The guides to anthropological theories and approaches listed below have been prepared by graduate students of the University of Alabama under the direction of Dr. Michael D. Murphy.  As always, !Caveat Retis Viator! (Let the Net Traveller Beware!)

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Culture and Personality

Petrina Kelly and Xia Chao and Andrew Scruggs and Lucy Lawrence and Katherine Mcghee-Snow

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

Basic Premises:

The culture and personality movement was at the core of anthropology in the first half of the 20th century. It examined the interaction between psychological aspects of the individual and the overreaching culture. Culture and personality was too divided to really be considered a “school of thought.” It had no orthodox viewpoint, centralized leadership, or coherent training program (LeVine 2001); however, there were also some basic ideas that most practitioners would agree with. This would include: adult behavior as being “culturally patterned,” childhood experiences influencing the individual’s personality as an adult, and the adult personality characteristics influencing the cultural institutes such as religion (LeVine 2001). Theorists of culture and personality school argued that socialization creates personality patterns. It shapes a person’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors, cultural values and norms to fit into and function as productive members in the surrounding human society. The study of culture and personality wanted to examine how different socialization practices resulted in different personality types.

Culture and personality was one of the reactions against the 19th social evolution and diffusionism just as the functionalism school of Radcliff-Brown and Malinowski was. The views of Franz Boas and some his students (such as Ruth Benedict) argued against that of the early evolutionists, such as Louis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor, who believe each culture goes through the same hierarchical evolutionary system.

There is some debate on exactly how the field emerged. Some believe it developed from an interaction between anthropology and Freud’s psychoanalysis (Singer 1961). Robert A. LeVine (2001) puts the beginning 1918 with W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki publication “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.” Thomas and Zaniecki (1918) stated “when viewed as a factor of social evolution the human personality is a ground of the causal explanation of social happenings; when viewed as a product of social evolution it is causally explicable by social happenings.” 

The field developed more withlater work by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.  Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) provided “the first sustained consideration of the relation between personality and culture,” (Winthrop 1991:214). Culture and Personality reached a peak during the 1930s and 1940s and lost support after 1950. It was viewed as being unscholarly, and the few remaining practitioners changed the name to psychological anthropology to avoid the stigma (LeVine 2001). Modern psychological anthropology attempts to bridge the gap between anthropology and psychology by examining how cultures understand human identity and with “cross-cultural study of social, political, and cultural-historical constitution of the self” (Lindholm 2001). 


Points of Reaction:

Because of the lack of uniformity in the study of Culture and Personality, there were at least five different viewpoints when studying the interaction between culture and personality. This particular way of dividing the field was taken from LeVine in Culture, Behavior and Personality (1982).

Perhaps the most recognizable view was used by Ruth Benedict, Margret Mead, and Geoffrey Gore. It was known as the configuration approach and combined the Boasian idea of cultural relativism with psychological ideas (LeVine 1982:53). It took the stance that the culture and personality were so interconnected that they could not be viewed separately. Often this view is criticized as exaggerating the consistency of the culture and avoiding particulars. Benedict specifically was criticized as being too humanistic and not using enough quantitative data.

A second view was that anti-culture-personality relationship. This view held that there was no need to discuss an individual’s psyche. In this view, humans have developed adapted responses to the environmental conditions in order to survive. “Personality types or traits have a single normal distribution replicated in each human society” (LeVine 1982:45). A third view is psychological reductionism. This involved looking at individual psychological aspects as the cause of social behavior. Freud and those who followed him were contenders of this view. Overall, it seems to have gotten the least amount of attention or followers in Culture and Personality.

The last two views, personality mediation and two-systems, are the only two that theories maintained in contemporary anthropology (LeVine 1982:59). Personality mediation was developed by Abram Kardiner, a psychoanalyst, with Ralph Linton, an anthropologist. It theorizes that the environment affects the primary institutions, like the subsistence and settlement patterns, of a society. This, in turn, affects the basic personality structure which then affects the secondary institutions, such as religion. Personality becomes an intervening variable. This view reconciled sociological and cultural approached with that of psychological reductionism.

The two-systems view was developed by Inkeles and Levinson and Melford Spiro. It held that culture and personality interact and balance one another. Spiro specifically was interested “in the ways in which personality affects the operations of the sociocultural system” (LeVine 1981:59). Culture and personality are viewed as aspects of a total field rather than as separate systems or even as legitimate analytical abstractions from data of the same order (Kluckhohn 1954: 685). In other words, culture and personality are interdependent and track along an interconnected curve. Culture influences socialization patterns, which in turn shapes some of the variance of personality (Maccoby 2000). Because of distinctive socialization practices in different societies, each society has unique culture and history. Based on this perspective, one should not assume universal laws govern how cultures run.

There has been recent renewed interest in the connection between culture and personality by the psychological anthropologists (Hofstede and McCrae  2004). There have been recent attempts made to make the techniques more operationalized and to relate personality back to all features of culture. Some of these anthropologists believe that personality trait levels are rooted genetics as more biological aspects have been taken into consideration.


Leading Figures:

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Freud was a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist and the most influential psychological theorist of 20th century. He coined the Oedipus complex in psychoanalytical theory. This was a universal phenomenon in which a group of unconscious feelings and ideas centered on the desire to possess the parent of the opposite sex and the harboring of hostility towards the parent of the same sex. Freud’s long-sustained interests in anthropology reflect in his anthropological work, Totem and Taboo.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) Erikson was a neo-Freudian, Danish-German-American psychoanalyst who was culture-oriented than other Freudians. He was known for his socio-cultural theory and its impact on human development. Erikson developed Freud’s five pscychosexual stages to eight stages of human socialization that were marked by an internal conflict. Erikson believed that the coherence of beliefs and values were very important in structuring personality and that frustrations during infancy were directly reflected in the religion and ritual of the culture (Lindholm 2001). 

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) Edward Sapir was born in Germany and came to the United States at age five. He was a close colleague of Ruth Benedict and studied under the tutelage of Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber. Sapir was recognized as one of the first to explore the relationship between language and anthropology. He perceived language as a tool in shaping human mind and described language as a verbal symbol of human relations. He was noted for exploring the connection among language, personality and social behavior and for the idea of culture best being understood as analogous to personality (Lindholm 2001).

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) Ruth Benedict was a student of Franz Boas at Columbia University. Her well-known contribution was to the configuration view of Culture and Personality. Like Boas, she believed that culture was the product of human choices rather than cultural determinism. Benedict conducted fieldwork among American Indians, contemporary European and Asian societies. Her key works, Patterns of Culture and the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, spread the importance of culture in individual personality formation. Patterns of Culture summarized Benedict's views on culture and has been one of the best-selling anthropological books. 

Margaret Mead (1901-1978) Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia. She was a student, a lifelong friend, and collaborator of Ruth Benedict. They both studied the relationship among the configuration of culture, socialization in each particular culture and individual personality formation. Mead's works explored human development in a cross-cultural perspective and covered topics on gender roles and childrearing in both American and foreign cultures. Her first work, Coming of Age in Samoa, was a best seller and built up Mead as a leading figure in cultural anthropology. The book described how individual development was determined by cultural expectations and was not biologically determined.

Abram Kardiner (1891-1981) Kardiner was born in New York City and was one of the founders of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. His contribution concerned the interplay of individual personality development and the situated cultures. He developed a psycho-cultural model for the relationship between child-rearing, housing and decent types in the different cultures. He distinguished primary institutions (e.g. child training, toilet behavior and family structure) and secondary institutions (such as religion and art). He explained that basic personality structures in a society influenced the personality types which further influenced the secondary institutions. He also was noted for studying the object relations and ego psychology in psychoanalysis. His interpretations were documented in The Individual and His Society (1939) and Psychological Frontiers of Society (1945).

Ralph Linton (1893-1953) Ralph Linton was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was one of the founders of the basic personality structure theory. He worked on ethnographies of Melanesians and American Indians and partnered with Abram Kardiner to develop the personality mediation view.

Cora Dubois (1903- 1991) Cora Dubois was born in New York City. She earned her M.A. degree in Columbia University and attended the University of Berkeley for her Ph. D degree. She was influenced by her mentor and collaborator Abram Kardiner in cross-cultural diagnosis and the psychoanalytic study of culture. Between 1937 and 1939, Dubois investigated the island of Alor (now Indonesia) using participant observation, detailed case studies, life-history interviews, and various personality tests. Based on her ethnographic and psychoanalytic study, she wrote the book entitled The People of Alor (1944). In this social-psychological study, she advanced the concept of modal personality structure. Cora Dubois stated that individual variation within a culture exists, and each culture shares the development of a particular type which might not exist in its individuals. In 1945, Cora Dubois, Abram Kardiner and Ralph Linton coauthored the book, the Psychological Frontiers of Society which consisted of careful descriptions and interpretations of three cultures (the Comanche culture, the Alorese culture, and the culture of an American rural community). It explained the basic personality formed by the diversity of subject matter in each culture.

Clyde Kluckhohn (1905- 1960) Clyde Kluckhohn was an American anthropologist and social theorist. He is noted for his long-term ethnographic work about the Navajo which resulted in two books, To the Foot of the Rainbow (1927) and Beyond the Rainbow (1933). He co-edited Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (1953) with Henry Murray which demonstrated the variety found within Culture and Personality.

Robert LeVine (1931-Present) Robert LeVine received his degree from the University of Chicago and has taught at Harvard University, University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. He has participated in field research in Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Nepal, Zambia, and Venezuela. He is known for keeping helping to revive psychological anthropology and has designed studies that can be applied to a wide variety of social context (Shweder 1999). 


Key Works:

Benedict, Ruth

1934 Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Benedict, Ruth

1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dubois, Cora

1960 The People of Alor. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University.

Erikson, Erik H.

1950 Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund

1913 The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Macmillan

Freud, Sigmund

1950 Totem and Taboo. New York: Norton.

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.

Kluckhohn, et. al.

1945 The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kluckhohn, C. and Murray, H.

1953 Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Linton, Ralph

1945 The Cultural Background of Personality. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Mead, Margaret

1928 Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow

Mead, Margaret

1935 Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.London: Routledge.

Sapir, Edward

1949 Culture, Language, and Personality. Berkeley: University of California

Spiro, Melford 

1951 Culture and personality; the natural history of a false dichotomy. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 14:19-40.

Wallace, Anthony

1961 Culture and personality. New York: Random.

Wallace, Anthony & Fogelson, Raymond

        1961 Culture and Personality.  Biennial Review of Anthropology, 2: 42-78


Principal Concepts:

Basic Personality Structure Approach This approach was developed jointly by Abram Kardiner and Ralph Linton in response to the configurational approach. Kardiner and Linton did not believe that culture types were adequate for differentiating societies. Instead, they offered a new approach which looks at individual members within a society and then compares the traits of these members in order to achieve a basic personality for each culture.

Configurational Approach Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict developed this school of thought early in the culture and personality studies. The configurational approach believed that culture takes on the character of the members' personality structure. Thus, members of a culture display similar personalities that are further collected as a form of types. Patterns within a culture would be linked by symbolism and interpretation. A culture was defined through a system of common ideas and beliefs, and individuals were considered an integral component of culture.

Cultural determinism The belief that accumulated knowledge, beliefs, norms and customs shape human thought and behavior. It is “any perspective which treats culture itself as determining the difference between peoples” (Barnard and Spencer 1996).  This is in contrast to biological aspects being the determining factor.

Ethnographic field research Study employs empirical data on a society and culture. Data should be collected through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied.

Gestalt theory The idea that phenomena need to be studied as whole units rather than in dissected parts (Barnard and Spencer 1996). This German school of thought entered scholarly circles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture and personality approaches.

Modal Personality Approach Modal personality assumes that a certain personality structure is the most frequently occurring structure within a society, but this does not necessarily mean that the structure is common to all members of that society. This approach utilizes projective tests in addition to life histories to create a stronger basis for personality types due to the use of statistics to backup the conclusions (Barnard and Spencer 1996). The concept was developed by cora DuBois. 

National Character These studies began during and after World War II. It 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 conditioned not to 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 (Singer 1961). Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946) was a national character study on the Japanese culture. Geoffery Gorer wrote The People of Great Russia in which he hypothesized that the Russian technique of swaddling their infants led them to develop personalities that are cold and distant. Most national character studies have been heavily criticized as being unanthropological for being too general and having no ethnographic field work incorporated.

Personality Personality is a configuration of cognitions, emotions and habits. Funder offered the specific definition of personality, “An individual’s characteristic pattern of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms—hidden or not—behind those patterns” (1997: 1-2).  In more modern studies, personality is determined by the trait approach, which assesses individual dispositions. An important turning point in the study of personality was the discovery of the Five-Factor Model, which divided the many descriptive personality words into five categories (Hofstede and McCrae 2004).



Clinical Interviews Through a variety of methods, the professional is able to record and attempt to understand the internal thoughts and motivations of an individual within a society. The interviews are usually conducted in a specific room or office. This is a method used more by psychoanalysts like Freud than other anthropologists

Dream Analysis This was a part of Freud's psychoanalysis and attempts to seek out the repressed emotions of a person by peeling back the subconscious. This is accomplished through discussion of an individual’s dreams. 

Life Histories The documentation of an individual's experiences throughout his life. It is most used by members of the Modal Personality Approach and ethnographers. For psychoanalysts, this aids in understanding the underlying reasons for actions in the same way that dream analysis would.

Person-centered Ethnography The term was first used by Robert I. Levy. It is an approach that draws interpretations from psychiatry and psychoanalysis to see how individuals relate and interact with the socio-cultural context.

Participant Observation This is a popular technique with anthropologists in which they spend a prolonged amount of time living with the culture he is studying. This involves a balancing act between watching and taking 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. Participant observation has been and is still used today by a wide variety of anthropologist.

Projective Tests These are personality tests which have an ambiguous meaning so that a person’s thoughts or emotions can be revealed. This can then be compared to other responses. One common test is the Rorschach inkblot test. In this test, an individual must describe what he sees and his perceptions are compared with other results from the society. These tests, however, are very influenced by Western thought which sometimes presents problems when used cross-culturally especially in non-Western cultures.



Culture and personality studies 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 and one of the first links between anthropology and psychology was made. From culture and personality, psychological anthropology developed which is small but still active today.



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). It was criticized as being unscientific and hard to disprove, and little evidence was given for the connection between child-rearing practices and adulthood personality traits. Benedict and Mead were critiqued for not considering individual variation within a culture and discussing the society as a homologous unit.



Sources and Bibliography:

Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer

1996 Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Routledge.

Benedict, Ruth

1934 Patterns of Culture. New York: Mentor.

Funder D.

1997 The Personality Puzzle. New York: Norton.

Hofstede and McCrae 

2004 Personality and Culture Revisited. Cross-Cultural Research. 38:1, 52-88

Lindholm, Charles

2001 Culture and Identity: The History, Theory, and Practice of Psychological Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill

LeVine, Robert A.

1982 Culture, Behavior, and Personality. New York: Aldine Publishing.

LeVine, R.A.

2001 Culture and Personality Studies 1918-1960. Journal of Personality. 69:6, 803-818

Singer, Milton

1961. A Survey of Culture and Personality Theory and Research. In Studying Personality Cross-Culturally. Bert Kaplan, ed. New York: Elmsford.

Shweder, Richard

1999 Encomium for Robert A. LeVine. Ethos. 27(2): 235-244

Thomas, W.I and Florian Znaniecki

1918 The Polish peasant in Europe and America. Chicago: University of Chicago

Maccoby E. E.

2000 Parenting and its effects on children: on reading and misreading behavior genetics. Annual Review Psychol.51:1-27

Wallace, Anthony

1970 Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

Winthrop, Robert

1991 Dictionary of concepts in cultural anthropology. New York: Greenwood Press


Relevant Web Links:

• Sigmund Freud

PBS Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents

Sigmund Freud Archieves

Sigmund Life and Works

• Erik Erikson

Childhood and Society

• Edward Sapir

Overview of Sapir


• Ruth Benedict

Configuration of Culture in North America

Google Book: Chrysanthemum and the Sword

The Vision in Plains Culture

• Margaret Mead

Footage of Mead

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies

Google Book: Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples

 • Abram Kardiner

Psychodynamics of Culture

• Cora Dubois

The People Of Alor

• Francis Hsu

Psychological anthropology; approaches to culture and personality


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