Culture and Personality

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

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 and cultural forces at work on the human experience. 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 with which most practitioners would agree. At a minimum, these  would include:

  • adult behavior is “culturally patterned,”
  • childhood experiences influence  the individual’s personality as an adult, and
  • adult personality characteristics are reflected in  the cultural beliefs and social institutions, such as religion (LeVine 2001).

Most prominent  culture-and-personality theorists argued that socialization practices directly shape  personality patterns. The socialization process molds a person’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors, cultural values and norms, allowing the person, should the process work,  to fit into and function as productive members in the surrounding human society. The study of culture and personality  examined how different socialization practices resulted in different personality types.

Like the Functionalist schools of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, Culture and Personality was one of the reactions against 19th century social evolutionism and diffusionism.  Franz Boas and many of  his students (such as Ruth Benedict) argued against the views of the early evolutionists, such as Louis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor, who believe each culture goes through the same hierarchical evolutionary sequence.

There is some debate on exactly how the field of Culture and Personality emerged. Some believe it developed from an interaction between anthropology and Freud’s psychoanalysis (Singer 1961). Robert A. LeVine (2001) puts its beginnings with the publication in 1918 of W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki ‘s “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.” Thomas and Zaniecki (1918) stated  that “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 with later 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 began to lose support in the 1950s. It was viewed as being unscholarly, and the few remaining practitioners changed the name of their approach to psychological anthropology to avoid the stigma (LeVine 2001), but also to widen its scope. Modern psychological anthropology, among other pursuits,  attempts to bridge the gap between anthropology and psychology by examining the  “cross-cultural study of social, political, and cultural-historical constitution of the self” (Lindholm 2001).

Points of Reaction

In accounting for the lack of uniformity in the study of Culture and Personality, Robert LeVine, in Culture, Behavior and Personality (1982)  argues that there are five different perspectives characterizing the field.

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 intra-cultural variation.  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 psychology as the cause of social behavior. Freud and those who followed him were contenders for this view. Overall, it seems to have gotten the least amount of attention or followers in the Culture and Personality school.

According to LeVine  (1982:59), the last two views, personality mediation and two-systems perspective, are the only two approaches that survived into the 1980s. Personality mediation was developed by Abram Kardiner, a psychoanalyst, with Ralph Linton, an anthropologist. It posits that the environment affects the primary institutions, including  the subsistence and settlement patterns, of a society. These, in turn, affect the basic personality structure which then affects the secondary institutions, such as religion. Personality becomes an intervening variable. This view reconciled sociological and cultural approaches 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 a unique culture and history. Based on this perspective, one should not assume universal laws govern how cultures develop.

There has been recent renewed interest in the connection between culture and personality by some psychological anthropologists (Hofstede and McCrae  2004). T

Leading Figures

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Freud was a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist and the most influential psychological theorist of the 20th century. He famously identified the Oedipus complex which he regarded as a universal phenomenon in which unconscious feelings and ideas centered on the desire to possess the parent of the opposite sex and express  hostility towards the parent of the same sex. Freud’s long-sustained interests in anthropology are reflected in his anthropological work, most notably in Totem and Taboo.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) Erikson was a neo-Freudian, Danish-German-American psychoanalyst who was more culture-oriented, and less psychologically reductive, than other Freudians. He was known for his socio-cultural theory and its impact on human development. Erikson elaborated Freud’s five pscychosexual stages to eight stages of human socialization that were marked by internal conflicts. 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 a 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 the human mind and described language as a verbal symbol of human relations. He was noted for exploring the connections among language, personality and social behavior and for promoting the idea that culture is  best 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 configurationalist approach to 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 of all time. 

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 from 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 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 presented principally 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 part of 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 posited that culture takes on the character of the members’ personality structure. Thus, members of a culture display similar personalities. 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 The Culture and Personality school generally held that 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 as 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 array of personality traits found 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 empirical basis for the construction of personality types due to the use of statistics to support the conclusions (Barnard and Spencer 1996). The concept was developed by Cora DuBois and elaborated by A.F.C. Wallace . 

National Character These studies began during and after World War II. It Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead led this new attempt to understand the people of nation states, rather than the small-scale societies previously studied by psychological anthropologists.  Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946) was a national character study of  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 little or no ethnographic field work to inform its sweeping psychocultural generalizations.

Personality Personality is a configuration of cognitions, emotions and habits. Funder (1997: 1-2) 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” .  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.