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Culture, Personality, and Identity
Most cultural anthropologists assume that personality is formed through enculturation, or socialization, the process of transmitting
culture to infants and other new members of society through both informal and formal processes.
They study how various cultures enculturate their members into having different personalities and identities. Cultural anthropologists
also investigate how personalities vary according to cultural context, and some ask why such variations exist.
Others study how changing cultural contests affect personality, identity, and well-being over the life cycle.
The Culture and Personality School
Psychological anthropology is rooted in the so-called Culture and Personality School, an intellectual movement that began in the
United States in the 1930s and persisted through the 1970s.
Culture and personality studies began with Franz Boas’s interest in the individual, developed through his fieldwork on the Northwest
Coast and the central Artic.
Members of this school adopted some aspects of Freudian theories, including the importance of childhood experiences in shaping
personality and identity, and the symbolic analysis of dreams.
In 1955, a department devoted to transcultural psychiatric studies was established at McGill University to explore the effects of
culture on psychiatric disorders.
Two directions that the Culture and Personality School took were, first, understanding how child-rearing practises affect personality
and, second, describing national-level personality patterns.
Personality and Child-Rearing
In 1930s, Margaret Mead’s publication revealed differences in male and female personalities and behaviour in three different
o Among the Arapesh, both men and women had nurturant and gentle personalities. Both valued parental roles and both
participated equally in child care. All Arapesh males and females behaved according to what is stereotypically defined as
“feminine” in Western cultures.
o Among the Mundugumor, in contrast, both males and females corresponded to the Western stereotype of “masculine”
behaviour. In general adults were assertive, aggressive, loud, and even fierce. Both parents treated their children with
o Among the Tchambuli, the men fussed about their looks, gossiped with each other most of the day, and did little in the
way of productive work. The women were competent and responsible, providing most of the food through fishing and
gardening, and managing the household. Women played a dominant role in the culture, and their personalities reflect
Since the three groups shared similar biological traits, her findings indicate that gender is culturally defined and constructed rather
than being inborn.
Cultural Patterns and National Character
Ruth Benedict argued that cultures promote distinct personality types. She proposed that cultures are formed through the
unconscious selection of a few cultural traits from the “vast arc” of potential traits. Benedict formulated her theories while doing
research on Native American cultures
o For example, one culture may emphasize financial values while another overlooks them. The selected traits interweave
to form a cultural configuration, a cohesive pattern shared by everyone in that culture.
National character studies that defined personality types and core values of nations declined in importance. Such studies suffer from
o Ethnocentric: they classify cultures according to Western psychological values and features.
o Reductionists: They emphasize only one or two features.
o Totalizing: They obscure internal and local variation in their construction of a colossal national characters (the French,
the English, the Japanese)
Nonetheless, psychological anthropologists still consider it valid to typify localized cultures in terms of valued personality traits so
long as more scientific research approach is employed.
Five Characteristics of Welsh Personhood
All people are equal & personal ties are more
important than status.
Social introductions and interactions emphasize personal
The best acts are done on behalf of the group and
may involve self-sacrifice.
Mother labour for the family; protestors go to jail.
Interactions with people should show emotion.
Anger is preferable to detachment; arguing is from the heart.
Differences exist between private and public self,
with the public self before performative.
An aspiring community leader disclaims interest in the
Sadness is shown for something lost.
Feels homesick; returns home to visit the graves of parents
Class and Personality
Image of the limited good: in this worldview, people believe that the resources or wealth available within their group are finite, or
limited. If someone becomes wealthier, other people necessarily become poorer.
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The image of the limited good, according to Foster, coexists with personality traits such as jealousy and suspiciousness, as people
guard against anyone taking a larger piece of the pie.
Oscar Lewis (1966) proposed a related concept, the culture of poverty, to explain the personality and behaviour of the poor and
why poverty persists.
He typified poor Mexican people, as among other things, lacking a future time-orientation, and sexually promiscuous. He argued that
because of these personality traits, poor people are trapped in poverty and cannot change their situation.
Person-centred ethnography: it is research that focuses on the individual and how the individual’s psychology and subjective
experience both shape and are shaped by her or his culture.
Gaining an emic view about individual people and their perceptions is the paramount goal.
Personality and Identity Formation from Infancy through Adolescence
In Euro-American culture, commonly accepted life stages include infancy, childhood, adolescence, middle age, and old age. These
life stages are based on biological features such as the ability to walk, puberty, and capacity for parenthood However, these stages
are not universals.
Cultural anthropologists find striking variations in how different cultures construct life stages and how such stages are quite
unrelated to biology.
o For example, one might think that the biological facts of having a baby places a female into the life stage of “mother”, but
such is not always the case.
The cultural context of birth affects an infant’s psychological development. Among Mayan women in Mexican, a midwife is called in
the early stages of labour. She gives massages and tells stories about other women’s birthing experiences. The husband is
expected to be present during the labour, so that he can see “how a woman suffers”. The woman’s mother should be present, along
with other female kin such as her mother-in-law, godmother and sisters, and her friends.
In North America, hospital births are the norm. In hospitals and birth centres, the newborn infant is generally take to a nursery where
it is wrapped in cloth, placed in a crib under bright lights, and fed with sugar water rather being breast feed.
Many Western psychologists argue that early parent-infant contact and bonding at the time of birth is crucial for setting in motion
parental attachment to the infant. If this bonding is not established at the time of the infant’s birth, it will not develop later; can lead to
juvenile delinquency etc.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes argues that bonding does not necessarily have to occur at birth to be successful. Her observations in Brazil
showed that many low-income mothers do not exhibit bonding with their infant’s right after birth due to high infant mortality.
Across cultures, wide differences exist in how much time an infant spends in close contact with caregivers.
o Euro-American cultures stand at one extreme, with infants spending much of their time not in physical contact with a
caregiver. In contrast, in India and Cameroon, infants spend less than 10 percent of their time away from physical contact
In most societies, it is common for parents to let their children sleep beside them.
Little or no infant-parent co-sleeping patterns promote “strong ego formation” whereas long periods of parent-infant co-sleeping
foster “weak ego formation”. However, co-ego does not necessarily prevent the development of an autonomous ego and sense of
Gender in Infancy
Anthropologists distinguish between sex and gender. Sex is something that everyone is born with. In the view of Western science, it
has three biological markers: genitals, hormones, and chromosomes.
Gender is a cultural construction and is highly variable across cultures. Gender refers to the learned behaviours and beliefs
associated with maleness and femaleness.
Two major problems arise in testing for innate gender characteristics:
o One needs data on infants before they are subject to cultural influences. However, cultures starts shaping the infant from
the moment of birth through handling and treatment by others.
o Studying and interpreting the behaviour of infants is fraught with potential bias on the part of observers.
Studies of infants have focused on assessing the potential innateness of three major Euro-American personality stereotypes:
whether infant females are more social than infant males, and whether males are more independent.
Evidence of caregivers smiling more at baby girls shows that the more frequent smiling oh girls is a learned, not innate response.
Socialization during Childhood
The concept of “the child” as a special age category may have emerged first in Europe in recent centuries.
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