Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences The University of Alabama

Dr. M.D. Murphy



(note: authorship is arranged stratigraphically with the most recent author listed first)

Basic Premises

The study of culture and personality seeks to understand the growth and development of personal or social identity as it relates to the surrounding social environment (Barnouw 1963:5).  In other words, through the examination of individual personalities, broader correlations and generalizations can be made about the specific culture of those members.  This has led to examinations of national character, modal personality types and configurations of personality.

 The field of culture and personality draws on psychology and anthropology.  Born out of Freud's psychoanalysis, anthropologists began searching for common aspects that would characterize differing peoples by their cultures.  In an attempt to avoid racist, hierarchical culture models, a new breed of anthropologists sought to describe cultures based on the individuals within a society and the similarities that that shared.

Points of Reaction

Anthropology in its fledgling years in the mid to late nineteenth century attempted to apply the theories of Charles Darwin to every aspect of human study.  Therefore, in accordance to the colonial practices of that time, anthropologists viewed the differences between human cultures as a series of stages within an evolving schema. This led to a system that rather than described differences between cultures, enforced notions of "civilized" versus "primitive".  In this sense the Western European influenced cultures were deemed to most "civilized" whereas other North American, African, and Asian tribes, bands, and peoples were determined to be inferior, or "primitive".

Under these terms, a German-born Jewish anthropologist sought to change the previous notion.  Thus, Franz Boas changed the course of culture studies from an hierarchical, evolutionary system, to one that promoted equivalence of man and his social institutions.  Boas began an aggressive study of the vanishing Native American tribes that existed prior to their displacement by the Europeans.  In fact, Boas coined the defintion for "culture" in the sense that we use it today, the collection of a specific people characterized by their own societies and institutions (Goodenough 1996:292). 

Leading Figures

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)  Freud was one of the first psychologist to break down the barrier between anthropology and psychology.  Best known for his psycholoanalysis, Freud saw the traumas of childhood refected in the neuroses of adults.  He established the Oedipus complex as a universal story in which the son, jealous of his father's attentions on his mother, entertains hostility towards the father and develops an erotic attachment to his mother.  This desire is felt among all men; yet is buried by repression and then resurfaces in the actions of adulthood.  Freud's psychoanalysis was an attempt to uncover the repressed childhood traumas through a series of word associations, dream analyses, and free-flow talking.  His best known anthropological work is Totem and Taboo (1905).  In this book, Freud provides an insightful description of taboos and their origination; yet his theory on the origin of totems is somewhat speculative.

Edward Sapir (1884-1939)   A close colleague of Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir was recognized for his great accomplishments in linguistics, studying and ascribing the grammatical rules for differing Amerindian languages.  Sapir studied under the tutelage of Franz Boas and later Alfred Kroeber, another of Boas's students.  Influenced by the writings of Karl Jung, Sapir began pursuing the relevance of psychology to anthropology helping to found the culture and personality approach.  Insistance upon the importance of the person led to the shift of anthropologists from thinking in the evolutionary terms of Lewis Henry Morgan to conceptualizing the differences between simple and complex man.  Sapir was also heavily influenced in the utilization of psychotherepy as a technique to better understand individuals (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:141).

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)  A student of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict finished her doctoral work in three years at Columbia University.  Her dissertation on documenting the rapidly deteriorating Native American societies provided the impetus to pursue culture and personality studies.  Through her work on the patterning of culture at an individual level, Benedict opened anthropology into a much larger discussion between the disciplines of anthropology and psychology.  In her more famous monograph, Patterns of Culture, Benedict seeks to define various cultures in terms of four types Apollonian, Dionysian, Paranoid and Meglomanic.  These represented ways of living, or cultural configurations (Bernard and Spencer 1996:137).  Benedict admits that not all cultures will fit into these four types; however, she uses these types to characterize the Pueblo, Plains Indians, Dobu Islanders, and Kwakuital (in that order).  Another famous work by Benedict is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).  This monograph was based on the national character of Japan; however, Benedict, herself, never visited Japan.  Instead, she gathered material for her monograph from her readings of Japanese life and interviews of Japanese immigrants (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:174).  Benedict's approach to studying culutres centered on the ethos or the characteristic moral, aesthetic, and emotional tones of specific cultures).

Margaret Mead (1901-1978) A student of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead also investigated the relationship between culture and personality.  Her monograph Coming of Age in Samoa (1949) established her as one of the leading anthropologists of the day.  Starting as a configurationalist, Mead also wrote about national character.  Hired in World War II by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Mead researched the national character of England and compared it to that found within the United States.  She determined that in each society the norms for interaction between the sexes differed, leading to many misunderstandings between the two otherwise similar cultures.

Abram Kardiner (1891-1981)   A developer of the basic personality structure approach, Kardiner was a psychoanalyst who argued, along with Ralph Linton, that while culture and personality were similarly integrated, a specific casual relationship existed between them (Toren 1996:143).  He and Linton criticized the configurationalist approach as being too broad and vague.  Instead, he put forth his own theory- the basic personality structure.  In this, he distiguished between primary institutions (those which produce the basic personality structure) and secondary institutions (those which are the product of basic personality itself).  Examples of primary institutions are those things which are a product of adaptation within an environment, such as housing, family types, descent types, etc.  Secondary intitutions, on the other hand, include social organization technology, and child training practices; these are manifested through religion and other social practices.

Ralph Linton (1893-1953)  Ralph Linton was a co-founder of the basic personality structure theory.  He sought to establish a basic personality for each culture.  Linton devoted the majority of his studies to collecting ethnographies of Melanesians and Amerindians.  He eventuall replaced Boas as head of the Anthropology department at Columbia University, causing much friction with Ruth Benedict who believed the position should have been hers.
Linton provided additional influence in Cora DuBois's work.

Cora DuBois (1903- )  The creator of the modal personality structure, DuBois was heavily influenced by the work of Abram Kardiner and Ralph Linton.  Her experience as an ethnographer and psychologist provided a valuable link in the chain of thought of the culture and personality school.  DuBois modified the Kardiner and Linton's notion of basic personality structure with her modal personality theory.  She assumed that a certain personality structure occurs most frequently within a society, but that it is not necessaryily common to all members of that society.  She applied a number of approaches to her works, such as participant observation, projective tests (the Rorschach and TAT, espescially), and life biographies (Toren 1996:144).

Key Works

  • Benedict, Ruth (1934) Patterns of Culture.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950) Totem and Taboo.  New York: Norton.
  • DuBois, Cora (1960) The People of Alor.  Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Hsu, Francis (1961) Psychological Anthropology: Approaches to Culture and
        Personality.  Homewood Illinois: Dorsey Press.
  • Kardiner, Abram and Ralph Linton (1939)  The Individual and his Society.  New York:
        Columbia University Press.
  • ------ et. al. (1945) The Psychological Frontiers of Society.  New York: Columbia
        University Press.
  • Linton, Ralph (1945)  The Cultural Background of Personality.  New York: Appleton-
  • Sapir, Edward (1949)  Culture, Language, and Personality.  Berkeley: Language
        Behavior Research Laboratory.
  • Wallace, Anthony (1970)  Culture and Personality.  New York: Random House.

Principal Concepts

Basic Personality Stucture Approach:  This approach was developed jointly by Abram Kardiner and Ralph Linton in response to the Configurationalist approach.  Kardiner and Linton did not believe that culutre types were adequate for differentiating societies.  Instead, they offered a new approach which looked at individual members within a society and then compared the traits of these members in order to achieve a basic personality for each culture (Toren 1996:144).

Configurational Approach:  Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict developed this school of thought early in the culture and personality studies.  The configurationalist approach believes that culture takes on the character of the members' personality structure.  Thus, all members of a culture display similar personalities that can further be collected as a form of types.  Also, patterns within a culture are linked by symbolism and interpretation.  Therefore, through a system of common ideas and beliefs a culture can be defined.  Finally, individuals are integral components of culture and should therefore by studied on the individual level in order to glean more about the people as a whole (Bock 1982:44).

Gestalt psychologists:  The early influence that led to the configurationalist approach.  These were the psychologists who argued that information should be collected in the form of patterns, rather than as separate elements.  This German school of thought entered scholarly circles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bock 1982:146)

Modal Personality Approach:  This was the brain child of Cora DuBois  who developed the approach in response to the criticisms of her earlier work that included basic personality structures.  DuBois, heavily influenced by Kardiner, brought a new level of competency to culture and personality structures.  Modal personality assumes that a certain personality structure is the most frequently occurring structure within a society, not necessarily the structure that is the most common to all members of that society.  This approach utilizes projective tests in addition to life histories creating a stronger basis for personality types due to the use of statistics to backup the conclusions (Toren 1996:145).

National Character:  These studies began in full earnest during and after World War II as a pet project of the Office of the Secret Service.  Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead led this new attempt to understand different peoples.  Through Mead's study of the British, she learned that English women were reliant upon young male's self-control and were conditioned to not have to quiet the men's urges.  On the other hand, American society held the belief that women should exert their self control over the men's urges.  Once this difference in the two societies was realized, then attempts to avoid further misunderstandings was enacted (Singer 1964).

Additionally, Ruth Benedict wrote a monograph The Chrysanthemum and the Sword on the Japanese culture based Japanese writings and interviews with Japanese immigrants.  However, this was not very well received by the Japanese because she did not study them first hand.  Her research was based on secondary sources and thus seems to have been biased and/or unfounded.  Ironically, however, much of her work has been validated (Bock 1982).


Clinical Interviews  Clinical interviews combine a psychologist/anthropologist with a member of the society.  Through a variety of methods, whether passive such as through dream analysis and free association or active such as pointed questions that lead to probing answers, the professional is able to record and attempt to understand the internal thoughts and motivations of an individual within a society.  These interviews are usually conducted in a specific room or office (Klineberg 1954:33).

Dream Analysis  A part of Freud's psycholoanalysis, dream analysis attempts to seek out the repressed emotions of a person by peeling back the subconscious.  This is accomplished through the discussion of the person's dreams.

Life Histories  The documenting of an individual's experiences throughout his/her life.  Used especially by Cora DuBois, members of the Modal Personality Approach and ethnographers.

Participant Observation  This occurs once a member of another culture lives with the society he/she is studying and takes an active role within that community.  This is an important part of the ethnographer's research because it aids in discovering the intricate behaviors of a society.

Projective Tests  These are tests which have an ambiguous meaning so that the response a person gives can be measured and then compared to other responses leading to the increased use of statistics to support findings.  One common test is the Rorschach inkblot test which has a number of different inkblots.  From these an individual must describe what he/she sees and this perception is then compared throughout the society.  Again, these are a common method for researchers using the Modal Personality Approach.

Culture and personality structures have greatly limited the number of racist, hierarchical descriptions of culture types that were common in the early part of this century.  Through these studies, a new emphasis on the individual emerged, thus linking anthropology with psychology.  From this bridge a wealth of information has been shared and distributed across disciplines.  This had added to the amount of knowledge on either side as studies from different schools have been compared and analyzed.  Added emphasis has been placed on learning about societal behaviors within cultures, and this work has aided foreigners understanding of alien cultures that they are visiting or relocating to.  Government workers and service men have been briefed on the customs of various cultures before they are themselves immersed in the new culture.  Through culture and personality studies we have begun to realize that humans are basically the same and that we as a whole are evolving instead of a series of evolving stages.


Culture and Personality came under the heavy scrutiny of Radcliffe-Brown and other British social anthropologists.  They dismissed this view due as a 'vague abstraction' (Barnard and Spencer 1996:140).  Before 1960 the opposite of culturalist would have been structuralist.  However, as an exception, Claude Levi-Strauss viewed culture as having distinguishing features which would characterize differing cultures from each other.  This was perhaps influenced by his close friendship with Franz Boas.


  • Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer (1996)  "Culture" Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural
    Anthropology.  London: Routledge.
  • Barnouw, Victor (1963) Culture and Personality.  Homewood Illinois: Dorsey Press.
  • Benedict, Ruth (1934) Patterns of Culture.  New York: Mentor.
  • Benedict, Ruth (1946) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Bock, Phillip (1980) Rethinking Psychological Anthropology.  New York: W. H.
    Freeman and Co.
  • Bohannan, Paul and Mark Glazer  (1988) High Points in Anthropology.  New York:
    Alfred A. Knopf.
  • DuBois, Cora (1961) The People of Alor.  New York: Harper Row.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950) Totem and Taboo.  New York: Norton.
  • Goodenough, Ward H. (1996)  "Culture"  Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology.  New
    York: Henry Holt.
  • Honigman, John J. (1954) Culture and Personality.  New York: Harper and Brothers.
    Hsu, Francis L. K. (1954) Aspects of Culture and Personality.  New York: Abelard
  • Hsu, Francis L. K. (1961) Psychological Anthropology.  Homewood Illinois: Dorsey
  • Mead, Margaret (1949)  Coming of Age in Samoa.  New York: Mentor.
  • Singer, Milton (1964) "A Survey of Culture and Personality Theory and Research."
    In Studying Personality Cross-Culturally.  New York: Elmsford.
  • Toren, Christina (1996) "Culture and Personality"  Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural
     Anthropology.  London: Routledge.
  • Wallace, Anthony (1970) Culture and Personality.  New York: Random House.

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