In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culture and Personality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies, 1945–1961
  • National-Character Studies at Columbia University
  • Abram Kardiner, Ralph Linton, and Cora Du Bois at Columbia University
  • The “Sapirian Alternative” in Anthropology: A. Irving Hallowell and Clyde Kluckhohn
  • Research Programs Continuing the Study of Culture and Personality
  • Research Methods in Culture and Personality: The Life History and Projective Techniques

Anthropology Culture and Personality
Robert A. LeVine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0144


“Culture and personality” (also known as “personality and culture” and “culture-and-personality studies”) was an interdisciplinary movement seeking to unite psychology with anthropology in American social science of the mid-20th century. The movement gained exceptional renown and then fell into disrepute in the decades after 1950, while nevertheless providing a basis for modern psychological anthropology. The movement was initiated by three students of Franz Boas’s (founder of academic anthropology in America)—Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict—who included, in different ways, a psychological dimension in the study of culture. Bestselling books written by Mead (e.g., Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing Up in New Guinea, and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies; see Mead 1928, Mead 1930, and Mead 1935, all cited under Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) and Benedict (e.g., Patterns of Culture, see Benedict 1934a, cited under Ruth F. Benedict) introduced anthropology to the American reading public, and in the late 1940s, when the books were reprinted in paperback editions, became the public face of anthropology itself. In 1947, Mead and Benedict launched a “national character” project on modern cultures at Columbia University, partly funded by the US military to study cultures “behind the Iron Curtain.” Their first book, The People of Great Russia, by Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman (see Gorer and Rickman 1949, cited under National-Character Studies at Columbia University), suggested that tsarist and Soviet authoritarianism had psychological roots in the swaddling of Russian infants; it was widely ridiculed and harshly criticized, creating a stigma from which the culture-and-personality movement as such never recovered. Yet, by the 1950s the movement had generated other, less visible research projects directly and indirectly influenced by Edward Sapir that were refashioned as “psychological anthropology” and continue to the early 21st century. The movement’s renown brought with it the publication of biographies of its founders, and a division between its image in public discourse and those aspects known only to the academic world. The less visible aspects were recovered only after 1990 through the work of historians of anthropology, especially Regna Darnell with her biography of Sapir and Judith Irvine’s posthumous reconstruction of Sapir’s lectures on the psychology of culture. Culture and personality was never a centralized movement and lacked a consensus on theory and method; diverse approaches were formulated and tried out. If its theoretical orientation was generally post-Freudian, its methods ranged widely across ethnographic and individual case studies (including life history approaches), the Rorschach and other projective tests, and statistical analyses, both within and across cultures. Topics such as childrearing, individual variations in adult personality, and the relation of culture to mental disorders were examined anew and in most cases, for the first time, gave rise to research traditions that remain influential in modern psychological anthropology.

General Overviews

Each of these publications (Bock 1988, Darnell 2001, LeVine 2001, LeVine 2007, LeVine 2010, Lindholm 2007) contributes to the intellectual history of the culture-and-personality movement.

  • Bock, Philip K. 1988. Rethinking psychological anthropology: Continuity and change in the study of human action. New York: Freeman.

    A critical and insightful view of culture and personality, though limited by being written before Regna Darnell’s Edward Sapir biography (Darnell 1990, cited under Edward Sapir) and the publication of Sapir’s The Psychology of Culture (Sapir 1994, cited under Edward Sapir).

  • Darnell, Regna. 2001. Invisible genealogies: A history of Americanist anthropology. Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology 1. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Sapir’s biographer sets the culture-and-personality movement in the context of “Americanist” anthropology (i.e., studies of Native American peoples from Franz Boas onward). Its detailed historical account includes the differing views of Sapir, Ruth Benedict, and others in and outside the movement. Essential for an understanding of culture and personality.

  • LeVine, Robert A. 2001. Culture and personality studies, 1918–1960: Myth and history. Journal of Personality 69.6: 803–818.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-6494.696165

    This article describes and criticizes stereotypes of the culture-and-personality movement that became established among anthropologists in the decades after 1950—underestimates of its historical depth and exaggerations of its homogeneity. This was a first attempt at incorporating new historical evidence concerning the complexity of the movement.

  • LeVine, Robert A. 2007. Anthropological foundations of cultural psychology. In Handbook of cultural psychology. Edited by Shinobu Kitayama and Dov Cohen, 40–58. New York: Guilford.

    Shows how anthropologists such as A. Irving Hallowell and Clyde Kluckhohn, who had worked with Sapir, had anticipated many of the conceptual advances made by psychologists under the banner of “cultural psychology” in the last decades of the 20th century.

  • LeVine, Robert A., ed. 2010. Psychological anthropology: A reader on self in culture. Blackwell Anthologies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 13. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A book of readings on modern psychological anthropology that gives attention to the history of the culture-and-personality movement and reprints works by Sapir and Hallowell as well as W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki.

  • Lindholm, Charles. 2007. Culture and identity: The history, theory, and practice of psychological anthropology. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oneworld.

    The most up-to-date textbook of psychological anthropology, with a section on the history of the culture-and-personality movement. Originally published in 2001 (Boston: McGraw-Hill).

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