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Case Studies and Life Histories in Personality Psychology: A History of Ambivalence
Psychology is proud of its laboratories, with their apparatus for careful experimentation and measurement. It is proud also of its array of tests for measuring the individual’s performance in many directions. It is pleased when its data can be handled by mathematical and statistical methods. (Woodworth, 1929, pp. 7–8)
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When Robert S. Woodworth revised his influential introductory psychology text in 1929, he expanded his final chapter on “personality”—“the individual as a whole, and his social adjustments” (Woodworth, 1929, p. 552), citing several recent studies involving personality tests. Woodworth also revised his treatment of “the methods of psychology” (p. 6), including a new discussion of the “case history method” (p. 8). However, the status of this method in Woodworth’s hierarchy of methods was clear: It belonged at the bottom. Woodworth first described the experimental method, “preferred as the most trustworthy way of observing the facts” under controlled conditions (p. 6); this method included the use of tests, as in testing “the object is to hold conditions constant, so that many individuals can be observed under the same conditions and fairly compared” (p. 6). When conditions cannot be fully controlled, Woodworth noted, psychology “has to resort to” a second method; this “genetic method” (p. 8) involves observations of developmental processes (during this period, “genetic” was frequently used as a synonym for “developmental”; see, e.g.,Warren, 1934, p. 114). If psychologists wish to understand developments that have already occurred, however, they are left with a substitute:
We find a genius, or an insane person, a criminal, or a “problem child” before us, and we desire to know how he came to be what he is. Then the best we can do is to adopt a substitute for the genetic method, by reconstructing his history as well as we can from his memory, the memories of his acquaintances, and such records as may have been preserved. This case history method has obvious disadvantages, but, as obviously, it is the only way to make a start towards answering certain important questions. (Woodworth, 1929, p. 8)
Having pointed out that the case history was primarily a clinical method used to help people with abnormal behavior and that “the cause of misfits and failures is certainly an important matter for study,” Woodworth asked, “Would it not be still more desirable to trace the development of the successful people, the great people, the lovely people, the splendid people of all sorts?” (1929, p. 10). To illustrate his point, and to introduce important topics in psychology, he presented a “biographical sketch” of Gene Stratton-Porter, “a successful writer of popular novels, and also of nature studies, essays and poems” (p. 10). After mentioning several topics suggested by Stratton-Porter’s life history, however, Woodworth made sure to caution his readers that “a single case is not enough to warrant any general conclusions” (p. 19). “We have given so much space to the case history method in this introduction,” he continued,
not because it is the preferred method in psychology, for it is the least rather than the most preferred, but because it can give us what we want at the outset, a bird’s-eye view of the field, with some indication of the topics that are deserving of closer examination. (p. 19)
In the ensuing 12 chapters of the text, Woodworth examined the “deserving” topics but made no further reference to the case of Gene Stratton-Porter.
Preceding by several years the full establishment of the field of personality psychology in the mid-1930s, Woodworth’s text (first published in 1921) outsold all others for 25 years (Boring, 1950), and his definitions of methodological concepts served as prototypes for other textbook authors (Winston, 1988). Indeed, Woodworth’s attention to personality, his role in designing what is generally considered the first personality inventory (the Personal Data Sheet; Woodworth, 1919, 1932), and his ambivalent treatment of the case history method—as the least preferred method, but the one best suited to “give us what we want at the outset” (Woodworth, 1929, p. 19)—have a distinctly modern ring. In recent years, personality researchers with an interest in case studies, life histories, and psychobiography have raised intriguing questions regarding the ambivalence of American personality psychologists toward the study of individual lives (Elms, 1994; McAdams, 1988, 1997; McAdams & West, 1997; Runyan, 1997). For example, McAdams and West observe that “from the beginning, personality psychologists have had a love/hate relationship with the case study” (p. 760). Such ambivalence, they suggest, is inconsistent with the views of Gordon Allport (1937b) and Henry Murray (1938), whose canonical texts defined the new field of personality psychology in the 1930s: “It is ironic that the field defined as the scientific study of the individual person should harbor deep ambivalence about the very business of examining cases of individual persons’ lives” (McAdams & West, 1997, p. 761). (Personality psychologists other than Allport and Murray shared this definition of the field. For example, in a third text that signaled the emergence of the new field, Stagner remarked, “The object of our study is a single human being” [1937, p. viii].)
Ambivalence regarding the study of individual lives also seems incompatible with personality theorists’“dissident role in the development of psychology” (C. S. Hall & Lindzey, 1957, p. 4; see McAdams, 1997) and their concern with “the study of the whole person,” which Hall and Lindzey (p. 6) consider “a natural derivative of [the] clinical practice” of early personality theorists such as Freud, Jung, and Adler. Yet Hall and Lindzey’s major text, Theories of Personality (1957), “gave almost no attention to the study of individual persons or lives” (Runyan, 1997, p. 41). Runyan suggests that personality psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s lost sight of the study of individual lives, the “central focus” of Allport and Murray, turning instead to “psychometric concerns and the experimental study of particular processes” (p. 41; see also Lamiell on the dominance of the individual differences approach, which he considers “ill-suited to the task of advancing theories of individual behavior/psychological functioning” [1997, p. 118], the goal of personality psychology). Craik (1986) notes that biographical and archival approaches were featured regularly in studies of personality during the 1930s and early 1940s but showed a “pattern of interrupted development in the post–World War II era followed by a vigorous contemporary re-emergence” (p. 27).
While observers generally agree regarding personality psychologists’ ambivalence toward the study of individual lives, the historical course of this ambivalence remains somewhat unclear. Have personality psychologists had a relatively constant “love/hate relationship” with studies of individual lives “from the beginning” (McAdams & West, 1997, p. 760), or have they shown interest in such studies during some historical periods (e.g., the 1930s and 1940s) and neglected them during others (e.g., the 1950s and 1960s)? At what point did psychometric methods become predominant in personality research? And how can we explain the “puzzling history” (Runyan, 1997, p. 41) of American personality psychologists’ tendency to neglect the study of individual lives? What historical, cultural, institutional, and personal factors have contributed to their ambivalence? Runyan suggests a number of factors but emphasizes the need for “more detailed research on the intellectual and institutional history of personality psychology” (p. 42).
In this research paper, we consider several pieces of this historical puzzle. We begin by examining the formative period of personality research between 1900 and 1930. As Parker (1991) suggests, this period has received scant attention in historical reviews of American personality psychology, largely due to the prevailing belief that “personality quite suddenly became a field in the middle of the 1930s” (Sanford, 1985, p. 492). In fact, psychologists developed an interest in personality much earlier, and their methodological choices, shaped by developments within the broader field of psychology and in the larger culture, influenced the field in important ways (Danziger, 1990, 1997; Parker, 1991; Shermer, 1985). In our own historical review of the field (Winter & Barenbaum, 1999), we argue that early research in personality reveals a tension between two central tasks of personality psychology—“the study of individual differences” and “the study of individual persons as unique, integrated wholes” (p. 6; emphasis in original)—and that the individual differences approach was already well-established in psychological studies of personality by the time the subfield of personality psychology was institutionalized in the 1930s. Here, we examine in more detail aspects of this formative period that contributed to the predominance of the psychometric approach and to personality psychologists’ambivalence regarding intensive studies of individual lives. We suggest that personality psychologists’ attitudes toward case studies and life histories were influenced by work not only in psychology but also in neighboring disciplines that adopted alternative investigative practices. In particular, we compare the reception of case studies and life histories in psychiatry, sociology, and psychology during the early decades of the twentieth century.
To illustrate the lasting effects of these methodological choices, we trace the efforts of Allport and Murray to promote the study of individual lives in personality psychology, and we examine psychologists’ responses to their work. Finally, we reconsider the question of the historical course of personality psychologists’ ambivalence regarding the study of individual lives and suggest an interpretation of the revival of interest in case studies, life histories, and psychobiography in recent years. Rather than simply documenting the history of case studies and life histories in personality psychology, we focus in this research paper on contextual factors shapingAmerican personality psychologists’attitudes toward these methods. Our account builds upon a number of earlier sources: historical reviews of case studies (e.g., Bromley, 1986; Forrester, 1996; McAdams &West, 1997), life histories and psychobiography (e.g., Bertaux, 1981; McAdams, 1988; Plummer, 1983; Runyan, 1982, 1988b, 1997); handbook chapters on the history of personality theories and research (e.g., McAdams, 1997; Pervin, 1990; Winter & Barenbaum, 1999); and historical studies of the early development of personality psychology (Burnham, 1968a; Danziger, 1990, 1997; Nicholson, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000; Parker, 1991; Shermer, 1985).
Individual Lives and Individual Differences: The Multidisciplinary Study of Personality (1900–1930)
Gordon Allport’s (1921) review of “personality” research, generally considered the first of its kind in an American psychologicaljournal,was“anearlyindicationthatthiswordwas beginningtohaveatechnicalmeaning”(Parker,1991,p.113). Other indicators of institutional recognition (such as publication trends in journals and textbooks, contents of professional meetings,andchangesinacademiccurricula)begantoemerge duringthemid-1920s,andpersonalityresearch“becamearelatively secure specialty area in American psychology by the mid-1930s” (Parker, 1991, p. 164; see also Burnham, 1968a). In the following section we discuss the broader cultural context that influenced the emergence of the new subfield.
The “Culture of Personality”
Personality . . . is by far the greatest word in the history of the human mind. . . . [It ] is the key that unlocks the deeper mysteries of Science and Philosophy, of History and Literature, of Art and Religion, of all man’s Ethical and Social relationships. (Randall, 1912, pp. xiii–xiv)
Cultural historians suggest that during the early decades of the twentieth century, societal changes associated with industrialization, urbanization, and mass education evoked among Americans “a strong sense of the urgency of finding one’s self” (Burnham, 1968b, p. 367; see also Thornton, 1996). During the “turn-of-the-century decade,” according to Susman (1979), “interest grew in personality, individual idiosyncrasies, personal needs and interests. . . . There was fascination with the very peculiarities of the self, especially the sick self” (pp. 216–217). The popular press featured dramatic descriptions of cases of psychopathology, such as the Ladies’ Home Journal article entitled “How One Girl Lived Four Lives: The Astounding Case of Miss Beauchamp” (Corbin, 1908), a popularized version of Morton Prince’s (1906) famous case of “dissociated personality.” Seeking to relieve fears of depersonalization, Americans consulted self-improvement manuals that emphasized the cultivation of a unique, fascinating “personality”—a term that “became an important part of the American vocabulary” (Susman, 1979, p. 217). This new emphasis on “personality” is evident in the previous quote from John Randall. Randall represented the New Thought, or Mind Cure, movement, which was important in the transition from a “culture of character,” a nineteenthcentury ideal emphasizing duty and moral qualities, to a “culture of personality” (Susman, 1979, p. 216), emphasizing self-development and self-presentation.
The 1920s saw “the culmination on a mass scale of public interest in personal, introspective accounts of private experiences” and the development of “a mass market for popularized personal documents” (Burnham, 1968b, p. 368). Americans read magazines such as True Story (Krueger, 1925), first published in 1919 (Ernst, 1991), and Personality: A Magazine of Biography, published from 1927 to 1928 and edited by Ralph Henry Graves, who in 1934 published a biography of Henry Ford—an emblematic figure of the “culture of personality” (Susman, 1979, p. 223). They sought advice from publications on popular systems of character analysis such as graphology, the interpretation of personality from handwriting (see Thornton, 1996, who suggests that graphologists’romantic view of handwriting as a reflection of the unique individual offered more comfort to Americans than did psychologists’ measures of individual differences). The “new psychology,” which borrowed concepts of hidden human motives from psychoanalysis, became “one of the characteristic fads of the age” (Burnham, 1968b, p. 352). “Candid and confessional autobiographical fragments were central in popular expositions of psychoanalysis,” and case reports “had all the appeal—and more—of true confessions” (p. 368). Public fascination with psychoanalysis was symbolized in 1924 by the appearance of Freud on the cover of Time magazine (Fancher, 2000).
Academic and professional cultures, too, reflected a concern with personality. James C. Johnston, for example, noted “the wide vogue” of biography (1927, p. x), “the literature of personality” (pp. xi–xii), and argued for the establishment of separate departments of biography, such as those that had been recently established at Carleton College and at Dartmouth (see the introduction to Johnston’s book by biographer Gamaliel Bradford, 1927). Personality became a central concept in academic and professional fields such as psychopathology and psychiatry (Taylor, 2000), sociology (Barenbaum, 2000), education (Danziger, 1990), and social work (Richmond, 1922; V. P. Robinson, 1930), and in the mental hygiene movement (Cohen, 1983), as well as in psychology (Nicholson, 1997, 1998, 2000). Following Freud’s visit to America in 1909, many of these fields began to reflect the influence of psychoanalysis (see, e.g., Danziger, 1997; Hale, 1971; Lubove, 1965; Shakow & Rapaport, 1964).
It is important to note the multidisciplinary nature of personality studies during the formative period of personality psychology. (Craik, 1986, makes a similar point but uses the term “interdisciplinary” instead of “multidisciplinary”; we use the latter term to suggest that research on personality was conducted in many disciplines, whether or not it involved cross-disciplinary collaboration.) At this time, the boundaries between psychology and disciplines such as sociology and psychiatry were unclear. For example, both psychology and sociology developed subfields of “social psychology” during this period, and social psychologists in both disciplines considered personality a primary topic of research (Barenbaum, 2000). Indeed, as late as the 1930s, according to Smith (1997), “there was little clear separation between sociology and psychology” in personality research, despite a general tendency toward separation of sociological and psychological social psychology (see also Good, 2000); researchers in both fields were “driven by the common interest in knowledge to make possible the individual’s social adjustment” (Smith, 1997, p. 765).
In the following sections, we examine methodological choices regarding the study of individual lives in several areas in which personality became a central concept during the first three decades of the twentieth century—psychiatry and psychopathology, sociology and social work, the interdisciplinary mental hygiene movement, and psychology. There are, of course, other areas we might have included. For example, in anthropology, life history research aroused some interest following the publication of Radin’s (1926) Crashing Thunder, but it became popular only in the 1930s and 1940s (Hudson, 1973). We have chosen to treat in more depth the reception of case studies and life histories between 1900 and 1930 in areas closely related to psychology.
Psychiatry and Psychopathology
The term “personality” appeared rarely in the general psychological literature before the second decade of the twentieth century, and during the first decade it “typically had a colloquial meaning that was synonymous with ‘soul’ or ‘self’” (Parker, 1991, p. 40). Between 1910 and 1920, however, it began to appear in discussions of “psychiatric and abnormal psychology topics” (p. 42) and in reviews of books on psychoanalysis (Parker’s observations are based on a survey of articles in the Psychological Bulletin and the Psychological Review between 1900 and 1920). It is important to remember that during this period, abnormal and clinical psychology were not central areas of academic psychology, as they are today. Some American psychologists were interested in psychopathology and psychotherapy (Hale, 1971; Taylor, 1996, 2000); one notable example is William James, who was trained in medicine and taught a course in psychopathology at Harvard beginning in 1893 (Taylor, 1996). (Woodworth, 1932, mentions having taken James’s course as a graduate student.) In general, however, abnormal psychology was considered to be a medical subfield rather than an area of psychology, and the profession of clinical psychology was still in its infancy (Napoli, 1981).
“Personality” appeared early as a topic of psychiatry and abnormal psychology in publications such as the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, founded in 1906 by Morton Prince, “eminent Boston physician and lecturer at Tufts College Medical School” (G. W. Allport, 1938, p. 3). For several years, the editorial board of the journal consisted entirely of persons with medical training; only Hugo Münsterberg and Boris Sidis were also trained in psychology (Shermer, 1985). Prince was a leading figure in the “Boston school” of psychopathology and psychotherapy (Hale, 1971), a group composed primarily of physicians, some of whom were also trained in experimental psychology (Taylor, 2000). The Boston psychopathologists were among the first professionals to be influenced by psychoanalysis (Fancher, 2000; Hale, 1971); indeed, the first issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology contained an article on psychoanalysis (Putnam, 1906). Between 1910 and 1925 the journal served as the official organ of the American Psychopathological Association (G. W. Allport, 1938), which consisted of physicians and psychologists with an interest in psychotherapy (Hale, 1971).
Between 1906 and 1920, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology featured more articles on “personality” than any other psychological journal. (This statement is based on a count of items in the historic PsycINFO database featuring the term “personality” in titles or abstracts.) In 1921, the journal was expanded to include a focus on social psychology and was renamed The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology; the editorial announcing this change pointed to “personality” as a central topic in both fields (Editors, 1921). Although Prince remained the nominal editor, he soon transferred most of the editorial responsibility for the journal to his new “Coöperating Editor,” social psychologist Floyd Allport. In 1925, the journal was renamed The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (G. W. Allport, 1938); in 1960, it became Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. In 1965, the journal split into the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Articles on personality in early issues of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology bore such titles as “My Life as a Dissociated Personality” (Anonymous, 1908) and “A Case of Disordered Personality” (Dewey, 1907), indicating their reliance on personal accounts and case studies. Between 1906 and 1916, nearly all of the empirical studies published in the journal presented data on individuals rather than groups. Although the proportion of group studies began to increase during the second decade of publication, the proportion of individual studies remained higher until 1925, averaging 75% during Prince’s last four years as active editor and 65% during Floyd Allport’s term as cooperating editor (see Shermer, 1985; we discuss in a later section a change in publication trends beginning in 1925). This emphasis on case studies reflected the investigative practices of medical and psychiatric researchers and psychoanalysts.Around the turn of the twentieth century, the case study, familiar to medical practitioners since the days of Hippocrates, had been introduced as a pedagogical tool by Walter B. Cannon (1900; see Forrester, 1996; Taylor, 1996) and by Richard C. Cabot (see Forrester, 1996; Lubove, 1965), borrowing from law and from social casework, respectively. Case studies were of course central in psychoanalysis; a clear example is Freud’s (1910/1957a) discussion of the case of “Anna O.” in his first lecture in the United States in 1909. Case studies appeared regularly in psychiatric and psychoanalytic journals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry and the Psychoanalytic Review throughout the 1920s.
Sociology and Social Work
Sociologists also contributed to the personality literature during the early decades of the twentieth century (Barenbaum, 2000; Becker, 1930) and maintained an active interest in personality thereafter (Bernard, 1945). Their contributions have received little systematic attention in historical discussions of personality psychology. (For exceptions, see Burnham, 1968a, on the influence of sociology and social philosophy on the development of personality psychology; Runyan, 1982, on sociological contributions to the study of life histories; and Smith, 1997, on personality research as a focus of sociological and psychological social psychologists during the 1930s.)
The adoption in 1921 of a system for classifying abstracts of recent literature published in the American Journal of Sociology was one indication of sociologists’interest in personality. The “tentative scheme” included as a first category “Personality: The Individual and the Person” (“Recent Literature,” 1921, p. 128; in contrast, the Psychological Index and Psychological Abstracts did not include “personality” in their classification schemes until 1929 and 1934, respectively). A subcategory for “Biography” (p. 128) as well as the category “Social Pathology: Personal and Social Disorganization” and two methodological subcategories, “Case Studies and Social Diagnosis” and “Life-Histories and Psychoanalysis” (p. 129), reflected sociologists’ attention to studies of individual lives, an interest they shared with social workers, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts.
Case study and life history methods, including the use of personal documents, drew attention in sociology following the publication of Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918–1920) landmark study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, which was based on letters and autobiographical material. Promoting the use of empirical methods, the study served as a model for sociologists at the University of Chicago, the most influential institution in sociology in the 1920s and 1930s (Bulmer, 1984). Following Thomas’s departure from Chicago in 1918, other prominent members of the sociology department, including Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, Clifford R. Shaw, and Herbert Blumer, continued to promote case studies and life histories (Bulmer, 1984), extending their influence through the Social Science Research Council (SSRC); we discuss these developments in a later section. Examples of works by Chicago sociologists include Shaw’s (1930) The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story and Krueger’s (1925) dissertation on autobiographical documents and personality.
A debate concerning the relative merits of case study and statistical methods during this period reflected sociologists’ growing interest in quantitative methods, partly a result of their collaboration with researchers in neighboring disciplines, such as economics and psychology. Psychologist L. L. Thurstone, for example, was an important influence on such sociologists as Samuel Stouffer (1930), who became a proponent of statistical methods in sociology (Bulmer, 1984). The debate was a frequent topic of meetings of the Society for Social Research, an “integral part” of the Chicago sociology department composed of faculty and graduate students engaged in serious research (p. 114). Although Chicago sociologists were at the center of the debate, those at other institutions also participated (see, e.g., Bain, 1929; Lundberg, 1926).
According to Platt, the debate was a “hot” issue from the 1920s until the Second World War (1996, p. 36; see also Ross, 1991). During the 1930s, members of the Chicago sociology department demonstrated their allegiance to one method or the other at their student-faculty picnic, “where baseball sides were picked on the basis of case study versus statistics” (Platt, 1996, pp. 45–46). Bulmer (1984) notes, however, that an “emphasis on the complementarity of research methods was characteristic of the Chicago school” (p. 121) and that several participants in the debate actually advocated the use of both approaches. During this period many sociologists hoped to discover general laws by comparing and classifying individual cases, and this view eventually contributed to a blurring of the distinction between case study and statistical methods (Platt, 1992). Burgess (1927) compared sociologists’ increasing interest in quantitative methods with psychologists’ “heroic efforts to become more scientific, that is to say, statistical” (p. 108); in contrast, he noted that social workers and psychiatrists had introduced the case study method into social science.
Sociologists’ use of case studies was derived in part from the close connection between sociology and social work:
Sociology and social work took a long time to become disentangled; in the 1920s people called social workers were equally or even more likely to carry out empirical research, and university sociologists very frequently drew on their case data whether or not it had been collected for research purposes. (Platt, 1996, p. 46)
Social workers’ interest in personality during this period is illustrated by social work theorist Mary Richmond’s insistence that the “one central idea” of social casework was “the development of personality” (1922, p. 90). Richmond and other social workers (e.g., Sheffield, 1920) wrote influential works on case study methods.
In the sociological literature of this period, the term “case study” referred not only to the number of cases and the intensiveness with which they were studied but also to a “special kind” of data (Platt, 1996, p. 46). “Case study” was often used interchangeably with “life history” and “personal documents”; these methods were seen as giving “access to the subjects’ personal meanings, while alternatives [were] seen as dry, narrow and giving access only to external data” (p. 46). Exemplifying this usage, sociologist John Dollard applied his Criteria for the Life History (1935) to several different types of “life history,” defined as “an autobiography, biography or clinical history” or “even a social service case history or a psychiatric document” (p. 265). Dollard’s work also reflected sociologists’interest in refining and standardizing case methods.
The Mental Hygiene Movement
Inspired by a case study—the autobiography of a former patient (Beers, 1908)—the mental hygiene movement was organized in 1909 to reform the treatment of patients in mental institutions. The movement soon became a powerful coalition of psychiatrists, educators, and social workers who attributed various social and personal problems to individual maladjustment (see Cohen, 1983; Danziger, 1990, 1997; Lubove, 1965; Parker, 1991). Expanding their goals to include the identification of potential cases of maladjustment, mental hygiene workers made “personality” the focus of their preventive and therapeutic efforts, which frequently involved interdisciplinary teams of experts undertaking intensive case studies of “troublesome” children in settings such as child guidance clinics (W. Healy, 1915; Jones, 1999). Psychiatrists typically screened clients for medical disorders and conducted psychotherapy, and social workers contributed case histories based on their investigations of clients and their families. Psychologists’ role in these interdisciplinary teams “generally came down to the construction and application of scales that would subject ‘personality’ to the rigors of measurement and so convert it from merely an object of social intervention to an object of science” (Danziger, 1990, p. 164). The movement thus supported psychologists as purveyors of expert scientific knowledge of personality in the form of test scores.
Twentieth-century American experimenters wanted general laws, not remarkable phenomena involving special persons. (Porter, 1995, p. 211)
In the preceding sections, we have referred to the identification of psychologists with psychometric and statistical approaches to personality. Here, we examine several interrelated factors in the development of these approaches, and in psychologists’ resistance toward studies of individuals, during the early decades of the twentieth century.
As many historians have suggested, psychometric approaches reflected the positivistic, “natural science” ethos that had prevailed inAmerican psychology since the late 1800s (see, e.g., Danziger, 1990; Hornstein, 1988; Porter, 1995). Psychologists were particularly concerned with producing “objective” knowledge and eliminating sources of “subjectivity”:
For experimental psychologists, being scientific meant creating distance. It meant opening up a space, a “no man’s land,” between themselves and the things they studied, a place whose boundary could be patrolled so that needs or desires or feelings could never infiltrate the work itself. Every aspect of the experimental situation was bent toward this goal—the “blind subjects,” the mechanized recording devices, the quantified measures, and statistically represented results. (Hornstein, 1992, p. 256)
From this perspective, case studies and life histories, relying on subjective reports or interpretations, appeared unscientific.
The tendency to consider case studies unscientific was already clear just after the turn of the century in comments on the work of two respected psychologists who drew heavily on personal documents. While observing that the “personal confessions” in William James’s (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience were “extraordinary in range and fulness [sic],” Coe (1903, p. 62) suggested that James’s results would be “doubly valuable” if they were supplemented by “an experimental and physiological study of the same types” (p. 63) and commented on the “romanticism, not to say impressionism” (p. 65) in his method. G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence (1904), which was illustrated with quotations from autobiographies, literature, and answers to questionnaires, drew similar criticism. “Dr. Hall is as much an artist as a scientist,” commented one reviewer, adding, “It is to be regretted that much of the questionnaire data . . . has not been secured or tabulated according to the most approved statistical and scientific methods” (Kirkpatrick, 1904, p. 692).
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, as American psychologists became increasingly concerned with practical problems, “the primary goal of psychology became the prediction and control of the ‘other,’ a science of the acts (and by a short extension, the behavior) of people rather than of their mental experiences” (Tweney & Budzynski, 2000, p. 1015). Psychologists developed “mental tests” for selection, diagnosis, and placement in an effort to establish their professional expertise in solving problems associated with educational institutions, labor unions, and immigration, and with the national war effort in 1917 and 1918 (Danziger, 1990; Parker, 1991; Sokal, 1984; Vernon, 1933). Designed to screen soldiers vulnerable to shell shock, Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet was probably the first objective self-report personality “inventory” based on the mental test format (see Camfield, 1969; Woodworth, 1919, 1932).
Following World War I, opportunities expanded for psychologists to administer mental tests in military, managerial, industrial, and educational settings (Danziger, 1990; O’Donnell, 1985; Samelson, 1985; Sokal, 1984). In the early 1920s, however, critics began to question the predictive utility of intelligence tests (Parker, 1991) and suggested that measures of personality or character traits would improve the prediction of performance (e.g., Fernald, 1920). Although early measures of character and personality took various forms, the less “efficient” methods were soon replaced by tests based on the mental test model of adding scores on separate multiple-choice or true/false items to get a total (see Parker, 1991). According to the psychometric approach to personality, individual differences, conceived as coefficients in prediction equations, could be used to predict and control behavior. (Years later, Raymond B. Cattell’s “specification equation” [1957, pp. 302–306] would become perhaps the most fully developed example of such prediction equations.)
The predominance of the psychometric approach in psychological research on personality was reflected in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology after Prince offered to donate the journal, once oriented primarily toward practicing psychiatrists, to the American Psychological Association in 1925. The transfer of ownership took place on April 1, 1926 (G. W. Allport, 1938). Once social psychologist Henry T. Moore of Dartmouth replaced Floyd Allport as cooperating editor, the practice of publishing case studies declined dramatically, conforming with publication trends in mainstream psychological journals where the proportion of reports featuring individual data had been declining steadily since the 1910s (Shermer, 1985). During Floyd Allport’s first year as cooperating editor (1921–1922), the instructions appearing inside the front cover of each issue of the journal continued to direct authors to send articles to Prince. Allport’s closer collaboration with Prince apparently resulted in only a small change in selection standards after he moved from Harvard to the University of North Carolina and assumed full editorial responsibility in 1922 (see also G. W. Allport, 1938; Shermer, 1985). The announcement of Moore’s appointment requested that contributors submit articles to him (Editors, 1925), and he appears from the beginning of his tenure to have selected articles according to “psychological” standards. Thus, the proportion of empirical papers based on the study of individual cases dropped from an average of 65%, under Floyd Allport, to 30% under Moore (see Shermer, 1985): “Their place was taken by statistical studies based on group data” (Danziger, 1990, p. 165). (Moore himself conducted group studies using psychometric tests; see, e.g., Moore, 1925).
By the late 1920s, psychologists (e.g., G. W. Allport & Vernon, 1930; Murphy & Murphy, 1931) and sociologists (e.g., Bernard, 1932; Young, 1928) reviewing the personality literature were explicitly identifying the psychometric approach with psychology, and life histories and case studies with sociology and psychiatry. Although several of these authors expressed positive views of studies of individual lives, their recommendations that psychologists explore such methods appear to have had little impact (see, e.g., Parker, 1991). Like Woodworth (1929), other authors of psychological texts and reference works during the late 1920s and early 1930s tended to view the case study as a “clinical” method (Roback, 1927a; Warren, 1934) and to express doubts concerning its scientific status. For example, Symonds (1931) defined the case study as “a comprehensive study of the individual,” but remarked, “It should be emphasized at the outset that the case study is not a research method. Primarily its function is to study the individual with a view toward helping him.” Case study data might be used in research, he suggested, but only if they consisted of “facts . . . obtained in a reliable, objective manner” using “scientifically valid methods” (p. 555).
In striking contrast to the sociological literature of the period, psychological studies of personality reveal little concern regarding the development of methods to study individual lives. The difference reflects a lack of institutional support for case methods in psychology, as compared to the support in sociology at the University of Chicago. One brief report of a methodological debate concerning case study and statistical approaches to personality, which took place in a “round table” on personality at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1930, suggests that case studies were quickly dismissed as insufficiently reliable (Ruckmick, 1931). One of the participants was L. L. Thurstone (Brigham, 1931), who represented the statistical point of view in the sociological debates at Chicago concerning case studies (Bulmer, 1984). Thurstone’s allegiance to the experimental perspective in psychology is revealed in his remark concerning personality research:
One of my principal interests in psychology to which I have returned several times has been the study of personality. . . . My conflict here was that, on the one hand, the center of psychology probably was the study of personality, but, on the other hand, I was unable to invent any experimental leverage in this field. That was the reason why I turned to other problems that seemed to lend themselves to more rigorous analysis. (1952, p. 318)
Our account of the early development of personality psychology differs from that of C. S. Hall and Lindzey (1957), who emphasize the influence of early personality theories based on clinical practice. However, Hall and Lindzey’s perspective reflects the post–World War II boom in clinical psychology (Capshew, 1999; Herman, 1995) and a corresponding focus in the clinical and personality areas on psychoanalysis and competing theories of personality (see, e.g., Rosenthal, 1958). In contrast, during the 1920s and 1930s, American psychologists were more concerned with meeting practical demands for personality measures than with theory (Murphy, 1932; Vernon, 1933) and were particularly skeptical of psychoanalysis (see, e.g., Danziger, 1997; Hale, 1971; Triplet, 1983).
As many historians have observed, the enormous popularity of psychoanalysis in American culture during this period posed a threat to psychologists—particularly those working in applied areas—who were concerned with establishing their own professional expertise and differentiating themselves from pseudoscientists (see, e.g., Hornstein, 1992; Napoli, 1981). Many psychologists attempted to dismiss psychoanalysts as they dismissed the army of popular pseudopsychologists who advertised psychoanalysis for a dollar or promised to “show you how to talk with God” (Crider, 1936, p.371). Accusing their competitors of being unscientific, they cited their own training in the use of rigorous scientific methods and quantitative techniques (Freyd, 1926; Morawski & Hornstein, 1991; Napoli, 1981). Personality researchers promoted tests as experimental methods (Terman, 1924; Woodworth, 1929) and ignored or criticized methods that appeared subjective. They considered the case studies of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts “unscientific and old-fashioned” (Hale, 1971, p. 115), and perhaps too similar to the sensational cases reported in the popular press (see, e.g., Burnham, 1968b). Roback, for example, found Freud’s case studies more artistic than scientific (1927b) and suggested that many authors selected case material to “furnish interesting reading” or “prove a certain point” (1927a, p. 421). Indeed, Freud had expressed his own ambivalence toward case studies: “It still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science” (1893–1895/1955, p.160).
Promoting the Study of Individual Lives: Gordon Allport and Henry Murray
By 1930, studies of personality were flourishing, but personality was still considered a topic of several areas of psychology (e.g., abnormal, educational, and social) rather than a separate area. Gordon Allport played a central role in systematizing and defining the subfield of personality psychology and separating it from social psychology (Barenbaum, 2000; Nicholson, 1998, in press; Winter & Barenbaum, 1999), and Henry Murray was influential in expanding the boundaries of the study of personality to include experimental investigations of psychoanalytic concepts (Triplet, 1983; Winter & Barenbaum, 1999). Both Allport (1937b) and Murray (1938) promoted the intensive study of individual lives, an approach to the study of personality that their colleagues in psychology had generally overlooked. In doing so, each man drew upon his training in disciplines outside the mainstream of American psychology. In this section, we examine their efforts and assess the status of case studies and life histories in personality psychology in the 1930s and 1940s.
Gordon Allport and Case Studies: “The Most Revealing Method of All”
When Goethe gave it as his opinion that personality is the supreme joy of the children of the earth, he could not have foreseen the joyless dissection of his romantic ideal one hundred years hence. (G. W. Allport, 1932, p. 391)
GordonAllport (1897–1967) is well known as an advocate of the idiographic approach to personality, a focus on the particular individual (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1937b; Pandora, 1997). Interestingly, however, his use of this approach has been both exaggerated and minimized. Labeled a “militant idiographer” by Boring (in an editorial introduction to G. W.Allport, 1958, p. 105) and accused by some critics of rejecting the nomothetic approach—the search for general laws via the study of common dimensions of personality (see, e.g., Skaggs, 1945), Allport in fact advocated and used both approaches (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1928, 1937b; G. W. Allport & Vernon, 1931). Other critics, noting that Allport published only one case study (1965), have commented on his “ambivalence regarding the approach that he had so long championed” (Cohler, 1993, p. 134; see also Capps, 1994; Holt, 1978; Peterson, 1988).
Interdisciplinary Roots: American Psychology, Social Ethics, and German Psychology
Trained in psychology at Harvard in the late 1910s and early 1920s,Allport was influenced by the prevailing experimental, scientific ethos and contributed to the psychometric approach to personality (Nicholson, 1996, 2000, in press). However, he also studied social ethics, an area that involved “field training and volunteer social service” (G. W. Allport, 1967, p. 6). Allport (1968) described social ethics professor Richard C. Cabot, who used case studies and biographies extensively in his teaching (G. W. Allport, 1937a), as a teacher who had influenced his thinking. It is not clear, however, whether he actually completed a course with Cabot. Allport (1951) mentioned having dropped one of Cabot’s courses when he learned of the assignment to write up 25 cases in one semester. (The course was probably Cabot’s seminar in case history method, which Allport’s future wife, Ada Gould, took in 1922; see Barenbaum, 1997a.) Allport’s (1922) dissertation, an experimental study of personality traits, included individual case profiles and a chapter on the application of his methods to an individual client of a social service agency (possibly a client of Ada Gould,who was a social worker at the time; see Cherry,1996).
Another disciplinary influence on Allport’s interest in case studies was his encounter during a postdoctoral year in Germany (in 1923) with a qualitative, interpretive approach to the study of personality (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1923, 1924; see also Danziger, 1990). He studied with Eduard Spranger, a disciple of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, who had promoted psychology as a “human science” (Geisteswissenschaft), emphasizing biographical studies (G. W. Allport, 1924). Allport also studied with William Stern, known not only for his psychology of individual differences but also for his interest in “the unity of the personality” (G. W. Allport, 1923, p. 613). Allport’s interest in the case method and in personal documents (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1942) may have been encouraged by Stern, who advocated the use of biographical and historical methods (1911) and published a psychological analysis of his own adolescent diaries (1925; cited in G. W. Allport, 1942).
Promoting “the Intuitive Method”
After returning from Europe, Allport struggled to reconcile the empirical and quantitative American approach to personality with the more theoretical and qualitative German approach (G. W. Allport, 1962b). He became particularly interested in the German method known as Verstehen, which he translated as “the intuitive method” (G. W. Allport, 1929) or “case method” (Roe, 1962)—“the understanding of the concrete personality in its cultural setting” (G. W. Allport, 1929, p. 15). Contrasting the intuitive method with the psychometric approach,Allport remarked, “It was inevitable that mental testing should appear. By these methods persons can be compared with persons, but can never in the wide world be understood in and of themselves” (n.d., p. 11; emphasis in original [Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives]; see also G. W. Allport, 1924, p. 133; 1929, p. 16, for further elaborations of this point, which was one ofAllport’s cardinal principles). By this,Allport meant that only the intuitive method, by its focus on the whole person rather than the measurement of separate traits, could reveal the interaction or organization of traits within the person. (We discuss this point further below.)
In 1928, Allport conducted “an experiment in teaching by the intuitive method” (G. W. Allport, 1929, p. 14), basing an introductory psychology course on the autobiography of William Ellery Leonard (1927) and requiring that students prepare a case study (G. W. Allport, 1929). It is probably in this context that Allport began to develop his suggestions for preparing case studies (G. W. Allport, 1937b). He continued to teach by the case method throughout his career, using autobiographies (e.g., Leonard, 1927; Wells, 1934), personal documents, and other case materials and assigning the preparation of case studies (Barenbaum, 1997b; Cherry, 2000).
Allport’s early publications promoting “the study of the undivided personality” (G. W. Allport, 1924) and the intuitive method (G. W. Allport, 1929) apparently had little impact on American psychologists. His suggestion that “personality never possesses an exclusively objective character” and his emphasis on intuition were clearly incompatible with the view of psychology as an objective “natural science.” His critique of the psychometric method was an unwelcome reminder of psychologists’ subjectivity:
Personality is in reality always perceived by some person whose own experience is the background for the perception. That is to say, in actual life the apprehension of personality is conditioned by three factors, (a) the behavior sets of the person studied, (b) the behavior sets of the person studying, and (c) the conditions under which the study is made, including the relation which exists between the two persons. The psychograph [i.e., a profile of trait scores] oversimplifies the problem by assuming that the investigation of personality need only consider the first of these conditions. (1924, pp. 132–133)
Although Allport stressed the need for both “natural science” and intuitive methods in the study of personality, statements such as the following were no doubt unpersuasive to his scientifically minded colleagues: “The psychology of personality must be broad enough to embrace both the particular and general aspects of its subject. Even if this obligation requires that it be both art and science, there is still no escape” (1929, p. 20; emphasis in original).
Promoting “Scientific Case Studies”
In the early 1930s, Allport adopted a new strategy in his efforts to promote the case study. Employing more scientific rhetoric and echoing the prevailing view that the method was “unsatisfactory,” he suggested nevertheless that “the concrete individual has eluded study by any other approach” and remarked that “in the future there will undoubtedly be attempts to standardize the case study in some way which will reduce its dependence upon the uncontrolled artistry of the author” (G. W.Allport & Vernon, 1930, p. 700; see also G. W.Allport, 1933; Nicholson, 1996). Toward this end,Allport and his students designed experimental studies of “intuitive” processes and attempted to improve the scientific respectability of case studies by addressing methodological issues related to the question, “How shall a psychological life history be written?” (G. W. Allport, 1967, p. 3). For example, Cantril (1932; cited in G. W. Allport, 1937b) showed that “optimum comprehension and memory-value result from the use of general characterization followed by specific illustration” (p. 393n).
Allport’s (1937b) text reflected this change in strategy. Unlike other authors of psychological texts (e.g., Stagner, 1937), who treated the case study as a clinical method, Allport treated it as a research method. Noting that the case study “has not ordinarily been recognized as a psychological method,” he described it as “the most revealing method of all” and devoted several pages to six “suggestions for the preparation of a case study” (1937b, p. 390)—for example, “Deal only with a personality that is known” (p. 391; emphasis in original). He cited the work of several students relating to the ability to judge personality and to the most effective method of describing personality. He discussed the “generalization of case studies” in “the construction of psychological laws” (p. 395)—a “nomothetic” application that would bolster their scientific status. But he noted that even a general law could be one that explained “how uniqueness comes about”; for example, the principle of functional autonomy, which suggests that motives become independent of their origins in “infantile” or “archaic” drives (p. 194; emphasis in original), accounts for unique personal motives. Allport also pointed out psychologists’ neglect of laws that applied to particular individuals: “The course of each life is a lawful event, even though it is unlike all others of its class” (p. 558). The study of individual lives, he suggested, would enable psychologists to make better predictions of individual behavior, one of the goals of scientific psychology.
Allport saw the case study as the psychologist’s “final affirmation of the individuality and uniqueness of every personality” (G. W. Allport, 1937b, p. 390). Clinicians and sociologists, he argued, had developed the method with a focus on “maladjustments” or on “social influences surrounding the individual” (p. 390) rather than on personality itself. Focusing within the person, he chose to overlook “the factors shaping personality” (p. viii; emphasis in original). This neglect of cultural and social contexts reflected the emerging personality ideal (Nicholson, 1998, in press) and the psychological Zeitgeist (for example, Allport’s text was more successful than that of Stagner, 1937, who emphasized social and cultural factors; see Barenbaum, 2000). Ironically, however, it may have resulted in case studies that were one-sided.
Henry Murray’s Personology and the Study of Lives
Like Allport, Henry Murray (1893–1988) developed an approach to personality that emphasized both the study of individual differences and the integrative understanding of individual persons. Also like Allport, Murray brought to personality psychology interests, skills, and experiences drawn from a variety of other fields—perspectives that led him to emphasize the study of individuals. Indeed, for Murray, the study of individual life histories was the psychology of personality, or (as he preferred to call it) “personology” (1938, p. 4). (Although “personology,” either as a term or as a [sub]field, has by and large not entered general use, there is a small “Society for Personology,” founded by Murray disciples, which is dedicated to the life history approach to the study of personality.)
Interdisciplinary Roots: Medicine, Literature, and “Depth Psychology”
Murray was born to wealth and privilege (Anderson, 1988; Murray, 1967). He was trained as a physician, concerned with diagnosing and treating individual persons. Even in medical school, his interest in case studies went well beyond what was required. For example, he wrote a thoroughly researched, formal medical history and an extensive narrative account (both unpublished) of the life and circumstances of a prostitute who was dying of syphilis (see F. G. Robinson, 1992, pp. 63–65).
Murray’s strong literary and artistic interests also reinforced his emphasis on the study of individuals. Achance encounter during an ocean voyage in 1924 led him to read Moby-Dick; thus began a lifetime’s passionate interest in the life and writings of Herman Melville (F. G. Robinson, 1992, pp. 81–82, 109–110, 133–140, and passim). Over the next six decades, Murray published an introduction to Melville’s Pierre as well as reviews of several books about Melville.
An almost casual dinner-party discussion led Murray to buy Carl Jung’s recently published Psychological Types (1923/1971). Two years later, he visited Jung in Zurich, meeting and socializing daily for three weeks (F. G. Robinson, 1992). Thus began a fascination with “depth psychology” (Jung and Freud; also Otto Rank,AlfredAdler, and others; see Murray, 1938, pp. 24–25) that was decisive in leading him away from medicine and physiology to psychology as a life vocation. While Murray did not incorporate Jung’s specific types into his conceptual scheme of personality (Murray, 1938, pp. 238, 726–727), the concept of type, involving categories of whole persons rather than tables of component “elements,” did create a path, for Murray (1955) and other personality psychologists, toward the study of molar units—that is, the whole lives of individual persons. By focusing on persons rather than variables, then, type is a quasi-dimensional, quantitative method that maintains the individual person perspective while also permitting comparison (Platt, 1992, describes sociologists’similar efforts to classify and compare cases). Jung’s typology is probably the best-known example, but from time to time other personality theorists have suggested typologies (for example, Freud, 1908/1959, on the anal charactertype,1916/1957b,oncharactertypes,1931/1961,on libidinal types; Rank, 1931/1936, on the “artist,” “neurotic,” and “average” types; and Block, 1971, on normal personality types).And although the concept of type is not currently fashionable in personality research, there are signs that its usefulness is being recognized—or rediscovered (see Thorne & Gough, 1991;York & John, 1992).
The “Explorations” Project
At the Harvard Psychological Clinic during the 1930s, Murray gathered an extraordinary group of more than two dozen collaborators, including a sociologist, an anthropologist, a physician, a poet, and psychologists of widely varying backgrounds and approaches. They produced the landmark Explorations in Personality (Murray, 1938), a study of 51 young men by his interdisciplinary team and one of the first major systematic research studies of normal personality.
Variable-Centered Concepts. Explorations in Personality is most often cited nowadays for its list of 20-plus motives or “needs.” For example, this catalog of motives formed the basis of numerous personality questionnaire measures, such as the Stern Activities Index, the Edwards Personal Preference Schedule (EPPS), and the Jackson Personality Research Form (PRF). David McClelland and his colleagues developed thematic apperceptive measures of three major motives (achievement, affiliation, and power) from Murray’s list of needs (see Winter, 1998b).
Actually, motives were only one part of an extensive, 101-page catalog of “variables of personality” (Murray, 1938, pp. 142–242), which also included other concepts (discussed below) such as need-integrates, general traits or attributes, “miscellaneous internal factors,” and numerous other variables such as values, sentiments, interests, “gratuities,” abilities, and complexes. (At the conclusion of the description of these variables, Murray wrote, “No one who has had the patience to read through this section can be expected to come away from it now with a clear head” [1938, p. 230].)
Person-Centered Procedures. In addition to its wealth of dimensional contributions, the Explorations project also presented an elaborate series of procedures, developed or adapted by Murray and his collaborators, for describing and assessing individual persons (Murray, 1938, pp. 397–603). Some (such as tests of hypnotic susceptibility or level of aspiration) yielded simple scores, like traditional dimensional tests. Many other procedures, however, lent themselves more to configurational or narrative interpretation: for example, a group conference with the person being studied, informal conversations, an autobiography, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), and a Dramatic Productions Test (developed by Erik Erikson; see Homburger, 1937).
The final stage in the assessment of each person was thoroughly centered on the unique and complex structure of the individual.After all information on a person had been collected, a “biographer” prepared a “psychograph,” defined as an “abstract biography” (Murray, 1938, pp. 605–606) or “reconstruction of the subject’s personality from birth” (p. 29); this definition, which emphasized the person-centered approach, was quite different from the nomothetic definition of “psychograph” as a profile of trait scores (see, e.g., F. H. Allport & G. W. Allport, 1921; for an application of both approaches to the description of an individual person, see McClelland, 1951, especially pp. 589, 591).Afive-person diagnostic council then discussed the person, often for five or six hours, and voted on final ratings for that person on all personality variables. (The reliance on a diagnostic council’s discussion, rather than more quantitative, and thus dimensional, methods was one reason why Harvard psychologists Karl Lashley and Edwin Boring voted against tenure for Murray; see F. G. Robinson, 1992, p. 225). Only one such case, that of “Earnst” (written by Robert White), was actually presented in Explorations, but it was presented at considerable length: At 88 pages, it took up 11% of the book’s entire text. Because of space limitations, other cases had to be eliminated from the final version of the book (Robinson, 1992).
Person-Centered Concepts. While most of the variables in Murray’s catalog lent themselves to elaboration in a nomothetic direction, several concepts were particularly appropriate to the intensive study of individual lives. For example, the concept of need-integrate referred to the compound of a motive along with its customary emotions, preferred modes of action, and familiar related goal objects (1938, pp. 109–110). While the motive itself (e.g., achievement, affiliation, power) may be universal—that is, present in varying amounts in most people—the remaining components of emotion, action modes, and objects would be different for different people. Thus, the need-integrate concept individualizes the more nomothetic concept of motive. (Murray used the term “complex” in a similar fashion.)
Murray defined gratuity as a “gratuitous end situation,” that is, an unnaturally easy goal-attainment due to factors such as inheritance or luck. Such gratuities are “common in the lives of the over-privileged” (1938, pp. 62, 112n; see also p. 228). The gratuity concept has the potential to link individual personalities to the opportunities, demands, and resources of their environments, thereby making it possible to incorporate race and class privilege (or, conversely, race and class oppression) into the personality portrait.
Several concepts refer to the hierarchical and temporal arrangement of people’s motives; for example, regnancy, whereonemotivedominatesothers(Murray,1938,pp.45–49); relations of fusion, subsidiation, and conflict among different motives at any one time (pp. 86–89); and time-binding or ordination (p. 49; see also Murray, 1959), by which processes different motives are arranged into long-term temporal sequences, “strategies,” or serial proceedings (Murray, 1959). These concepts make it possible to chart, with a relatively small number of basic motives and other personality characteristics, an almost infinite range of individuality over the life course.
Murray conceptualized the forces and stimuli of the environment in terms of perceived and actual press. In Murray’s view, an environmental press typically elicited an individual need; this sequence was termed a thema. Thus, for example: press Rejection → need Affiliation. (Alternatively, for some people the thema might be: press Rejection → need Rejection.) At the most abstract level was the concept of unitythema, an underlying press → needs reaction system that is the “key to [each individual’s] unique nature. . . . By the observation of many parts one finally arrives at a conception of the whole and, then, having grasped the latter, one can re-interpret and understand the former” (Murray, 1938, p. 604–605; emphasis in original).
The Study of Individual Lives in the 1930s and 1940s . . . and Later
We have suggested that during the first three decades of the twentieth century, psychologists were reluctant to adopt methods of studying individual personalities. Were these methods more widely accepted in the 1930s and 1940s (see, e.g., Craik, 1986)? In this section we examine the reception of Allport’s and Murray’s texts and reassess the status of case studies and life histories in personality psychology during this period.
Reception of Allport’s and Murray’s Texts
As we have seen, Allport’s early publications promoting case methods were generally overlooked by personality psychologists; in contrast, his Ascendance-Submission (G. W. Allport, 1928) and Study of Values (G. W. Allport & Vernon, 1931) tests were very successful (see, e.g., Bernreuter, 1933; Duffy, 1940). Reviewers of Allport’s (1937b) book recognized it as a foundational text for the new field of personality psychology (e.g., Cantril, 1938; Hollingworth, 1938; Jenkins, 1938), but his emphasis on the study of the individual drew sharp criticism. J. P. Guilford, for example, considered it “a revolt against science” (1938, p. 416; see also Bills, 1938; Paterson, 1938; Skaggs, 1945). Similarly, Richard M. Elliott (1939) approved of Murray’s (1938) efforts to combine psychoanalytic and experimental approaches, his procedures (especially the Thematic Apperception Test), and his catalog of variables, but he criticized Murray’s neglect of psychometric research and of statistics. Elliott found the case study of Earnst too speculative.
Elliott’s criticism reflected his own ambivalence regarding the study of individual lives in personality psychology. Around 1938, he had begun teaching a course entitled Biographical Psychology, relying on biographies, autobiographies, and fiction and requiring that his students prepare a biographical study. However, he referred to the course as a clinical offering, described it as highly unorthodox, and was greatly relieved to learn that his students were also taking more traditional psychology courses (Elliott, 1952).
Allport: Ambivalence or Accommodation?
Although Allport may have had some ambivalence regarding case studies (see, e.g., Barenbaum, 1997a; Cohler, 1993; Nicholson, 1996, in press), his unpublished record suggests that his failure to publish more than one case study was largely an accommodation to the prevailing climate in psychology, which continued to be unsupportive of such methods. His correspondence reveals that he hoped to follow his text with a volume on the methodology of case studies and life histories, including case materials for use in courses in psychology and social work (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1937a). In addition to the case of Jenny Masterson (G. W.Allport, 1965; Anonymous, 1946), he collected extensive materials on a second case that remained unpublished (Barenbaum, 1997a). In 1938 and 1940,Allport conducted seminars on the life history and the case method, working with his students to expand his list of “rules and criteria for the writing of scientific case studies” and design research concerning “reliability, validity, and the most effective methods for utilizing raw accounts of personality” (G. W.Allport, 1940a; see Barenbaum, 1997a). Examples of this research include studies by Cartwright and French (1939) and Polansky (1941). Although Allport (1967) later suggested that the rules for case studies had proved unsatisfactory and were therefore never published, in fact he submitted them to his publisher, along with several sample cases. When the publisher doubted that such a volume would be marketable (Allport, 1941; MacMurphey, 1941), describing himself as “the victim of an obsession” (courtesy of the Harvard University Archives), replied that he had to complete it whether or not it could be published (the rules were eventually published by Garraty, 1981).
Instead, he accepted a request to write a monograph on the use of personal documents in psychology (G. W. Allport, 1942) for the SSRC, noting that “to the best of my knowledge I am the only psychologist who has worked extensively with the methodological problem you raise” (1940a). He saw the monograph, written amidst the increasing press of work related to the U.S. involvement in World War II, as a beginning: “To render the logic of the case method acceptable to hardheaded American empiricists is a long and difficult job” (1941; quoted in Hevern, 1999, p. 14). Allport argued that personal documents provided knowledge of “concrete individuals. . . . in their natural complexity,” an “essential first step” in psychology (1942, p. 56), and that they could “aid in meeting . . . the three critical tests of science: understanding, prediction, and control” (p. 191; emphasis in original).
Although the appearance of several monographs on personal documents and life histories (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1942; Dollard, 1935) suggests that these topics were salient in personality psychology during the 1930s and 1940s (Craik, 1986), these monographs reflected the interests of several members of the SSRC, and their influence on personality psychologists appears to have been minimal. Platt (1996) notes that Chicago sociologist Ernest W. Burgess, who had a particular interest in case study methods, chaired the SSRC’s Committee on Appraisal of Research, which sponsored appraisals of the use of personal documents in several disciplines (G. W. Allport, 1942; Gottschalk, Kluckhohn, & Angell, 1945). She finds, however, that during this period sociologists’ interest in case studies, life histories, and personal documents was declining and that attention to these methods virtually disappeared following World War II (Platt, 1992, 1996). Plans for a third volume were apparently canceled; Allport (1943a) had suggested that it either present a summary of German theories of Verstehen or review research, such as Murray’s, that related case studies to psychometric and experimental methods.
Hevern (1999) observes that although Allport’s monograph (G. W. Allport, 1942) outsold other SSRC volumes, his promotion of the case method was generally overlooked by mainstream psychologists. In contrast, Allport’s argument that the idiographic use of personal documents could meet the three tests of science (understanding, prediction, and control) was widely cited by clinical psychologists in the debate regarding clinical and statistical prediction that coincided with the rapid expansion of clinical psychology during the 1940s and 1950s (Barenbaum, 1998; see Meehl, 1954). Ironically, the debate focused more on clinical predictions based on psychometric data than on the idiographic methods— involving subjective meanings—that Allport hoped to promote (see G. W. Allport, 1962a).
Although his work on the American war effort interfered with his plans, Allport continued to collect personal documents in hopes of interpreting and publishing them (e.g., G. W. Allport, 1945). Throughout his career he supported case studies “behind the scenes,” using them in his teaching and increasing their visibility during his term as editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (1938–1949). In the 1940 volume, he featured a symposium on “psychoanalysis as seen by analyzed psychologists” (G. W. Allport, 1940c, p. 3). In 1943, he initiated a special “clinical supplement” consisting of case studies (G. W. Allport, 1943b), following it with regular clinical issues in 1944 and 1945. Beginning in April 1946, each issue included a section of case reports.
Allport described his solicitation and publication of case studies as “the one distinctive contribution that I have made during my term of editorial service” (G. W. Allport, 1949, p. 440). He also supported the work of authors such as Jean Evans, a reporter whose case studies appeared first in the Journal (1948, 1950) and later in a book (1954). In her foreword, Evans expressed her appreciation to “Dr. Gordon W. Allport, whose idea it was in the first place that such a book should be written” (p. xvii).
Continuing an earlier trend, the number of studies of individuals published both in general psychology journals and in “personality” journals (the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and Character and Personality) declined during the 1930s and 1940s (G. W. Allport, 1940b; Shermer, 1985). Although early volumes of Character and Personality featured studies using biographical and archival methods (Craik, 1986), this journal was atypical. Founded in 1932 by Robert Saudek, a European graphologist (Roback, 1935), it was originally international in scope and emphasized “psychodiagnostics,” or character reading based on expressive behavior (G. W. Allport, 1937b), an approach that received little attention from American researchers. Allport was on the editorial board of the journal, which published the studies of several students from his life history seminar (Cartwright & French, 1939; Polansky, 1941). By 1945, however, the newly renamed Journal of Personality had changed to reflect the interests of American personality psychologists. The new direction was signaled by the omission from the title of “character,” an older term preferred by many European psychologists (see Roback, 1927a). The proportion of studies of individuals declined sharply between the 1930s and the 1950s (Shermer, 1985).
Even among clinical psychologists, the status of case studies remained marginal. Allport’s retirement as editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology was followed by another dramatic decrease in the number of studies of individuals published in the journal (Shermer, 1985). Commenting on a pioneering book of clinical case studies (Burton & Harris, 1947), Dollard noted that it relied heavily on test material and was not “the much-needed book of illuminating case histories for the teacher of Abnormal Psychology” (1948, p. 541).
What Happened to Murray’s “Personological” Concepts?
It seems clear that Murray’s theory and methods, as originally developed in Explorations in Personality and later extended and elaborated (e.g., Murray, 1959, 1968, 1977; Murray & Kluckhohn, 1953), offered an extensive array of methods and concepts that could enrich the study-ofindividuals approach to personality psychology. Yet in any account of Murray’s enduring impact on the field, these methods and concepts usually (and fairly) take second place to his more nomothetic concepts and procedures, such as the TAT. How can we account for this discrepancy? One important factor was undoubtedly Murray’s lifelong tendency— present in his biographical work on Melville as well as his psychology—to revise, rework, and “fuss” with his most important works—ultimately leaving them fragmentary and incomplete (see F. G. Robinson, 1992, passim). Many other personality psychologists, nomothetically inclined, were eager to develop his list of variables; no one took up the task of working out “need-integrate,” “gratuity,” or “serial proceeding” in sufficient detail so as to make their usefulness— and thereby the usefulness of the individual lives approach— apparent. What Murray left undone, especially in the conceptual domain of the study of individuals, often remained (to a great extent) undone.
Individualized Assessment Ventures
Murray’s approach has survived in certain intellectual “niche” positions: for example, in the work of Robert White (a Murray protégé and a former member of Allport’s life history seminar; see G. W.Allport, 1967) on the “study of lives” (White, 1952, 1963, 1972). Murray’s approach has continued to be important in certain kinds of assessment situations.DuringWorldWarII, he and several colleagues developed an assessment program, loosely modeled on the Explorations project, for selecting personnel (i.e., spies serving behind enemy lines, mostly) for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (Office of Strategic Services [OSS] Assessment Staff, 1948). After the war, Donald MacKinnon, a Murray protégé, used the OSS assessment system as a model for establishing the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California, Berkeley (MacKinnon, 1967). (In the early 1990s, perhaps as a sign of ambivalence about the “person” versus dimensional approaches, and in response to funding opportunities, the institute was renamed Institute for Personality and Social Research [IPSR].) At the same time, “assessment centers,” loosely based on many of Murray’s principles, came to play an important role in selection and development of senior executives in U.S. corporations (Bray, 1982, 1985; Campbell & Bray, 1993). In contrast, nomothetic questionnaire-based assessment predominates in the selection and guidance of lowerlevel workers, and at all levels of education.
Why the difference? Person-centered assessment is clearly expensive and time-consuming. Probably these costs can only be justified in a few situations, where choosing the right or wrong person has important financial or social consequences—for example, the right spy, the most effective corporate senior officer. In a very real sense, therefore, personality assessment (and personality psychology generally) remains stratified, more or less along lines of social power and social class: person-centered for elites (and for criminals and others who threaten or challenge elite power; see our discussion of vivid persons, below), nomothetic for the masses.
Reassessing the History of Ambivalence Toward the Study of Individual Lives
It is difficult to understand the history of ambivalence toward the study of individual lives in personality psychology if we accept historical accounts that attribute the origins of the field to clinically-derived theories, on the one hand (e.g., C. S. Hall & Lindzey, 1957), or to the publication of Allport’s and Murray’s texts, on the other hand (e.g., Sanford, 1985). Each of these historical reconstructions emphasizes the “dissident” role of personality theorists, overlooking broader contextual influences on the direction of personality research, as well as the development of the psychometric tradition before 1930. Adopting a longer time perspective, we have seen that the psychometric approach was predominant in personality research by the time the field was institutionalized in the mid-1930s and that the decline of interest in studies of individual lives between the 1930s and the 1950s continued a general trend in psychology (dubbed “the triumph of the aggregate”; Danziger, 1990, p. 68) that began as early as the 1910s.
Adopting a multidisciplinary perspective, we have suggested that the marginal status of case studies and life histories in personality psychology was related to their identification as preferred methods in psychiatry and in abnormal psychology (at a time when this field was primarily a medical specialty), and in sociology, where they were associated with the emergence of empirical research. In contrast, psychologists interested in personality adopted psychometric measures as efficient means of meeting practical goals. Psychologists working in “applied” areas were particularly attracted to quantitative methods that could establish their scientific expertise and differentiate them from their “pseudoscientific” competitors. These pBibliography: persisted during the emergence of personality psychology as a separate subdiscipline in the 1930s, despite calls for more attention to case study methods.
Gordon Allport’s and Henry Murray’s efforts to promote studies of individual lives were initially less successful than their efforts to systematize the new subfield. While generally agreeing that the goal of personality psychology was to understand the individual person, other authors of personality texts during this period, like Woodworth (1929) before them, used case studies for illustrative purposes (see McAdams & West, 1997) but continued to describe them as clinical methods rather than as research methods. Although several students and colleagues of Allport and Murray explored methods of studying individual lives, attention to these methods during the 1930s and 1940s reflected primarily the interests of sociologists (particularly those involved with the SSRC) and European psychologists rather than a more general acceptance of these methods by American personality psychologists.
Without these external supports, methods of studying individual lives received even less attention from personality psychologists during the post–World War II period, which saw an increase in the use of survey and quantitative techniques in the social sciences (Platt, 1992, 1996). Although Allport’s monograph on personal documents (G. W. Allport, 1942) fueled controversy regarding clinical versus statistical prediction during the 1940s and 1950s, it appears to have had more of an impact on clinical psychologists than on personality researchers (e.g., O’Connell, 1958). The post–World War II expansion of clinical psychology contributed to the continuation of the prediction debate, but, ironically, drew attention away from Allport’s goal of developing idiographic research methods in personality psychology. As Allport observed later, “We stop with our wobbly laws of personality and seldom confront them with the concrete person” (G. W. Allport, 1962a, p. 407).
Revival of the Study of Individual Lives in Personality Psychology
There are signs of a resurgence of interest in the study of individual lives on the part of personality psychologists. Psychobiography, a topic of special interest to political psychologists and many historians, had continued to grow and flourish since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. Erikson’s studies of Luther (1958) and Gandhi (1969) were widely viewed as models of how to study individuals through the combined lenses of personality psychology and history. Other examples include studies of Woodrow Wilson (George & George, 1956), George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev (Winter, Hermann, Weintraub, & Walker, 1991a, 1991b), four U.S. foreign policy advisors (Elms, 1986), U.S. president Bill Clinton (Suedfeld, 1994), andAdolf Hitler (W. Langer, 1972). (Much of Langer’s work was based on earlier studies of Hitler by Murray, whose work was not acknowledged by Langer; see F. G. Robinson, 1992, pp. 275–278, also Murray, 1943.) Several books and articles contain lists of psychobiographical studies (Cocks & Crosby, 1987, especially pp. 217–222; Craik, 1988; Crosby & Crosby, 1981; Elms, 1994; Friedman, 1994; Glad, 1973; Greenstein, 1969, especially p. 72; Howe, 1997; McAdams & Ochberg, 1988; Runyan, 1982, 1988a, 1988b, 1990, 1997; Simonton, 1999; and Stone & Schaffner, 1988). Greenstein (1969, chap. 3) provides a model for the tasks of description and analysis in constructing individual psychobiographical case studies, and Winter (2000) reviews recent developments.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, this wave of interest in psychobiography began to enter the mainstream, as personality psychologists explored how psychobiography and studies of individual persons could enrich their field. Runyan (1981) used the question of why nineteenth-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear as the basis for a discussion of how to gather and evaluate evidence, and how to decide among rival explanations of specific actions of particular individuals. In Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method, Runyan (1982) reviewed methodological problems, addressed criticisms, and suggested guidelines for the evaluation and preparation of case studies, life histories, and psychobiographical studies. West (1983) edited a special issue of the Journal of Personality devoted to idiographic methods. Afew years later, McAdams and Ochberg (1988) edited another special issue of the same journal, on psychobiography and life narratives, with papers devoted to analysis of earlier work, methodological suggestions, and studies of particular individuals.
Over the next decade, several collections of case studies appeared—often inspired by external intellectual influences and trends; for example, feminist theory (e.g., Franz & Stewart, 1994; Romero & Stewart, 1999) or hermeneuticinterpretive and narrative methods (e.g., Josselson & Lieblich, 1993–1999). At the same time, several new personality textbooks (e.g., McAdams, 1990; Winter, 1996) gave considerable attention to individual persons, while many existing texts expanded their use of case study material in new editions.
In many cases, these studies used quantitative scores from traditional nomothetic variables to elucidate personality change and development over time (e.g., Espin, Stewart, & Gomez, 1990; Stewart, Franz, & Layton, 1988). Sometimes the use of quantative data helped to resolve paradoxical behaviors (e.g., the study of Richard Nixon by Winter & Carlson, 1988) or explain surprising outcomes (e.g., the study of Bill Clinton by Winter, 1998a). And studies by Stolorow and Atwood (1979), Alexander (1990), and Demorest and Siegel (1996) turned personality on its head by arguing that personality theories have personal and subjective origins in the lives of their creators.
In 1997, Nasby and Read (1997) published a truly landmark case study of Dodge Morgan, who at the age of 54 sold his electronics business for $41 million, commissioned construction of a sailboat, and then completed a 150-day nonstop solo circumnavigation of the earth (see Morgan, 1989, for his own account of the voyage). Nasby and Read integrated a rich and diverse array of quantitative and qualitative data: numerous personality tests, administered before and after (and in some cases during) the voyage; Morgan’s voyage log, content-analyzed for a variety of themes and personality characteristics; and Morgan’s letters and later memoir (1989) of the voyage.
Motives That Drive Psychologists to Study Individuals
Considering all these trends together, it seems that—even when highly abstract and nomothetic perspectives such as the five-factor model of traits are enjoying great popularity— there is also a revival of interest in studies of individual persons within contemporary personality psychology. It is worthwhile to speculate about some reasons for the coexistence of these two very different trends.
Vivid Persons. First, the world is populated with many vivid and arresting persons, people who compel our attention because their lives depart so extensively from the ordinary courses.Historyandtoday’sheadlinesarefullofpeoplewhose behaviors—hence their personalities—cry out for explanation and understanding because they are so strange or at least do not “make sense” by fitting into a coherent pattern. Thus, the enigma of Adolf Hitler’s personality continues to drive interpretations, psychological and otherwise, more than 55 years after his death, as testified to by the comprehensive review of Hitler biographies and psychobiographies by Rosenbaum (1998), Kershaw (1999), and L. L. Langer (1999).
To take three more contemporary examples: What features of the personality of Theodore Kaczynski led him to become the “Unabomber,” mailing meticulously-designed explosive packages to a miscellaneous group of people (e.g., technology executives and at least one psychologist) as a protest against the effects of technology? Why did Timothy McVeigh in 1995 blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people (including 15 little children in a daycare center) and injuring more than 500 others? And finally, what personality dynamics led the mysterious figures of Mohamed Atta and his cohort to commit suicide and mass murder by hijacking jet airliners to fly into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and whatever target they intended for the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 (Yardley, 2001)?
Often, however, there are people who will never make headlines or draw lengthy obituaries; yet they fascinate and perplex their friends and acquaintances.Thus, GordonAllport was drawn to the personality of his college roommate’s mother, Jenny Gove Masterson (a pseudonym that Allport used in place of her real name), as they corresponded over a period of 11 years. (As Winter, 1993, suggests, perhaps this was because she resembled in some ways his own mother and cast him in the role of “good son,” in comparison to her own son. Unconsciously, Allport may even have experienced his roommate as a kind of “double.”)After Jenny’s death,Allport used the letters as case materials in his teaching and later published them, first as journal articles (Anonymous, 1946) and then, near the end of his own life, as a book (Allport, 1965). At least two of his students attempted quantitative analyses of Jenny’s personality, based on some of her letters (Baldwin, 1942; Paige, 1966). In the book version of her letters, Allport discussed a variety of personality interpretations of Jenny. Clearly, forAllport, Jenny was an exceptionally vivid person, someone who drew his attention and mobilized his most strenuous explanatory powers. As he put it in the preface: “Invariably she pins me down with the unspoken challenge, ‘And what do you make of me?’” (Allport, 1965, p. x; emphasis in original). In such circumstances, everyone feels compelled to explain (thus graduate students—in psychology, anyway—often feel this compulsion with respect to their mentors!). To Allport, the psychologist “has a curiosity that drives him further, sometimes even to the point of indelicacy” (p. 157).
When we try to explain such vivid and compelling people with the usual resources of the personality psychologist’s “toolbox” of nomothetic variables, the results can be quite unsatisfying—a hollow portrait. For example, a description of the Unabomber’s personality in terms of the popular fivefactor model of traits might run as follows: low surgency (at least in face-to-face interactions), low agreeableness, high conscientiousness, and high neuroticism. (His level on factor 5, openness to experience, can be debated. Was it high, as reflected in the broad erudition in his “manifesto,” or was it perhaps low because of the rigidity of his ideas?) While this trait profile may be consistent with his behavior, it actually tells us very little. For one thing, such a profile probably fits several million middle-aged American males—most of whom have not tried to kill other people. (Recall how many people rush to apply the unhelpful descriptive cliché of “loner” to assassins and those who carry out mass shootings.) Further, it is difficult to construct any strong explanatory links between such broad and general terms as “introversion” or “neuroticism,” on the one hand, and the highly differentiated and specific actions of a Unabomber, a Hitler, or a Jenny, on the other.
“Synthesizing” the Individual Personality? The most traditional and widespread criticism of the individual lives approach to personality is that it does not permit generalization (for discussions of several common criticisms, see Runyan, 1982, 1983, and McAdams and West, 1997). Staub (1980) put it succinctly: “If we focus on the uniqueness of every human being, we cannot generalize from one person to another . . . [and] the aim of science is to discover laws . . . applicable at least to some, if not to all people” (p. 3). Such an argument can easily be turned on its head, as follows: The object of science is to formulate general principles that enable us to understand concrete examples or instances. However, the present state of personality psychology is such that we are not really close to being able to “synthesize” a conception of a person from knowledge of that person’s scores on any list of component personality variables alone. At a minimum, we need to know how these variables are structured.
Consider the following example (which is hypothetical, but based on some real people we have known). A factor analysis can describe how variables are grouped across large groups of people. Thus, in most five-factor trait models, “aggressive” and “kindly” might define two opposite poles of an agreeableness factor (and perhaps to some extent also two poles of an independent surgency factor). Nevertheless, while these two traits are somewhat opposed at the group level, it is not difficult to imagine individual persons who are both “kindly” and “aggressive.” Such persons could express this opposed pair of traits in a variety of quite different ways, depending on how they are structured within the person. For example, they could alternate between being kindly and aggressive, thereby appearing inconsistent with respect to both traits. Or they could differentiate as to other people, acting (consistently) kindly toward some people and (consistently) aggressive toward others. Or one trait could subsume and incorporate the other, so that the person acts “kindly, but in an aggressive way” or else “aggressive, albeit in a kindly fashion.” Embodied in real persons, each of these possibilities would lead to strikingly different patterns of behavior and effects on other people; yet each could be based on the same two trait scores.
Reconceptualizing the Goals of Personality Psychology. Another response to the criticism that case studies do not permit generalization is to take seriously Allport’s suggestion that personality psychology has more than one goal. In Allport’s view, these goals include not only the discovery of general laws but also the discovery of laws pertaining to particular individuals and, more broadly, the understanding of particular individuals (e.g., G. W.Allport, 1937b, 1962a). Recently, Runyan (1997, p. 44) has proposed a conceptual framework for personality psychology consisting of four major objectives: the development of general theories (e.g., psychoanalysis), the study of individual and group differences (e.g., the “Big Five” trait factors), the analysis of “specific processes and classes of behavior” (e.g., dreams, motives), and the understanding of individual persons and lives.Arguing that these four goals are interrelated but at least partiallyindependentofoneanother,Runyansuggests,“Work on all four tasks is necessary, and the fact that inquiry at one level does not automatically answer questions at the other levels is not a telling criticism” (p. 50).
Questioning of “Science.” The Staub quotation cited above, which is critical of the individual lives approach, is based upon a particular (rather monolithic) conception of what science “is,” as well as a high valuation of that conception. Without entering into the debate about those issues, we do note that in the last decades of the twentieth century, “science” as it has traditionally been practiced has come under intellectual, social, and political criticism from a variety of perspectives. Postmodernists have argued that the objectivity of “objective” science is an illusion; followers of Foucault claim that science is always practiced in the service of power; and feminists would refine that claim to be “in the service of male power.”And indeed, from its very beginnings, mainstream personality psychology has eagerly sought recognition and funding by catering to the interests of the ruling class: selecting good executives, deselecting poor soldiers, managing industrial workers, and supplying labels used to identify and control the behavior of members of less powerful, and potentially “troublesome,” groups (see above; also Danziger, 1990, 1997; Parker, 1991; Winter & Barenbaum, 1999). Thus it was inevitable that the mainstream quantitative, nomothetic approach in personality should be a target for more general criticisms of science (or at least of “scientism”) and that an alternative (less “scientific”) approach would be looked upon more favorably by the critics.
Yet we must not go too far. All personality psychologists who use the individual lives approach would insist that they are rigorous scholars; they would also vigorously deny that in their interpretations “anything goes,” or that, in the derisive words of Gergen, “The case study simply allows the investigator freedom to locate the facts lending support to . . . preformulated convictions” (1977, p. 142). Most would maintain that they are practicing science, and many would argue for the possibility of (in Allport’s words) “a science treating individuals” (G. W. Allport, 1937b, p. 21). And in fact, some of the critics of mainstream personality psychology are really friendly critics, trying to improve the true scientific credentials by taking account of these alternative perspectives (see, e.g., Stewart, 1993, on how feminist theories can improve personality research).
Thus, personality psychology is not immune to intellectual trends and fashions (albeit perhaps somewhat sluggish and belated in its responsiveness). Currently, approaches that involve narrative and other qualitative methods, as reflected in the existence and importance of the Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000), are enjoying relatively high prestige in the academic community, particularly in many social science fields. (For example, sociology has seen a revival of interest in case studies and personal documents; see Platt, 1992, 1996; Plummer, 1983.) Thus, it is only natural that such trends should give impetus to a renewed focus on the individual lives approach (e.g., McAdams, Josselson, & Lieblich, 2001), particularly when they can be combined with quantitative methods (see, e.g., J. M. Healy & Stewart, 1991).
Importance of Social Context. Afinal reason for the renewed interest in the individual lives approach to personality is a recognition of the importance of people’s social contexts in shaping and channeling their personality characteristics and dynamics. Psychologists have long recognized the powerful effects of immediate situations or microcontexts; for example, things that can be manipulated in laboratory experiments. Even more striking in their effects, however, are macrocontexts, or enduring features of social structure and culture—gender, age, social class, culture, and history. For example, consider such personality variables as power motivation, optimistic explanatory style, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Each is clearly defined. Each has considerable construct validity, which means that it is associated with a recognized and characteristic set of observable behaviors.Yet imagine how differently each would have been expressed on the morning of June 6, 1944, by the following two people, in the following two situations: (1) a white 20-year-old American man storming Utah Beach during the World War II invasion of Normandy in France, and (2) a middle-aged Japanese American woman in an internment camp set up in the Utah desert at the beginning of the war by the U.S. government for citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry. Taking account of the enormous context differences, we could probably recognize abstract similarities in the expression of power motivation, optimistic explanatory style, extraversion, and conscientiousness across the two situations. And within each situation, we could recognize differences between people who were high versus low in power motivation, conscientiousness, and so forth.
When we consider the many different features of people’s social contexts, each interacting with all the others, it is immediately apparent that taken together, they transform and channel the expression of nomothetic “standardized” personality variables in an indefinitely large number of ways. (Of course, the different personality variables interact with and thereby transform each other, as well.) As a result, the concepts of “personality variables” and even “personality” are most appropriately understood not as autonomous, freefloating entities located “within” people but rather as “bundles” of potentialities, expressed in many and varied (but still recognizable) ways in combination with features of the social micro- and macrocontexts. The study and assessment of personality, then, become the much broader study and assessment of personality-in-contexts; this, in turn, means the study and assessment of individual lives. In other words, recognition of the importance of social context facilitates recognition of the value of the individual lives approach.
Context and Complexity in Personality Psychology
Some psychologists have recognized, at least in principle, the importance of context in the expression of personality. Kurt Lewin (1935) long ago articulated the principle that behavior is a joint function of the personality (P) and the environment (E); in formulaic terms: B f(P, E). This principle is often expressed by including a person-situation interaction term in an ANOVA or regression. However, Lewin’s simple formula and these interaction terms are really little more than programmatic methodological aspirations or statements of faith; as they stand, they are of little use in the full analysis of complex person-environment transactions in the real world. From our perspective, Lewin’s formula is misleadingly simple: Personality itself is also a function of complex and differentiated environments, past and present, as well as immediate situations. For example, might Jenny’s personality have been different if she had been more financially secure (M. B. Allport, 1965)?
Atkinson (1957) developed a model for relating motivation and behavior by considering the effects of contextrelated variables such as expectancy and incentive as they interacted with approach and avoidance motives. While the model was usefully applied to the analysis of certain situations, mostly involving the achievement motive (Atkinson & Feather, 1966; McClelland, 1985; McClelland & Winter, 1969, pp. 15–19), it, too, remained a largely programmatic model.
In developing his list of personality variables, Murray made a deliberate analogy to organic chemistry (1938, p. 142). His list of motives and traits was seen as a limited number of elements capable of combining with each other and environmental press, producing an almost infinite number of complex and unique individual personality-environment “compounds”—that is, individual lives. On the other hand, subsequent personality psychologists mostly confined their attention to the short list of personality elements rather than the enormous variety of person-environment compounds. This would be analogous to chemists focusing only on the abstract characteristics of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, considered in isolation—appropriate for the early weeks of secondary school chemistry, perhaps, but hardly organic chemistry!
Taking Murray’s metaphor seriously would lead personality psychology in the direction of studying these many and varied individual lives,justasorganicchemistsattendtothemany and varied emergent properties of an enormous number of organic compounds. (As mentioned above, Murray actually introduced several concepts, such as need-integrate, regnancy, ordination, and gratuity, that could facilitate the study of personality-in-context in individual lives, but these concepts were never seriously developed and elaborated, either by Murray or by later generations of personality psychologists.) A similar perspective has emerged recently from the discovery that human complexity is generated by a surprisingly small number of genes:
The key to complexity is not more genes, but more combinations and interactions generated by fewer units of code—and many of these interactions (as emergent properties, to use the technical jargon) must be explained at the level of their appearance, for they cannot be predicted from the separate underlying parts alone. So organisms must be explained as organisms, and not as a summation of genes. (Gould, 2001)
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, we have come to recognize that personality involves complex interactions among elements and contexts in ways that, over time, are to some extent irreversible (or at least only reversible with greater difficulty than acquisition) and cannot be adequately described with simplistic, positivistic conceptions of science. We believe that these complexities—of personality and of psychological science—have energized a renewed interest in the individual lives approach to understanding personality. At the same time, we believe that no one should underestimate the difficulty of studying lives with traditional and valuable standards of scientific objectivity and rigor—to develop, as Allport suggested, a true science of the single case. Perhaps in the next century, the field will benefit from the increased popularity and accessibility of chaos theory (also called complexity theory) and its associated mathematical concepts (e.g., Nowak & Vallacher, 1998) as alternatives to classical psychometric procedures and rules.
Finally, we suggest that to understand contexts and the way they shape the level and expression of personality dimensions within individual lives will involve us in making acquaintance with and giving serious study to many other disciplines: for example, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, political science, history, economics, religion, even architecture and geography. To do justice to the whole range of human experience, we believe, the study of individual lives in personality psychology must become again, as it originally was, an interdisciplinary endeavor.
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