by Hugh M. Lewis


Our character is the measure of the culture we bear.


Culture and character refers to the attempt to examine the interrelationships between the individual personality on the one hand and the culture on the other. There have been various formulations of such studies--some showing how the culture recapitulates the personality, others how personality recapitulates the culture, still others seeking a modal or basic personality configuration, while cultural psychology construes a dialectic between culture and person as mutually constraining and interpenetrating one another. It's origin in a culture history approach has tended toward the racist ascription of stereotypes to cultural orientations, to a faulty kind of anything goes relativity of values, and to an extreme reductionism. But the problem remains worthy of some critical regard, because of its bearing upon so many other interesting questions.

It remains problematic from the first place because neither of its key terms, personality or culture, are well defined in any fixed, deterministic fashion. Lacking central definitions, we are then asked to explain the relations between what very well may amount to being two fictive entities. Given such critical indeterminancy of our key terms, there is a tendency to be lulled back to the complacency of our folk conceptions, our theories of attribution of traits to people and groups which constitutes so much of the ground of our common sense and that so informs our world with the appearance of truth.

It is important that we accept, for the time being, and in lieu of anything more precise, provisional and operational definitions for our key terms, and that we separate the problem which results from a systematic attempt at the study of the relationships proposed from the facile folk theories which otherwise usually stand in their place. While the latter always suffers from ethnocentric bias, the former may or may not, more or less, suffer the same bias. Indeed, one of the primary motivations for the former mode of study is the very attempt to get beyond the veil of our own preconceptions, to bring the fact of their otherwise transparent facticity into clear view, to expose their bias and fallacy for what they are, and to attempt to render a more correct and satisfactory version of the world which is not the product of the same kind of fallacy and which opens itself to empirical verification.

It seems as though the principle motivation for undertaking such systematic inquiry is not only the attempt to dispel the ignorance of our own preconceptions about reality and to discover the "really real," that it fulfills some fundamental need and curiosity in humans to seek the truth, but that such discovery offers us the promise of some kind of empowerment in human reality, as well as the promise of emancipation from power. In terms of our existential and ecological adaptation to the effective environment of our world, it offers us the possibility for more adaptive responses. But the problem has been perennially important to us for an even deeper reason, primarily because to broaches directly what is at the crux of our very sense of human reality. In other words it asks one of the most fundamental existential questions about our subjective experience of human reality, namely "what is it?"

First, it is evident that how we define the relationships between culture and personality will be predetermined by how we define both culture and personality, such that both concepts are in some way or another mutually complementary or compatible within some general framework. We might sidestep this issue somewhat by trying to control our primary definitions of the key terms, assuming that they are general variables of our equation. In this sense we might posit a kind of a standard, polythetic, and basic prototypical definition for both culture and personality--assuming that both describe central tendencies of certain domains of reality. We can claim then that "culture is whatever it normally is for most people, and that personality is whatever it is for most normal people." Though this leaves out the possibility of there being in fact no prototypical examples of culture or personality, or that several competing, even contradictory prototypes may exists within the same continuum, and though we run the risk of again falling back upon our own preconceived notions of what these in fact may consist of, such a presumption may serve as a useful, even necessary, base-line upon which to build and amend our model of the interrelation.

In such a manner, if persistently applied, we carve out a kind of negative definition of the problem, not by directly describing what it in fact is or may be, but by ruling out by a process of elimination all the things we know it is not. Thus over the long run we hope to narrow the negative outline of the relationship to the point that we come down to a fairly limited paradigm of possibilities.

The question of the overlap of the two continuums of culture and personality is central to the notion of the anthropology of knowledge and the so-called "anthropological construction of reality" and it comes to focus at the critical moment in which cultural realities reproduce themselves in the character of the individual--at the moment, in other words that anthropologists call enculturation and others socialization or acquisition. It is a kind of imprinting process upon the personality, and subsequent in the complementary process in which the personality makes its mark upon the cultural world.

The relationship between the primary acquisition, and what has become referred to as secondary acquisition, is part of a complex theory of systematic cultural constraint, conservation, elaboration and change known generally as "cultural dynamics." Individuals are made in the image of their primary cultural orientation, and then subsequent remake their cultural orientation in their own image, but during which the possibility for error and variation introduces modification.

If humanness is defined by its world-openness and unfinished state in nature, then we are faced with the paradox that this same openness which creates the possibility for cultural construction of reality in the first place, also assures us that such cultural acquisition and its cultural construction must always be imperfect, partial and unfinished business. In other words, no matter how thoroughgoing the indoctrination, there is always some room leftover for other possibilities, in both culture and character development. Several well-accepted corollaries come from this conclusion. While most tradition bound cultures are quite conservative, all are subject to some modicum of change and reconstruction. Such cultures are mostly integrated, but not completely so. Such cultural integration is usually adaptive, or geared towards adaptation in a larger environment, but such adaptation is never a perfect fit and is always subject to alteration. The cultural dynamics set up in the dialectic between culture and character can be seen then as both a conservative force for stability and as an adaptive mechanism for change. Thus the transmission of culture is the primary vehicle of its continuance and alteration.

Because of this paradox for culture and character posed by human openness upon the world, we must understand that the possibility, indeed likelihood, for discrepant reality sets up a dynamic process of interference and reconditioning which further complicates our study of the culture and character.

Cultural character has a way of becoming implanted in the individual in such a ways as to remain largely beneath the level of everyday consciousness. In other words, it is defined informally and functionally in terms of is praxis and the implicit rules and values that are derivable from the integration of this praxis. The formal aspects of culture which are marked and thus made more available to consciousness may very well be the aspects of culture which would otherwise, if left unmarked, remain only weakly conditioned and hence more susceptible to modification. Formally framing certain features of a culture is a way of preserving these features against the likelihood of amendment. It is the unconscious substrate of culture, those everyday aspects of culture as performance and phenomenological process, and their implicit structuration, that demands and defies explanation. It is this underside of culture, as this has been characteriologically implanted in the individual personality, which remains the more problematic mystery.

We may accept several other conclusions on the basis of this thesis. One is that no culture exists wholly independently of its primary cultural carriers. The individual character in the group-context is to be seen as the principle vehicle for the expression and transmission of culture. Conversely, no personality exists outside or beyond the purview of some cultural context within which it is normally configured and construed. Culture and character are inter-dependent and inseparable sides of a single continuum of anthropological process of transmission. It is an on-going process which forms an unbroken chain from its first, remotest beginnings, to the very present. To avoid unfortunate connotations, I will refer to this basic anthropological process arising from the dialectic between culture and character as culturation.

This being the case, we cannot imagine such a thing as a culture that is entirely apart from its carriers and human agency, as some kind of bounded or boundable phenomena, a culture circle or little hermetic garden. Such boundaries, if they exist at all, exist more as temporary, permeable, ephemeral markers of difference and distance between peoples in place and time--they are a function of the different heritage and history of different branches. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine an individual human being in a vacuum, totally beyond the purview of some kind of culturative context--the few examples attest to the monstrous consequences of such isolation.

The inherent interdependency between culture and character assure us that any facile labels or definitions which seem to separate one from the other are bound to be spurious and fallacious conceptions. Also, this interdependency assures us that neither culture nor character can be studied or sufficiently understood wholly independent of the other. Also, we are ourselves, as agents of our own cultural backgrounds, to some extent locked within our own sense of history, rendering the unreserved attempt to cross cultural boundaries entirely specious, at best. We cannot simply suspend culture or control the effects of character in order to better analyze or study them.

Interdependency between culture and character does not preclude the probability that to some unknown extent both culture and character exist in their own spheres as separate and independent from one another. People can behave outside the conventions or sanctions of their culture, and cultures can continue in spite such deviance. The amazing fact of the matter seems to be that cultures continue making sense despite so much deviance, but the final analysis remains that no individual can behave entirely without the umbrella provided by culture, and that no culture can continue without some human agency by which to carry it.

We can surmise that the evolution of culture--the real culture history, has been something of a branching and braided rope or chain resembling somewhat the purported evolutionary tree, with perhaps the main difference having been that cultural divergence and branching has probably proceeded at a much faster rate, even though within a shallower time depth, hence yielding a much more variegated and complex picture. This picture is probably also rendered more problematic in that the principle vehicles for such transmission are not genetically isolated as members of different species are--different peoples and cultural groupings have regularly come into contact, with different consequences. Furthermore, the stability of a cultural orientation is conditional to certain extraneous factors and may not be intrinsically guaranteed--culture history, perhaps much more than natural history, has been largely a history of happenstance and unintended consequences. Part of the chaotic patterning of cultures is that relatively minor causes may have major consequences, while major events may have only mild effects.

We may assert that human character was fundamentally less variable and thus human culture less variegated in the earlier phases of human culture history than later. The increasing variety of cultures made possible an increasing range of characteriological differences of personality, and the widening range of interpersonal differences and possibility of such difference opened the door for further cultural variation. Sophisticated cultures permitted, even demanded, a much wider range of individual variation--and the trend towards individual differences demanded more sophisticated, variegated cultural contexts.

We must construe the evolutionary function and historical role of the process of culturation as primary anti-entropic or anti-chaotic as the extension of the human response to its own natural condition of unfinished world openness.

We will refer to the long term patterns which result from the process of culturation within a group as the "cultural pattern" or its configuration, and we must acknowledge the basic stochastic complexity of such patterns, that may nevertheless, in relation to their adaptive, anti-chaotic function, settle into a fixed number of finite possible states.

Another conclusion that can be drawn is that there has been a rather wide range of variation in how different cultural traditions and orientations have developed, and that given different, and changing circumstances, some cultural orientations may at times be better adapted than others, some more tradition bound or settled than others, and some more capable of incorporating change than others, and not all for the same reasons. Cultures succeed in different ways, for better or worse, and the developments of one cultural orientation may at any given moment of its history be convergent, divergent or parallel with that of another. Furthermore, given the complexity and the role of historical circumstance in culturative processes, we must conclude that form the most part different cultural orientations, and their carriers, are only superficially commensurable. We might derive numerous interesting and unexpected correlations from such cross-cultural comparison, but rarely if ever any causal conclusions.

These conclusions might seem to relativize the possibility of establishing any universal or general framework for the understanding of the relationship between culture and personality, but we must see that whatever the form or patterning that either culture or character may take, the fact of both culture and character, or rather of the process of culturation itself is based upon a universal problematic of the human condition, and it is upon this basis that the common, universal substrate for both culture and character may be found.

What we find wherever we find culture, are similar basic processes, whatever the form by which they are expressed and whatever the circumstances by which their expression is defined. Likewise, all human beings exhibit, differentially, similar basic processes of personality and character development, processes to some extent organically conditioned and predetermined. It is upon such basis that we can legitimately speak of a science of human society or a genuine science of human psychology. Because we recognize in humankind the common capacity for culture, we can systematically approach the study of culture and character as if this were a science beyond the purview of our folk models and our own culture-bound common sense.

Such study merits critical scrutiny along many points of the continuum of culturation. Where there is close conformity and alignment of culture and character, where certain cultures appear inordinately conservative, we can inquire into the role and nature of certain authoritarian character traits. On the other hand, the examination of deviance and extreme characteriological pathology may better serve our science in instances where such tight conjoining of the configuration of culture and character appears broadly discrepant or contradictory. We must also carry to our studies the sobering recognition that the study of cognitive structures or cognition may have little bearing on the study of emotions or the affective life of individuals, or the understanding of symbols or collective representations may not lead us to the source of cultural values or ethos.

We must see culturation as both a process that is both biographically integrative in terms of an individuals lifetime, and simultaneously as transcending or crosscutting such biographical experience, as integrative of the diverse heterogeneous mosaic of cultural space. In the former sense it is primarily a subjective, phenomenologically experienced, temporally constrained and existentially problematic process of the expression of character and its development. In the other sense it becomes "objectivated" in externalized forms of familiar sets of values, ideas, terms, beliefs, symbolisms, practices, etc., that occupy certain proveniences within a larger framework we call a culture, and which may be mutually and differentially shared by different members of a culture.

At every point, a cultural context provides is carriers with a range of schemata by which its agents and construct and reconstruct its patternings. At no point in the process of culturation does such human agency not come into play. In highly stylized or ritualistically constrained contexts, the amount of choice that the individual agent may have in the expression may be quite limited or virtually nil--in less formal circumstances greater degrees of variation may be permitted.

When we refer to such processes of culturation as production we must understand that culture and character requires a satisfactory degree of integration in order to be successful, when such integration occurs, a "meta-relation" becomes established which confers upon the entire process its "larger-than-life" or synergistic sense of significance. On the other hand, when such integration between culture and character fail, as it sometimes does, then we can properly speak discrepant and uncoordinate realities, and hence of psychosocial pathology.

It is in terms of the study of the integration of culture and character that we can speak of "human reality" per se. In this sense, Levi-Strauss's concept of the mythological reversal of contraposed themes, including the meta-themes of nature and culture, can be seen as nothing more than the expression upon a symbolic plane of a process of dialectical reversal in the integration of reality which is already apparent in more basic and organically human ways. First, it is important in such reversals that culture is originally artificial, therefore unnatural, distorted, and, then that it substitutes status or place with its natural counterpart, and thus becomes seen as natural. In such a reversal, natural elements then come to be construed as culturally constructed, unnatural and distorted.

To the extent that a culture can be defined by its tradition, we can expect a certain degree of differential and variable integration between culture and character, but we must always see this integration as historically situated and environmentally circumscribed. It makes a little sense to speak of Vietnamese Character as in certain fundamental ways different from American or Chinese character, but it makes more sense to distinguish between South Vietnamese Character of the pre-colonial era and North Vietnamese Character in the contemporary era, and to see that the character of Vietnamese grandchildren living in the U.S. may have been fundamentally altered from that of their Grandparents who spent most of their lives in a war-torn Vietnam.

We must always see also that it is extremely difficult to frame such study in terms that are exclusively or entirely etic and objective. Such study demands an emic and primarily subjective orientation, because the principle mode of expression of this relationship is subjectively experienced and expressed. This subjectivity makes calling this kind of study science in the conventional, positivistic sense of the term very problematic. In the experience of difference or the crossing of cultures, we are left with few familiar landmarks by which we can stake our new science.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05