SUBDISCIPLINES: Psychological Anthropology

Psychological Anthropology

Kristin Alten * Posted May 1998


Psychological anthropology investigates the psychological conditions that encourage endurance and change in social systems, with the goal of better understanding the relationship between culture and the individual. It approaches anthropological investigations through the use of psychological concepts and methods.

Some social scientists argue that all anthropology is psychological (Bock, 1988, 1). Defined simplistically as "the science of behavior", psychology encompasses the field of anthropology, which focuses on "the science of humanity". It logically follows that without human behavior, the field of anthropology would not exist. However, many anthropologists have studied the behavior of human systems without an explicit interest in psychological theories. Most notable was Leslie A. White, who viewed culture as a material system of objects and symbols that determined human behavior so completely that differences among individuals could be ignored (White, 1949: 121-145). However, if psychology is denied consideration in anthropology, ethnographic work would be forced to eliminate references to perception, motivation, development, and learning.


There is another, more practical, reason why psychology needs to be considered when approaching anthropology. Collecting ethnographic data necessitates that a two-sided relationship be formed between the fieldworker and the people being studied. Anthropologists’ varied personalities often account for the differences in observation and interpretation of the information gathered and the ability of fieldworkers to get along with the groups and people they investigate (Bock, 1988: 4). As Bertrand Russell once noted "All the data upon which our inferences should be based are psychological in character; that is to say, they are experiences of single individuals." (in Devereux 1967).

The History of Psychological Anthropology

TABLE 1: Major Schools and Approaches of Psychological Anthropology

(after Richard Bock, Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, 1988)


Approach and Dates

Leading Figures

Psychoanalytic Anthropology

Orthodox, 1910 -

Freud, Roheim, Flugel, Ferenczi

Later Freudian, 1930 -

Fromm, Erikson, Bettleheim, LeBarre, Devereux

Culture and Personality

Configuralist, 1920-1940

Benedict, Sapir, M. Mead, Barnouw, Hallowell

Basic and Modal Personality, 1935-1955

Kardiner, Linton, DuBois, Wallace, Gladwin

National Character, 1940 -

Kluckhohn, Bateson, Gorer, Hsu, Caudhill, Inkeles

Cross-Cultural, 1950 -

Whiting, Spiro, LeVine, Spindler, Edgerton, Munroe, D’Andrade

Social Structure and Personality

Materialist, 1848 -

Marx, Engels, Bukharin, Godelier

Positionalist, 1890 -

Veblen, Weber, Merton

Interactionist, 1930 -

G. H. Mead, Goffman, Garfinkle

Cognitive Anthropology

Primitive Mentality, 1870 -

Tylor, Levy-Bruhl, Boas, Levi-Strauss

Developmental, 1920 -

Piaget, Cole, Price-Williams, Witkin

Ethnosematic, 1960 -

Conklin. Frake, Kay, Berlin, Hunn


Human Ethology, 1970 -

Erkman, McGrew

Sociobiology, 1975 -

Wilson, Barash

Self and Emotion, 1947 -

Murphy, Shweder, LeVine, Lutz

Psychology has been interwoven with anthropology since its gestation. With the rise of evolutionary theory in the mid- to late-nineteenth century it was believed that human beings progressed in three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. These notions were also applied to the psychology of the people studied. It was assumed that the members of a group at any given evolutionary stage shared common psychological characteristics, including ways of experiencing the world, distinctive needs and way of thinking.

German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt was a pioneer in the field of folk psychology. His goal was to find psychological explanations using the reports of ethnologists on the beliefs and actions of primitive man. He contrasted stages, such as a "totemic stage," an "age of heroes and gods," and a final "enlightened age of humanity," associating each with a distinctive type of thinking. Unlike other theorists of the time, Wundt believed that primitive and civilized man had the same intellectual capabilities, but exercised them differently (Bock, 1988, 18). His students included Emile Durkheim, Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski. Lucien Levy-Bruhl, on the other hand, considered the mentality of primitive man to be pre-logical; meaning indifferent to logical contradictions and incapable of abstract thought.


In America, cognitive differences between primitive and civilized people were considered immaterial to the relevant goals of the discipline. Boas, considered by many to be the father of American anthropology, was opposed to the seeming reductionism of psychology which minimized complex historical phenomena to a few basic ideas. He argued against the racism that went along with the much of the psychologically influenced anthropological thought of the time. In The Mind of Primitive Man (1963) Boas insisted that "If anthropologists can show that mental processes among primitive and civilized are essentially the same, the view cannot be maintained that the present races of man stand on different stages of the evolutionary series and that civilized man has attained a higher-place in mental organization than primitive man."

While Boas was defining the limits of anthropology, Sigmund Freud’s influence was being felt in the field of psychology through his work in psychoanalysis.

Up until the turn of the century, anthropology and psychology had always been two distinct fields. Anthropology was more concerned with historical and evolutionary trends, while psychology was ahistorical and acultural. Psychoanalytic psychology bridged the two and gave psychology a historical element by anchoring patients in their own histories which provided a link with the anthropological notions of the time (Spiro, 1968, 559). Freud’s excursions into anthropology, still heavily psychological in nature, were included his book Totem and Taboo (1946), and in his essays in Civilization and Its Discontents (1961).

Freud’s insights into psycho-cultural analysis allowed anthropologists to recognize that much of what is done by individuals in their in everyday lives is influenced by the desires of their unconscious minds. However, the psychoanalytic approach in anthropology has been criticized for amplifying the importance and meaning behind cultural institutions and symptoms, as Freud’s psychology did to religion.


In the 1920’s a psychological approach to studying culture moved into the forefront of American anthropology with the founding of the culture and personality school by Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. In 1934, Sapir posited that "the more one tries to understand a culture, the more it seems to take on the characteristics of a personality organization." (Sapir, 1949, 201). He went on to assert that patterns of culture are connected by "symbolism or implication" and that an ethnographer must get beyond the superficial categories usually explored, such as kinship or ritual to fully understand the connections that make up these patterns. He encouraged anthropologists to focus their studies on individuals, because he believed that individuals look for and create meaning in their world, acting as a microcosm of the culture in which they live. Sapir’s ideas became the foundation on which culture and personality theory was built.


Gestalt psychology was an influence on anthropologists who turned to configuralism, or cultural patterning. Their shift was a reaction to the atomistic approach of historical particularism, which emphasized cultural traits. Anthropologists such as Benedict, Mead and Sapir felt that culture had to be looked at in forms or patterns, rather than as individual elements. "For example, when we recognize a musical melody, we perceive a pattern of relationships rather than individual tones….A melody is not present in its separate notes, for the notes can be rearranged to produce a number of other melodies…The meaning is in the pattern (Bock, 1988, 45) rather than the individual elements. Analyzing the elements separately destroys the meaning of the pattern. Benedict, Mead and Sapir felt similarly about culture.

A second approach taken by the culture and personality theorists was based on the concepts of basic personality structure and modal personality. Psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner and anthropologist Ralph Linton divided culture into primary institutions (such as subsistence type, child training), producing a common denominator of basic personality which translated into secondary institutions such as religion, ritual and folklore. The notion of basic personality structure places the focal point of cultural integration in the common denominator of the personalities of people who share a culture. It also attempted to comprehend the causal relationship between culture and personality rather than just taking for granted, as configuralism did, that they combined in similar ways. Culture is integrated because all of the members of a society share experiences that produce a basic personality structure which in turn creates and sustains other aspects of culture.

Cora DuBois, one of the first ethnographers trained in psychological methods, created the concept of modal personality, outlining it in her book, The People of Alor (1944). Psychological anthropologists found this approach more acceptable than basic personality structure because it expressed the character of a group as being the most frequent type encountered, rather than generalizing that traits were absolute or that all of the members of a culture have the same personality structure. This was better suited to the ethnographic data collected because it allowed for its wide range. Other anthropologists who worked to refine modal personality included Anthony F. C. Wallace, Thomas Gladwin and Seymour Sarason.

Projective tests such as the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test were taken from mainstream psychology and used to study personality in non-western cultures. These tests were intended to let the subjects to project themselves into a situation, giving the ethnographer a window into the person’s psyche. The Rorschach test uses white cards with inkblots of varying shapes or colors which are shown to subjects who are then asked to report what they see in each card. In the Thematic Apperception Test subjects are shown a picture of a human figure and are then asked to tell a story about it. The popular use of these methods later came under fire because of the subjectivity of their scoring and emphasis on Western interpretations.

With the beginning of World War II the culture and personality school began applying its methods to larger social units, assuming that an entire culture can be characterized in terms of a typical personality. This lead to the national character studies, founded on the assumption that there is some validity to national stereotypes (such as Germans being industrious or the English being reserved) that are difficult to prove. Working on the Committee for National Morale during the war, Mead and Bateson recruited Benedict and Kluckhohn to develop techniques for studying cultures at a distance, including the study of literature, films, newspapers, government propaganda, and the use of interviews with recent immigrants.

Around 1950 the culture and personality approach began to decline in popularity. Critics attacked its findings as unverifiable and impossible to test. The assumption that each society could be characterized in terms of a single personality type allowed cultures to be oversimplified and led to the assumption that uniform individuals perpetuate a static culture (Bock, 1988, 98). Even Wallace, a proponent of the psychological approach, said that cultures need diversity in order to survive. Also, it was impossible for anthropologists to describe the psychological characteristics of a culture without expressing their Western biases, as occurred in the stereotype-driven national character studies.

After the criticism of the 1950’s, psychological anthropology turned towards the cross-cultural correlational approach, a product of a joint effort between psychologists and anthropologists at Yale University, including Clark Hull, John Dollard, G. P. Murdock and John Whiting. These people felt that previous culture and personality approaches used their hypotheses as proven theories to interpret specific case materials rather than test them. In correlational testing a condition is looked for as it occurs or fails to occur in a culture. Then a condition which is considered to be related to the first is documented as present or absent in their culture. The practitioners of this approach believed it was possible to determine whether there was a consistent relation between the two conditions which would confirm or negate a hypothesis. Unfortunately, this work suffered from the same problem as the earlier culture and personality approaches; it was impossible to convince skeptics that objective individuals could be found to judge the degree to which a culture had a certain custom or trait. It also necessitated drawing strict and somewhat arbitrary boundaries for cultures.

Psychological Anthropology since the 1960s

Francis Hsu proposed in 1972 that the field known as culture and personality be renamed psychological anthropology. He found the former title cumbersome and out of date because many anthropologists considered personality to be indistinguishable from culture or believed that it required a much deeper examination than the average anthropologist was capable of (Hsu, 1972: 6).

The social structure and personality school, which chronologically followed the correlational approach, encompassed three perspectives popular in the 1960s and 1970s: materialist, positionalist, and interactionist. These approaches all rejected the prevalent idea that there is a one to one relationship between culture and personality. Most of the individuals in this school were sociologists and social psychologists rather than anthropologists.

The materialist approach is Marxist in nature and assumes that the primary force in people’s lives is their awareness of shared material interests. This approach applies class psychology to anthropology and cuts across nationalist and ethnic boundaries to look at class structures.

The positionalist approach is broader than the materialist approach because it treats social class as only one of a number of social positions, such as ethnic group or age, that influence individual behavior. They believe that behavioral and personality differences found in members of groups can be traced back to particular socialization practices in childhood and later in life.

The assumption that the self is an entirely social product is conveyed by the interactionist approach. It differs from other trends in psychological anthropology in its insistence that a person’s self or identity is constructed from ongoing interactions, and in its focus on the factors of the immediate situation that produce regularities in behavior. Erving Goffman used interactionism to point out that in a social situation some information must be revealed and some hidden in order to define yourself as a certain type of person (professor, mechanic). Goffman also noted that claims to identity can be false. He looked at the implications of deception on everyday social interactions and showed that some frauds may be more convincing than legitimate players at presenting a believable self (Goffman, 1959).

In the 1970’s and 1980’s psychological anthropology began focusing on human behavior in a natural setting through human ethological and sociobiological approaches. Human ethologists use concepts and methods developed in the study of animal behavior in an attempt to rid anthropology of its implicit Western biases. Sociobiology, which has developed in the last fifteen years, analyzes observations in terms of evolutionary biology and patterns of adaptation, asking what behavior contributes to the reproductive success of the species. Current work in psychological anthropology is focused in the areas of cognitive anthropology, self, emotion, and alternative states of consciousness.

Psychological anthropology has changed enormously from its Freudian beginnings in the 1920s. While psychoanalysis once was the driving influence on the field, it now takes inspiration from biology, developmental psychology, linguistics, praxis theories and cognitive science. Both the blurring of disciplinary boundaries and the postmodern attempt to dissolve the subject have led to a decrease in the popularity of psychological anthropology. However, The Society for Psychological Anthropology remains an active part of the American Anthropological Association and research continues to be carried out at the University of California, San Diego, Emory University and the interdisciplinary centers of the University of Chicago, Harvard University and University of California, Los Angeles. The resilience that psychological anthropology has shown throughout its century of existence may evidence the validity and importance of its approach.



Boas, Franz

1963 The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Free Press.

Bock, Philip K., ed.

    1. Handbook of Psychological Anthropology. London: Greenwood Press.

Bock, Philip K.

    1. Rethinking Psychological Anthropology. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Devereux, George

1967 From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences. The Hague: Mouton.

Freud, Sigmund

1946 Totem and Taboo: New York: Vintage Books.

    1. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton.

Goffman, Erving

1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

Hsu, Francis L. K., Ed.

1972 Psychological Anthropology. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Sapir, Edward

1949 Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schwartz, Theordore, White, Geoffrey M., Lutz, Catherine A., Eds.

    1. New Directions in Psychological Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sills, David, Ed.

1968 International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Article by Melford Spiro. 4: 558-563. New York: MacMillian and Co. and The Free Press.

White, Leslie A.

1949 The Science of Culture. New York: Grove Press.

Major Works

Benedict, Ruth,

1934 Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

DuBois, Cora,

(1944) 1960 The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kardiner, Abram,

1939 The Individual and His Society: The Psychodynamics of Primitive Social Organization. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kluckhohn, Clyde et al. (editors),

(1948) 1953 Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. New York: Knopf.

Mead, Margaret,

1939 From the South Seas: Studies in Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow.

Sapir, Edward,

(1910-1944) 1949 Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality, edited by David Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wallace, Anthony F. C.,

    1. Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

Whiting, John W. M., Child, Irvin L.

    1. Child Training and Personality: A Cross-Cultural Study. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Society for Psychological Anthropology of the American Anthropology Association


Ethos. Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association

1973 - Present




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