The Emergence of the Concept of Personality in a Study of Cultures[1]

OUR NATURAL interest in human behavior seems always to vacillate between what is imputed to the culture of the group as a whole and what is imputed to the psychic organization of the individual himself. These two poles of our interest in behavior do not necessarily make use of different materials; it is merely that the locus of reference is different in the two cases. Under familiar circumstances and with familiar people, the locus of reference of our interest is likely to be the individual. In unfamiliar types of behavior, such as running a dynamo, or with individuals who do not readily fit into the normal contexts of social habit, say a visiting Chinese mandarin, the interest tends to discharge itself into formulations which are cultural rather than personal in character. If I see my little son playing marbles I do not, as a rule, wish to have light thrown on how the game is played. Nearly everything that I observe tends to be interpreted as a contribution to the understanding of the child's personality. He is bold or timid, alert or easily confused, a good sport or a bad sport when he loses, and so on. The game of marbles, in short, is merely an excuse, as it were, for the unfolding of various facts or theories about a particular individual's psychic constitution. But when I see a skilled laborer oiling a dynamo, or a polished mandarin seating himself at the dinner table in the capacity of academic guest, it is almost inevitable that my observations take the form of ethnographic field notes, the net result of which is likely to be facts or theories about such cultural patterns as the running of a dynamo or Chinese manners.

Ordinarily one's interest is not so sharply defined. It tingles with both personal and cultural implications. There is no awareness of the constantly shifting direction of interest. Moreover, there is much of that confusion which attends all experience in its initial stages in childhood, when the significant personality is interpreted as an institution and every cultural pattern is merely a memory of what this or that person has actually done. Now and then, it is true, there arises in the flow of adult experience a certain intuition of what would be the significant eventual formulation, personal or cultural, of a given fragment of behavior. "Yes, that is just like John," or "But we mustn't make too much of this trifle. Presumably all Chinamen do the same thing under the circumstances"; are illustrative symbols for contrasting interpretations. Naturally the confusion of interests is one not merely of the mingling of directions but also of an actual transposition or inversion. A stubbornly individual variation may be misinterpreted as a cultural datum. This sort of thing is likely to happen when we learn a foreign language from a single individual and are not in a position to distinguish between what is characteristic of the language and what is peculiar to the teacher's speech. More often, perhaps, the cultural pattern, when significantly presented in experience, tends to allocate to itself a far too intimate meaning. Qualities of charm or quaintness, for instance, are notoriously dangerous in this regard and tend to be not so much personal as cultural data, which receive their especial contextual value from the inability of the observer to withhold a strictly personal interpretation.

What is the genesis of our duality of interest in the facts of behavior? Why is it necessary to discover the contrast, real or fictitious, between culture and personality, or, to speak more accurately, between a segment of behavior seen as cultural pattern and a segment of behavior interpreted as having a person-defining value? Why cannot our interest in behavior maintain the undifferentiated character which it possessed in early childhood? The answer, presumably, is that each type of interest is necessary for the psychic preservation of the individual in an environment which experience makes increasingly complex and unassimilable on its own simple terms. The interests connected by the terms culture and personality are necessary for intelligent and helpful growth because each is based on a distinctive kind of imaginative participation by the observer in the life around him. The observer may dramatize such behavior as he takes note of in terms of a set of values, a conscience which is beyond self and to which he must conform, actually or imaginatively, if he is to preserve his place in the world of authority or impersonal social

necessity. Or, on the other hand, he may feel the behavior as self-expressive, as defining the reality of individual consciousness against the mass of environing social determinants. Observations coming within the frame work of the former of these two kinds of participation constitute our knowledge of culture. Those which come within the framework of the latter constitute our knowledge of personality. One is as subjective or objective as the other, for both are essentially modes of projection of personal experience into the analysis of social phenomena. Culture may be psychoanalytically reinterpreted as the supposedly impersonal aspect of those values and definitions which come to the child with the irresistible authority of the father, mother, or other individuals of their class. The child does not feel itself to be contributing to culture through his personal interaction but is the passive recipient of values which lie completely beyond his control and which have a necessity and excellence that he dare not question. We may therefore venture to surmise that one's earliest configurations of experience have more of the character of what is later to be rationalized as culture than of what the psychologist is likely to abstract as personality. We have all had the disillusioning experience of revising our father and mother images down from the institutional plane to the purely personal one. The discovery of the world of personality is apparently dependent upon the ability of the individual to become aware of and to attach value to his resistance to authority. It could probably be shown that naturally conservative people find it difficult to take personality valuations seriously, while temperamental radicals tend to be impatient with a purely cultural analysis of human behavior.

It may be questioned whether a dichotomy which seems to depend so largely on the direction of one's interest in observed behavior can be an altogether safe guide to the study of behavior in social situations. The motivations of these contrasting directions of interest are unconscious, to be sure, yet simple enough, as all profound motivations must be. The study of culture as such, which may be called sociology or anthropology, has a deep and unacknowledged root in the desire to lose oneself safely in the historically determined patterns of behavior. The motive for the study of personality, which we may term indifferently social psychology or psychiatry, proceeds from the necessity which the ego feels to assert itself significantly. Both the cultural disciplines and the psychological disciplines are careful to maintain objective ideals, but it should not be difficult to see that neither the cultural pattern as such nor the personality as such, abstracted as both of these are from the directly given facts of experience, can, in the long run, escape from the peculiarly subtle subjectivism which is implicit in the definitions of the disciplines themselves. As preliminary disciplines, whose main purpose is to amass and critically sift data and help us to phrase significant problems of human behavior, they are of course invaluable. But sooner or later their obscure opposition of spirit must be transcended for an objectivity which is not merely formal and non-evaluative but which boldly essays to bring every cultural pattern back to the living context from which it has been abstracted in the first place and, in parallel fashion, to bring every fact of personality formation back to its social matrix. The problems herewith suggested are, of course, neither simple nor easy. The social psychology into which the conventional cultural and psychological disciplines must eventually be resolved is related to these paradigmatic studies as an investigation into living speech is related to grammar. I think few cultural disciplines are as exact, as rigorously configurated, as self-contained as grammar, but if it is desired to have grammar contribute a significant share to our understanding of human behavior, its definitions, meanings, and classifications must be capable of a significant restatement in terms of a social psychology which transcends the best that we have yet been able to offer in this perilous field of investigation. What applies to grammar applies no less significantly, of course, to the study of social organization, religion, art, mythology, technology, or any segment, large or small, or groups of segments which convenience or tradition leads us to carve out of the actual contexts of human behavior.

There is a very real hurt done our understanding of culture when we systematically ignore the individual and his types of interrelationship with other individuals. It is no exaggeration to say that cultural analysis as ordinarily made is not a study of behavior at all but is essentially the orderly description, without evaluation, or, at best, with certain implicit evaluations, of a behavior to be hereinafter defined but which, in the normal case is not, perhaps cannot be, defined. Culture, as it is ordinarily constructed by the anthropologist, is a more or less mechanical sum of the more striking or picturesque generalized patterns of behavior which he has either abstracted for himself out of the sum total of his observations or has had abstracted for him by his informants in verbal communication. Such a "culture," because generally constructed of unfamiliar terms, has an almost unavoidable picturesqueness about it, which suggests a vitality which it does not, as a matter of scrupulous psychological fact, embody. The cultures so carefully described in our ethnological and sociological monographs are not, and cannot be, the truly objective entities they claim to be. No matter how accurate their individual itemization, their integrations into suggested structures are uniformly fallacious and unreal. This cannot be helped so long as we confine ourselves to the procedures recognized as sound by orthodox ethnology. If we make the test of imputing the contents of an ethnological monograph to a known individual in the community which it describes, we would inevitably be led to discover that, while every single statement in it may, in the favorable case, be recognized as holding true in some sense, the complex of patterns as described cannot, without considerable absurdity, be interpreted as a significant configuration of experience, both actual and potential, in the life of the person appealed to. Cultures, as ordinarily dealt with, are merely abstracted configurations of idea and action patterns, which have endlessly different meanings for the various individuals in the group and which, if they are to build up into any kind of significant psychic structure, whether for the individual or the small group or the larger group, must be set in relation to each other in a complex configuration of evaluations, inclusive and exclusive implications, priorities, and potentialities of realization which cannot be discovered from an inquiry into the described patterns.

The more fully one tries to understand a culture, the more it seems to take on the characteristics of a personality organization. Patterns first present themselves according to a purely formalized and logically developed scheme. More careful explorations invariably reveal the fact that numerous threads of symbolism or implication connect patterns or parts of patterns with others of an entirely different formal aspect. Behind the simple diagrammatic forms of culture is concealed a peculiar network of relationships, which, in their totality, carve out entirely new forms that stand in no simple relation to the obvious cultural table of contents. Thus, a word, a gesture, a genealogy, a type of religious belief may unexpectedly join hands in a common symbolism of status definition. If it were the aim of the study of culture merely to list and describe comprehensively the vast number of supposedly self-contained patterns of behavior which are handed on from generation to generation by social processes, such an inquiry as we have suggested into the more intimate structure of culture would hardly be necessary. Trouble arises only when the formulations of the culture student are requisitioned without revision or criticism for an understanding of the most significant aspects of human behavior. When this is done, insoluble difficulties necessarily appear, for behavior is not a recomposition of abstracted patterns, each of which can be more or less successfully studied as a historically continuous and geographically distributed entity in itself, but the very matrix out of which the abstractions have been made in the first place. All this means, of course, that if we are justified in speaking of the growth of culture at all, it must be in the spirit, not of a composite history made up of the private histories of particular patterns, but in the spirit of the development of a personality. The complete, impersonalized "culture" of the anthropologist can really be little more than an assembly or mass of loosely overlapping idea and action systems which, through verbal habit, can be made to assume the appearance of a closed system of behavior. What tends to be forgotten is that the functioning of such a system, if it can be said to have any ascertainable function at all, is due to the specific functioning and interplays of the idea and action systems which have actually grown up in the minds of given individuals. In spite of the often assorted impersonality of culture, the humble truth remains that vast reaches of culture, far from being in any real sense "carried" by a community or a group as such, are discoverable only as the peculiar property of certain individuals, who cannot but give these cultural goods the impress of their own personality. With the disappearance of such key individuals, the tight, "objectified" culture loosens up at once and is eventually seen to be a convenient fiction of thought.

When the cultural anthropologist has finished his necessary preliminary researches into the overt forms of culture and has gained from them an objectivity of reference by working out their forms, time sequences, and geographical distribution, there emerges for him the more difficult and significant task of interpreting the culture which he has isolated in terms of its relevance for the understanding of the personalities of the very individuals from whom he has obtained his information. As he changes his informant, his culture necessarily changes. There is no reason why the culturalist should be afraid of the concept of personality, which must not, however, be thought of, as one inevitably does at the beginning of his thinking, as a mysterious entity resisting the historically given culture but rather as a distinctive configuration of experience which tends always to form a psychologically significant unit and which, as it accretes more and more symbols to itself, creates finally that cultural microcosm of which official "culture" is little more than a metaphorically and mechanically expanded copy. The application of the point of view which is natural in the study of the genesis of personality to the problem of culture cannot but force a revaluation of the materials of culture itself. Many problems which are now in the forefront of investigation sink into a secondary position, and patterns of behavior which seem so obvious or universal as not to be worthy of the distinctive attention of the ethnologist leap into a new and unexpected importance. The ethnologist may some day have to face the uncomfortable predicament of inquiring into such humble facts as whether the father is in the habit of acting as indulgent guide or as disciplinarian to his son and of regarding the problem of the child's membership inside or outside of his father's clan as a relatively subsidiary question. In short, the application of the personality point of view tends to minimize the bizarre or exotic in alien cultures and to reveal to us more and more clearly the broad human base on which all culture has developed. The profound commonplace that all culture starts from the needs of a common humanity is believed in by all anthropologists, but it is not demonstrated by their writings.

An excellent test of the fruitfulness of the study of culture in close conjunction with a study of personality would be provided by studies in the field of child development. It is strange how little ethnology has concerned itself with the intimate genetic problem of the acquirement of culture by the child. In the current language of ethnology culture dynamics seems to be almost entirely a matter of adult definition and adult transmission from generation to generation and from group to group. The humble child, who is laboriously orienting himself in the world of his society, yet is not, in the normal case, sacrificing his fortright psychological status as a significant ego, is somehow left out of account. This strange omission is obviously due to the fact that anthropology has allowed itself to be victimized by a convenient but dangerous metaphor. This metaphor is always persuading us that culture is a neatly packed up assemblage of forms of behavior handed over piecemeal, but without serious breakage, to the passively inquiring child. I have come to feel that it is precisely the supposed "givenness" of culture that is the most serious obstacle to our real understanding of the nature of culture and cultural change and of their relationship to individual personality. Culture is not, as a matter of sober fact, a "given" at all. It is so only by a polite convention of speech. As soon as we set ourselves at the vantage point of the culture-acquiring child, the personality definitions and potentials that must never for a moment be lost sight of, and which are destined from the very beginning to interpret, evaluate, and modify every culture pattern, sub-pattern, or assemblage of patterns that it will ever be influenced by, everything changes. Culture is then not something given but something to be gradually and gropingly discovered. We then see at once that elements of culture that come well within the horizon of awareness of one individual are entirely absent in another individual's landscape. This is an important fact, systematically ignored by the cultural anthropologist. It may be proper for the systematic ethnologist to ignore such pattern differences as these, but for the theoretical anthropologist, who wishes to place culture in a general view of human behavior, such an oversight is inexcusable. Furthermore, it is obvious that the child will unconsciously accept the various elements of culture with entirely different meanings, according to the biographical conditions that attend their introduction to him. It may, and undoubtedly does, make a profound difference whether a religious ritual comes with the sternness of the father's authority or with the somewhat playful indulgence of the mother's brother. We have not the privilege of assuming that it is an irrelevant matter how musical stimuli are introduced to the child. The fact that the older brother is already an admired pianist in the little household may act as an effective barrier to the development of interest in any form of musical expression. Such a child may grow up curiously obtuse to musical values and may be persuaded to think that he was born with a naturally poor ear and is therefore debarred from sharing in the blessings of one important aspect of the cultural life of the community.

If we take the purely genetic point of view, all the problems which appear in the study of culture reappear with a startling freshness which cannot but mean much for the rephrasing of these problems. Problems of symbolism, of superordination and subordination of patterns, of relative strength of emotional character, of transformability and transmissibility, of the isolability of certain patterns into relatively closed systems, and numerous others of like dynamic nature, emerge at once. We cannot answer any of them in the abstract. All of them demand patient investigation and the answers are almost certain to be multiform. We may suggest as a difficult but crucial problem of investigation the following: Study the child minutely and carefully from birth until, say the age of ten with a view to seeing the order in which cultural patterns and parts of patterns appear in his psychic world; study the relevance of these patterns for the development of his personality; and, at the end of the suggested period, see how much of the total official culture of the group can be said to have a significant existence for him. Moreover, what degree of systematization, conscious or unconscious, in the complicating patterns and symbolisms of culture will have been reached by this child? This is a difficult problem, to be sure, but it is not an impossible one. Sooner or later it will have to be attacked by the genetic psychologists. I venture to predict that the concept of culture which will then emerge, fragmentary and confused as it will undoubtedly be, will turn out to have a tougher, more vital, importance for social thinking than the tidy tables of contents attached to this or that group which we have been in the habit of calling "cultures."


  1.  Journal of Social Psychology, 5 (1934) : 408-415. Based on a paper presented to the National Research Council Conference on Studies in Child Development at Chicago on June 22, 1933.

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