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Monday 22 May 2023

Culture and Personality with special emphasis on Margaret Mead


Culture and Personality


Culture and personality is the name of a broad unrecognized movement which brings cultural anthropology, psychology and psychiatry together from about 1928 to 1955. After 1960s the field becomes known as psychological anthropology. The primary aim is to study human experience, facts and artifacts from a dual socio-cultural as well as psychological point of view. Its founders are Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, are all students of Franz Boas.


Basic idea:

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).  More specifically Mead argues that culture plays role in the development of individual psychology. For Benedict emotional status are typical of particular culture. Sapir shows that people of the same society recognizes its culture differently. 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 approaches range from positivism to various hermeneutic humanism. The approaches can be broadly categorized into the following:

A.    Anti culture personality position.

B.     Personality is culture view or configurationalist approach.

C.     Reductionist position

D.    Personality mediation view


A. Anti culture personality position:

            Despite of the psychological inclination of major contemporary theorists such as Lasswell (1930, 1948, 1968) the institutional social science did not accept the assumptions on which culture and personality theoretical position is based. The influence of Durkheim and positivistic philosophy left little space to bring subjective perspective.


B. Personality is Culture or Configurationalist approach (Special emphasis on Margaret Mead)


The approach of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and some of their co-workers is known as Configurationalist approach or personality is culture view. They applied the relativist approach to the study of Personality.

            For them Culture and personality are both configurations of behaviour that are manifested and carried by individuals as characteristic of a group. These two are also psychologically interpreted in individual behaviour or in collective products such as myth, ritual, art, recreation, politics etc.

            They argue that personality represents an aspect of culture, in which emotional responses and cognitive capacities of an indivifual are programmed in accordance with the overall design or configuration of his culture, i.e., the cultural patterning of personality (Mead 1928, 1932, 1935 Benedict 1934a, 1934b, 1938, 1939).



Margaret Mead was a distinguished anthropologist, an intellectual and a scientist. She is the author of numerous books on primitive societies and she also wrote about many contemporary issues. Some of the areas in which she was prominent were education, ecology, the women's movement, the bomb, and student uprisings.

She was a student of Ruth Benedict. Her monograph Coming of Age in Samoa (1949) established her as one of the leading anthropologists of the day. It was a work done under the guidance of Franz Boas. Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

And so, as Mead herself described the goal of her research: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘u — in which she got to know, live with, observe, and interview through an interpreter 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood — adolescence — in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers were shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children. In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead's major findings about sexuality in Samoan society, claiming evidence that her informants had misled her. After years of discussion, many anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known, although most published accounts of the debate have also raised serious questions about Freeman's critique (Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988).

Starting as a configurationalist, Mead 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.

She continued to write on topics which focused on women's roles, childrearing, and other issues which clarify gender roles in primitive cultures and aspects of American society. These works include "Male and Female," "Balinese Character: A Photo Analysis," "Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples," "Continuities in Cultural Evolution," and "New Life for Old." She remained an active writer all of her life and her bibliography from 1925-1975 runs more than 100 pages.

Photography was not as common in Mead's lifetime as it is now. However, she did a tremendous job of integrating her photography with her writing skills. In doing this she was able to study CULTURE at a distance. This had never been done before in this manner and served to be an advantage during World War ll in helping to understand the environment of Germany and Japan.

C. Reductionist position:

            Mostly influenced by Geza Roheim (1950), it is an approach that gave exhaustive emphasis of mind over other factors of cultural and social behavior.


D. The personality mediation view:

Abraham Cardiner  (1939) a psychoanalyst in collaboration with anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936, 1945), have formulated this idea. This view splits culture in to two halves. First, maintenance system, i.e., the determinants of personality. Second, projective system, i.e., the outcome of personality. Therefore, personality acts as an intervening factor.


Further reading:

Levine and Levine (1966). Culture Behaviour and Personality.

Thomas Barfield (1996) Dictionary of Anthropology.

Philip Bock (1999). Rethinking Psychological Anthropology.




Culture and personality - a brief introduction (bi-lingual, meant for my students)