Ralph Linton was an American cultural anthropologist known for his academic bravado and popular appeal, as well as for his long-lasting conceptual and theoretical contributions to anthropology and social science in general, whose main interest was the relationship between culture and personality. One of his more established concepts was acculturation, a phenomenon he witnessed throughout his many travels, published on, and in a sense contributed to through his work for Columbia University’s School of Military Government and Administration, where he educated military personnel on the characteristics of extrinsic cultures. Along with Abram Kardiner, Cora Du Bois, and Edward Sapir, Linton was a founder of basic and modal personality structure theory, an interactional approach that challenged earlier, culturally deterministic theories of personality. Although he was not a physical anthropologist, Linton considered the differences between humans and apes—indeed, between humans and other animals in general—by and large trivial ones and ultimately pointed to biological influences as an important factor in understanding the origins and nature of human behavior and culture. He was the first to use the terms “status” and “role,” now staple social science concepts. Linton’s best known works include The Study of Man (1936), The Cultural Background of Personality (1945), Most of the World (1949), and The Tree of Culture (1955).
Linton was born in Philadelphia to a Quaker family on February 27, 1893. His father, Isaiah Waterman Linton, made a living through his ownership of a chain of restaurants. Isaiah and Linton’s mother, Mary Elizabeth, took an authoritarian and critical approach to rearing the young Ralph, making for a childhood that was less than ideal. After graduating from Friends High School, Linton pursued a B.A. at Swarthmore College, where one of his teachers encouraged him to study cultures outside his own. Although during his later years Linton would some-times be criticized for not supporting his theoretical statements with empirical evidence, from the beginning he was anything but an armchair anthropologist. As an undergraduate, Linton interspersed his course work with (prehistoric) archaeological excursions to New Mexico, Colorado, New Jersey, and Guatemala.
Linton earned an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916. He married his first wife, Josephine Foster, that same year and then went on to study at Columbia. When World War I broke out, and in violation of the pacifist principles by which he was raised, he left Columbia to join the army and saw combat in France. This caused him to be banned from attending “Friends Meetings” (the Quaker equivalent of “church”). After the war, Linton returned to America and married his second wife, Margaret Mcintosh, with whom he had one child. He then spent several years doing fieldwork in Polynesia, eventually leading to the publication of The Material Culture of the Marquesas Islands (1923).
His experiences in Polynesia represented a turning point for Linton. Realizing that he preferred interacting with living people to digging for artifacts, he shifted his focus from archaeology to anthropology. in 1922, Linton became assistant curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, a position he held until 1928. He undertook an expedition to Madagascar for the museum in 1925, and for years thereafter he did a great deal of traveling on that island and in East Africa, managing to finish his Ph.D. at Harvard University around the same time (1925).
Linton’s academic career began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he accepted a professor’s position there in 1928. In 1934, after his second marriage ended in divorce, he married Adelin Sumner Briggs. It was at Wisconsin that Linton published what he considered to be his most important work. The Study of Man (1936) was an attempt to integrate diverse perspectives and findings in anthropology and related fields into one coherent treatise. Linton explicitly intended the book as a primer for beginning students, and it was used as an introductory text by anthropology departments for a period of time. The Study of Man ran the gamut of relevant topics, including human origins, formation of culture, basic social institutions, the birth of states from tribes, and personality. Praised for the qualities he intended, the book was also criticized for Linton’s failure to fully document many assertions.
Linton became a professor at Columbia in 1937, where he collaborated with Abram Kardiner, among others, to develop a new treatment of personality by anthropology (basic and modal personality structure theory). After coauthoring key works on the topic with Kardiner, Linton broke with his colleague and wrote The Cultural Background of Personality (1945), which reflected his independent take on the subject. In this book, Linton attempted to synthesize ideas from anthropology and personality psychology, and to a lesser extent sociology, toward the purpose of understanding the reciprocal relationship between culture and personality. He discussed several concepts for which he is known today, including status personalities and value-attitude systems. Linton’s drive toward synthesis in The Cultural Background of Personality included a conscious attempt to create a standardized terminology for the fields in question.
The break with Kardiner illustrates the irony that Linton found he could live easily among the various cultures he studied, yet he experienced difficulties with relationships in his personal and professional life. In addition to being married three times, his tense rapport with colleagues sometimes turned stormy. Another colleague with whom Linton often butted heads was Ruth Benedict, who resented being passed over in favor of him as department head at Columbia. Ultimately, Linton left the university altogether over his academic disagreement with Kardiner.
In 1946, Linton was appointed Sterling Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, where he would finish his academic career. He died in New Haven, Connecticut, after a long period of health problems. His final book, Tree of Culture (1957), was written during his tenure at Yale but was published posthumously. Completed by Linton’s wife from materials and instructions left by her husband, the book relies greatly on a broad sampling of specific cultures studied by the author over his lifetime. Like The Study of Man, Tree of Culture was an attempt at grand synthesis. Culture, Linton argued, is a tree that grows not in the linear sense but rather more in the manner of the tropical “banyan tree,” the branches of which send roots back down into the ground, eventually to become trunks themselves. Tree of Culture was both criticized and praised for the same reasons as was The Study of Man. Indeed, a related criticism was that the books were not terribly different. Perhaps it would be best to say that Linton’s final work reflected the man himself—courageous, engaging, and, even if not perfectly pleasing to his colleagues, stimulating throughout for the intended audience.
- Linton, R. (1945). The cultural background of personality. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Linton, R. (1957). Tree of culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Linton, A., & Wagley, C. (1971). Ralph Linton. New York: Columbia University Press.