National Character

views updated May 14 2018

National Character

History of the field

Approaches to national-character analysis

Controversies over research

Unresolved questions


The term “national character” is used to describe the enduring personality characteristics and unique life styles found among the populations of particular national states. This behavior is sometimes considered on an abstract level, that is, as cultural behavior without actual reference to necessarily different personality modalities. It may also be considered as motivated by underlying psychological mechanisms characteristic of a given people.

History of the field

Europe has had a long history of self-conscious awareness of national differences. In ordinary conversation and in essays one finds discussions of the differences between Danes and Swedes, between Belgians and Dutch, between Germans and Italians, or even between northern and southern Italians, northern and southern Belgians, or northern and southern Dutch. Every national group develops over a period of time certain stereotypes of members of other national entities. Commonly held stereotypes may be discussed in a tone of objective detachment or with varying degrees of approval of the traits considered. While the perception of behavioral differences has led to a great deal of verbal expression and impressionistic writing, only since the 1940s have serious efforts been made to explore systematically the validity or precise nature of the perceived differences with respect to underlying personality configurations.

The social or cultural anthropologist’s observations of the behavioral configurations found in highly divergent non-Western cultures have afforded him a much wider view of manifest variability in human behavior than is found within the western European tradition. The anthropologist has had to contend with radically different language structures and cognitive-perceptual patterns which define the natural and social environment; divergent patterns of causality and logic; unusual decision-making patterns in social groups; patterns of internalized or coerced responsibility and authority unknown in the West; different patterns of expressing, disguising, or denying feelings and emotions—not to mention wide variations in moral definitions and values. Almost every generally accepted, unquestioned “universal” concerning the psychological nature of man and the basic elements of social, economic, or political life has been seriously challenged by the anthropological data which present the full spectrum of world cultures.

During the course of World War n, a number of anthropologists developed the idea that their concern with culturally determined personality differences had equal relevance to understanding differences among Western nations. They believed that careful evaluation of characteristics common to significant segments of the populations of the nations involved in world conflict could lead to more meaningful analysis of diverse sociopolitical developments occurring within these national states. Moreover, they contended that a systematic analysis of the differences in “national character” within the Western societies would lead to insights into the periodic tensions and misunderstandings that had arisen between individual members of both the then allied and enemy national groups.

Culture and personality

Anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski had been stimulated by dynamic psychosocial theories of human nature, principally the theory of psychoanalysis, and were prompted to search out test cases challenging universal statements concerning man’s psychological functioning. By the time of World War n social anthropologists in the United States, as a group, had become increasingly concerned with crosscultural studies in the problems of personality development. The subdiscipline of culture and personality became a valid specialization within anthropological research. The methods developed in culture-and-personality studies were considered applicable to analyses that would produce a deeper understanding of the behavior of nationals from various European countries and from Japan. In addition to employing the careful observations used in ethnographic work, culture-and-personality research also borrowed techniques and methods developed in clinical psychology and psychiatry for individual psychodiagnosis. Culture-and-personality research employed direct observation of child socialization in the family, depth interviews, detailed life history data, dream analysis, and projective psychological techniques such as the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test.

Culture at a distance

Since a number of the national-character studies were conducted in a period of total war and were concerned with enemy or occupied countries, which were therefore inaccessible to direct research, substitute techniques had to be developed. Research of this kind came to be known as “the study of culture at a distance” (Mead & Métraux 1953). Nationals residing outside their countries were interviewed for reminiscences about child-rearing patterns and social attitudes influencing interpersonal relationships within their national states. In addition, since the societies studied were highly literate and employed mass means of communication, novels, cartoons, newspaper articles, and photographs were all available for systematic analysis. These materials were carefully examined for recurrent themes or other clues to customary attitudes and social perceptions that would point to possible underlying personality differences or at least to differences in the structure or hierarchy of values.

Approaches to national-character analysis

Studies of national character differ widely both in their underlying theoretical assumptions and in their research objectives. All of them assume, however, that there are elements held in common by members of a particular state that can be traced in some manner to the relatively enduring formative influences of the cultural character of that state on malleable human nature. It is further assumed that common experiences have a centripetal effect that to some degree or in some areas outweighs the centrifugal effects of idiosyncratic experiences.

As an underlying objective, national-character studies all share a desire to make the perception of national differences more comprehensible and to order them more systematically into over-all patterns. However, the variables considered are often neither comparable nor rigorously defined. There are variations in what is subsumed under the concept of “national character,” depending on the author’s approach.

Margaret Mead, a vigorous proponent of nationalcharacter studies, distinguished three approaches (1953). First, there is the analysis of relationships between the basic learning common to children within a nation or culture and later characteristics witnessed in the behavior of adults within the same society. Formative childhood experiences are the immediate focus of such studies. Second, there are societal studies of the pattern and structure of interpersonal relationships. There are cultural sanctions operating continually throughout the society to reinforce behavioral patterns, and thus there is an expected consistency in cultural configurations. Cultural constraints become fixed and internalized aspects of personality. Third, there are studies comprising simple comparative descriptions of those cultural configurations which distinguish one national unit from another; different life styles and ways of looking at things are defined as part of national character. Studies of this last variety remain, from a psychological standpoint at least, surface descriptions of what seem to be consistent culturally defined values, or behavior patterns, without reference to possible underlying motivations or personality mechanisms. In contrast, studies included in the first two categories mentioned by Mead seek to push beyond the descriptive level to trace out certain underlying structurally consistent aspects of personality that are manifested in the overt behavior peculiar to members of a given society.

The basic personality

Kardiner, in several studies concerned with personality patterns operative both in non-Western societies and in certain sectors of American society, developed the concept of basic personality (Kardiner 1939; Kardiner & Ovesey 1962). By means of this concept Kardiner attempted to define components of a common personality integration shared by a significant number of individuals who have had similar cultural experiences. The concept is based on an interpretation of psychoanalytic theory that de-emphasizes biological variables and focuses on culturally determined primary (i.e., family) influences on personality development. Other social institutions as well as ideological and religious projective systems derive their particular flavor from these socialization experiences. An important consideration in studying basic personality variables is the position or life situation of the parents within the society. Changes in the economic structure of a society strongly influence the experiences of childhood and can radically alter the primary family, thus causing changes to occur in basic personality.

The modal personality

Linton, subsequent to his collaborative work with Kardiner, developed a somewhat different concept, that of modal personality. In modal personality, Linton (1945) sought to emphasize the fact that personality patterns, especially those in more complex societies, are not invariable. When a concept of modality is used, no judgment need be made as to the degree, range, or variety of personality configurations found within a particular culture. Nor does the concept of modal personality define the number of possible personality types found within a particular group. The concept is quantitatively descriptive rather than based on a series of assumptions derived from psychoanalytic theory. (See the discussion in Duijker & Frijda [1960] for more elaborate differentiation of the Kardiner and Linton concepts.)

Child rearing

A number of studies in national character are concerned with correlating the central role of culturally prevalent child-rearing practices with resultant personality modalities found in the adult. One can consider studies of class and ethnic differences within a particular nation as a form of national-character study. In this respect there have been attempts to describe systematically the child-rearing practices of different classes and ethnic groups in America (e.g., Miller & Swanson 1958). In these studies, variables such as weaning and toilet-training practices are seen as diagnostic of differential formative socialization experiences.

Functional prerequisites

Another type of national-character study examines the basic personality traits that are necessary for at least a working minority of individuals within a society to keep that society functioning on its own terms. When Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, discussed national character (1941) he contended that in an industrial society with ever-increasing bureaucratization and standardization of occupations, the personality traits of discipline, orderliness, and punctuality are necessary. These traits have to be present in a significant portion of the population if a complex industrial society is to continue to function effectively. Robert K. Merton, the sociologist, has also concerned himself with defining the types of personality structure that function best in bureaucratic settings (1940). He discusses how the settings themselves are influential in determining personality variables.

Sociopolitical interpretations

One of the basic objectives of national-character studies is to examine the tensions underlying the political and social structures of modern states. Social tensions are particularly apparent in societies that are rapidly changing. For example, one type of social tension that is frequently observed results from the systematic attempts of an elite to establish particular patterns of directed social change, in spite of the unavailability of sufficient individuals whose training and social experience equip them for achieving the goals set by the elite.

Some national-character studies seek to differentiate between the patterns that are characteristic of the elite and those patterns of the populace that have been imposed upon it. In one such study, Bauer attempted to demonstrate the social tension existing between the political elite in Russian society and a large number of individuals who are not motivationally involved in the same ways as the members of the Communist party hierarchy (1948).

If necessary personality traits are not forthcoming from a proportionate number of individuals within the society, the society will not function well in terms of newer values, whatever the elite controlling the society attempts to do. Even though institutional legal structures are consciously changed in accord with social planning, if characteristic changes in socialization experiences do not accompany these changes in such a manner as to facilitate the appearance of adequate motivational behavior, the sought-after change will not become stabilized and self-perpetuating.

In another study indirectly concerned with the psychological processes underlying dynamics of social change, DeVos (1960) analyzed achievement motivations in both rural and urban Japan. He related a continual preoccupation with hard work and socially approved accomplishment to the manner in which Japanese children internalize guilt and suggested that the prior presence of these and other related personality variables and social values tended to facilitate the rapid change in Japanese social structure from a feudal society to a modern state.

Hagen (1962), in a comprehensive study of economic and social change in a number of discrete societies, cogently discussed the relationship of personality variables to different economic traditions, such as colonialism or feudalism, and the manner in which they either facilitate or hamper economic development. This study is illustrative of the fact that considerations of national character are having considerable influence in augmenting theoretical approaches in economics and political science.

Controversies over research

There has been a great deal of criticism and reaction to national-character studies on the part of those who regard them as putting undue emphasis on what is considered to be an unproven relation between the developmental experiences of childhood and national character.

A most noteworthy example of such controversy is found in the numerous criticisms leveled at the work of Geoffrey Gorer (Gorer & Rickman 1950) and his attempt to assess Russian national character. Gorer, a strong proponent of the effect of childhood experiences, sought to derive certain features of Russian adult personality, especially attitudes toward authority, from the fact that a large proportion of the Great Russians are subjected to prolonged swaddling during infancy. He stressed the effects of the infant’s reaction to swaddling—how swaddling colors later perceptions of constraint and authority and how it influences both modes of self-control and the expression of aggression. While some criticism of Gorer’s work has been made with care and restraint, other opponents have sometimes resorted to overgeneralized statements or have lifted assertions out of context in order to make the causal sequence he suggests appear extremely ludicrous. The controversy over Gorer’s attempts at delineating Russian national character highlights some of the possible limitations and overextensions of cultureand-personality methods.

There have been extreme examples of attempts to explain behavior on the basis of some omnipresent psychological mechanism. There was, for example, a hypothesis advanced during World War II that Germany’s national behavior was, in essence, paranoid, and that it stemmed from the omnipresence of paranoid mechanisms within the German people as a whole. A number of nationalcharacter studies do not stand up well when subjected to careful scrutiny as to methods, care in comparing data, and other necessary scientific safeguards. In effect, a number of the studies of national character are simply impressionistic statements based on culturally and psychologically sophisticated perceptions of a foreign culture.

Lindesmith and Strauss (1950) point out a number of the more severe criticisms it is possible to level at national-character or culture-and-personality studies. They are critical not only of some of the general conceptual frameworks offered, but of conclusions reached, evidence put forward, and methods used. Among the failings they criticize are tendencies to oversimplify or to overlook or ignore the range and variability of behavior found even in isolated simple cultures. Some studies they cite do not adequately distinguish between data and interpretation. In others, there is a lack of precision in defining the variables considered. Some studies are highly limited or selective in regard to data and informants used. One of their chief criticisms of psychoanalytically oriented studies is that the determining or causal links between sets of data depend on heavily labored ex post facto interpretations not subject to any scientific validation.

Lindesmith and Strauss suggest that genuine advances await the application of additional and better-controlled psychological research on specific issues within cultures on which there is already a considerable amount of ethnographic material.

Unresolved questions

Although very promising, national-character studies must be considered a relatively new approach in social science. At this stage of development one can only guess the further direction of progress. A principal aim of national-character studies is to relate particular forms of observable behavior characteristic of a given population to the relative distribution of structural personality components. It is assumed that this relationship is a partial cause of behavioral differences or similarities between groups. To accomplish this goal adequately one must distinguish between observable behavior that is related to surface social patterns and behavior that is related to underlying psychological structures or personality components. The purpose of national-character studies, therefore, is to discover the distribution of underlying psychological structures in a given population and to determine the nature of their relationship to behavioral phenomena.

Can it be that the distribution of underlying personality modalities in the form of motivational patterns within the population is actually not very different from one Western society to the next? Can it be that with changes in economic distribution or in the structure of political allocation of power observed changes in behavior may occur without any over-all shift in the relative presence of motivational patterns in the society itself? Do power shifts simply redistribute the roles played by personality variants present within a modern state that, given the proper social ambience, become more visible? Consider, for example, whether people in West Germany today are any different in underlying motivational structure from what they were under Hitler. The greater equality of behavior between the sexes in Japan today does not necessarily reflect actual structural changes in the personality of many Japanese men and women but may represent the range of expression in overt behavior patterns that is now possible under a more egalitarian legal system.

It is most probable that what we call the “personality” of an individual in actuality has a far wider behavioral potential than the patterns allowed for within any particular culture. Observed consistencies of behavior within a given culture may therefore be the result of cultural limitations and selection. From this point of view one does not necessarily have to presume commonly held personality traits for given populations.

From the standpoint of national character, we can examine, for example, the present rapid and almost world-wide occurrence of certain commonly recognizable types of adolescent behavior that are considered, in some cases, “delinquent” or antisocial. The behavior expressed by a small percentage of modern youth may attest more to similarities in anomic social conditions for youth in industrial societies than to shifts or changes in behavioral controls related to personality.

From the standpoint of national character one has to evaluate to what extent the rapid spread of patterns of behavior that have become available through culture contact (e.g., mass media) is dependent on the presence of latent personality characteristics not readily expressible within older culture forms. These examples can be interpreted as changes in behavior related to social change without necessarily invoking explanations related to personality patterns. There are, however, instances where some attention to personality structure appears more relevant. Explanations at a psychological level may be more relevant when anticipated behavioral change fails to materialize in spite of social, legal, or economic inducements toward change.

Rapid shifts may occur only when the newly defined behavior is peripherally related to complex types of personality functioning. Some patterns of behavior demand less restructuring of deeper aspects of personality. One may cite, for example, the observed difficulty encountered when planned change demands the presence of long-range goals or entrepreneurial attitudes in cultures previously generally lacking such orientations in behavior. There is no easy diffusion of the integrated behavioral patterns necessary to carry the burden of planning activity even though culture contact takes place.

Allowing the assumption that one can demonstrate statistically ascertainable underlying modal personality types within relatively discrete societies with unique cultural histories, would one not also find similarities or differences of long standing within these societies that are based on rural-urban or class-occupational living patterns? Would these class differences not cut across national boundaries?

Viewed historically, it may be that structural personality distributions do differ in various national states, but that, given the establishment of similar social objectives such as industrialization, observed behavioral patterns in at least some segments of the population come to bear increasingly close superficial resemblances without any immediate change in the actual distribution of underlying personality differences. However, change in patterns of socialization, including formal education, may subsequently come to affect the newer generation. With changes in the patterns of socialization, shifts within personality patterns of the population may then materialize, depending on the nature of the original patterns affected. For example, among the emerging national states there have been varying degrees of success in achieving similar values. The acceptance of these values may be highly dependent upon the presence and persistence of underlying psychological structures that are differentially distributed among the various populations.

A most important question for many of the emerging nations in the world today is: What length of time is necessary for changing motivational patterns within sufficiently large segments of a society so that new economic or occupational roles can be performed? It is obvious that some “psychological” lag occurs between legal and planned economic changes and the point at which the prevailing formative influences on the child have been changed so that he is motivated and able, by the time he becomes an adult, to participate effectively in the new society being formed.

George A. DeVos

[See alsoCulture and personality; Life cycle; Personality; Socialization.]


Comprehensive reviews of national-character studies, from five somewhat different perspectives, can be found inDuijker & Frijda 1960; Inkeles & Levinson 1954; Klineberg 1944; Mead 1953; and Mead & Métraux 1953.

Bauer, Raymond A. (1948) 1953 The Psychology of the Soviet Middle Elite: Two Case Histories. Pages 633-650 in Clyde Kluckhohn et al. (editors), Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf.

Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → Perhaps the most significant and distinguished example of the study of culture and personality at a distance, although criticized for overgeneralization.

DeVos, George A. 1960 The Relation of Guilt Toward Parents to Achievement and Arranged Marriage Among the Japanese. Psychiatry 23:287-301.

Duijker, H. C. J.; and Frijda, N. H. 1960 National Character and National Stereotypes. A trend report prepared for the International Union of Scientific Psychology. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing. → This is an overview with a relatively complete bibliography.

Erikson, Erik H. 1942 Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth. Psychiatry 5:475-493. → An analysis illustrating perceptual patterns related to authoritarianism.

Fromm, Erich 1941 Escape From Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rhinehart. → A psychoanalytic-cultural study of the nature of the authoritarian personality.

Gorer, Geoffrey; and Rickman, John (1950) 1962 The People of Great Russia: A Psychological Study. New York: Norton.

Hagen, Everett E. 1962 On the Theory of Social Change. Homewood, 111.: Dorsey.

Inkeles, Alex; and Levinson, Daniel J. 1954 National Character: The Study of Modal Personality and Sociocultural Systems. Volume 2, pages 977-1020 in Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Kardiner, Abram 1939 The Individual and His Society: The Psychodynamics of Primitive Social Organization.New York: Columbia Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

Kardiner, Abram; and Ovesey, Lionel 1962 The Mark of Oppression: Explorations in the Personality of the American Negro. New York: World.

Klineberg, Otto 1944 A Science of National Character. Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues,Bulletin No. 19:147-162.

Kracauer, Siegfried 1947 From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton Univ. Press.

Lindesmith, Alfred R.; and Strauss, Anselm L. 1950 A Critique of Culture-Personality Writings. American Sociological Review 15:587-600.

Linton, Ralph 1945 The Cultural Background of Personality. New York: Appleton.

Mead, Margaret 1953 National Character. Pages 642-667 in Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Edited by A. L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Mead, Margaret; and MÉtraux, Rhoda (editors) 1953 The Study of Culture at a Distance. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Merton, Robert K. (1940) 1957 Bureaucratic Structure and Personality. Pages 195-206 in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. ed Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → First published in Social Forces, Volume 18, pages 560-568.

Miller, Daniel R.; and Swanson, Guy E. 1958 The Changing American Parent. New York: Wiley.

Riesman, David 1950 The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1960.

Schaffner, Bertram H. 1948 Father Land: A Study of Authoritarianism in the German Family. New York: Columbia Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

[Withers, Carl] (1945) 1958 Plainville, U.S.A., by James West [pseud.]. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A study of small-town America by the participant-observer method.

Wolfenstein, Martha; and Leites, Nathan 1950 Movies: A Psychological Study. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Thematic analysis of English, French, and American movies suggesting differences in perception of heterosexual relationships and concepts of legitimate authority.

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National Character