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Culture and Personality

Page history last edited by Casey Shea 13 years, 7 months ago

Table of Contents





Main Points

Culture and Personality, also known as Psychological Anthropology, was one of the earliest intellectual schools of anthropology. Franz Boas pioneered the idea, however, it was his students Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict that came to explicate their schooling and make themselves famous in regards to Anthropology as a whole. Both Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. and Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa attempted to understand why certain cultures become associated with certain personalities. They emphasized personality traits that are acquired via culture, not biology, and the patterns that can be seen when comparing Victorian ideologies to the starkly different cultures of the Zuni, Dobu, Kwakiutl; and Samoa, respectively.  This attempt to squash biological racism of the 20th century was also held by Boas.


The research of Mead and Benedict helped veer notions of race based patterns of thoughts, behaviors, histories etc to be accepted as products of the culture as a whole, rather than suggested biological superiority and inferiority. 




Key Figures


A. Ruth Benedict

Born: June 5,1887

Died: September 17, 1948


BA English Literature at Vassar College (1909)

PhD Anthropology at Columbia University (1923)


Patterns of Culture (1934)

Zuni Mythology (1935)

The Races of Mankind (1940)

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese culture(1946)


     Ruth Fulton is believed to have been born in New York City, however Margaret Mead claimed that she was born in a small farm town in upper New York State[1]. Her childhood was apparently difficult: she lost her father at a very young age. Her mother was a librarian and school teacher and had to care for Ruth and her younger sister. At the beginning of childhood schooling, Ruth was discovered to be partially deaf, adding more stress to her and her family.

     She entered Vassar College in 1905 and received a degree in English Literature. After college, she traveled and did charity work. Then, she ended up in Los Angeles as a schoolteacher, living with her sister. Where she met and married Stanley Benedict. The Benedicts then moved back to New York City. She started taking classes at New School for Social Research, where she found her passion for anthropology. Afterwards, she gained her PhD in Anthropology at Columbia under the tutelage of Franz Boas one of the fathers of modern Anthropology. 

     Ruth Benedict's main body of work has to do cultural themes and patterns. She thought  that the civilized societies have been so affected by cultural diffusion from each other that underlying patterns are hard to trace[2]. However autonomous primitive societies have distinctive personalities and rituals, therefore we can discover the underlying "values of existence." Ruth Benedict said "we may know all about the distribution of a tribe's form of marriage, dance rituals… yet understand nothing of the culture as a whole which has used these elements to its own purpose."[3] These elements that she speaks of are key concepts in her book Patterns of Culture. We won't understand societies just by observing their "institutions" without knowledge of their inner moral fibers. In Patterns of Culture,she compares the cultural patterns of two northern American indian groups and an indian group living off the coast of New Guinea. She compares one group's idea of a good man for example, to another's and finds that they are drastically different.[4] 

     These differences lie in the culture's value system."Our human cultural heritage, for better or worse, is not biologically transmitted. " We aren't born with a biological set of values that is hereditarily passed down to us. However all humans have practices, ways, social understanding, and traditions that they participate in automatically. These values are transmitted by the interaction between an individual and the culture of a community in which the individual was raised. Humans within a community have the same core morals, that makes them part of the culture. The same thing that makes individuals part of a culture can also alienate them if they reject the preconceived values of the culture.

     Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture was a very successful book that sold over 1.6 million copies. Afterwards, she continued to write books and teach at Columbia. After the second World War she wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese culture it was a study of core values in Japan and attempted to explain Japan's actions during the war. In it, Benedict made some surprisingly accurate predictions of the post war occupation. She died on September 17, 1948, two months after being appointed full professor at Columbia.


B. Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 - Novermber 15, 1978)


Magaret Mead was arguably one of the most influential contributers to the field of anthropology of the 20th century. Her research helped broaden interest in anthropology and make its practice more viable to those interested not only in America but in the western world. Her research, while provocative and controversial at times, expanded awareness about the concept of sexuality in far away lands that had a direct impact on changing and influencing sexual revolution taking place in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Her impact continues on today in part to her extensive collection of writings including 44 books and over 1000 papers on primitive societies and contemporary culture


     Childhood and Early Life, and Education



Magaret Mead was born on December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia Pennsylania, to Edward Sherwood Mead (an economist and Emily Fogg Mead (a sociologist).  Mead was the first of five children born into a Quaker farm family and grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  Mead's family moved around a lot to different Quaker farms, and due to this she went back and forth between home-schooling and traditional schools. When Mead was a child her younger sister Katherine died. This was very traumatic for Mead who thought and dreamed of her siter that she had named for years to come. 


Mead entered academia in 1919 at DePauw University. She attended here for one year and after went on to complete her Bachelors Degree, which she completed in 1923. She then went to Columbia, where she worked closely with Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict and where she completed her masters degree in 1924 and later her Ph.D in 1929. 





Key Texts


Ruth Benedict- Patterns of Culture


Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, published in 1934, is a seminal text in the Culture and Personality school of cultural anthropology.  In it, Benedict explores the complex relationship between culture and the individual; she argues that, “society in its full sense as we have discussed it in this volume is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it."[5]  The book is centered around a comparison of three societies: the Pueblo in the American Southwest, the Kwakiutl of western Canada, and the Dobu of Melanesia.  Ultimately Benedict concludes that it is that unique amalgam of individual traits, encouraged implicitly and explicitly by a society, that defines each human culture.

Franz Boas’ theory of cultural relativism also permeates Benedict’s writing.  Benedict argues that anthropology itself is impossible if one cannot lay aside his or her preferential weighting of one culture over the other.  She goes so far as to chastise Western society’s pomposity, writing, “so that today... we are still preoccupied with the uniqueness, not of the human institutions of the world at large... but with our own institutions and achievements, our own civilization."[6]  This point is the foundation on which the integrity and accuracy of Benedict’s actual work is laid, and therefore is of crucial importance.




Margaret Mead- Coming of Age in Samoa

Margaret Mead’s ethnology Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928. Mead’s anthropological question, that sent her to the field in Samoa, was is adolescence biologically inherent or culturally determined. A commonly accepted definition of adolescence in the United States “was characterized as the period in which idealism flowered and rebellion against authority waxed strong, a period during which difficulties and conflicts were absolutely inevitable".[7] Mead questioned whether it was the American environment that created the stress of adolescence thus she traveled to Samoa in order to test her hypothesis. Mead choose Samoan girls as the subjects of her study because they belong to a primitive and simple culture that is historically different than the United States and thus has developed an entirely separate culture. She focused on learning the way of life for adolescent girls mainly because she had greater access to female life.  Also, Mead only studied Samoan girls from the village of Ta’u because the societies throughout the Samoa Islands are uniform.


In Samoan culture, age is relative, but relative age is of upmost importance. For instance, a mother may not know the exact age of her daughter but would be able to say, “Anna is older than John.” The time of birth is highly ritualized, but after a child reaches the age when their mother stops nursing, (usually age 2 or 3, if it is the last expected child) the child is ignored until after puberty (about 15-16 years old). Until after puberty, Samoan boys and girls have no role in social life, but as soon as they reach 15 or 16, they gain definite social obligations (dependent on their marital status) and hold various responsibilities (dependent on the social organization that they join).


As children, girls are taught to view boys as enemies but as they finish puberty they start to develop relations. The book seems to hint that these relations are rather casual until old age or marriage. The community educates the girls more about sex and personality than about the organization of their community. For example, by the time of puberty a girl has seen deaths, births and miscarriages but is unable to correctly change verbs into different tenses or speak the courtesy language.


Mead’s concluded that adolescence (and human behavior, more generally) is cultural determined. While Mead’s study is a widely read anthropological work it is not without criticism. At the time of publication, it shocked the Western view of culture and was thus read with caution. More recently, Dr. Derek Freeman sparked a controversy over Mead’s method of fieldwork in 1983. Dr. Freeman is not the only anthropologist that points out that Mead’s work “is a sign of the profession's maturity”[8]


Related Sections (within Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa):

Mead, Margaret.  1928.  "Introduction," in Coming of Age in Samoa.  New York: William Morrow & Company, pp. 1-11.

Mead, Margaret.  1928.  "A Day in Samoa," in Coming of Age in Samoa.  New York: William Morrow & Company, pp. 12-15.

Mead, Margaret.  1928.  "The Girl in the Community," in Coming of Age in Samoa.  New York: William Morrow & Company, pp. 52-60

Mead, Margaret.  1928.  "The Attitude Toward Personality," in Coming of Age in Samoa.  New York: William Morrow & Company, pp. 86-91.




A Marxist Critique of Culture and Personality

      Marxist approaches differ from the Culture and Personality school in that they do not agree that society shapes individual personalities in the same manner. Rather, Marxist approaches, and other approaches such as race psychology, believe that society shapes personality based on your position (socio-cultural, economic, racial, etc.) within that society.[9] 

     An example of how this critique came about can be seen if we view Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age is Samoa (1928) from the point of view of a Marxist. In Mead’s study all 25 of the subjects were treated as though they had been exposed to the same culture and society.[10] Marxists would argue that this is not a suitable sample since girls of different classes were exposed to different aspects of society and culture. They would argue that in order to compare the subjects they would all need to come from the same class. Also in Coming of Age is Samoa Mead compared the Samoan education system to the American education system. But the “American” education system she used was really only the middle-class system, which she never specifies or explains. A Marxist would argue that the middle-class system of education cannot be generalized to how all Americans are educated.[11]

     Another example of a Marxist critique of Culture and Personality can be found in the critiques of Ruth Benedict’s “national character” approach to studying other cultures such as the Japanese. Other anthropologists claimed that her approach was both subjective and did not pay enough attention to class differences when characterizing other cultures.[12]


An Interactionist Critique of Culture and Personality

     A major critique of the Culture and Personality approach was that it was too homogenizing. It tends to overlook internal differences between individuals and subgroups within cultures. Erving Goffman, who founded the Interactionist approach, proposed that people reveal different aspects of their personality in different situations.[13] Goffman also proposed that people may project false or idealistic versions of themselves into society, rather than being completely honest.[14] This differed from Culture and Personality as well, since culture and personality never looked at whether deceit occurred in how people presented their personality. Goffman emphasized that people consciously select what roles to play in what social situation and thus manipulate the situation.[15] 

Culture and Personality did not account for this possibility; it focused on child rearing strategies and society as having ingrained personality into an individual. Thus, it never considered that an individual had the power to manipulate their own personality to only show certain aspects depending on the situation.

      We can see an example of where this critique might have come from by looking at Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. In Mead’s work she describes how Samoan wives obey their husbands in the household.[16] However, she does not observe the women in other situations and places to see how they may rebel or subvert their husband’s authority. She sees only the aspects of the women’s personality that they display in the home, not those aspects they may display elsewhere in other situations.[17] Thus, many critique her for not observing and recording a complete record of the women’s personalities.


The Freeman-Mead Controversy:

Derek Freeman (1916-2001) first came to Samoa in 1940, lived with a Samoan family and became interested in archaeological research and studied Samoan life extensively. Later, he studied at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and published his thesis on “The Social Structure of a Samoan Village Community” in 1948. Over the years, his thoughts changed and he began to believe that social structure determines behavior, and Freeman became interested in Psychoanalysis, in which he received training in England[18]. After extensive research in Samoa in the mid 1960‘s, Freeman claimed that Mead did not pay enough attention to biology’s influence on behavior, did not spend nearly enough time in Samoa, and was not familiar enough with the language for her work to be credible[19]Freeman wrote Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth and it was published in 1982. Freeman determined that upon arriving in Samoa, Mead had set an agenda for her research in the field and did not allow enough time for studying adolescence, which set her on a rushed study[20]Freeman claimed that there was evidence in Mead and Boas’ correspondence that Mead had been hoaxed by the female Samoan adolescents[21]. There are researchers who claim that Freeman “selectively quoted from... and omitted a crucial portion” from the letter, and are of the opinion that Freeman’s studies at a different time period could have a large influence in the outcome

[22]. Freeman claimed that Mead went searching for evidence of the emphasis of culture’s influence on behavior for her mentor Franz Boas, but there are arguments against Freeman doing the same, just for biology, instead[23]. This decades long controversy had stirred questions concerning ethnographers’ actions in the field and taking what informants say at face value, as well as adding to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. 








  1. http://www.nndb.com/people/786/000097495/
  2. "Patterns of culture" Ruth Benedict
  3. Ruth Benedict from"visions of culture" Jerry D Moore pg 82
  4. Visions of culture Jerry D Moore pg 83
  5. Benedict, Ruth. 1934. “The Individual and Culture,” in Patterns of Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 253.
  6. Benedict, Ruth. 1934. “The Science of Custom,” in Patterns of Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 5
  7. Mead, Margaret. 1928. "Introduction," in Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow & Company, pp. 1-11.
  8. Wilford, John Noble. "Earlier Criticisms Surface in Reactions to Book on Dr. Mead." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 01 Feb. 1983. Web. 14 Sept. 2010. .
  9. "Cultural Materialism." All About Philosophy.AllAboutPhilosophy.org. 2002. Web 9 Sep 2010. http://www/allaboutphilosophy.org/cultural-materialism.htm.
  10. Zheng, Tiantian. "Margaret Mead." Mead-Freeman Dispute. N.p., 06-05-1999. Web. 13 Sep 2010.
  11. Zheng, Tiantian. "Margaret Mead." Mead-Freeman Dispute. N.P., 06-05-1999. Web. 13 Sep 2010.
  12. "Ruth Benedict." NNDB. Soylent Communications, n.d. Web. 13 Sep 2010. .
  13. Alten, Kristin. "SUBDISCIPLINES: Psychological Anthropology." Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology. Indiana University, May 1998. Web. 8 Sep 2010.
  14. Alten, Kristin. "SUBDISCIPLINES: Psychological Anthropology." Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology. Indiana University, May 1998. Web. 8 Sep 2010.
  15. Alten, Kristin. "SUBDISCIPLINES: Psychological Anthropology." Sociocultural Theory in Anthropology. Indiana University, May 1998. Web. 8 Sep 2010. .
  16. Zheng, Tiantian. "Margaret Mead." Mead-Freeman Dispute. N.p., 06-05-1999. Web. 13 Sep 2010.
  17. Zheng, Tiantian. "Margaret Mead." Mead-Freeman Dispute. N.p., 06-05-1999. Web. 13 Sep 2010. .
  18. Shankman, Paul. The Trashing of Margaret Mead. 2009. p. 48
  19. Erickson, Murphy. American Cultural Anthropology. p. 104-105
  20. Field Bulletin from Samoa. Margaret Mead: Human Nature and The Power of Culture. Library of Congress. July 27, 2010.
  21. “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead,'' Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1999.
  22. Shankman, Paul. The Trashing of Margaret Mead. Chp. 13: The Many Versions of the Hoaxing Hypothesis. p. 203.
  23. Freeman, Derek (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54830-2.

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