Abram Kardiner was a psychiatrist and pioneering psychoanalyst who made major contributions to psychological and psychoanalytic anthropology as well as to his own professions. He was particularly interested in the psychological adaptation of the ego to war, society, oppression, and culture. Kardiner is best known in anthropology for his concepts of basic personality structure and projective systems.
Kardiner was born in 1891 in New York City. He received a BA from City College (New York) in 1912, then completed a year of medical school at Cornell University. He entered the PhD program in anthropology at Columbia University, studying under Franz Boas and Alexander Goldenweiser for a year before returning to finish his MD at Cornell in 1914. Kardiner completed his internship and residency in psychiatry in New York City and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Society. In 1921 he went to Vienna for a six-month training analysis with Sigmund Freud, and also took the opportunity to attend lectures by Geza Roheim on psychoanalysis and anthropology. On his return to New York, Kardiner worked for a veterans hospital in the Bronx from 1922-1925, studying victims of “war neuroses” from World War I. He published The Traumatic Neuroses of War in 1941 and an updated version, War Stress and Neurotic Illness, in 1947. Kardiner is now credited with defining posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Kardiner co-founded the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1931, the first such training institute in the U.S. In 1933, the director, Sandor Rado, asked Kardiner to develop a course on the application of psychoanalysis to the study of culture. The first session had only two students, but the seminar eventually grew to a hundred and included many distinguished anthropologists. The standard practice was for an anthropologist to describe a culture; Kardiner would then analyze it in terms of his neo-Freudian ego psychology.
Ralph Linton came to Columbia in 1937 to replace Boas as chair of the anthropology department. Linton was introduced to Kardiner by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who was a participant in the seminar and a former student of Linton. Linton joined the seminar and presented his studies of the Marquesans of the South Pacific and the Tanala and Betsileo of Madagascar for Kardiner’s analysis.
Kardiner published his major contribution to anthropology, The Individual and His Society in 1939, with Linton as a contributor. This comprehensive, causal theory of the relationship between culture and personality is regarded by some as the seminal work in the “culture and personality” movement that eventually gave rise to the field of psychological anthropology, providing the theoretical basis for much cross-cultural research in the postwar years, beginning with Child Training and Personality by Whiting & Child (1953).
Kardiner postulated the existence of a basic personality structure (BPS) personality traits shared by members of a society as a result of common early experiences. This BPS included unconscious conflicts and anxieties that motivated behavior. He divided culture into primary institutions, which generated the BPS, and secondary institutions, which were expressions of the BPS. The primary institutions included older, more stable elements of a culture such as technology, economics, family structure, and child-training practices, while the secondary institutions included religion, ritual, folklore, mythology, taboos, and art. Secondary institutions were based on the psychological process of projection and served to satisfy unmet needs symbolically. Basically, Kardiner posited a congruence between childhood experiences and expressive culture, mediated by the BPS, the same kind of congruity that Freud identified between parents and gods in The Future of an Illusion.
One problem Kardiner encountered was the availability of cultural, but not psychological data on the societies investigated. Cora DuBois was a postdoctoral student studying with Kardiner in 1936-1937. In 1938, DuBois went to the island of Alor in the Dutch East Indies to conduct ethnographic fieldwork, gathering dreams, autobiographies, word associations, children’s drawings, and intelligence and projective tests. DuBois’s fieldwork provided a model for culture and personality fieldwork for the next decade or more. Upon her return to New York, DuBois’s data were analyzed by Kardiner as well as by two psychologists. Kardiner saw the results as confirmation of his theory of a shared personality. But in her classic ethnography, The People of Alor (1944), which included chapters and sections by Kardiner, DuBois replaced the concept of basic personality with modal personality, referring to central tendencies in the personalities of members of a society that are not necessarily shared by all.
Kardiner’s work was not well received by his colleagues at the Psychoanalytic Institute, and in 1939 he brought the seminar to the Department of Anthropology at Columbia, where it was called “Psychological Analysis of Primitive Cultures.” In 1944, Kardiner left the Institute to become a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia and the cofounder of what became the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.
In 1945, Kardiner published The Psychological Frontiers of Society, a further explication of his BPS theory, with analyses of the Comanche (studied by Linton), the Alorese (studied by DuBois), and Plainville, a small town in the Missouri Ozarks (studied by James West, a pseudonym for Carl Withers).
During World War II, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and others turned their attention to the psychology of the British, the Japanese, and other modern peoples, beginning the study of “national character,” which Kardiner found superficial. After the war, Linton left Columbia, and Kardiner moved his seminar to the sociology department.
Kardiner sought to demonstrate the applicability of his BPS theory to modern, complex American society with the publication in 1951 of The Mark of Oppression: A Psychological Study of the American Negro, written with Lionel Ovesey. This study involved four years of intensive research with 25 individuals, and it identified common personality dynamics that African Americans had developed, according to Kardiner, to cope with discrimination.
In 1954, inspired by the Kinsey Report, Kardiner wrote Sex and Morality with Edward Preble. He returned to the subject of anthropology in 1961 with They Studied Man, a study of the beginnings of cultural anthropology that focused on the lives of ten scholars and the ethos of the times. His last book was My Analysis with Freud: Reminiscences, in 1977. Kardiner died in 1981 at the age of 90.
- Kardiner, A., & Linton, R. (1939). The individual and his society: The psychodynamics of primitive social organization. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kardiner, A., Linton, R., DuBois, C., & West, J. (1945). The psychological frontiers of society. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Manson, W. C. (1986). Abram Kardiner and the neo-Freudian alternative in culture and personality. In G. W. Stocking (Ed.), Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict and others (pp. 72-94). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Manson, W. C. (1988). The psychodynamics of culture: Abram Kardiner and neo-Freudian anthropology. New York: Greenwood Press.