An Overview of Culture and Personality School in American Anthropology

Boas and Freud, a match never thought possible. They would seem to be natural born enemies, Freud the very essence of what Boas seemed to be fighting against yet despite many differences Boas found fundamental similarities with Freud. The fact that Boas was interested in the personalities of individuals inside a culture made him and his students unable to resist the lure of Freud. This affair changed both the faces of anthropology and psychology forever and the offspring was none other then culture and personality. (Harris 2001:393)
Culture and Personality is a facet of anthropological theory that developed early mid-century. A combination of anthropology and psychology it attempts to explain culture by looking at the individual characters and personalities in hopes to find general traits repeating in a culture to lead to a discovery of a national character, configuralist personalties and model personality types. Child-rearing practices were analyzed in cultures in hopes to find patterns that could lead to explanation for national character. This was done in an attempt to avoid hierarchal or racist models, though it seems that by creating national characters and modal personality types that it could be quite easy to slip into racist and hierarchal models.(Harris 2001: 393-4)
Freud, one of the more controversial and overly cited members of academia, is known most for his psychoanalysis. “A nineteenth century leftover” he accounts every problem in a individuals psychological life back to childhood and repressed sexual desires. Freud’s concepts state that all humans are the same at the beginning but the child-rearing and development cause deviations in behavior and possibly personality disorders. Child-rearing, to Freud, is the only reason why humans vary from each other and cultural differences to him are just illusions. This evolution he justifies with his own breed of cultural evolution. (Harris 2001: 422, 425)
Freud believed that mankind began with a patriarchal rulers that had sexual rights to his sisters and daughters. Other sons and brothers in the clan that were sexually repressed planned one night to kill the patriarch and eat him but after completing this act, felt guilty so they created the taboo of not sleeping with daughters and sisters. The patriarch was also transformed to a totem animal creating meat taboo except for certain ritual occasions. From this, Freud concludes, family organization, the infamous Oedipus complex, group exogamy, totemism and sexual taboo at every level formed. (Harris 2001:425)
This theory was a little much for academia to take in general and was one of the major reasons why anthropology even denied Freud for so long. The theory was unfounded, weak and resembled myth more then history. Yet, Freud’s theories were all based on and relied upon a very well structured and universal human development that led to universal human behavior. This included the classic notion of children going through the oral, anal and genital stages where at certain times of their development they are fixated on these certain regions and any problems from these developmental stages result in children having a psychological problem, such as issues in the anal staged causing the grown up child to be retentive. For his cultural theory to stand these stages must be universal as well as all of his theories more notably the Oedipus complex.(Harris 2001:426-8)
Boas, on the other hand, agreed that all humans were the same but he believed that their differences came from cultural and historical differences and that culture causes humans to deviate from nature. He believed culture could only be observed in participant observation and only after collecting excessive amounts of information could one begin to create generalizations.
Though it always seems as an incredible leap for Boas to support the Culture and Personality school when one looks at Harris’ three phases of Boas it seems to make more sense in the general evolution of his thought. Boas was always interested in the psychic life of man and even viewed it as his life work. (Harris 2001:265-4)
In his first phase Boas wished to discover cultural laws and viewed this as the most important task of ethnology. This stage was defined as denying universal, unilinear systems “but not to the extent of denying more limited forms of parallel sequences. The search for laws governing these uniformities is urged as an important if not most important aim.”(Harris 2001: 277-80)
In his second phase he gave up hopes of finding uniformities in whole institutions but still hoped to find similar institutions in cultures across the world. He also stressed influence of mental laws despite cultural differences.(Harris 2001: 277-80)
“I (Boas) do not mean to imply that no general laws of development exist. On the contrary the analogies that do occur in regions far apart show the human mind tends to reach the same results not under similar but varying circumstances.” (Harris 2001:278)
All of this seems to sound very similar to Freud’s theories of a universal pyche. The idea that man reacts similarly to different courses of action throughout cultures as Boas state would seem to fit right in with Freud’s theories. In these statements from these first two phases it seems that a progression and attraction to Freud’s theories would not be that out of the ordinary, the only thing standing in the way is Freud’s cultural evolution theory.
The final step to the merger between Freud and Boas comes with Freud’s acceptance of Boas’ cultural relativism and abandonment of universal developmental stages. This began the official acceptance of Freud into anthropological theory. With this out of the way Freud’s theory, with the loss of the absolute evolution, combined with Boas’ cultural relativism, became part of the synchronic functionalist tradition.(Harris 2001: 432-33)