Kardiner, Abram (1891-1981)

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KARDINER, ABRAM (1891-1981)

Abram Kardiner, American physician, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and psychocultural theorist, was born in New York City on August 17, 1891, and died in Easton, Connecticut on July 20, 1981.

Born in New York City's Lower East Side of immigrant parents, he suffered early loss and privation, his mother dying when he was only a few years old. But given his ambition and many intellectual gifts, he acquired an excellent education, graduating first from the City College of New York, and then from Cornell Medical School in 1917. He interned at Mount Sinai Hospital for two years and did his psychiatric residency at Manhattan State Hospital on Ward's Island. After completing his residency, at the urging of Dr. Horace Westerlake Frink, Kardiner sought analysis with Sigmund Freud and was accepted as a student-patient (1921-1922). Freud set two limitations to that analysis: that it not extend past six months, and that the fee per session should be ten American dollars. Kardiner was proud of the fact that Freud acknowledged him as a "menschen kenner" (knower of people). He did supervisory work with Frink in 1923, Abraham Arden Brill in 1923, Otto Rank in 1924, and Franz Alexander in 1927.

A member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society (founded in 1911), he was one of the founders in 1930 of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, the first psychoanalytic institute in the United States. Kardiner was instrumental in bringing Sándor Rado from Berlin to be its Educational Director. In 1941, Kardiner left the New York Psychoanalytic Institute because of theoretical and political disputes, and in 1945, along with Rado, George Daniels, and David Levy founded the Columbia University Clinic for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, the first psychoanalytic institute that was part of a university medical school. Kardiner was its Director from 1959 to 1967, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University.

In the 1950s, Kardiner explored critical questions in psychoanalysis that later become integral to psychoanalytic thinking. His first major contribution concerned the impact of culture on personality. This interest arose out of his idea that the curriculum at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute should include Freud's sociological writings. Out of seminars he conducted there, in conjunction with anthropologists, he began to theorize the impact of particular social institutions on character formation in primitive societies. He developed a psycho-cultural model for the relationship between specific familial patterns and modes of mother-infant bonding and the formation of the "basic personality structure" in different cultures. Published in 1939 as The Individual and His Society, this work (along with later publications on the same subject) had a major influence on the emergence of the "culture and personality field" in anthropology and is considered to be a precursor of the object relations theory and ego psychology in psychoanalysis. Although Kardiner had observed war neuroses much earlier, when he was attending specialist at the U.S. Veterans Hospital (Bronx, 1923-1925), he was only able to theorize them to his satisfaction after he had written The Individual and His Society, which dealt with the problems of adaptation. He came to see that in the traumatic neurosis of the war the defensive maneuver to ward off the trauma sometimes destroyed the individual's adaptive capacity. Thus, the traumatic neurosis of war was the result of an adaptive failure, not a conflictual illness. So concluding, Kardiner re-introduced the concept of traumatic neurosis into psychoanalytic theory. Kardiner (with Lionel Ovesey) applied his knowledge of the impact on development of trauma and specific cultural configurations to the study of the effect on blacks of institutionalized white racism.

Kardiner was an adherent of and contributor to adaptational theory, a precursor of ego psychology generally associated with the name of Sándor Rado. Recognizing the limitations of libido theory in conceptualizing the war neurosis and cross-cultural variations, Kardiner (with Lionel Ovesey and Aaron Karush), wrote one of the first major critiques of libido theory. The libido theory, Kardiner believed, was a case of the instinctual tail wagging the adaptational dog. He emphasized that frames of reference were of value only as long as they provided rational explanations for clinical data and opened channels to research and new knowledge. In 1977, Dr. Kardiner wrote a memoir entitled My Analysis with Freud, which drew a portrait of the way Freud conducted an analysis and detailed some of the early history of the psychoanalytic movement in the United States, and in which Kardiner displayed, among other gifts, his great skill as a raconteur. Like Freud, Kardiner continued seeing patients until shortly before his death at age 89.

Ethel Spector Person

See also: American Psychoanalytic Association; Civilization (Kultur); Horney-Danielsen, Karen; United States.


Kardiner, Abram. (1939). The individual and his society. New York: Columbia University Press.

. (1941). The traumatic neuroses of war. New York: Paul B. Hoeber.

. (1945). The psychological frontiers of society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kardiner, Abram; and Spiegel, Herbert. (1947). War, stress and neurotic illness. New York: Paul Hoeber.

Kardiner, Abram; and Ovesey, Lionel. (1951). The mark of oppression. New York: W.W. Norton.

Kardiner, Abram; Ovesey, Lionel; and Karush, Aaron. (1959). A methodological study of Freudian theory I-IV. In Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 129 (1), 11-19; 129 (2), 133-143; 129 (3), 207-221; 129 (4), 341-156.

Lohser, Beate; and Newton, Peter. (1996). Unorthodox Freud: the view from the couch. New York, Guilford Press.

Manson, William C. (1988). The psychodynamics of culture: Abram Kardiner and neo-Freudian anthropology. New York, Greenwood Press.

Swerdloff, Bluma. (1981). A tribute to Abram Kardiner, 1891-1981. Bulletin of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 21, 42-44.