Psychological Anthropology Research Paper

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Psychological anthropology considers connections between the individual and sociocultural milieu, including cultural influences on personality and psychological foundations of society and culture. The field comprises studies of child rearing, self-representation, emotion, motives, moral reasoning, cognition, dreaming, mental disorder, gender relations, violence, racism, and cultural symbolism, among other things. Theoretical and methodological perspectives include cultural psychology, ethnopsychology, psychoanalytic anthropology, cross-cultural studies of child development, evolutionary psychological anthropology, and cognitive anthropology.

Although it shares concerns with several related fields (i.e., social psychology, cultural psychology (in psychology), cross-cultural psychology, and ‘applied’ psychoanalysis), psychological anthropology differs from these enterprises in being strongly committed to ethnographic fieldwork in diverse cultures. This engagement with culture (and cultures) leads psychological anthropologists to put two demanding questions to theories of mind and personality: they ask if such theories adequately consider cultural influences on the individual, and whether they can in any way illuminate cultures, particularly the symbolic content of expressive culture and the logic of local knowledge. Whereas the first question poses doubts about the universal validity of Western psychology, the second, pointing in the opposite direction, encourages interest in psychoanalysis and cognitive science, psychoanalysis because it addresses content and cognitive science because it addresses logic.

Some cultural determinists or culturalists define their work as ‘cultural psychology.’ In their view, ‘psychological anthropology’ implies universalism and reductionism and, correlatively, too little concern with local cultures. Concurring with this appraisal, still others narrow their concerns to ‘ethnopsychology,’ to local cultural ideas about the mind or person. Yet for many others ‘psychological anthropology’ remains a comprehensive enterprise that allows for both cultural influences on subjectivity and for psychological interpretations of society and culture. It may also include evolutionary perspectives on human nature and attention to precultural social environment in child development.

1. Culture And Personality

Franz Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, was interested in general psychology or human nature as well as ‘folk psychology,’ the way in which the ‘genius of peoples’ is shaped by local history and culture (Stocking 1992). Many of his students, however, were more influenced by his interest in this second, cultural psychology than by his interest in general psychology. Margaret Mead argued for the plasticity of sexuality and gender relations, and she rebutted Piaget and others effectively who were asserting similarity between the thinking of ‘primitives’ and children. Ruth Benedict contended that cultures inculcate radically different worldviews and, therefore, that subjectivity varies substantially from one culture to another. In yet another version of this cultural determinism, the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner, working with several anthropologists, suggested that the ‘primary institutions’ of a culture (i.e., family organization, child-rearing practices) produce a distinctive ‘basic personality structure.’ This shared personality core, in turn, informs ‘secondary institutions’ (e.g., art, myth, ritual, politics) through projection. The model guided attempts to measure basic personality structure with projective personality tests and to document the effects of child rearing with cross-cultural studies, such as those carried out by John W. M. Whiting and his many students.

The principal tenets of this ‘culture and personality’ theorizing and research were congruity between personality and culture, and reproduction of shared personality and culture through child-rearing practices. By the late 1960s, these tenets were in doubt. Life histories and projective personality testing had demonstrated shared psychological traits in communities, but they had also revealed much individual variation. The assumption that child-rearing practices have robust consequences for personality and culture also seemed less certain. Edward Sapir, Boas’s most brilliant student, expressed reservations about culture and personality well before these empirical results. In his view, personality and culture are interrelated, partly because they have a common nexus in symbolic communication and social interaction, but he also emphasized that individual personality is not simply a passive effect of social environment. Observing that cultural knowledge and practices are unevenly distributed in groups and that the same cultural practices can have diverse meanings and emotional entailments for individuals, Sapir inferred that the individual is the creative locus and foundation of culture. Although he had misgivings about it, Sapir concluded that psychoanalysis was the best available language for describing individual psychology.

More in keeping with Sapir’s thinking, some psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists focused on expressions of human nature and individual personality in cultural beliefs and practices (e.g., Geza Roheim, George Devereux, Weston La Barre, and Melford E. Spiro). Roheim, the first of these psychoanalytic anthropologists, was especially critical of culture and personality for ignoring human nature and for underestimating cultural and psychological diversity within societies and communities.

2. Social Anthropology And Psychoanalysis

In the early twentieth century British anthropologists turned their attention from social evolution to actual social life, including questions about social actors. Accordingly, they were interested in the newly emerging fields of social psychology and psychoanalysis. Both C. G. Seligman and W. H. R. Rivers read Freud. Bronislaw Malinowski especially was intrigued by the conflict between sexual impulses and social norms in psychoanalytic theorizing. A pragmatic empiricist, Malinowski nonetheless had difficulty grasping hidden structures and processes, whether social or psychological. Assuming that intrapsychic complexes were evident in observable social relations, he argued that the Oedipus complex takes a quite different form in the matrilineal Trobriands. When the response among psychoanalysts to this intervention was less than positive, Malinowski’s already ambivalent interest in psychoanalysis waned considerably (Stocking 1986).

Various expressions and degrees of ambivalence about psychoanalysis were in fact common in British social anthropology. While social anthropologists sought to understand culture in terms of social relations, it was apparent that the drama of social life involves motivated social actors with personal histories. They could not help but notice, moreover, that expressive culture often includes oedipal themes and bodily imagery (e.g., Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, and Victor Turner but especially John Layard, Kathleen Gough, T. O. Beidelman, and L. R. Hiatt).

3. Psychological Anthropology

As the basic tenets of culture and personality became more questionable, the field began in the 1960s to reinvent itself under the heading of ‘psychological anthropology.’ There was less interest in typifying entire cultures and more concerted efforts to explore specific issues. Tensions between culturalist and psychoanalytic or otherwise psychological approaches have persisted, however. Recently, the theoretical scene has been further complicated by the emergence of evolutionary psychological anthropology, a perspective that competes with psychoanalytic anthropology in some respects and complements it in others.

3.1 Human Nature

Culturalists contend that human nature lacks content, except perhaps for a capacity for learning language and culture. Many psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists are convinced, however, that human beings are desiring, emotional, and moral creatures as well as creatures capable of learning language and culture (Ingham 1996). For their part, evolutionary psychological anthropologists argue that human beings come equipped with inclinations and capabilities oriented toward ensuring inclusive fitness. The evolutionary and psychoanalytic perspectives converge in some respects, particularly in their attention to deception and sexuality. Proposals by evolutionary psychological anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists that childhood experience may shape reproductive strategies also converge in interesting ways with thinking in psychoanalytic anthropology. The ethnographic evidence for these varying views of human nature is ambiguous. While cultural diversity argues against an essential human nature, recurrent themes in the ethnographic data appear to have just the opposite implication. In support of a common human nature, it is noticed, for example, that oedipal themes and culture heroes and mischievous tricksters are nearly everywhere present in myth and folklore (Johnson and Price-Williams 1996).

3.2 Incest Aversion

Although there are attempts to explain incest aversion in cultural terms, the most lively discussions involve psychoanalytic and evolutionary, neo-Westermarckian perspectives. Wolf’s work in particular evokes debate, partly because it purports to have devastating consequences for psychoanalysis. Wolf adduced data on Chinese simpua marriage (a son marries an adopted daughter with whom he has a ‘sisterlike’ relationship) to argue that familiarity in childhood inhibits sexual desire (the simpua marriages result in higher rates of infertility and divorce). Spain (1987) responded that both Freud and Westermarck predict no incestuous behavior as a result of normal child development. Subsequently, Wolf (1995), again dismissing Freud, drew on attachment theory to argue that the familiarity effect begins as early as the second year of life, presumably before the oedipal period. Nonetheless, a further response to Wolf seems likely. Wolf did not investigate mother–child relationships or childhood sexuality, and he does not consider that attachment theory is a branch of psychoanalysis and that there is clinical literature that implicates early attachment in the development and resolution of childhood oedipality.

3.3 Embodiment And Desire

It has become increasingly common to assert that the body and desire are socially or culturally constructed.

‘Embodiment’ in this thinking refers not to the bodily grounding of the self or mind but to the way in which culture or discourse shapes ideas about the body and bodily experience. The experience of embodiment is then expressed in ‘narratives’ about the body.

A different approach to embodiment assumes a more active, motivated subject in which motivation and body image reflect unconscious object relations and internalized moral values as well as the more immediate effects of social discourse. In a study of a recovered anorexic woman, for example, Banks (1998) shows that the woman’s changing personal narratives about eating had more to do with her emotional experiences, personal relationships, and religious convictions than dominant cultural discourses about beauty and thinness. A fantasy story about a cookie jar, written in a diary at 11 years of age, implies that the woman’s anorexia during adolescence was a way of organizing memories of maternal neglect in early life and religiously inflected anxieties about the dangers of sexuality. The temptation of the cookies and the decision to forego them in the story anticipated the way in which anorexia would become a defense against sexuality during adolescence. Far from being a passive self, the woman was an active subject who responded to discourses about the body in terms of her personal experience and deeply internalized religious convictions.

Culturalists and discourse theorists say that sexual desire and romantic love are ‘socially constructed’ or ‘invented’ along with the body, and, to be sure, they provide ample ethnographic material in support of this contention. It is not clear, however, how discourse fashions motivation or affect in desire and love. Cognitive and culturalist anthropologists theorize that motives are represented in the mind as cultural schemas (D’Andrade and Strauss 1992). A case has been made for this approach but, again, it is uncertain how schemas ‘stick’ in the mind or how they acquire affective force. As Banks’s study suggests, cultural schemas may take hold in intrapsychic object relations, that is, in unconscious representations of emotionally significant relationships, especially with parents. If this is so, it does not suffice to say that the body or desire is socially constructed. Developmental studies of individuals challenge simplified versions of social constructionism but so, too, does the evidence for cultural universals. One of these challenges is the finding that more or less durable passionate attachment is virtually universal in human societies (Jankowiak 1995).

3.4 Attachment, Oedipus Complex, Socialization

Observations in various cultures suggest that warm, nurturing parenting and paternal presence in early life lay an emotional basis for sociability and positive self-regard. They also suggest that secure early attachment postpones and reduces sexual activity in adolescence and lays an emotional foundation for durable love relationships and warm, empathic parenting. An evolutionary argument relates these findings to reproductive strategy, that is, it is theorized that during the course of human evolution secure attachment in childhood promoted durable passionate attachment and high-quality parenting in adulthood, whereas insecure attachment promoted increased sexual activity and multiple relationships. The first pattern supposedly favored reproductive success where supportive environments resulted in lower death rates, whereas the second pattern was more likely to lead to reproductive success where adverse material conditions resulted in higher mortality (Chisholm 1992). Another formulation finds the Oedipus complex in these scenarios. In this argument, secure attachment results in early onset and resolution of oedipal attachments and, eventually, in an emotional capacity for enduring passionate attachment, whereas insecure attachment promotes more persistent and sexualized forms of oedipal attachment and, consequently, promiscuity and other forms of sexualizing and objectifying sexual partners. Accordingly, the secure form of the Oedipus complex supported the transition to pairbonding and increased paternal investment in offspring during early human evolution (Ingham 1999).

Attachment is probably everywhere part of early child development, but this need not imply that secure attachment is everywhere produced in the same way. On the contrary, evidence suggests that diverse parenting styles and family arrangements can promote secure attachment. Whether it can be added that attachment and the Oedipus complex vary greatly from society to society continues to be a subject for debate, however. Some writers think they do (Spain 1992), while others find the evidence less than persuasive (Spiro 1992). Attachment and oedipality aside, there is no doubt that children are socialized into their cultures. Many studies show that children learn their cultures from an early age, and that this learning informs perception, emotional expression, and moral reasoning as well as social attitudes and worldview. Many such studies contest assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ development. Shweder (1991), for example, argues that theories of moral development may say more about Western concerns with individual rights than anything about the universal course of moral development.

3.5 Self And Emotion

Culturalists and postmodernists argue that the self and emotion, like embodiment and desire, are culturally determined or socially constructed, and, consequently, that they too vary greatly from one culture to another. One often-repeated idea is that the self is more individualistic or ‘egocentric’ in modern societies and more communal or ‘sociocentric’ in traditional societies. Implicit in these arguments is an assumption that what people think about themselves and how and what they feel are heavily constrained by words and idioms. It is argued, for example, that Russians are more expressive emotionally than Americans. In support of this contention, it is noted that Russians have a richer store of words and phrases for describing emotion and more linguistically marked emotional bodily expression than Americans (Wierzbicka 1998).

It can be objected, however, that linguistic constructionism risks typifying whole peoples and underestimating psychological complexities. Although selfdescriptions may differ somewhat from culture to culture in how much they refer to social ties, studies in various cultures show that individuals are often better described as having both individualistic and communal inclinations, and, moreover, that this is so even in cultures that would seem to be highly communal (see, e.g., McHugh 1989). Research in the US suggests that the common assertion that Americans are unusually individualistic may be doubly simplistic, not only because Americans are communal as well as individualistic but also because their individualism assumes different forms depending on social class and neighborhood.

What is proving more interesting for many researchers than local lexicons is the way in which self-representation and emotional expression are organized through the stories people tell about themselves and to themselves. Research is being done, for instance, on how individuals use self-narratives to reconstruct and negotiate social identities in diasporic communities. Interest in self-narratives is part of a broader trend toward methodologically rigorous discourse-centered ethnography in psychological anthropology. Speech productions are tape-recorded, transcribed with technical notation, and examined for narrative style and speech style. They are then further examined for what they express about the self and culture. Since discourse is inherently dialogical— interlocutors are both speakers and listeners— attention to discourse translates the abstract relation between self and society, psyche and culture, into a more concrete mutual relation between interlocutors. In studies of personal narratives about religious conversion, Stromberg (1991) shows how conversion makes culture personally meaningful by transforming referential symbols into constitutive symbols. In the conversion process, symbols that refer to the external world become part of self-identity. At the same time, they may become a personal language for managing intrapsychic conflict, say between desire and moral duty. In one of his studies a man feels powerless and insufficiently masculine. Speech style, body posturing, and cultural symbolism imply that this self-organization involves wishes for masculine power, memories of a brutal father, and feelings of having been overpowered by women, especially his mother and motherlike wife. His dreams represent a masculine power as phallic, flying horses, and the mother figure as a vaginalike tornado. Recommitment to Christian faith occurs after the man identifies in his dreams with a potent, athletic Christ (Stromberg 1991).

Another set of issues concerns how universal emotions or common emotional predicaments are organized in particular cultures. One example is grieving, arguably a universal experience. In some cultures mortuary rituals involve multiple burials and reburials or cremations and re-cremations in which the deceased is figuratively and literally deconstructed and reconstructed. Beliefs associated with such practices sometimes link the mother with the deceased, and the rituals themselves may involve eating the flesh of the deceased and giving the flesh of the deceased or its symbolic equivalent to relatives. In a comparative study of these practices, Stephen (1998) draws on Melanie Klein’s object-relations psychoanalysis to theorize that many emotional losses resonate with separation from the mother at some level and may, therefore, activate unconscious traces of child rage and guilt and related needs to make reparation.

3.6 Unconscious Meaning And Motivation In Myth And Ritual

Because it seems to speak to symbolic content in this way, efforts to understand the unconscious meaning and motivation of expressive culture draw more on psychoanalysis than any other psychology. Psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists have often argued that relations with supernatural figures recreate or repair imaginary relations with parents (see Obeyesekere 1981). Various studies suggest that puberty rites and adolescent initiation rites may be oriented toward resolving oedipal ties to parents and orienting young people toward marriage. Ancient Greek myths can be read as implying that adolescent transition rites function in this way. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule, the story of Oedipus may be a deviant form of more common myths in which the hero marries and becomes king after passing through an initiatory trial with a monster (see Goux 1993). Other elements in Western culture may have similar socializing functions. In a rigorously close reading of the text and its midrashic commentaries, Paul (1996) shows that mythic patricide and incestuous desire are recurrent though disguised themes in the five books of Moses. The reading suggests the Torah activates unconscious oedipal fantasies and related

 guilt feelings but that it also represents both paternal prohibitions and a substitute for the maternal object. In effect, the Torah may serve the growing boy or girl in the Hebrew community as a model for normative displacement and transformation of childhood attachments.

Culturalists frequently complain that psychoanalytic interpretations of cultural symbolism are simplistically universalistic and reductionistic. This may be a fair criticism in some cases—there are examples of overly mechanical and insensitive uses of psycho- analytic interpretation in the anthropological literature—but it seems unfair in many others, including those cited here. Psychoanalytic anthropologists are usually careful to consider ethnographic details and conscious personal and cultural meanings. Indeed, they contend that the evidence for unconscious meanings and motives lies precisely in such ethno-graphic details and conscious meanings.

4. Basic Dilemma, Contemporary Perspectives

As in the past, psychological anthropologists are struggling with an empirical and theoretical bind involving cultural particularism and psychological universalism, the influence of the sociocultural milieu on the individual, on the one hand, and the motivated agency of psychological subjects, on the other. Advocates of cultural psychology and ethnopsychology try to resolve the dilemma on the side of culture. They sometimes say their viewpoint allows for an active self—this is the point of their replacing the language of cultural determinism with that of social and cultural constructionism—but it is often difficult to see how their self is more than a passive product of culture. While their culturalist approach opens productive questions about how individuals are shaped or constrained by their sociocultural milieus, usually it leaves motivation and the perplexing, enigmatic features of those milieus in question. Universalistic psychoanalytic and evolutionary approaches have a reverse set of strengths and weaknesses. They offer theories and hypotheses about motivation but they are less well equipped to deal with social context and cultural influence.

Cognizant of both horns of the dilemma, many psychological anthropologists are exploring ways of conceptualizing the interplay between self and other, personality and culture. On the culturalist constructionist side of the discussion, the growing interest in discourse-centered ethnography is arguably the most noteworthy development (Besnier 1994). While it may sidestep motive and volition, it encourages attention to symbolic expression; it takes the culturalist approach beyond reified notions like individualism and sociocentrism to more detailed understanding of the complexities of subjectivity and culture; and, finally, because speech is inherently dialogical, it conduces toward a view in which the subject is not only the locus of cultural influence but also an active, speaking agent in the production and reproduction of culture. On the psychoanalytic side, there is effort to renew the encounter between psychoanalysis and social anthropology (Auge 1999, Heald and Deluz 1994). In this approach, culture mediates social relations and is not reducible to individual psychology but may tap into unconscious fantasy and emotion. In a dialogical version of this approach, individuals and groups influence each other through pragmatic discourse. More particularly, their rhetorical practices exert social and political effects by suppressing, mobilizing, and redirecting common sense, moral reasoning, and unconscious motivation, especially around issues of attachment, sexuality, aggression, and love. Finally, attention is given to the ways in which individuals resist these tactics or accede to them according to their social positions and psychological dispositions (Ingham 1996). In an attempt to integrate discourse theory with culturalist, cognitive, and psychoanalytic approaches, Nuckolls (1996) argues that cultural knowledge everywhere emerges in conversation and that it is always a paradoxical, dialectical mixture of diverse desires, goals, and rationalizations. At the same time, the dissonance in cultural knowledge engenders desires for coherence and synthesis. Unity and agreement remain elusive, however, and when achieved soon give way to further dialogue and disagreement. What is true of cultural knowledge in these respects is evidently true of psychological anthropology, itself an ongoing conversation. However appealing synthesis may be, it seems that psychological anthropology is entrapped in paradox and dialectic no less than its subject matter.


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