“Culture and personality” has been perhaps the most mythologized and misunderstood of American anthropology’s interdisciplinary endeavors. Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, the two anthropologists most closely associated with “cultural and personality,” have often been understood to equate culture with personality.
While views of this sort are common, there is little, if any, evidence in Mead’s writings or papers supporting such contentions; Mead used the rubric seldom, and then descriptively rather than methodologically. Despite clearly articulated differences in temporal scale, at best Benedict’s writings show an analogy between personalities and cultures. Furthermore, such views are not easily reconciled with Benedict’s and Mead’s differing concepts of deviance.
Lawrence Frank, a sociologist at the Rockefeller Foundation, seems to have coined the phrase “culture and personality” for an interdisciplinary conference Mead attended in Hanover, New Hampshire, during the summer of 1934. Nonetheless, in April 1935, Mead wrote to John Dollard that Frank’s phrasing seemed “ridiculous.” In a 1946 overview of the cultural study of personality, Mead held that the “and” that had been used to join the two distinct subjects had introduced a number of “methodological embarrassments.”
Instead of “culture and personality,” Mead preferred to discuss the “individual in culture.” As early as 1928, her work was replete with discussions of named individuals living in specified, described societies. Mead taught a seminar entitled “The Study of the Individual in Culture” in 1935. This emphasis upon the individual in culture should rightly be traced back to Edward Sapir.
In 1925, Sapir sought to keep Mead from undertaking research in Samoa, and she, equally resolutely, went off to her first fieldwork. This falling-out between Sapir and Mead along with Benedict continues to influence the development of psychological anthropology. To the extent that the writing of the history of anthropology is closely tied to the work of A. Irving Hallowell, this falling-out has also shaped anthropology’s useable past.
Hallowell was an associate of Sapir’s. His assessments of the field largely ignored Mead’s contributions; Mead was not among those invited to contribute to a volume edited by Hallowell, among others, dedicated to Sapir’s memory. Concomitantly, Mead elided the contributions of Hallowell, as well as others of Sapir’s students and protegees, in her 1946 encyclopedia article.
In 1917, Sapir responded to A. L. Kroeber’s essay “The Superorganic,” wondering whether anthropology required such an idea at all. But if culture is not superorganic, as Hegel’s Spirit and Durkheim’s Society are, then the psychological processes of cultural life only arise as real (that is, organically singular or individual) people live and act together. Those individuals influence the course of their cultures, even as that culture will be for them genuine or spurious in Sapir’s terms (i.e., emotionally sustaining or not).
In bringing the notion of the individual in culture to the fore, Sapir also transformed the meaning of the term psychological. Previously, American anthropology had used the term psychological to describe cultures considered synchronically rather than historically. After Sapir, it became possible to think of cultures and personal or dynamic psychologies together.
Primarily a linguist, Sapir felt that for human beings, language was the “medium of expression for their society.” Their specific language was not merely a means of communication or reflection, but rather an essential means to their adjustment to the world and to social activity; languages, as both signs and phonemes, were psychological realities. Hence, as languages differed, so too psychologies could differ. Benjamin Lee Whorf would subsequently develop this line of Sapir’s reasoning.
Besides his much praised linguistic work, Sapir’s outstanding contribution was to begin a critique of the concept of culture that attended to the psychological lives of individual people. In conjunction with Harry Stack Sullivan and Harold Lasswell, Sapir sought to bring anthropology, sociology, and psychology together in mutually informative ways, particularly through a series of conferences in Hanover funded by the Rockefeller Foundation; the conference Mead attended in 1934 followed from those Sapir had earlier taken part in.
In the summer of 1925, Sapir taught a seminar on the psychology of culture. He reprised this seminar several times at Yale before his death in 1939. Many who would later teach psychological anthropology were either Sapir’s students or the students of his students; as his interdisciplinary activities faded, these protegees and students became Sapir’s legacy.
The examples in Sapir’s lectures and essays on the subject may have come from his social milieu and that of his students, but Sapir did not provide explicit cultural context for the examples he used or use examples from other cultural worlds; these luminous works contain no real people living real lives in real cultures.
However, these lectures, like Sapir’s ostensible “last testament” on culture and personality, included attacks upon Benedict and Mead. According to Sapir, Mead and Benedict not only relied on too few persons but also conflated their informants’ subjective, even idiosyncratic, views of social interaction with broader cultural patterns.
Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead
Benedict and Mead were closely associated for many years; their respective work owed much to the other’s influence. This has contributed to a general tendency to treat these two as if they agreed on all or most matters, with Benedict’s work being largely more fashionable. It is equally important to understand how Benedict and Mead disagreed on two crucial topics: deviance and the open or closed set of possible configurations.
The term configuration was a translation of the German struktur, a technical term brought into the American intellectual world in 1925 with the translation of Kurt Koffka’s The Growth of the Mind, a classic of Gestalt, rather than idealist or behaviorist, psychology. For Koffka, such structures initially arose as the infant’s nervous system adapted itself to the wider world and its shifting stimuli through the infant’s active perceiving of that world. The structures themselves were organizations of apperception including both the perceiving individual and the stimulative world into a single whole not reducible to its parts.
Benedict first used the term configurations in the early 1930s. In Patterns of Culture of 1934, citing the Gestalt school, but not Koffka personally, Benedict dissented from earlier views of cultures as amorphous, anomalous sets of traits haphazardly brought together through diffusion. While not a foregone conclusion, some cultures succeeded in transforming a slight preference into a largely integrated, articulated whole not reducible to the selected traits. In ways analogous to persons, cultures tended to select from the traits available to them, making use of some and not others; here, Benedict prefigured Claude Levi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage.
As Clyde Kluckhohn noted, Benedict was not so much interested in inductive analysis of a given society as in using behavioral details illustratively, to exemplify a configuration and its influence on local life or as a counterpart to an ideal pattern. As such, common criticisms of Benedict that took her to be writing about invariant patterns of behavior were inapt.
Benedict intended her four descriptive terms— apollonian Hopi, dionysian Plains Amerindians, paranoid Dobuans, and megalomaniac Kwakiutl— to sum up her expositions. While she borrowed the terms apollonian and dionysian from Friedrich Nietzsche, Benedict’s Hopi and Plains accounts were largely based on her own researches; she used materials from the work of Reo Fortune and Franz Boas for the Dobuans and the Kwakiutl, respectively.
Not all the behavior manifest in a given society necessarily accorded well with that society’s accepted standards, whether that society was well integrated or otherwise. From the vantage of a particular society, such discordant, unacceptable behavior was deviant; those who behaved in deviant fashions locally understood could often be subject to stigmas locally applied. Benedict’s best-known example compared homosexuality in the West of her day and the berdache, men who dressed and lived as women, among some Amerindian groups.
Where Benedict’s notion of deviance concerned discordant, unacceptable behavior at odds within a specific cultural gestalt, Mead’s notion, though often expressed behaviorally, concerned personalities at odds temperamentally or characterologically with the ethos of a given society.
Neither Benedict nor Mead gave any indication that deviance or its local contraries were statistical matters; nor did Mead, in particular, understand either neurosis or psychosis as deviation from a society’s statistical norms. Their notions must be distinguished from other ideas such as A. F. C. Wallace’s understanding of a modal personality and Abram Kardiner’s notion of a culturally basic personality structure. Whatever the theoretical problems posed for Wallace by the presence of multiple modal personalities among the Tuscarora, to Mead or Benedict, Wallace’s Tuscarora would likely have appeared as a not terribly well-integrated society.
Benedict repeatedly commented upon the sheer variability of elements upon which one society or another could elaborate an integrated pattern. Where Benedict perceived endless combinations, however, Mead’s thought concerned a limited set of types.
Both approaches allowed for a rigorously comparative anthropology. Strictly speaking, however, Mead and Benedict were not comparing quite the same phenomena. Benedict’s patterns were akin to Oswald Spengler’s destiny ideas or Wilhelm Dilthey’s notion of Weltanschauung: a worldview that is also a philosophy of or feeling for life. Such a view is psychological insofar as it implies a human interiority. But Benedict’s was neither a particularly nor necessarily dynamic psychology. Where Mead had little feel for what Bateson called eidos, or the structure of ideas, Benedict similarly had little feel for Freudian and neo-Freudian genetic psychologies organized around a set of stages, focused upon some portion of the body and the individual’s mode of engagement therewith.
Both Mead and Benedict have been criticized for empirical lapses. Similarly, some have held that deviance was effectively a catchall category into which anything that did not fit their analyses could be consigned. These latter views largely ignore or misrepresent Benedict’s and Mead’s understanding of deviance arising integrally out of local social concerns.
Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson
For Sapir, no amount of familiarity with the psychological literature could undo the flaws in Mead’s work.
Mead received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology. She was trained in many aspects of psychology, including the development of psychological tests, before she took up anthropology. Late in life, Mead thought she had remained within psychology’s ambit ever after.
Many of the ideas she developed derived from the psychology of her student years. She reworked William McDougall’s notions of temperament (innate, heritable constitutional predisposition) and character (the pattern of learned habits developed over a lifetime). Mead remained particularly fond of June Etta Downey’s idea of load (psychological inertia) and freedom therefrom. These ideas are no longer familiar to many psychologists and were perhaps never that familiar to most anthropologists.
Mead was a dedicated, methodologically innovative fieldworker; she undertook studies in Samoa, Manus, among the Omaha, in New Guinea among the Arapesh, Mundugumour (now Biwat), and Tchambuli (now Cambri), as well as in Bali and among the Iatmul, all initially between 1925 and 1939. Her Omaha study was perhaps the first ethnography to portray a North American Native society as largely broken in the wake of its colonial encounter; her New Guinea ethnographies introduced the notion of the “Big Man” and portrayed several peoples as part of a larger mythoceremonial order: the tamberan. Mead’s and Gregory Bateson’s Balinese and Iatmul researches of 1936 to 1939 made greater use of photography than any others to that date, while integrating those materials, more conventional field notes, and both Balinese and Iatmul language texts into an unusually extensive and deep body of ethnographic materials.
Perhaps influenced by Boas’s resistance to grand theory, the young Mead sought more to test psychological ideas in various cultural contexts than to debunk them. Mead’s early fieldtrips to Samoa and Manus involved explorations against the background of work by G. Stanley Hall on adolescence, as well as Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget on the purported similarities between the mentality of primitives and children. Mead thought the Freudians and neo-Freudians largely correct about psychological mechanisms but that these mechanisms were much more variable than the psychoanalysts imagined. She explicitly rejected any equation of culture with the superego, but had praise for Geza Roheim’s work among Australian Aborigines.
Mead and Bateson began developing their unpublished theory of the so-called squares while among the Tchambuli during March of 1933. The terms of that hypothesis organized the arguments in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies of 1935, a book better known now for its discussion of gender avant la lettre, the rationale for Mead’s and Bateson’s research among the Balinese and their restudy of the Iatmul between 1936 and 1939, as well as Balinese Character of 1942. Mead’s debt to Bateson’s epistemological concerns, contributions to learning theory as well as his evolving emphasis upon both the generative and destructive qualities of interactive encounters, manifest in his work on schismogenesis, steady states, and eventually double binds, should not be underestimated.
Mead and Bateson recognized four primary types of temperament, each constituting a pole of one of two axes. The two types opposite one another on a given axis were dialectically related to each other. One axis (in Mead’s diagrams running north to south) emphasized the qualities of relations with other people she termed “possessing” and “being possessed.” The other axis (running east to west) emphasized the individual’s relations with the broader world, or introversion and extroversion. They also recognized four intermediate types, each combining qualities of the adjoining primary types and dialectically related to its opposite. Perhaps following Erich Fromm, in some 1935 versions of the squares, Mead also distinguished a central position, which combined qualities of all the other types. Taken together, these types formed a structural set that Mead and Bateson utilized to compare and contrast individual temperaments as well as cultural ethoi.
For the Mead of this period, the individual’s personality was a temporary phenomenon arising within the conjunction of constitutional or temperamental inheritance each person receives from their direct ancestors, the operations of the so-called genetic process, the order and accidents of their upbringing, as well as the particular culture in which the person lived. In ways similar to Erik Erikson’s notions, Mead and Bateson understood the genetic processes generally characteristic of our species to unfold differently for people of differing temperaments in differing cultural environments. These divergent patterns of human development posed variable demands upon and difficulties for a person’s character, hence various life problems, especially for people of one temperament living in a culture whose ethos was more congruent with another temperament. Mead’s interest in and debts to the Gestalt psychologists are most apparent here.
Under some circumstances, a given society could stabilize a particular conjunction of temperament and character such that this conjunction provided an organizing pattern for emotional life in that society or, in Bateson’s terms, the society’s ethos. The society would have to be reasonably endogamous; problems posed by recessive genes, and their influence upon possible temperaments, would have to be limited; the population would have to have become well adapted to the local foods and diseases; the society would have to be able to withstand the economic and military threats posed by outsiders; new forms of knowledge and technological advances or their inverses would have to be more or less consistent with the preexisting social order.
For Mead, such stabilizations were fragile cultural achievements, easily disturbed as well as difficult to produce and reproduce. Any event, personal or more broadly societal, that affected the lives of adults affected the lives of the developing children those adults raised.
Mead explicitly disavowed any theory advancing a mechanical reduction of later adult character to local child-rearing practices. While the external techniques of child rearing prevalent in a given society (swaddling, premastication, and so forth) influenced the course of a child’s development, both its health and especially the attitude of the child’s caregivers were more important. In this sense, but with a firm recognition of temperament as an integral element of personality, Mead and Bateson agreed with Sapir that psychology arises only in the interactions of individuals.
Not all aspects of the phenomena postulated by the squares hypothesis were observable using ethnographic methods. The biology of the period did not as yet have an adequate theory or the methods necessary to contribute to any such study. As the America of the period was still largely legally segregated and racism was common, Mead, following the advice of both Benedict and Boas, chose not to publish their theory explicitly. This choice contributed greatly to the misunderstanding of Mead’s work, including Derek Freeman’s characterization of Mead as an extreme cultural determinist.
Sapir, Benedict, Mead, and Bateson were not the only anthropologists interested in psychological matters broadly conceived. W. H. R. Rivers, Bronislaw Malinowski, John Bayard, and the Seligmans all had psychological interests; the psychologist Frederick Bartlett had serious anthropological interests. Among the Americans, aside from those previously mentioned, John Whiting undertook a study of the Kwoma; Cora DuBois worked among the Alorese; Ralph Linton collaborated with Kardiner, DuBois, and Kluckhohn, though the Apache as described by Kluckhohn did not easily fit Kardiner’s models; Paul Radin translated works by Alfred Adler.
By the late 1940s, two volumes of readings on the subject had been brought out. But the rigors of professionalization and the differences between the disciplines Sapir and Frank had hoped to bring together began to tell. Sapir, Sullivan, and Benedict were dead, as were several of the major Gestalt psychologists. Bateson had left anthropology to work among schizophrenics, and eventually on animal communication. Mead was not teaching and had further become embroiled in misunderstandings attendant upon national character studies, especially Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman’s swaddling hypothesis. Melford Spiro and Harold Orlansky had written essays critical of the earlier work.
Sapir’s students and protegees were ascendant. Of these, Hallowell was probably the most important. In Hallowell’s hands, Sapir’s ideas and Koffka’s influences, reconfigured as “the behavioral environment of the self,” began to prefigure anthropological semiotics as he studied self and perception among the Ojibwa. Most of his work appeared well after the heyday of so-called culture and personality studies.
Bateson, and particularly his notion of eidos, would influence cognitive anthropology. Perhaps because her psychology largely concerned worldview without necessarily being dynamic, Benedict could appeal to the more semiotically minded. Like Sapir’s, Mead’s influence is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
- Bateson, G., & Mead, M. (1942). Balinese character. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
- Benedict, R. (1934). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Haring, D. G. (Ed.). (1956). Personal character and cultural milieu (3rd ed.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
- University Press.
- Kluckhohn, C., Murray, H. A., & Schneider, D. M. (1953). Personality in nature, society, and culture.
- (2nd ed.). New York: Knopf.
- Mandelbaum, D. G. (Ed.). (1949). Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture, and personality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Mead, M. (1946). The cultural approach to personality. In P. L. Harriman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology (pp. 477-488). New York: Philosophical Library.
- Spier, L., Hallowell, A. I., & Newman, S. S. (Eds.). (1941). Language, culture, and personality: Essays in memory of Edward Sapir. Menasha, WI: Sapir Memorial Publication Fund.