. Among these are the possibility that government welfare policies might be accelerating trends toward the break-up of African-American families and that they are discouraging job-holding within the underclass. Glazer also argues that overwhelming reliance on the federal government conflicts with the needed principles of federalism, constitutionalism, and limited government.

Read More: Welfare State


Unlike many books that have been written about multiculturalism, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (1997) is neither a critical screed, nor an angry and demanding endorsement of the phenomenon. In looking at the implicit (or even explicit) animus toward American history and American life to be seen in a range of new history textbooks, Glazer pointed out their danger: that many young people assigned them will fail to see the real and singular achievements of American civilization. Consequently, they will be less patriotic and less aware of the reasons to defend the country and appreciate its virtues and accomplishments. At the same time, Glazer acknowledges the merits of historical accounts that place special focus upon the mistreatment of African-Americans and other groups. He argues that this historical re-writing may indeed make those “left out” more interested and involved as readers. And he argues that this trend toward “inclusiveness” may be somewhat inevitable in light of the growth of political power and influence of African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups.

Read More: Social Science

–Essays by Jonathan Leaf