Modal personality was the term used by anthropologist Cora DuBois in her 1944 monograph The Peoples of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island, based on research carried out in the Alor islands of Indonesia during the late 1930s. The Alor study focused on issues and methods involving both anthropology and psychology. It was designed specifically to explore cross-culturally the potential for the existence of a basic human personality structure embedded in specific sociocultural settings and social-institutional structures. The academic quest was for an applicable statistical mode of analysis to be used in studying personality trait variance cross-culturally.
Methodologically, DuBois applied, tested, interpreted, and integrated standard culture and personality methods supplemented by then standard psychoanalytic testing methods. Many of the research concerns focused on in DuBois’s fieldwork, regarding the structure of human personality, were addressed at seminars of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. This forum was headed by Freudian psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner, who had received training in Boasian anthropology. The challenge was to formulate psychocultural testing procedures and explanations in the search for the existence of basic personality differences and similarities while simultaneously exploring the potential for specific personality types linked to specific cultural institutional structures in varying cultures.
What developed from DuBois’s fieldwork was the concept of a modal personality. Modal personality was defined in The People of Alor as “the product of the interplay of fundamental physiologically and neurologically determined tendencies and experiences common to all human beings acted upon by the cultural milieu, which denies, directs, and gratifies these needs very differently in different societies.” In other words, biology provides the physical backdrop for an innate personality structure that is then molded by specific cultural practices/institutions in the development of unique group personality types. Cultures then adapt to their surroundings through selected reinforced attitudes, actions, beliefs, and values based on the available basic human biological mental structure. Personality in and of itself was recognized as a biological given. Specific personality formulations were then conceived of as a product of the social structure of the community. DuBois assumed from the beginning that there existed a “psychic unity of mankind” or a template on which a society further designs, redesigns, and manipulates personality traits according to that culture’s unique and varied needs. Specifically, DuBois studied the relationship of variations in early mother-infant interaction, care, and treatment and the effects on later personality development within the Atimelang people on the island of Alor.
The primary methodological assessment tools used by DuBois, as shown by William Manson in The Psychodynamics of Culture, included autobiographies, life cycle descriptions, personality development, and projective tests (e.g., Rorschach test interpretations, children’s drawings, responses to the Porteus maze, word association responses). All were standard tests used in psychoanalytic studies at the time.
Dubois’s research was backed financially and professionally by the Science Research Council of Columbia University (Ruth Benedict) and was supported by noted culture and personality anthropologists of the time (including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson). The ongoing discussion seminars at the New York Psychoanalytic Society, run by Kardiner and others, formed the backdrop for presentations and interpretations of the ongoing research of DuBois and others. At the same time, Kardiner was developing his own theory of a basic human personality structure, later published in several different articles and texts. Kardiner’s research into basic personality structure was described as an important milestone for both psychoanalytical and anthropological studies. This research was supported by other researchers such as Melton Singer, who commented that Kardiner’s work was important because it “combined both psychoanalysts and anthropologists into a new synthesis,” interpreted as providing the possibility of a crossing and/or blending of traditional disciplinary boundaries.
The methodological device, applied by DuBois to the Alor population, included the application of both quantitative projective and nonprojective testing procedures in a fieldwork situation. At the time, anthropology was primarily qualitatively driven by methodology, so this was a new and exciting opportunity to bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative research tools. The content of various tests, as applied in extensive fieldwork situations, was analyzed—not just by the primary researcher (DuBois), the anthropological standard of the time, but also including various quantitative and qualitative tests and data analyzed independently by nonanthropological behavioral scientists not present at the fieldwork site. This was in part an attempt to control experimental bias, as defined in the psychoanalytic field. DuBois supplied the ethnographic data to other researchers, not present in the field, who then interpreted, analyzed, and compared their findings with those of DuBois. The psychotherapist Emil Oberholzer was one of the independent interpreters of the Alor Rorschach test materials results, as was Kardiner, who independently analyzed the data collected on completed autobiographies of the Alor. It was one of the first times that this type of statistical analysis was being applied to ethnographic fieldwork in the culture and personality subfield of anthropology.
In the 1966 update of The People of Alor, DuBois refined her original modal personality concept by clarifying and delimiting her original concept: “Modal personality was the term I proposed at the time to designate central tendencies in the personalities of a group of people studied by means of more or less objective and cross-culturally applicable tests, as well as by means of observation and autobiographies. Modal personality was not an explicative concept. It was a purely static and descriptive one.” In other words, what she chose to use was a part of many techniques that were available for field-workers at the time, not the sole criteria for establishing personality structure.
Early reactions to the concept of a modal personality varied but did trigger additional research on the subject by other anthropologists in different fieldwork settings. Anthony Wallace applied the modal personality and Rorschach protocols, developed by DuBois, to the Tuscarora Iroquois Indians of New York in his work titled The Modal Personality of the Tuscarora Indians. His primary research focused on exploring the existence and causes for deviant personality types. Wallace examined community influences on the molding of basic personality types. He engaged in a methodological refinement of DuBois’s modal personality methodology that both supported and enhanced DuBois’s initial use of systematic, objective testing assessment tools in searching for a basic personality type. Where Wallace experienced difficulty was in his ambitious attempt to collapse several different concepts including a modal personality: national personality, basic personality, social character, ethos, temper, psychological culture pattern, genius, and communal aspects of personality. He believed that they all referred to a “common class of phenomena,” and this flaws his otherwise valuable work on the Tuscarora Iroquois and his methodological contributions. Yet we should also look at the work of Victor Barnouw, who in Culture and Personality further contributed that modal personality has been used interchangeably with basic personality structure by several researchers. Obviously, there have been issues surrounding this concept as a valid and distinct category in anthropology.
George Devereux next took the concept of modal personality and suggested that it be divided into two separate and distinct models—one psychological and the other sociocultural—each with its own form, content, and structure. Devereux’s contribution was that social scientists and psychologists approach the same subject matter from very different theoretical and methodological stances. They are asking different questions and using different conceptual frameworks, so it is obvious that they also need to use different models of this same concept. Devereux suggested that there were basic differences between the “psychological-psychiatric (subjective) and socio-cultural-historical-economic-political (collective) explanations of human phenomena. These two sets of disciplines study radically different phenomena.” There was anxiety being created that anthropology was possibly being collapsed into psychology even though it is, was, and should remain a separate and distinct field. Devereux further supported his suggestion of a dual modal division by pointing out that psychiatry-psychology tends to focus on the individual (psychological), whereas the discipline of anthropology tends to focuses on the group (collective) or the social phenomena. He included a Hungarian example to further illustrate his point of a difference between motivations of the individual Hungarian person and the motivations of the Hungarian people as a social group relative to a particular political topic. The individual and the group do not interpret reality in the same way because their motivations are different. Devereux attempted to show that because the motives would not be the same, the two factions should and must be studied and interpreted differently. Devereux was clearly stating that modal operates on at least two different levels and must be researched and analyzed with this in mind.
- Devereux, G. (1961). Two types of modal personality models. In B. Kaplan (Ed.), Studying personality cross-culturally (pp. 227-241). Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
- DuBois, C. (1944). The people of Alor: A social-psychological study of an East Indian island. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Kardiner, A. (1945). The psychological frontiers of society. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Manson, W. C. (1988). The psychodynamics of culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Singer, M. (1961). A study of culture and personality: Theory and research. In B. Kaplan (Ed.), Studying personality cross-culturally (pp. 9-90). Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.