The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998

Ray McDermott and I were discussing, in our usual meandering way, the possible roots of Dorothy Holland’s work and what may or may not fairly be described as “psychological anthropology.”  We wondered about d’Andrade and Romney, their relationship to the Parsonians and Boasians.  As we veered into sorting out the various versions of Schneider’s writing about culture, I spotted on my bookshelves a book I had forgotten: Kluckhohn, Murray and Schneider’s Personality in nature, society and culture.  This collection of papers from the preceding decade was first published in 1948.  A second edition appeared in 1953. My copy is the thirteenth printing (dated 1971) of this edition.  All this must be a testament to its use as summary of a field.  This is not surprising given that the contributors include about everybody who was somebody then: R. Benedict, A. Davis, J. Dollard, E. Erikson, R. Havighurst, J. Henry, F. Kluckhohn, D. Lee, M. Mead, R. Merton, T. Parsons, H. Powdermaker, J. Whiting, and many others.  This is the moment of convergence that coopts Boasian anthropology  into the Parsonian scheme and transforms it into a simple concern with the shaping of personality.

In the book, there are papers on about everything that the editors classified as “determinants of personality formation”  (36 if the 46 papers).  That psychological anthropologists should worry about such “determinants” is probably what made me turn away from the field in graduate school and ever since.  It may also be what Holland and many others are fighting against when they write about multiplicities of emergent identities.

But I think there is something to learn by wondering how it made sense for so many of the most influential sociologists and anthropologists of the 1940s to teach with such authority about “determinants of personality” and the corollary impact of formed personality on future behavior.  I mention three papers.  Two may be stereotypical.  One stands outside.

The latter case is the paper by David Schneider.  The paper surprised me as it revealed something of his early career that he never talked about, as I remember it, when I took classes from him.  It is a paper about the emergence of a “community of practice” (as we might now write of it) as a bunch of young men find themselves together for the first time for military training and organize themselves in such a way that those who claim disability move from being sympathesized with to being ostracized.  Schneider describes this as a social process with experiential implications which he does not write about.  Garfinkel may have liked it when both he and Schneider were students at Harvard in the late 1940s.

Garfinkel must have hated most of the other two papers. One is by Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist.  She wrote about “The channeling of Negro Aggression by the cultural process.”  The other paper is by Bingham Dai, a psychiatrist, who wrote about “Some problems of personality development among Negro children.”  Here are instances of the argumentation:

The cultural process continues to change with resulting changes in behavior. Just as the completely loyal and faithful slave disappeared, so the meek, unaggressive, and humble Negro, the “good nigger” type, is declining in numbers. In the rural South, and elsewhere too, the tendency of Negro young people (in their teens and twenties) is to refuse to assume the unaggressive role. The passing of the “good nigger” from the scene does not entail a civil war, as did the passing of the faithful slave. But it does indicate a psychological revolution. Today, … equally significant cultural changes are taking place. The Negro is participating now in a very different kind of cultural process from that which he underwent fifty years ago. (Powdermaker 1953 [1943]: 606)

The personality problems that are more or less peculiar to Negro children are closely associated with the peculiar social status that their elders are socially and legally compelled to occupy in this society and the peculiar evaluations of skin color, hair texture, and other physical features that are imposed upon them by the White majority. … Each of these cultural situations is apt to leave its indelible imprint on the personality of the Negro child. (Dai 1953 [1946]: 552)

There are subtle differences in the two arguments.  Powdermaker may be translatable into Holland.  Dai probably could not.  But both papers are recognizable as versions of the arguments that made “culture of poverty” plausible to the extent that it addressed not only poverty as a matter of social structure, but also poor people as persons or subjects.  Fifty years later, vocabularies have changed; references to behaviors the reader is supposed to recognize as “what happens over there,” points at other matters; but the organization of the argument remains: culture makes personalities that produce behaviors.

None of this is very surprising and searching for intellectual antecedents is mostly a scholarly activity.  Why I mention this again in the context of an attempt by some psychological anthropologists to restate the argument, has to do with my own search to specify better what makes it so hard to escape what I now consider Durkheim was quite right in naming a “conscience collective”–in the moral rather than cognitive sense.  For Dai, Powdermaker (along with Clark, Lewis, and many other in sociology, psychology and anthropology) moved America, as a political collectivity, for the best (Brown vs. Board of Education), the good (Sesame Street) and the not so good (much of the policies building on Moynihan’s report).  The argumentation moved many anthropologists in a conversational process that moved many to critique (Leacock, Stack, etc.) but keeps bringing utterances (any form of publication, from teaching to article or book) back to the determinants of personality through the controlling question: “but why did Gyanumaya,climb the wall?”(Holland et al. 1998: 9-11)

Dai, B. “Some problems of personality development among Negro children.” in Personality in nature, society, and culture. Edited by Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 545-566. 1953. (First published in 1946)

Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., D. Skinner and C. Cain 1998 Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray Personality in nature, society and culture. Second Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (First published in 1948)

Powdermaker, H. “The channeling of Negro Aggression by the cultural process.” in Personality in nature, society, and culture. Edited by Kluckhohn, C. and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 597-608. 1953. (First published in 1943)

Schneider, D. “Social dynamics of physical disability in Army basic training.” in Personality in nature, society and culture. Edited by C. Kluckhohn and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 386-397. 1953. (First published in 1947)

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