Culture and Personality School

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A development in the study of socialization that arose principally in the United States in the 1930s. The theory combined elements of psychology, anthropology, and sociology, but principally involved the application of psychoanalytic principles to ethnographic material. Drawing on Freudian theory (see Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, 1930), it emphasized the cultural moulding of the personality and focused on the development of the individual. Culture-and-personality theorists argued that personality types were created in socialization, and they placed particular emphasis on child-rearing practices such as feeding, weaning, and toilet training. The perspective is best demonstrated in the work of anthropologists such as Gregory Bateson, Ruth Benedict, Geoffrey Gorer, and Margaret Mead. Mead, in particular, has become associated with the main tenet of the School: that different cultures (or societies) produce different personality types as a result of different socialization practices. Her controversial findings—notably that sex roles are culturally rather than biologically determined—influenced a generation of American sociologists to re-examine their cultural assumptions about the roles of men and women in society.

Numerous other studies offer variations on this theme. In The Psychological Frontiers of Society (1945), Abram Kardiner looked at the way in which personality types are present in cultural patterns. Kardiner and his colleagues argued that religion and politics are screens on to which the basic personality-orientation of a society is projected. In ‘Anthropology and the Abnormal’ (Journal of General Psychology, 1934), Ruth Benedict examined social deviance, and drew attention to the fact that a highly valued personality type in one society may be considered deviant in another. She argued that different societies have different means for dealing with whatever behaviour is considered abnormal—and that this changes over time.

The Culture and Personality School was particularly important in the wartime National Character Studies, undertaken in an attempt to understand the character (and hence the strategies) of the Axis Powers, one result of which was Benedict's classic account of the Japanese, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). Mead's parallel account of the United States was published as And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942). After 1950 greater emphasis was placed on the use of statistics in demonstrating connections between child-rearing practices, personality, and culture. Thus, in Child Training and Personality (1953), John Whiting and Irving Child used a large cross-cultural sample to show the alleged connection between experiences of early childhood and systems of curing illness.

In the post-war period, the School came increasingly to be criticized for exaggerating the congruence of personality types within any given society; for ignoring the significance of relationships that exist between cultures; and, most seriously, for reifying culture rather than viewing it as a social construction. It also proved difficult to demonstrate the connections between early child-rearing practices and later adult personality traits. Culture-and-personality studies have little currency in contemporary anthropology and sociology, even in the United States, to which their influence has mostly been confined. The influence of the School has not, however, entirely disappeared.

Subjects: Sociology.

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