Culture and Personality

Gerald Sullivan. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Perhaps, as George Stocking (1986) has contended, culture and personality was but a temporally delimited version of psychological anthropology, with psychological anthropology being the most “historied” of anthropological endeavors. If so, then the appropriate questions one might ask in the current era would concern the legacy of culture and personality or, perhaps less charitably, its relevance. But culture and personality is also perhaps, at least within the discipline, American anthropology’s most mythologized undertaking. If this is so, then culture and personality is likely also central to more argument within American anthropology about anthropology—its purposes, failures, limits, internal subdisciplinary relations, and so forth—than other anthropological undertakings.

In part, such centrality arises out of the confusing breadth of culture and personality. The major figures discussed in this chapter—Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and, but only in passing, A. Irving Hallowell—brought to their work interests in language, culture, personality, and biology. Their work concerned itself with the psychological reality of symbols, hence with living with and within myth.

Sapir (1917, 1949, 1994) played a crucial role in calling anthropology’s attention to the centrality of people in social relations. But individual people living real lives in psychologically real worlds are curiously absent from his work. It follows that so, too, are those symbols or myths that people make psychologically real, both individually and collectively. Many of his most important essays—“Culture: Genuine and Spurious,” “The Emergence of the Concept of Personality in a Study of Cultures,” “The Psychological Reality of Phonemes, Why Cultural Anthropology Needs the Psychiatrist”—were gathered together and republished posthumously (Sapir, 1949).

Benedict (1922, 1934, 1946), in particular, suggested a notion of cultural selection, inverting thereby earlier ideas of diffusion and culture circles. She and Mead (1928, 1930, 1935) remain widely associated with the idea of pattern or configuration. From the notion of configuration, they derived similar but differing visions of how individuals might be at odds with the pattern of an anticipated or well-formed life locally understood; this they called deviance. From this notion of pattern, they also derived ideas about damaged or incoherent societies. Furthermore, Benedict developed a theory on the relativity of significance within and between patterns, which was not a theory of moral relativism per se; her books on race and racism, as well as her late-life project of an anthropology “beyond relativity, beyond pattern” attest to this (Benedict, 1942; Young, 2005).

Mead, along with Bateson (1942), taking her lessons from Sapir and from the psychology of the era, concerned herself with innate dispositions, the accidents of life, and variable cultural forms. To this work, Bateson brought his talents as a photographer and his interests in interactive processes.

Hallowell did not publish much pertinent to culture and personality during its heyday. He did, however, publish a singular and in some respects curious overview of the sub-discipline in A. L. Kroeber’s Anthropology Today (1953). Kroeber’s volume also contains an overview of national character studies by Mead. Benedict and Mead, especially, attained great stature outside the discipline of anthropology; their position within the discipline was more tenuous. Yet, to varying degrees, they have receded from view, other than perhaps as caricatures, objects of scandal, straw people, or the obsessions of specialists. They have, for many, become icons for this or that position, rather than people engaged with intellectual and scientific projects; hence, they are easily and unfortunately often misrepresented.

A Lattice of Interests and Scholars

Daniel Segal and Sylvia Yanagisako (2005) have recently argued that the distinctly American notion of a four-field anthropology has lost much of its utility. According to their account, anthropology is the last of the great, composite 19th-century disciplines. The other disciplines, such as political economy or natural history, have broken up into smaller, more professionalized units of scholarly endeavor organized around university departments and funding-agency areas of interest. Anthropology, at least the American four-field anthropology, remained intact, partly for reasons of bureaucratic convenience, within universities and partly because of a general, if not always happy and often ambivalent, commitment to a concept of holism.

From this general perspective, the history of anthropology becomes largely a tale of somewhat conditional compromises within the academy set against and responsive to sets of changing circumstances, both in allied disciplines and in the world outside the academy per se.

When, in the 1890s, Franz Boas brought together in uneasy harmony several subdisciplines under the general rubric of anthropology, none of those subdisciplines were particularly well developed. Ferdinand de Saussure had yet to give his famous course on general linguistics; Sapir’s book Language would come out in 1921 and his essay proclaiming the psychological reality of phonemes for speakers in 1933. The sorts of fieldwork techniques epitomized in the idea of ethnographer as field note had yet to be devised; Mead proved particularly methodologically innovative and has left us voluminous notes among her papers, but she did not start working in the field until 1925. Equally, in the 1890s, archaeologists were only beginning to devise the sorts of methods for recording assemblages in situ upon which all subsequent methodological and theoretical development has relied. William Bateson did not publish his discussions of Gregor Mendel’s genetic work until 1902, by which time Boas had already established the department at Columbia University and Kroeber had completed his, by today’s standards, very short doctoral dissertation. Theodosius Dobzhansky and Julian Huxley would not publish their studies, bringing Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendalian genetics together, until 1937 and 1942 respectively. Gregory Bateson (hereinafter Bateson), William’s son, introduced Mead to Mendelian genetics in 1933; Bateson and Mead read Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals while in Bali, most likely in 1936. Our current sense of evolution as changes in genetic frequency within reproductive populations, of genomes and the like, are even more recent.

In one sense, then, anthropology as Boas proposed it in the 1890s could only have been a work in progress. His interest, and subsequently that of several of his students and their associates in matters connecting psychology and social life, was likewise a work in progress. Anthropology’s internal, subdisciplinary stresses could only emerge as problems, methods, and techniques became refined. Those same stresses could only be exacerbated as the volumes of research increased, as an emphasis upon recent scholarship became more pervasive, as knowledge of pertinent literatures diverged, and as various forms of reductionism—biological, cultural, linguistic—either appeared, came to be feared, or were used by some for other unfortunate purposes. Nor should we forget human qualities, vanity, envy, and resentment being among them.

In perhaps the most interesting contribution to Segal and Yanagisako’s volume, Ian Hodder (2005) suggested that we think of disciplines and subdisciplines less and more about a lattice of shared interests bringing scholars together for some projects but not others. It would be ironic, then, that perhaps the most mythologized, if not also the most historied, of American anthropology’s endeavors, culture and personality, was just such a lattice of interests and scholars working in a variety of disciplines, notably but not exclusively psychology and anthropology.

Few read the psychology of that era anymore, hence many have lost any understanding of how deeply that psychology—culture and personality—engaged biological notions. Given Segal and Yanagisako’s (2005) desire to establish a cultural anthropology dedicated to the study of the operations and consequences of power separable from, or at least not reducible to, biology per se, this earlier engagement with biology poses its own ironies. As many—Derek Freeman, Steven Pinker, and Melvin Konner, each in his own way—have used Mead in particular as a poster child for a rigid cultural determinism indifferent to biological notions or biological processes, Mead and Bateson’s specific and very explicit engagements with the psychology and biology of her day multiply the ironies.

Mead and Bateson, working within a lattice of interest and scholars, developed but did not explicitly publish an articulate research paradigm joining ethnographic, psychological, and biological observations and processes; this was their squares hypothesis (on the squares see subsequent section; see also Sullivan, 2004, 2005, 2008). The squares hypothesis was in ways consonant with the holism that Segal and Yanagisako (2005) criticize, yet not hostile to the studies of the operations of power Segal and Yanagisako advocate. Taken in conjunction with Benedict’s late life project of an anthropology “beyond relativity, beyond pattern,” a worthy predecessor Segal and Yanagisako were likely unaware of, a reexamination of the premises of what we call culture and personality may revivify interest in a set of lattices consonant with much of the last, great, composite 19th-century discipline. From time to time, anthropologists have returned, in one guise or another, to this particular set of interests in matters ethnographic, psychological, and biological and the associated processes; culture and personality, particularly as developed by Bateson and Mead, has its successors, even if those successors rarely acknowledge or perhaps even know this to be the case (e.g., see Csordas, 1994; Hinton, 1999; Hirschfeld, 2002).

Segal and Yanagisako’s (2005) suggestion that American four-field anthropology grew set against and responsive to the internal imperialist expansion of the United States and its consequences deserves close attention. Hallowell (1965) made a similar point in his discussion of the history of anthropology as a particularly and necessarily anthropological problem.

Much, but surely not all, of the work associated with the rubric of culture and personality was undertaken outside the United States and its empire, albeit within other empires. Benedict (1934), however, found consequences of the American empire for the original indigenous peoples of North America embedded in culture and personality’s founding notions; people(s) seek coherence, but ways of life may rupture. Regna Darnell (2001) called attention to Benedict’s sort of observation, referring not only to what Darnell called the invisible genealogies, which comprise Americanist anthropology, but also anthropology’s particular need for a useable past.

But for whom is that useable past useful? For what purposes and to what ends is such a past useful? Of such questions, perhaps Segal and Yanagisako (2005) would approve.

An Original, Dysfunctional Politics

Some of the early arguments surrounding culture and personality were personal, petty, and maliciously destructive.

In 1925, Mead and Sapir had a brief affair that must have moved them both very deeply; Mead said as much later in her letters to Benedict. At the time of this affair, Mead was married to Luther Cressman. She was also preparing to undertake fieldwork in Samoa. Sapir, meanwhile, wanted Mead to leave her husband. Sapir also lobbied Boas, behind Mead’s back, in an attempt to keep her from journeying to the Pacific. Sapir’s arguments concerned Mead’s frailties, but his intent was to keep her close and to secure her as his bride and stepmother for his children. Mead learned of Sapir’s approaches to Boas, perhaps through Benedict.

Relations quickly soured between Mead and Sapir. Mead would burn Sapir’s letters on a Samoan beach; it is unclear what happened to Sapir’s copies of Mead’s letters. Sapir would contend that Mead was an incompetent in his 1929 review of Boas’s book Anthropology and Modern Life and imply she was immoral in a thinly veiled description, in his article, on the so-called “new woman.”

American anthropological circles at the time were small. Sapir was perhaps the leading intellectual light among Boas’s first generation of students. Well-known and respected—his eminence earned him positions at Chicago and Yale—he was a formidable enemy. Mead, however, had earned Boas’s support, and tangible support at that; Boas found Mead a job, with salary, at the American Museum of Natural History. By contrast, Benedict worked at Columbia’s anthropology department, but without pay, until her marriage crumbled sufficiently for her to need a salary. Cole (2003) pointed out that Columbia awarded 20 doctorates in anthropology to men and 19 to women between 1920 and 1940. The other female Boasians were mostly underemployed if not also itinerant.

Benedict—Mead’s friend, mentor, and sometimes lover—either could not or chose not to avoid this dispute. Benedict was present soon after Mead arrived in France from Samoa obviously enamored of Reo Fortune, but despite her own disappointments, Benedict sided with Mead, hence perforce against Sapir. Benedict and Mead’s conversations on their voyage back from France gave rise to what is usually referred to as culture and personality, or sometimes as the configurationist school, but their work was part of a much larger body of interdisciplinary work (on Benedict, Mead, the gestalt psychologists, and the notion of configuration, see Sullivan, 2009).

Darnell (1986) has contended that there was a Sapirian alternative to Mead and Benedict. If so, then during the 1920s, 1930s, and even the 1940s when Mead and Benedict brought out at least one important dissertation, a series of major books, and many articles, that alternative brought forth a sparse literature, mostly by Sapir, from which real people living real lives in real worlds are largely, if not entirely, absent. Sapir’s students, younger colleagues, and their students champion his legacy; Darnell belongs to this camp, having studied with Hallowell.

In 1941, Hallowell, Leslie Spier, and Stanley Newman organized a memorial volume for Sapir. In that volume, Clyde Kluckhohn defended Benedict against Sapir’s criticism. The organizers of the volume thought Mead irrelevant to Sapir’s legacy. They did not think of her as close to him personally. Mead went undefended. Sapir’s students and younger colleagues came to dominate the positions teaching psychological anthropology.

Benedict taught for many years at Columbia; of her students, one, Victor Barnouw, made contributions to psychological anthropology; others, notably Sidney Mintz and Eric R. Wolf, seem to have developed aspects of Benedict’s late-life project of an anthropology of freedom and power beyond relativity, beyond pattern. Abraham Maslow, a leading American humanistic psychologist perhaps best known for his theory of a hierarchy of needs, worked with and thought highly of Benedict.

Mead’s position at the American Museum of Natural History meant that she had few students of her own prior to the late 1950s. She did employ a considerable number of young anthropologists over the years at the museum. But her legacy derives from her methodological innovations, her books, and the articles she published with Rhoda Metreaux in Redbook.

To his students and younger colleagues, Sapir (1994) contended that Benedict’s, and by implication Mead’s, work was mischievous in that psychology can only come about in the interactions between people. Concerning Mead, this criticism is simply misplaced. Given Sapir’s (1949) contention that phonemes are psychologically real for speakers of languages, and his contention that a culture appears to take on the characteristics of the organization of a personality the more one studies that culture, Sapir’s (1994) criticism of Benedict on these grounds seems odd at best.

At least within the academy, the Sapirians largely won the day, reproducing themselves and their positions. Sapir’s originary contribution, however, should not be over- or underestimated.

Edward Sapir

In 1917, Kroeber published his essay on culture as the superorganic in the American Anthropologist. Kroeber drew responses from A. A. Goldenweiser and Edward Sapir. Of these responses, Sapir’s has had the deepest resonances. Sapir’s question was simple: Do we need the superorganic? His answer was equally simple: No.

But the consequences of that answer were not so simple. If culture is not superorganic, then culture, to put matters one way, and social facts, to put matters in another but similar way, must somehow arise in the interactions of individual human beings. That is, culture and social facts must be somehow psychological. Concomitantly, social processes must all proceed through the activities of people.

From 1917 until his death in 1939, Sapir continued to expand upon this initial observation. Effectively, his 1994) criticism of Benedict and, via Benedict, Mead was an extension of his earlier criticism of Kroeber.

Elaborating on J. O. Dorsey’s comment, “Two Crows denies it,” Sapir (1994) noted that any understanding of a given culture differed depending upon whom one asked about that culture, its institutions, and practices. Thus, the particular version of culture a person expounded would be psychologically real for him or her, but not necessarily for his or her neighbors. There was no psychology of culture as such; ordinary people, regardless of the society in which they lived, would be generally psychologically similar even as they viewed matters differently from one another. Put slightly differently, Sapir held a comparatively weak conception of culture and its powers as psychological stimulus; the individual had to give culture meaning. According to Mead (1959), Benedict held that Sapir desired to prove that culture does not matter.

Sapir widely read the psychology of his day, writing reviews of significant works by W. H. R. Rivers and C. J. Jung, for example. In 1925, before their relations became frayed, Mead introduced Sapir to Kurt Koffka’s (1924) book, The Growth of the Mind. Not long thereafter, Sapir made the acquaintance of the American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan; they became close friends. Sullivan’s work with schizophrenics grew out of a sense of crucial points in human lives, especially male lives, when difficulties in relations with others could push a person into mental disease; for Sullivan, perhaps the most significant of these difficulties was a fear that others might think one experienced homosexual desire. On the other hand, successfully navigating these crucial periods of life yielded a sort of mental health. Sapir and Sullivan, along with the political scientist Harold Lasswell, collaborated, developing a broad, multidisciplinary, institutional, and intellectual framework for studying the interrelations of personality and culture. This framework can best be seen in the 1933 Hanover conference and in Sapir’s course on the psychology of cultures.

In what must be something of an irony, Mead attended the 1934 Hanover conference devoted to developing the project suggested at the previous year’s gathering; she wrote much of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) while there. Sapir’s notes on his psychology of cultures lecture series ended up in Mead’s papers.

Sapir (1949) made several arguments for the usefulness of psychology and psychiatry for anthropology. But, he made perhaps his most important claims in a paper discussing the usefulness of cultural forms for individual lives; this was his essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” of 1924. Some lives have a genuine and fulfilling relation to the wider social world; others do not, with Sapir’s example a hypothetical telephone operator working at a switchboard. These latter lives bespoke malaise.

Maureen Molloy (2008) has placed Mead within the world of small magazines and the concerns of intellectuals, such as Van Wyck Brooks, Herbert Croly, and Randolph Bourne, with a deep complementarity between cultural and individual, especially intellectual, lives. For Brooks, Croly, Bourne, and others like them, America had as yet not developed its own genuine culture. Life, especially intellectual and artistic life, was too passive to be truly manly; such lives risked the malaise of spurious culture. These intellectuals moved in precisely the same circles as the New York Boasians. Sapir’s argument for a genuine culture, one that fulfilled the individual in his endeavors, should also be placed in this context.

Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict began studying anthropology under Goldenweiser at the New School for Social Research in 1919. She subsequently wrote her doctoral thesis on “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America” under Boas. In 1922, an essay on vision quests among Plains Indians quickly followed.

In these works, Benedict (esp. 1922) began to substantially turn the studies of the distribution of cultural traits defused across a landscape inside out. No more would culture be Robert Lowie’s thing of shreds and patches, oddly put together by happenstance. The significance of the vision varied according to how it fit with other elements of a given culture; no two of the Plains societies incorporated the vision into their practices in the same manner. Where in one society, for example, the vision quest might have been accompanied by painful ordeal, in another vision it had been bought and sold. Benedict produced an analysis built around a theme (visions) and its variations or, put another way, a nascent structuralism not beholden to or dependent upon a theory of language.

In contrast, Hallowell’s 1926 dissertation only points toward the necessity of such a nascent structuralism. He showed that ceremonies directed toward bears were not coextensive with the ecological range of bears. In the Northern Hemisphere, such ceremonies could be found only among hunting peoples of the arboreal forests, and neither further north on the arctic fringes nor further south. But for all the extensiveness of his scholarship, his reasoning did not extend further. Nor did Hallowell pursue either the internal relations between various elements of bear ceremonial or the relations between bear ceremonial and other elements of culture aside from its distribution.

Mead’s thesis, like Benedict’s and Hallowell’s, was based on library research. Finished prior to her 1925 trip to Samoa, Mead attempted to discern whether or not changes in cultural complexes—canoes, houses, tattoos—could be used as a kind of clock, with some elements changing reliably faster than others, depending upon how they were integrated into the rest of the cultural pattern. Thus, Mead assumed Benedict’s nascent structuralism. While Mead set out regular patterns of difference between and among various Polynesian societies, she concluded that changes in these complexes could not be taken as a reliable guide to how quickly or slowly such complexes changed.

Sapir thought highly of Benedict’s work. Boas brought Benedict onto the Columbia department’s faculty, albeit, as noted above, for some years without pay.

While assisting Boas with a course at Barnard College, Benedict met the much younger Mead. These two, Benedict and Mead, would not long thereafter begin a collaboration that would last until Benedict’s death in 1948. Subsequently, Mead would serve as Benedict’s literary executor and bring out two volumes (Mead, 1959, 1974) on Benedict and her work. The differences between Benedict and Mead, if not often noted, are every bit as important as their similarities.

As with Sapir, Mead introduced Benedict to Koffka in 1925. But it was not until 1927, according to Mead (1959), that Benedict realized that she could explain differences between Amerindian societies of the Plains and Southwest in ways formally and heuristically similar to those she might use to explain the differences between individuals; in both cases, what mattered were the selections individuals and collectives made or did not make from the available possibilities, and the applications of the selected possibilities toward life circumstances. In her 1934 Patterns of Culture, Benedict relied upon and repeatedly stressed this notion of cultural selection, as well as its corollary: Given enough time and freedom, each person and society would seek out its particular coherence, applying disparate and sundry materials to individual or group ends, individual or collective. One should not neglect the echo of Darwin’s epoch-making notions of natural and sexual selection or the anticipation of Lévi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage.

Much later, Mead (1959) would write of this formal and heuristic similarity between individuals and cultures with a shorthand: Culture is “‘personality writ large’” such that by implication personality becomes culture writ small; Mead used the quotation marks rather than explain more fully. This trope has gone largely unexplored. Benedict’s (1959) formulations, for example those found in her essay of 1930, “Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest,” stressed the differences of scale and duration between persons and cultures, as much as the similarities bound up in selection and agency.

In a well-formed culture, where for Benedict (1934), one has had time and relatively beneficial circumstances, most people would find the well springs of their own psychological world in the organization of the culture within which they lived. The society’s myths, folklore, institutions, and practices became psychologically real for people as they lived their lives in ways that were consonant with the order of those lives; in Sapir’s terms, such orders would be genuine cultures.

But not everyone would be so lucky as to live in a society conducive to inclinations. Some societies, like that which Benedict described in Patterns of Culture (1934) as the Digger Indians, had been devastated, their earlier ways either forbidden or so at odds with the new world that they found themselves, in these earlier ways, to be nonsensical. It was equally possible for individuals to be drawn to behave in ways quite counter to those publically espoused in their society; Benedict’s repeated example was a homosexual living in the United States of her day. In her terms, such a person was deviant; in the somewhat later terms of Erving Goffman, such persons could find themselves having to live with a spoiled identity or a damaged face, itself the consequent of the stigma their behavior drew toward them, if known, and sometimes even if known only to themselves. Such circumstances were also psychologically real; but rather than being fulfilling, they could render the person severely at odds with his impulses.

Deviance and Relativity

Both Benedict and Mead knew of the power of such deviance upon lives from their direct experiences of discreet, homosexual encounters. Mead (1959) credited Benedict with teaching her to ask about deviance when Mead was working on Coming of Age in Samoa. For Mead, however, deviance came to be not so much a matter of behavior as being emotively at odds with one’s society’s ethos.

From at least 1928 when Coming of Age in Samoa was published, neither Benedict nor Mead worked with the idea of a wholly overdetermining culture. Culture provided context and patterns of significance, but in their thought there was always a concern for individuals and agency; social pressure was only almost irresistible. For Benedict (see Young, 2005), this observation of deviance would lead to her concern with freedom beyond pattern, beyond relativity. Mead (see Sullivan, 2004, 2005) would come to describe personality as arising in the conjunction of biological inheritance and disposition (temperament), the accidents of life, and cultural patterns; she preferred to think of the individual in culture rather than to use, save for purposes of easing communication, the phrase “culture and personality.”

For Benedict, unlike Mead, the possibilities for the variety of pattern opened up by cultural selection were, if not endless, at least large. There could be many forms of genuineness, of devastation, and of deviance. Benedict opposed her younger colleague’s attempts to introduce any small system of variables; in this matter, Benedict’s thought was less like that of her first teacher, Goldenweiser, than Mead’s was.

This variety of cultural pattern has led many to think of Benedict as a cultural relativist, meaning that all cultural patterns were for her equally valid expressions of humanity. Benedict is not known to have used such a phrase in her published writings. Furthermore, she wrote extensively on racism in ways that not only provided a cultural analysis of the genesis of racist thought, but also extensively critiqued racism. For Benedict, not everything goes. Nor did her position require her to separate culture from politics, as Melville Herskovits had to in his distinction between German culture and Nazism. Rather, Benedict’s thought took her more and more into explorations of the cultural conditions generative of human freedom.

In many ways, Benedict’s thought was only a partly psychological understanding. Though she would come to write about raising Japanese children in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), Benedict long found her attitude toward dynamic psychologies—such as those of Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, which focused on a sequence of bodily zones and a child’s developing powers—to be wasteful. Thus, she allied herself further with the analysis of cultural stimulus rather than interior psychological development. Mead (1946) thought Benedict to be the most sociological, the most cultural, in her understanding of the personality within a group of scholars lumped together under the rubric of culture and personality; by contrast, Karen Horney seemed to Mead to almost lack a working concept of culture.

But, as Benedict’s work implies, a human interiority is dialectically related to a particular cultural pattern, and Benedict’s thought remains psychological in much the way Oswald Spengler’s does. For Spengler, psychology develops within and against a particular image or understanding of the world. Soul varied in relation to nature understood as an image of the world, with that image itself shifting and changing with time. Similarly, for Benedict (1934), personality understood as a counterculture varied as historically cobbled together and culturally selected patterns varied in time and space, and also varied as specific individual’s relations toward those patterns, those understandings of the world, embedded in myths, folklore, institutions, practices, and the like.

At least from 1927 and certainly from 1928 with the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa, Benedict’s and subsequently Mead’s analyses presume individuals in specific cultures; in Mead’s case, this presumption is readily visible in the surfaces of her texts. Their descriptions of specific cultures have been, and indeed should be, subject to criticism, but their theoretical orientation and contributions do not rely on the accuracy of any specific account of a particular culture.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead’s ethnographic corpus is perhaps the most criticized in all of anthropology. Some of these criticisms, like that of Derek Freeman in 1983 and 1999, contending that Mead opposed all biological explanation favoring, thereby, a radical cultural determinism, are often repeated but also without merit. Other criticisms are essentially leveled at Mead considered as an icon for this or that position, whether she held such a position or not. Given the number of her publications and the sheer volume of her papers—they are the largest collection held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress—serious criticisms of Mead’s work have of necessity been the preserve of specialists, either of one or another of the ethnographic areas in which she worked, or of her scientific project, though this latter specialist is more rare.

Mead came to anthropology from psychology and, so she said (1962), stayed within the realms of psychology for the rest of her life. As was common in her day, her dissertation on social stability in Polynesia was derived from library research. At Boas’s instigation, she began her first field research in Samoa. Like all of her subsequent field-work, her Samoan research, like her thesis before that, focused on a particular problem; this, in itself, was a significant innovation from which much of American anthropology’s problem-oriented fieldwork now derives. This focus on a problem, having to do with individual lives in cultural worlds, also required Mead to develop innovative methods to study what she called informal, or unstressed, elements of social life.

In the Samoan case, Mead (1928) studied the psychological adjustment of adolescent and immediately postadolescent girls to Samoan society. In 1999, Freeman contended that she also tried to undertake a separate study of Samoan social structure. While these two aspects of Mead’s studies were funded by separate entities, these two matters, adjustment and social structure, are not really separable, as Freeman would have them be.

In 1925, prior to going to Samoa, Mead read Koffka’s (1924) The Growth of the Mind. In this work, Koffka developed an analysis starting with the active engagement of very young children with a stimulative world. For Koffka, adaptation was an active process, not a passive one.

According to this analysis, both entities—developing child and stimulus—were psychologically powerful. The qualities of the stimulus (e.g., the nipple of a bottle as opposed to that of a woman) shaped the possibilities for the child’s experience. But even a young child engaged such stimulus and shaped her responses. What we see and call behavior arose in this shifting conjunction of forces, both stimulative and responsive or adaptive. The gestalt psychologists referred to this shifting conjunction of forces as struktur, but for reasons having to do with the internal disputes among American and British psychologists, Koffka and his translator chose to use the term configuration instead of structure.

Benedict (1934) stressed the relations between parts and wholes, the indivisibility of wholes, while Mead (1928, 1930, 1935; Bateson & Mead, 1942) emphasized the shifting processes of the developing configurations or patterns. Both women approached their analyses structurally rather than statistically.

Freeman’s error was, therefore, twofold. He separated adjustment from social structure, when the sort of psychological theory with which Mead worked required that these two be considered together. Furthermore, he ignored the biological aspects of the psychology with which Mead worked. Mead and Bateson’s friend, C. H. Waddington, would later coin the term epigenesis to refer to precisely these sorts of neonatal developmental processes involving both a stimulative world and an active adaptation. In Coming of Age in Samoa, several years before she met Waddington in 1934, Mead asked whether among her Samoan interlocutors there were any temperaments at significant odds with Samoan culture. In one sense, this is Benedict’s question about deviance and the place of the deviant within a given social order. But Mead derived the notion of temperament from the work of William McDougall, perhaps in conjunction with that of June Etta Downey, where temperament refers to the innate, heritable disposition or the biological constitution of psychology, as opposed to character, which refers to the organization of habit learned over a lifetime. She was asking whether or not any of her interlocutors showed signs of some disposition—itself biologically based—at odds with the order or pattern or configuration of the society in which the particular interlocutor lived.

Mead would never leave this interest in biology behind, but equally, given the politics of the era, she would not explicitly publish her developing theories. In 2008, Molloy suggested that biology began playing a larger role in Mead’s thought following her research along with Reo Fortune among the Omaha, because Mead’s theory was unable to account for cultural change. The subsequent section is more concerned with Mead and Bateson’s squares theory.

Regarding the Squares

Mead and Fortune journeyed to New Guinea to undertake fieldwork together in 1932, after earlier working together among the Manus and the Omaha. Their relationship was already strained. They set up first among the Arapesh; Fortune was often away from camp, traveling the roads with various men. They stayed briefly among the Mundugumour, before moving to work among the Tchambuli (now Cambri). Bateson was then nearby amongst the Iatmul. All three of these ethnographers had worked among more than one group; they were respectively an American (Mead), a New Zealander (Fortune), and an Englishman (Bateson). They had only each other for anthropological conversation.

Their relations became volatile, leading them to decamp for Sydney. Precisely what happened between them is now the subject of some disagreement. Molloy and Caroline Thomas, Fortune’s biographer (personal communication), suggest that Benedict and Mead put around a story that Fortune had assaulted Mead, leading her to have a miscarriage, in order to preserve Mead’s reputation and to explain her separation from Fortune. There can be no doubt that Mead and Fortune explained matters somewhat differently, from one another, to his family. While a concern for Mead’s reputation could explain a great deal, this concern need not mean that the tale Mead and Benedict put about was inaccurate. Fortune did strike Mead while in Sydney after these two and Bateson departed the Sepik in 1933. The remaining record has yet to be thoroughly examined in print.

It is clear, however, that Mead and Bateson began developing their squares hypothesis; Fortune thought their line of reason racist and increasingly had little if anything to do with it.

Mead had come to New Guinea intent upon studying the regular pattern of female adjustment to society. She began by assuming that men and women, considered as biological and sexual groups, were temperamentally different from each other. Under the influence of (1) Boas’s 1911 doctrines about the nonexistence of biological races, (2) a draft of Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934), (3) C. J. Jung’s book Psychological Types of 1921, (4) Mendelian genetics as explained by Bateson, and (5) the variety of male and female lives found among the Arapesh, Mundugumour, and Tchambuli, Mead came to think this notion of irreducible biological differences between men and women to be mistaken. Rather, Western notions of appropriate male and female personalities were versions of temperamental, constitutional, or biological types manifest in the personalities of both men and women.

Developing a corollary of Benedict’s (1934) idea of cultural selection, Mead suggested that if a society had enough time and resiliency in the face of external and internal stresses, then it could eventually select for, in Mead’s terms stabilize, a preferred type or types of personality. The society would have to be relatively endogamous. Its neighbors could not be too overwhelming, or disruptive militarily or economically. Its people had to be well adapted to local foods and diseases.

Unlike Benedict, Mead preferred to think of a small group of dialectically related types. For Mead, deviance increasingly came to mean that a person’s emotional life was at odds with the ethos of their society, rather than a matter of behavior as such (on ethos, see Bateson, 1936; Silverman, 2001). Each of her four primary and four intermediate types had a characteristic developmental tendency that would conform variously to the emotional organization of the society into which a given child was born. Hence, given a particular social organization, children of each type would face characteristic difficulties as they grew, assuming they were healthy rather than ill; on this point, Mead and Bateson would subsequently borrow from Erikson’s 1937 zonal-modal theory of early childhood development.

Mead’s contribution was to recognize that, unlike a feeding bottle, a woman or any caregiver was already enculturated; her work thus extended Koffka’s 1924 notions. Likely influenced by Bateson, she held that characterological development was not reducible to some particular technique. Rather, the interactions between caregiver and child were communicative; the caregiver’s emotional tenor formed a stimulus enacted in technique to which the child actively adapted in much the matter suggested by Koffka, and subsequently developed by Kurt Lewin (see Sullivan, 2009).


While Sex and Temperament (1935) may well, as Molloy in 2008 suggests, largely concern deviance, it also outlines three general developmental sequences, each set against a different kinship system, with its characteristic stresses and strains, and specific preferred personalities. Bateson and Mead’s Balinese Character (1942) outlines a fourth developmental sequence against the background of yet another cultural order. Properly read, these books draw attention to the processes leading to a human embodiment of culture. Mead explicitly pointed out in her introduction to Balinese Character that the book was not about Balinese culture per se, but rather concerned the processes by which Balinese people came to embody that culture. She made a similar point in her 1953 defense of Geoffrey Gorer’s analysis of swaddling among the Great Russians.

In 1950, Lévi-Strauss favorably compared Mead and Benedict’s work with Marcel Mauss’s concern to show how individuals in society come to manifest those very bodily reflexes provided by society. At the time, Mauss was writing about techniques of the body, Benedict was bringing out Patterns of Culture (1934), while Mead, along with Bateson, was developing the squares hypothesis. Lévi-Strauss considered the Mead of Sex and Temperament (1935) to be developing a principled doctrine quite similar to that of Mauss, though she did not seek to produce Mauss’s envisioned encyclopedic inventory of the uses to which people have put their bodies.

Thomas Csordas (1994), among others, called attention to embodiment as what he has termed the existential ground of culture and self. But at least in the early work he edited, there are only two brief mentions of Mauss; Bateson receives mention in a single note. Mead went unmentioned. The discussions in this work presumed an adult culture, and thus do not take up the processes by which people learn to be embodied in a specific way. Mead, again, goes unmentioned. Thus, the essays in Csordas’s volume could easily be criticized for ignoring children, their culture, and their development.

Mead’s work championed the study of children and the ways in which they learn to be enculturated human beings, beginning with her second popular volume, Growing Up in New Guinea (1930). Far from hating children, Mead pioneered the study not only of children’s culture, but also of children in culture. Her works, then, should be understood as an extended study of the processes of education, their discontents, and the reproduction of character.

Gregory Bateson

If Mead left psychology to remain nonetheless always within its ambit, then Gregory Bateson remained within the domain of biology and natural history. Over the course of his career, Bateson developed a science of the convergence of form, communication, and context.

In its mature form, Bateson’s (1979) thought considered learning and evolution to be formally similar. Though these processes occur on very different scales, both are stochastic. That is, both involve the interaction of a tautological inlying system and an external environment. Being external to the inlying system, events arising in that environment would be random to the inlying system. Learning and evolution, then, are the inlying systems of adaptation to random developments within the environment. Such adaptations effect changes in the internal relations between parts of the system and, therefore, within the processes by which the newly reconfigured system regulates itself. Because this new configuration arises out of the conjunction of both the system and the environment, that new configuration need not be predictable and, in that sense, is underdetermined. Conversely, as the inlying system is a part of its environment considered as a system, any change in the internal relationships constituting the inlying system yields a change in its environment. For this pattern of continuing adjustments to persist, the totality has to become self-regulating; an uncorrected progressive change, on the contrary, generates conditions under which the totality and its parts, jointly or singly, can become disorganized.

While one should not underestimate Bateson’s own contributions or the originality of his science of form, communication, and context, his developed position owes much to the era in which he collaborated with Mead and learned from Benedict. In a variety of ways, Bateson’s mature position drew together Benedict’s concerns with myths, folklore, institutions, practices, and the like considered as the environment for life, as well as Mead’s attention to individual development within such an environment. He attempted to devise a way of thinking to both explain the generation of difference, as evolutionary theory does, and concomitantly the development of similarity within that range of differences, as cultural theory requires.

The scion of a great British academic family, Bateson studied anthropology at Cambridge, where he knew Reo Fortune. Apparently unimpressed by the functionalism of Bronislaw Malinowski, Bateson would gravitate toward the psychological laboratory of Frederick Bartlett.

Bateson’s first fieldwork among the Baining was something of a disaster; his second field project among the Iatmul was not going much better when Mead and Fortune arrived in the area. Bateson’s notes consisted largely of lists of clan names.

In addition to his conversations with Mead and Fortune, Bateson was drawn to the naven ceremony with its sequence of a triggering action, transvestism, mockery, building emotion, and an eventual consuming climax. The young Bateson, like certain Marxists, believed such building tensions would push Iatmul society apart. To describe these phenomena, in 1936 Bateson coined the term schismogenesis, meaning the generation of faction or schism. To analyze these mutually evoked interactive sequences, Bateson developed two notions: ethos and eidos. By ethos, Bateson meant the organization of emotion; eidos referred to the parallel but distinct organization of thought. Roughly then, ethos concerned matters central to Mead’s pursuits, while eidos shared some of Benedict’s interests. Bateson also wedded his ideas of ethos and eidos to notions of social organization derived largely from the work of W. H. R. Rivers and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, extending thereby Rivers and Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas in novel ways, as Mead recognized. Importantly, Bateson’s analysis did not concern itself with function.

Determined to work together again, Mead and Bateson by happenstance ended up choosing Bali for their next research. Their research proposals suggest lines of study defined by the squares hypothesis. Bateson also took up the question of controlling schismogenesis and hinted at the use of cinematography.

By the end of September 1936, however, Bateson’s research into the control of schismogenesis had been largely abandoned in favor of Mead’s focus on the interactions of caregivers and children. Bateson began taking photographs and short films of these encounters and other elements of Balinese life. He also devised ways of integrating these materials with notes taken by Mead and Madé Kaler, their aide-de-camp. The result of these efforts was an unusually large and densely organized body of materials, forming the basis of one of the most unusual books in the history of anthropology: Balinese Character (1942).

According to Bateson and Mead (1942), the ordinary, well-adjusted Balinese were affectively unresponsive compared both with Americans and New Guineans. This was not a matter of temperament, since Balinese babies were as emotively engaged as any other babies. Rather, this was a characterological development deriving from extensive, if also frustrated, communications between caregivers and children. Furthermore, the institutional arrangements of Balinese society tended not only to defuse tensions, but also to prevent progressive changes such as those associated with schismogenesis. These social arrangements provided the Balinese with prompts necessary for stable, if emotionally distant, lives. As a result, the character of the Balinese—the ways in which they had come to embody their culture—formed a crucial part of Bali as a self-regulating system.

Mead and Bateson’s (1942) research in Bali was largely funded by the Committee for Research in Dementia Praecox, a group of leading American psychiatrists funded by the Masons and interested in all matters pertinent to schizophrenia. Bateson and Mead compared ordinary Balinese to American schizophrenics, noting that whereas Balinese culture provided Balinese people with an environment supportive of a successful Balinese adaptation to life, American society did not so provide for American schizophrenics. This formulation did not hold that ordinary Balinese were psychotic.


Sapir, Benedict, Mead, and Bateson were not the only anthropologists interested in the issues gathered together under the rubric of “culture and personality.” Ralph Linton, Cora Du Bois, and Clyde Kluckhohn collaborated with Abram Kardiner; Ruth Landes also did significant work. Among the British, Malinowski and others took up the psychological relations between individuals and society, or as Sapir and Mead would both have preferred to put it, the individual in society. The British and Kardinarian projects came to little success.

In the years after World War II, two separate anthologies appeared: Kluckhohn and Murray (1948) and Haring (1956), the later being revised several times. Both Mead (1946) and Hallowell (1953) published assessments of the field.

Mead thought that the “and” in “personality and culture” had seduced many into a series of primarily methodological befuddlements—themselves more embarrassing than enlightening. Too often, practitioners forgot that the distinctions between culture and personality were matters of heuristic abstraction, useful only insofar as scholars applied them mindfully, avoiding thereby logical errors associated with a false concreteness. Like much of Mead’s thought from this period onwards, here she showed a decidedly Batesonian influence.

Hallowell (1953) recapitulated much of the best of Benedict, Mead, and Bateson’s advancements while mentioning these three almost not at all. By then, as Hallowell explained without putting matters quite this way, the influence of the gestaltists, brought into anthropology many years before initially by Mead during the summer of 1925 and elaborated on by others, had become something of a common sense. Part of a system of integrated wholes, culture, personality, and society arose together in real worlds not wholly or merely human. These three—culture, personality, and society—could not really be separated. Heuristically, as Mead (1946) would have had it, scholars could address those processes by which persons adapted to or adjusted to the social and worldly orders in which they found themselves; this had been Mead’s primary focus. Alternatively, scholars could examine culture as an organization of experience typical of a time and place; here Benedict and Bateson had shown a way forward. But Mead, Benedict, and Bateson were no longer within the circles around Sapir and his younger colleagues.

Even more important, by 1953, Benedict along with both Koffka and Lewin had been dead for several years. Bateson had given up anthropology to work among schizophrenics in Palo Alto, California. Mead still did not have a teaching job and, although she continued her busy schedule from her tower office at the American Museum of Natural History, it was some years before she would emerge, as it were, in her guise as grandmother-to-the-world. The circle of anthropologists and gestalt psychologists, Bateson, Benedict, and Mead being prominent members, proved to be too weak to persist.

At Harvard, the Committee on Social Relations, partly under Kluckhohn’s influence, began training a new generation of anthropologists, including David Schneider and Clifford Geertz, who would bring a change of emphasis from psychology to semiotics. Mead brought out two books keeping Benedict’s legacy alive, but Geertz and many others would find Benedict more congenial (for a criticism of Geertz on Benedict, see Young, 2005).

During World War II and subsequently, Benedict and Mead had pioneered studies of culture at a distance, but of these studies only Benedict’s 1946 study of Japan has endured. Mead became embroiled in a dispute over the Great Russians and swaddling. She was often misread during this dispute, but the studies of national character floundered. Still, there was more to this than a lattice of scholars brought together by common interests and the accidents of biography. Perhaps, for a moment, there was the possibility for what can be called, without necessarily outlining all the specifics one might like, a structuralism not beholden to or dependent upon a theory of language, but rather on patterns of growth, reproduction, and decay that examined the juxtaposition of processes and the emergence therein of proportion. If the sort of history of anthropology presented here proves useful, perhaps such a structuralism might yet develop.