A forum to foster dialogue across disciplines on issues related to culture and development.and their implications for public action. Based on the book:

Culture and Public Action, Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton (editors), Stanford University Press, 2004. The South Asia Edition has been published by Permanent Black.


Contributors (In Order of Chapters in the Book):

Amartya Sen, Arjun Appadurai, Mary Douglas, Marco Verweij, Timur Kuran, Arjo Klamer, Lourdes Arizpe, Sabina Alkire, Anita Abraham, Jean-Phiippe Platteau, Monica Das Gupta, Carol Jenkins, Fernando Calderon, Alicia Szmuckler, Simon Harragin, Shelton Davis,Vijayendra Rao, Michael Walton

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Culture and Personality

Culture and Personality was an American movement that brought together cultural anthropology with psychiatry and psychology. After 1960 it was renamed as Psychological Anthropology, mainly so that anthropologists could distance themselves with the earlier approaches of the school, particularly its early and strong emphasis on cultural determinancy. Many outside of anthropology and outside of academia have been heavily influenced by the cultural determinism of the early "configurationist" and "national character" studies of the culture and personality school. This movement was started by the students of Franz Boas and originated from dissatisfaction with the ways in which the culture concept had been equated to a list of traits for a particular group of people. Although Boas himself did make reference to the psychological aspects of culture, his historical approach primarily focused on disparate historical traits. Gestalt psychology, in particular the idea that meaning is not a function of discrete elements but rather of organized patterns, greatly influenced Edward Sapir, one of the principal founders of this culture and personality movement. Sapir's approach was to find these patterns and symbols of culture and relate them to the individual personality. Thus the principal area of investigation was in the relationship of how humans acquire culture and how this relates to their individual personalities.

The early "configurational" studies of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead claimed that the cultural whole (the configuration of culture) determined its parts (the personality of the members of society) and the consistent patterns of thought and action among them. Benedict's famous Patterns of Culture (1934), distilled from different societies' religious, kinship, economic and political organizations a cultural pattern that she claimed determined the personalities of its members. Through the process of early childhood enculturation, Benedict argued that people are molded into the dominant personality type of a culture. Benedict developed psychological typologies of culture groups. Margaret Mead also analyzed the relationship between culture and early social development in terms of this configurationist approach in Somao and Papua New Guinea. Later in their careers (in the 1940's) they also wrote a number of national character studies that utilized films, literature, government documents, and immigrant interviews as the basis of their analyses. Most famously, Benedict wrote Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a study on the Japanese character during World War II. In their work, both Benedict and Mead assumed culture as a given and claimed that it determined personality but neither explained clearly how this relationship worked.

In the late 1930's a mixture of anthropologists and psychologists responded to this failure to model the ways in which culture determined personality with the theory of a "Basic And Modal Personality Structure" (Kardiner, Du Bois, Sapir, Linton). They argued that primary institutions (toilet behavior, weaning, etc.) lead to basic personality structures in a society, which further influences the creation of secondary institutions (cultural institutions such as religion). Such cultural institutions are, therefore, created to satisfy personality needs.

By the 1950's many anthropologists had abandoned the use of psychoanalysis to draw grand theories of cultural configuration. This relationship between culture and individual psychology and personality has carried much influence outside of anthropology as evidenced in many of the "culture of poverty" approaches popularized in some development circles (See: Harrison 1992, 2002).


Ruth Benedict:
"A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action. Within each culture there came into being characteristic purposes not necessarily shared by other types of society. In obedience to these purposes, each people further and further consolidates its experience, and in proportion to the urgency of these drives the heterogeneous items of behavior take more and more congruous shape. Taken up by a well-integrated culture, the most ill-assorted acts become characteristic of its peculiar goals, often by the most unlikely metamorphoses. (1934:46)

Margaret Mead:
"...man made for himself a fabric of culture with which each human life was dignified by form and meaning...Each people makes this fabric differently, selects some clues and ignores others, emphasizes a different sector of the whole arc of potentialities. Where one culture uses as a main thread the vulnerable ego, quick to take insult or perish of shame, another selects uncompromising bravery..."(1935: 1)




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