Culture and Personality

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Culture and Personality

Historical background

Explanation in anthropology

The human social order as a normative order

The human social order as a cognitive order

The human social order as a moral order

Frustration, sociocultural persistence, change

Functionalism in culture-and-personality


Culturally constituted social groups are as necessary for human existence as are any of man’s vital organs. Nevertheless, as even cursory observation of children reveals, the acquisition of culture is often accompanied by conflict and struggle; and conformity with cultural rules and norms is frequently associated with frustration and tension. These two facets of culture—its capacity for both gratifying and frustrating human needs—constitute the basis for the two major axes of social science inquiry, stability and change; together, they constitute the generic problems of culture-and-personality research: What are the psychological conditions that promote persistence and innovation in human social and cultural systems?

Historical background

Despite the evident importance of its problems, culture-and-personality, as a formal discipline, is the youngest and smallest branch of anthropology. With some few exceptions, it hardly exists outside of the United States. Culture-and-personality, like biochemistry, falls between two academic stools, in this case anthropology on the one hand and the psychological sciences on the other. Thirty-five years ago there was no way of bridging the gap between them. Anthropology, to the extent that it was theoretically oriented, was concerned with such macroproblems as historical developments and evolutionary trends, for which the concepts of academic psychology were, or were deemed to be, irrelevant. The psychological sciences, on the other hand, were tied to the ahistorical, acultural labora-tory; their molecular concepts were obviously unrelated to the sociocultural concepts of anthropology. Only psychoanalytic psychology—not part of the academic establishment—seemed to see a bridge between the data obtained in the clinic and the social sciences. Earlier, Freud had made periodic forays into anthropology, but attempts to link the disciplines met with strong opposition on the part of social scientists.

The raw data of anthropological field work ex-posed living human beings in all their complexity, acting within a specified historical-cultural matrix. It is no accident that it was the field anthropologists, confronted with the necessity of relating traditional, descriptive cultural constructs to the ongoing social life about them, who first attempted to build this bridge in their search for the psycho-logically “genotypic” bases of their “phenotypic” cultural constructs. It is no accident, either, that psychoanalytic theory, however modified, was seized upon first as a possible theoretical tool. For psycho-analysis, unlike academic psychology, is concerned with molar rather than molecular psychological variables. Despite its ahistoricism, psychoanalysis anchors its patients in their own ontogenetic histories, thereby providing a link with the anthropo-logical notion of culture as a configuration of learned customs. Hence, Edward Sapir, the generally acknowledged founder of the field, was influenced by his personal contacts with the psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan; Margaret Mead, by her contacts with E. H. Erikson; Ralph Linton and Cora DuBois, by collaboration with Abram Kardiner.

Personality studies 35 years ago were unsystematic; and cultural studies, with their heavy descriptive and empirical emphases, were self-consciously nontheoretical. Hence, a large share of culture-and-personality theory was, and continues to be, devoted to the exploration of empirical and analytic relationships. At that time, anthropologists had few techniques for the study of personality. The time-honored techniques of gross observation and informant interviews were inadequate for personality investigation. Again anthropology looked to the psychological sciences for assistance: depth interviews, Rorschach tests, doll-play, dreams, life histories, systematic observation of family interaction, and other techniques were borrowed in whole or in part from clinical psychology and psychiatry. Where disciplinary boundaries are rigidly drawn, this influx of exotic tools—combined with the exotic concepts of psychoanalytic theory and learning theory—could hardly have been expected to attract discipline-bound researchers.

Some anthropologists avoided culture-and-personality because of the imprecise and inconclusive nature of its findings. This is not to say, as is sometimes charged, that its studies are “soft,” or lacking in rigor—the best of its studies are certainly as rigorous, conceptually and methodologically, as their counterparts in other branches of social and cultural anthropology. It is, rather, that the very nature of its problems, given the research tools available, results in findings that sometimes lack the unqualified conviction characteristic of research in more structured fields.

As the field has matured, its initial period of heavy borrowing has come to an end. Methods and theories borrowed from other fields have become transformed by the new discipline for its own problems and its specific theoretical aims—and, although it continues to be catholic in its sources of stimulation, it has been developing its own. Increasingly, data cited in favor of a theory, and theories used for hypothesis derivation, originate in culture-and-personality research, rather than in the psychiatric clinic or the experimental laboratory. Moreover, as data accumulate, it is becoming increasingly possible to test hypotheses statistically by means of large-scale, cross-cultural samples. Although these studies, pioneered by Whiting and Child (1953), have been subjected to serious criticism, their findings have been sufficiently suggestive to hazard the prediction that such studies will increase both in number and in importance.

Despite its small number of practitioners, cultureand-personality has been extraordinarily diversified in its research interests. Although culture-and-personality has explored many topics that have been neglected by other anthropologists, it has also explored many of the topics that are of greatest interest to them. In both cases, psychological variables have played a prominent role in its research. The rationale for this emphasis must be sought within the explanatory framework of anthropological thought.

Explanation in anthropology

Anthropological theory has, in general, been cast in four explanatory modes—historical, structural, causal, and functional—that, when analyzed, can be reduced to the causal or the functional mode. Thus, historical explanations, to the extent that they are scientific explanations rather than uncontrolled speculations, are really causal explanations. The mere listing of a series of events that are chronologically prior to the appearance of the custom to be explained does not constitute explanation, unless it can be shown that one or more of these events was a condition—either necessary and/or sufficient—for the appearance of the custom. If this can be demonstrated, the explanation of the custom’s origin is causal, the fact that it originated in the past being incidental to the theoretical aim, which is to provide an explanation for a certain type of social or cultural innovation.

Structural explanations can also be shown to be either causal or functional. Those which show the configuration (or interrelationships) in a set of customs are essentially descriptive. The data are ordered according to a coherent plan. If a theory is offered to explain the configuration (structure), then this theory is necessarily either causal or functional. Structural explanations that purport to explain a custom or set of customs in terms of some “principle” that it embodies are either verbal labels, serving to classify a set of data according to a heuristic scheme (such as the “principle” of the unity of the sibling group), or phenomenological principles of the actors (cognitive maps), in which case they are members of a cognitive subset in a set of causal variables. Similarly, explanations that stipulate either the structural requirements of a system or its structural “implications” are either causal or functional. Causal explanations are concerned with the antecedents of a system; functional explanations, with its consequences.

If anthropological explanations can be classified as either causal or functional, what role has cultureand-personality played in either or both types of explanation?

The human social order as a normative order

Social systems are characterized by a configuration of reciprocal roles that are shared by the members of a social group and are acquired from a previous generation. These roles serve to satisfy the three functional requirements of any society— adaptation, adjustment, and integration. Within zoological perspective, the unique feature of human social systems does not reside in the fact that their constituent roles are acquired through learning— for this is probably characteristic, although not to the same degree, of all mammalian social systems —but that many of the customs comprising these roles are based on rules and norms.

A custom, as this term is used by anthropologists, refers to any socially acquired behavior pattern that is widely, if not uniformly, performed by the members of a society or by one of its constituent social groups. In general, it is possible to distinguish two types of customs. First, there are those customs whose occurrence is based on prescriptive or prescriptive norms. Their performance may thus be characterized as being isomorphic with a norm or set of norms. These may be termed Type-1 customs. Second, there are customs whose occurrence, although not based on norms, nevertheless reflects them. If a norm, or set of norms, is prescriptive with respect to one subclass of behavior patterns but permissive with respect to all other members of the class, the latter, if they occur, reflect the norms but are not isomorphic with them. For example, marriage with any female not included in incest proscriptions reflects, but is not isomorphic with, the prescriptive norms. These customs may be termed Type-2 customs.

Although the occurrence of Type-1 customs is mandatory and the occurrence of Type-2 customs is voluntary, the performance of the latter is also normative in the sense that behavior falls within a normative, i.e., permissible, range of variability. Type-2 customs are also governed by socially shared rules that define proper performance. In the absence of such rules, behavior patterns are habits that describe individual action; they are not customs, which describe social interaction. Knowledge of habits and customs enables us to predict behavior.

The human social order as a cognitive order

Culture, as a normative system, is a functional requirement of a human social order. Because of the enormous degrees of biological plasticity and cognitive ingenuity that, together, produce the broad variability characteristic of human behavior, the absence of this normative dimension would render human social systems impossible. The range of behavior patterns potential in any individual is much broader than the limited range required for the performance of any custom or set of customs. Beyond a certain critical point, whose limits are still unknown, variability in behavior precludes the very possibility of custom. In other words, human societies have had to set limits (by means of prescriptive and proscriptive norms, and of rules) to the range of permitted variability in customary behavior. The cultural dimension of human social systems is made possible by the very capacity for symbolization. It is to human societies what limited plasticity and biological determination are to insect and mammalian societies. By selecting the optimal range required by the operation of a particular social system, from the potential range of variability characteristic of the species, it ensures an important degree of uniformity and predictability, thereby rendering social order possible. In short, the invention of culture allowed man to combine the short-run adaptive value of social order with the long-run advantage of flexibility.

A human social order, then, is a cognitive order. The set of customs that comprise the constituent roles of a human social system consist, in the first instance, of a set of norms and rules—cognitive variables—that either prescribe or regulate behavior. These norms and rules must be cognized by the members of the society if the social system is to be maintained. The acquisition of cognitions, then, as well as of complete cognitive maps, is a necessary psychological condition (cause) for the performance of single customs and for the maintenance of an entire social system. Cognitions can regulate behavior, but they are not identical with it. The conventional statement “Social behavior is learned” implies two kinds of learning, cognitive and behavioral. That is, the performance of a custom requires that the actors learn about the custom (acquisition of cognitions) and that they learn to perform what they have learned (acquisition of behavior). In general, culture-and-personality has devoted less attention to the former type of learning than to the latter. Nevertheless, the recent interest in cognition and in ethnoscience, and the development of such techniques as componential analysis, will probably redress the balance.

Since customary behavior is governed by rules, proper performance of customs requires that the actors be capable of evaluating and regulating their own behavior in terms of these rules. Evaluation, then, is yet another cognitive basis for the maintenance of social systems, although it has received little attention from culture-and-personality.

Despite their importance, cognition, learning, and evaluation do not constitute necessary and sufficient psychological prerequisites for the performance of customs. For, although anthropological in-formants are entitled to explain their own behavior by the ubiquitous “It is our custom,” anthropologists cannot abdicate their scientific responsibility by this obviously redundant explanation. Customs cannot compel the occurrence of behavior; they can only channel behavior once it occurs. Unless the actors are more highly motivated to perform a custom than to perform competing, alternative behavior patterns that compose their behavioral repertoire, the learning of a custom, however normative, will not ensure its performance. In short, the performance of customs, like other forms of behavior, must be instigated by the intention or expectation of satisfying a need or set of needs. A great deal of culture-and-personality research has been devoted to the study of motivation and its ontogenesis in the socialization process.

In sum, cognition, learning, motivation, and evaluation—all psychological variables—constitute necessary and sufficient conditions (causes) for the proper performance of customs and, hence, for the maintenance of social systems. This analysis becomes much more complicated when it is observed that the relationship between the performance of customs and the satisfaction of needs is not always a simple one. For Type-2 customs—in which “performance” means the practice of personally preferred behavior patterns—this analysis, with proper qualifications, will serve as a simplified model. For Type-1 customs, in which “performance” means compliance with prescriptive or prescriptive norms, further elaboration is required.

The human social order as a moral order

A normative order, it has been indicated, consists of two related, but discrete, variables: norms and rules. “Norms” prescribe the occurrence of behavior; proscriptive norms prescribe avoidance behavior. “Rules” regulate or govern behavior (whether it is prescribed or permissive) once it occurs. Norms and rules ensure the uniformity, and hence the predictability, of behavior. Rules are ethically neutral; norms implicitly incorporate a set of moral values and, therefore, also function to preclude the overt expression of motives that are, or are deemed to be, socially harmful or disruptive. Norms also ensure the performance of activities that are, or are deemed to be, socially desirable, if not necessary. In terms of the moral order, deviation from norms is viewed as an offense to the social order. The limits that norms impose on behavioral variability are intended to ensure the occurrence of culturally normative behavior, as well as to regulate the performance of socially normative behavior.

Because of man’s plasticity and cognitive ingenuity, what any actor must do, as defined by cultural norms, in order to participate in his social system is not the same as what he can do; thus, what he must do may conflict with what he would like to do. Hence, tension between personal needs and cultural norms, as well as the internal pressures to eliminate this tension, are omnipresent in any society. In general, tension is resolved in favor of the norms, resolution being mediated by anxiety. This will be moral anxiety, if the norms have been internalized (superego); or social anxiety, if punishment is known to be the consequence of deviation. Although anxiety can serve to motivate compliance with Type-2 customs, the source of deviation (the original need) is inhibited but not extinguished. For the existence of these norms im-plies that the motivational systems of the actors are either indifferent to, or opposed to, the prescriptive or prescriptive behavior. If the latter is the case, the frustration of the proscribed motive has important consequences for cultural stability and change.

Frustration, sociocultural persistence, change

If the expectation of gratifying drives, including anxiety, constitutes a necessary (although not a sufficient) condition for the persistence of social systems, the frustration of drives constitutes a necessary (although not a sufficient) condition for the disruption of and change in these systems. Cultural norms, which proscribe the satisfaction of certain drives, constitute one importance source of frustration. The social structure is another important source. For example, if a structural arrangement such as stratification prevents certain groups in society from satisfying culturally approved needs by denying them access to those roles whose performance can satisfy these needs, the attendant frustration may be as great as frustration induced by prescriptive norms. Both types of frustration constitute potential sources of social and cultural deviation, innovation, and change.

Paradoxically, they also constitute sources of cultural and social persistence. If motives cannot be satisfied directly, because of cultural or social impediments, need-frustration may be averted by distortions in any of the motive’s four dimensions— drive, goal, act, and agent. These changes may sufficiently alter the original meaning of the motive so that, in its disguised form, the need may seek gratification in indirect, but culturally approved, ways. Frequently, the means for such distortion of motives, and consequent gratification of needs, are found in elements of the social and cultural systems. Although customs—and even roles—making up the social system are often used in this fashion, it is the cultural system that, par excellence, serves the function of gratifying these forbidden motives. For example, forbidden dependency or hostility motives are often disguised and, consequently, gratified in subservient or dominant political roles, respectively. Religion, art, folklore, ritual, and the like may function as culturally constituted defense mechanisms by which frustrated motives may be disguised and, hence, gratified in a culturally ap-proved manner. This, of course, is not their only function. They have other latent, not to mention manifest, functions of a nondefensive character. When elements of the social and cultural systems serve to gratify otherwise frustrated and potentially disruptive needs, the needs, in turn, constitute powerful motivational causes for the persistence of these systems. Culture-and-personality research has only begun a systematic exploration of this important field of research.

Sometimes, however, socially and culturally induced need-frustrations are not resolved in this manner; and this frustration results in deviation, either cultural or psychological. In defending the self against internal conflict, some defense mechanisms are adopted in which the cognitive distortion of motives is of sufficient magnitude to cause behavior that, psychologically bizarre and/or socially disruptive, may be diagnosed as mental illness. In other cases, defense mechanisms may be avoided in favor of direct expression of forbidden motives, resulting in crime and delinquency. This type of deviation has received less attention from culture-and-personality research than has psychological deviation, probably because its incidence is much less frequent in the primitive societies whose study has engaged traditional anthropological attention.

Need-frustration is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for social and cultural change, as well as for psychological and cultural deviation. Indeed, the border line between change and deviation is often a tenuous one. If certain cultural norms or structural arrangements systematically frustrate important needs, indigenous or borrowed innovations in norms or in social structure, which might otherwise have been ignored or labeled as deviation, become the basis for sociocultural cumulation and change. In general, culture-and-personality research has paid more attention to dramatic change than it has to gradual change. (This is found, for example, in studies of nativistic and revivalistic movements.)

If motivation is a necessary stimulus to change, cognition is a necessary basis for change. Any change entails cognitive restructuring; the more dramatic the change, the greater the restructuring required. Although cognitive maps, or perceptual sets, seems to be highly resistant to change, it is frequently observed that the acceptance of innovations is impeded by cognitive blocks. If innovations are accepted, they are sufficiently assimilated to traditional cognitive orientations, often rendering dramatic changes that are more apparent than real. Culture-and-personality has devoted relatively little attention to cognitive variables in studies of sociocultural change.

Psychological variables, such as learning, cognition, perception, and motivation, are as important in causal explanations of change in sociocultural systems as they are in explanations of structural persistence.

Functionalism in culture-and-personality

Culture-and-personality theory, by the very nature of its explanatory concepts, is both causal and functional in character. If customs are performed because of the expectations of satisfying needs, at least one of their functions (manifest and/or latent) is the satisfaction of the biological and psychological requirements of the actors. However, customs are units within a sociocultural system; functionalism, as a theory that purports to explain the maintenance of social and cultural systems, is concerned with the functional requirements of social groups taken collectively. Since the functional requirements of group existence are satisfied not by the existence of customs but by their performance, and since performance is caused by the expectation of satisfying needs (personal functions), social functions are served in the process of serving personal functions. Obviously, an explanation of the latter is contingent upon an explanation of the former. Thus, when personal functional requirements are not satisfied by the performance of customs, these customs may not occur. When this happens, their functions are not served, and changes and/or disruptive influences may take place in both the social and the cultural systems.

Personality variables, although always causal, may not always be important for understanding social functions. If all of the functions of a custom are recognized (manifest functions), motivation may be taken for granted; an understanding of a custom’s social functions does not entail explicit knowledge of the needs that instigate its performance. This is not true of unrecognized (latent) functions, especially of those which are served by the performance of customs whose motivation is at least partially unconscious. Since unconscious motives are frequently expressed in the performance of customs whose manifest functions are un-related to these motives, and since the motives are disguised because of the disruptive sociocultural impact of their undisguised expression, the latent social functions served by the performance of these customs are of the utmost importance for an under-standing of sociocultural persistence.

Melford E. Spiro

[Other relevant material may be found inCognitive theory; Culture; Life cycle; Socialization; and in the biographies ofBenedict and Sapir.]


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