Personality and Social Structure

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Three questions underlie the study of social structure and personality: What is social structure? What is personality? And, what is the relationship between the two? The history of this area and the current state of knowledge contain tremendous variability in the answers to these questions.

For example, social structure includes whole cultural configurations, social institutions such as family and the state, social stratification and class, the nature of roles, organizational structures, group dynamics, and micro-features of day-to-day interactions. Social structure also includes process and change at the group level, such as economic depression-recession, modernization, revolution, war, organizational growth and decline, human development and aging, and life-course transitions (school-to-work, retirement).

Concepts and approaches to personality also have a rich history in this area, with many variations. These include attitudes, abilities, affective and attributional styles, values, beliefs, cognitive schema, identities, aspirations, views of the self and others, and individual behaviors. The concept of personality, too, connotes both structure and process or change. Most contemporary observers would agree with a definition of personality as "regularities and consistencies in the behavior of individuals in their lives" (Snyder and Ickes 1985, p. 883). In some approaches, attitude and the self precede and determine behavior; in other approaches, people observe behavior and infer their own mental states and features of self.

Neither a simple answer nor close consensus exists among scholars on the nature of the relationship between social structure and personality, although most would agree that the relationship is reciprocal rather than asymmetric, and modest rather than extremely strong or extremely weak (House and Mortimer 1990; Miller-Loessi 1995; Mortimer and Lorence 1995). That is, multiple areas of research provide clear evidence that variations in social structures shape components of personality, and that variations in personality in turn affect social structure. Humans are not completely pawns in the face of social forces, nor are they entirely independent, autonomous agents, unfettered by social influences. The study of human lives shows clear evidence of both forms.

The study of social structure and personality has its roots in the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Scholars whose ideas and research offer inspiration include Marx (1963), Freud (1928), Mead (1934), Lewin (1951), Gerth and Mills (1953), Inkeles and Levinson (1954), Smelser and Smelser (1963), and Turner (1956).

The focus of scholarship in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s was to define the basic concepts and processes for personality, for social structure, and for the relationship between the two. This era produced and elaborated developments such as field theory, role theory, and interactionist perspectives on the self, along with concepts such as self, significant other, role taking, socialization, the authoritarian personality, modal personality, and national character.

In the 1950s, the sociological research on social structure and personality focused on macroscopic empirical studies of national character: What was national character? How did it vary? Could it be defined in terms of modal personality types? A long tradition of comparative anthropological studies of culture and personality informed these studies. For example, some of these studies considered the relationship between social class and personality, with social class defined as white-collar–blue-collar. Personality referred to some underlying continuum of "adjustment," and the link between social class and personality occurred in socialization, in particular in child-rearing practices.

The 1960s produced major changes in the study of personality and social structure. First, the quantity of research increased significantly, concurrently with the massive growth of sociology and psychology as disciplines and with the growth of higher education. Second, research in the area became more diffuse and more differentiated. What had been a fairly identifiable area of research scattered to subareas of scientific disciplines, such as the sociology of medicine, social stratification, small group dynamics, or attitude-behavior research. The research problems multiplied; research methods and strategies multiplied; theories and explanations multiplied; and journal outlets and books multiplied. At the same time, communication, integration, and cross-fertilization across the research fragments declined, although in recent years this may be changing. In short, during this era "social structure and personality" became an umbrella description for many different lines of investigation that were only loosely connected.

The third major change in the 1960s was a refocusing of research on social structure and personality, one that continues into the 1990s. The empirical macroscopic studies of national character, and the emphasis on holistic conceptions of culture and national character, declined. On the sociological side, the emphasis shifted to studying "aspects of societies in relation to aspects of individuals" (House 1981, p. 526). On the psychological side, a looser, multidimensional approach to personality replaced the earlier Freudian approach, which was based on a coherent dynamic system and on personality types and structures (DiRenzo 1977).

House (1981) describes this major refocusing of research in terms of three principles, which also define ideals for the investigation of personality and social structure. First, the components principle suggests that social structures such as roles, positions, and systems are multidimensional, and theory should specify which dimensions are important for which personality phenomena (such as stress, self-esteem, and locus of control). Second, the proximity principle suggests focusing first on understanding the more proximate stimuli that affect people and then mapping the causal patterns across broader levels of social structure in time and space. Third, the psychological principle identifies the importance of specifying the psychological processes involved when social structures and processes affect the self, personality, and attitudes. House's three principles nicely summarize many of the recent advances in the study of social structure and personality. They also define the nature of limitations in current knowledge, and identify research frontiers.

The contemporary landscape of research on social structure and personality in sociology is a patchwork of problems and areas. These include social stratification, work, and personality (Kohn et al. 1983); social structure and health, both physical and psychological (Mirowsky and Ross 1986); disjunctive social changes (war, economic depression) and individual adjustment (Elder 1974); role transitions and psychological changes (O'Brien 1986); variations in self-concept by structural position (Gecas and Burke 1995); human development, aging, and social change (Featherman and Lerner 1985; Alwin et al. 1991); and political and discriminatory attitudes, social institutions, and change (Kiecolt 1988), to mention just a few.

One of the most substantial and important areas of research involves the study of social stratification, work and personality, and the program of research of Kohn, Schooler, and colleagues (1983; Kohn and Slomczynski 1990; Kohn et al. 1997). The Kohn-Schooler model reflects the dominant approach in this particular area, and illustrates the major sociological approach to the study of social structure and personality. Spenner (1988a, 1988b, 1998) provides detailed review of this research. In comparison, approaches in psychology are more microscopic—in focusing on shorter intervals of time and smaller arenas of social space—and more likely to rely on experiments and lab studies, or field research versus large-scale survey research of people's work lives and personality histories.

The Kohn-Schooler model begins with dimensions of jobs that are defined and measured as objectively as possible (versus subjective dimensions and measures of individual's jobs). These structural imperatives of jobs include: occupational self-direction (substantive complexity of work, closeness of supervision, and routinization); job pressures (time pressure, heaviness, dirtiness, and hours worked per week); extrinsic risks and rewards (the probability of being held responsible for things outside one's control, the risk of losing one's job or business, job protections, and job income); and organizational location (ownership, bureaucratization, and hierarchical position). The three basic dimensions of personality in this research include intellectual flexibility, self-directedness of orientation, and sense of well-being or distress. Among the subdimensions of these organizing dimensions are authoritarian conservatism, personally responsible standards of morality, trustfulness, self-confidence, self-deprecation, fatalism, anxiety, and idea conformity.

The type of analysis used in the Kohn-Schooler research estimates the lagged and contemporaneous reciprocal relationships between conditions of work and dimensions of personality in nonexperimental, panel, survey data. The major data come from a national sample of over 3,000 persons, representative of the male, full-time labor force, age 16 and over in 1974. About one-third of these men were reinterviewed about ten years later, with measures being taken of work conditions and personality at both points in time. Most of the studies of women in this tradition refer to wives of men in the sample. In a series of structural equation model analyses that adjust for measurement error in dimensions of jobs and personality, the authors document an intricate pattern of lagged (over time) and contemporaneous selection and socialization effects. Selection effects refers to the effects of personality on work and social structure; socialization effects refers to the effects of work (social structure) on self and personality. Most of the effects of personality on work are lagged, as workers appear to select jobs of a given type depending on measured aspects of their personality, or to slowly mold jobs to match their personalities. Conversely, the effects of jobs on personalities appear to be somewhat larger and to involve both contemporaneous and lagged effects. The largest relationships center on components of occupational self-direction, in particular, on substantive complexity of work. For example, substantive complexity of work environments increases intellectual flexibility for men by an amount that is one-fourth as great as the effect of intellectual flexibility a decade earlier, net of controls for other variables and confounding influences.

Kohn, Schooler, and colleagues interpret their findings with a "learning-generalization" explanation. In it, people learn from their jobs and generalize the lessons to spheres of their lives away from the job. Rather than using alternate psychological mechanisms such as displacement or compensation, the structural imperatives of jobs affect a worker's values; orientations to self, children, and society; and cognitive functioning. They do this primarily through a direct process of learning from the job and generalization of what has been learned to off-job realities. The collected research shows that these generalizations appear to hold under a broad range of controls for spuriousness, alternate explanations, and extensions. The extensions include men's and women's work lives, self-direction in leisure activities, housework, and educational domains, as well as a number of replications of the basic model including careful comparisons with samples from Poland and Japan, and more recently from the Ukraine (Kohn et al. 1997).

Similar summaries exist for many other areas of research in social structure and personality, but this line of research has been one of the most important. The limitations of the Kohn-Schooler program of research illustrate some of the frontiers facing research on work and personality. First, are these conditions of work the most important dimensions of social structure? Do they combine and exert their effects in a more complicated recipe? Are there other features of context that should be considered? Second, are these the appropriate dimensions and combinations or personality? Are there left-out dimensions or other larger meta- or organizing dimensions of personality, such as flexibility-rigidity or general affectivity (Spenner 1988a) or processual dimensions of personality, that might be more important?

Third, there are many alternate explanations that replace or extend the learning-generalization explanation for how jobs and personality reciprocally relate (for review, see O'Brien 1986). They include: (1) fit hypotheses, in which the quality of the match between dimensions of personality and dimensions of social structure determines the effects of the person on the job and vice versa; (2) needs and expectancy explanations, in which additional layers of cognitive weighting, interpretation, and processing mediate the relationships among job attributes, personality dimensions, and work attitude outcomes; (3) buffering and mediational hypotheses, in which the effects of social structure on personality (or vice versa) are accentuated or damped for certain extreme combinations of work conditions, or outside influences such as social support buffer the effects of social structure on personality; and (4) social information processing and attributional explanations, which posit additional perceptual or judgmental, evaluational or choice, or attributional processes that affect job-attitude and attitude-behavior linkages.

At more microscopic levels (shorter time intervals such as seconds or minutes, and smaller domains of social space, such as intrapsychic, or face-to-face interactions) the challenge for research on social structure and personality is to discover the meanings and processes that underlie longer-term, larger-scale correlations between the two. This challenge applies not only to how job or social structure affects personality, but also to how a domain of personality selects a worker into an occupational or another role, or serves as a catalyst for human agency and leads to attempts by people to modify their roles and circumstances. For example, if learning generalization operates as hypothesized, what does that mean? Is the learning part of the process as straightforward as textbook images of reinforcement psychology and social learning theory imply it is? Survey research designs, the dominant methodology, typically assume and rarely observe, specify, or test the social-psychological and psychological concomitants of learning generalization. What are the associated perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral concomitants of learning generalization? What are the supporting and disconfirming attribution patterns and mediations? Or is the learning process below the level of cognitive operations and attributuional web of inferences that people use to make sense of their world? Experimental and observational design may be more informative than the typical survey research approach. The field understands many of the ingredients but not the specific recipe.

At a mezzoscopic level—careers, the human life span, organizations, and other institutional settings and mechanisms—the challenge to research on social structure and personality is to put the snapshots of relationships in motion and understand the dynamics over longer periods of time. For example, in the Kohn-Schooler model, how are its findings nested in adult development, and how is adult development affected by the dynamics implied in this model? Age and developmental variations have received only limited attention in the Kohn-Schooler approach. Further, much of our knowledge about relationships between various social structures and personality assumes a system in equilibrium (for example, a single coefficient capturing an effect over five or ten years). We know much less about the dynamics of social structure–personality relationships, including estimation of trajectories, threshold effects, and rates of change. Here too, different types of research and data designs will be required to advance the state of knowledge.

Finally, at a larger, macroscopic level—encompassing decades and centuries, and whole institutional spheres and societies—the challenges confronting research in social structure and personality are multiple. They include discovering the larger sociohistorical, psychological, and biological contexts and processes in which social structure–personality relationships are embedded, and then mapping and tracing the lines of influence across levels. For example, many research streams are exclusively national or subnational, in terms of generalizations . The Kohn-Schooler approach, with systematic studies in the United States, Poland, Japan, and the Ukraine, is a notable exception, but even here we are still early on in understanding how the models vary in comparative studies of national and subnational contexts. Further, the state of knowledge is young in our understanding of how historical variations in the content and composition of work, the labor process, and the family, or in organizational form and practice altered relationships between social structure and personality. This larger challenge also includes discovering how long-term variations in human personality feed back on long-term variations in social structures, shaping history and defining what is possible for the evolution of social forms and processes.


Alwin, D. F., R. L. Cohen, and T. M. Newcomb 1991 Aging, Personality and Social Change: Attitude Persistence and Change over the Life-Span. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

DiRenzo, Gordon J. 1977 "Socialization, Personality and Social Systems." In A. Inkeles, J. Coleman, and N. Smelser, eds., Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 3. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1974 Children of the Great Depression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Featherman, David L., and Richard M. Lerner 1985 "Ontogeneses and Sociogenesis: Problematics for Theory and Research about Development and Socialization across the Life-Span." American Sociological Review 50:659–676.

Freud, Sigmund 1928 The Basic Writings of SigmundFreud. Edited and translated by A. A. Brill. New York: Random House.

Gecas, Victor, and Peter Burke 1995 "Self and Identity." In K. S. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House, eds., Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Gerth, Hans, and C. Wright Mills 1953 Character andSocial Structure. New York: Harcourt.

House, James S. 1981 "Social Structure and Personality." In M. Rosenberg and R. H. Turner, eds., SocialPsychology: Sociological Perspectives. New York: Basic Books.

——, and Jeylan T. Mortimer 1990 "Social Structure and the Individual: Emerging Themes and New Directions." Social Psychology Quarterly 53:71–80.

Inkeles, Alex, and Daniel Levinson 1954 "National Character: The Study of Modal Personality and Social Systems." In G. Lindzey, ed., Handbook of SocialPsychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Kiecolt, K. Jill 1988. "Recent Developments in Attitudes and Social Structure." In W. R. Scott, and J. Blake, eds., Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 14. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

Kohn, Melvin L., and Carmie Schooler, with the collaboration of J. Miller, K. Miller, C. Schoenbach, and R. Schoenberg 1983 Work and Personality: An Inquiryinto the Impact of Social Stratification. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Kohn, Melvin L., and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski 1990 Social Structure and Self-Direction: A Comparative Analysisof the United States and Poland. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell.

——, Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, Krystyna Janicka, Valeri Khmelko, Bogdan W. Mach, Vladimir Paniotto, Wojciech Zaborowski, Roberto Gutierrez, and Cory Heyman 1997 "Social Structure and Personality under Conditions of Radical Social Change: A Comparative Analysis of Poland and Ukraine." AmericanSociological Review 62:614–638.

Lewin, Kurt 1951 Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper.

Marx, Karl 1963 Karl Marx: Early Writings. Edited and translated by T. B. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mead, George H. 1934 Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller-Loessi, Karen 1995 "Comparative Social Psychology: Cross-Cultural and Cross-National." In K. S. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House, eds., SociologicalPerspectives on Social Psychology. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Mirowsky, John, and Catherine E. Ross 1986 "Social Patterns of Distress." In R. Turner and J. Short, eds., Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 12. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

Mortimer, Jeylan, and John Lorence 1995 "Social Psychology of Work." In K. S. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House, eds., Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

O'Brien, Gordon E. 1986 Psychology of Work and Unemployment. New York: Wiley.

Smelser, Neil J., and William T. Smelser 1963 Personalityand Social Systems. New York: Wiley.

Snyder, Mark, and William Ickes 1985 "Personality and Social Behavior." In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson, eds., Handbook of Social Psychology, Special Fields andApplications, vol. II. New York: Random House.

Spenner, Kenneth I. 1988a "Social Stratification, Work and Personality." In W. R. Scott and J. Blake, eds., Annual Review of Sociology, vol 14. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

——1988b "Occupations, Work Settings and the Course of Adult Development: Tracing the Implications of Select Historical Changes." In P. B. Baltes, D. L. Featherman, and R. M. Lerner, eds., Life-SpanDevelopment and Behavior, vol. 9. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

——1998 "Reflections on a 30-Year Career of Research on Work and Personality by Melvin Kohn and Colleagues." Sociological Forum 13:169–181.

Turner, Ralph. H. 1956 "Role-taking, Role Standpoint, and Reference Group Behavior." American Journal ofSociology 61:316–328.

Kenneth I. Spenner