Culture and Personality

Caroline Humphrey

  • Margaret Mead: A Life of Controversy by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Penguin, 96 pp, £3.99, May 1989, ISBN 0 14 008760 5
  • Ruth Benedict: Stranger in the Land by Margaret Caffrey
    Texas, 432 pp, $24.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 292 74655 5

There is a popular vision of the anthropologist as figure-of-fun which an allegorical ‘Margaret Mead’ is coming to represent: the blunderer into tribal life, dupe of the primitives, the self-dramatiser, spinner of graceless and unlikely theories. Another version of the anthropologist is the philosopher of culture and society in all its variations, one who understands humanity in some broad, if rather intuitive and dreamy way: Ruth Benedict, though her work is deeply unfashionable today, has this kind of position. Though both of these visions of the anthropologist have a certain plausibility, they hardly justify the tendency of recent biographies, particularly of Mead, to create retrospective stereotypes. Such books neglect the historical complexity and the difficulties of coming-into-being of anthropology as a subject. Neither Benedict nor Mead were like these types, but their life-stories do show not only how they were able to generate new ideas but also how easily – and this is really a matter of how anthropology is written – an idea could be taken up and somehow slip over the line into caricature.

Though vastly different from one another, their work and lives were intertwined. They were lovers for a time. Together they came to be pre-eminent in American anthropology, the doyens of ‘Culture and Personality’, the theory that cultures are like personalities writ large. Both felt themselves to be somewhat rejected by their repressive Protestant families, outsiders, who were determined to escape the suffocating suburban roles expected of women of their class. Anthropology for them was not just an occupation, but a vocation. They came to it as the stance from which to unmask the American society of their time, by pointing to its non-inevitability, its non-naturalness. They did this by presenting their readers with the stunningly ‘other’ solutions of diverse cultures, each of which appears equally inevitable and natural to its own members. The tactic was to make them seem so real that it is our habits which come to seem strange. Many of the works of Benedict and Mead were best-sellers, real best-sellers reaching far out of academe to governing circles and the general public. Both women were politically active. They lectured to huge public audiences and addressed government departments on subjects such as race, disarmament and civil liberties. Thinking about their lives now, one is led to marvel at the kind of influence anthropology had in the history of American thought, and then to ponder the fate of ideas in the political arena, where new clashes of interest allow what were progressive arguments to be relabelled and appropriated for conservative purposes.

The two books under review take quite different views of the achievements of their subjects. Phyllis Grosskurth’s Margaret Mead: A Life of Controversy, which appears in Penguin’s ‘Lives of Modern Women’ series, is really just another moan about the awfulness of Margaret Mead. She was impatient, bossy, over-zealous, incapable of realising when her leg was being pulled, narcissistic, bullying to her informants, but repeatedly misled by them in one field situation after another. Obsessively anthropological, she was incapable of attending a tea-party without freezing the children with her steely gaze. Even so, ‘she seemed more bemused by the English than by any exotic tribe in New Guinea,’ and so it goes on. Relatively infrequently in this book of 80 pages does such causerie give way to discussion of Mead’s ideas, and then the text is full of curiously non-sequential statements, so that one wonders whether Grosskurth knows very little about anthropology or fell victim to the scissors of a lackadaisical editor. Either way, it seems a pity that the ‘life of a modern woman’ should be reduced to a put-down.

The final chapter frankly takes sides with Derek Freeman, Mead’s posthumous opponent in a revival of the nature/nurture debate. Grosskurth describes him as ‘extremely brave’ for challenging in 1983 Mead’s first fieldwork in the Twenties, which had proposed that in Samoan culture, unlike that of contemporary America, girls could have a harmonious and sexually-free adolescence. Mead’s field material may well have been crude and her conclusions overdrawn. But so, one might argue, is Grosskurth’s espousal of Freeman’s fuzzy idea of ‘phylogenetically-given impulses’ which underlie culture. Her accusation that Mead was a gullible innocent who ‘acquired her data through information provided by uneducated girls’ betrays a lack of understanding of one of the major achievements of Mead and her generation. This was the successful establishment of the practice of the professional fieldworker-theorist, displacing the older dichotomy between the ‘man on the spot’ (administrator, missionary, trader etc) and the armchair ethnologist in academe. The old observers, of course, had their own various expectations, which privileged certain spheres of native life (governmental, economic, religious) and were almost always male-biased. Mead’s work with ‘uneducated girls’ was therefore genuinely original and provided a kind of insight not previously available. It is true that she herself was impatient and tended to a fly-by-night minimum of fieldwork unacceptable today. It is also true that the model of the professional fieldworker theorist, with its overtones of heroism, its rhetoric of ‘objectively acquired information’, and its bag of tricks to convince readers of the truth of its insights, has now been historicised in anthropology. But for a biographer merely to sneer at her subject for having been of her time is pretty low.

Margaret Caffrey’s biography of Ruth Benedict, on the other hand, is a model of serious, sympathetic engagement with her subject. This book is psychologically and intellectually illuminating. One has the feeling of truly understanding how Benedict’s ideas, her poetry, her teaching and her political activism rose to the surface in the sequences of her life and how they interacted with the social currents of the day.

This story is not irrelevant to present-day anthropology, because Benedict and Mead when they started out were trying to get to grips with problems in the analysis of culture which were analogous to those facing the subject in the deconstructed state it is in today. By the 1910s ‘anthropology’, in the person of the uncompromising, radical and beautifully, fanatically precise Franz Boas, had rejected the Victorian versions of evolutionism and biological determinism. The attack on absolutist ideas in the social sciences coincided with radical new ideas in mathematics, philosophy and the arts. The uncertainty of relativity replaced the old formulas. Boas himself had shown that supposedly irreducible human biological traits such as skull-size could change when immigrants’ children experienced different living conditions. The Pragmatist philosophers James and Dewey attacked the idea of eternal values: conduct determines values, they maintained, and conduct changes all the time. Boas insisted that ‘race’, which does not exist as a series of objective categories, must be separated from ‘culture’, which can at least be observed. But if one actually looked carefully at what ‘culture’ consists of across the globe, or even just among North American Indians, it appeared dissonant, almost random. Chance processes saw movement of an element from one culture to another. In all this, anthropology was the field in which ‘non-Euclidian’ (i.e. non-absolutist) science was pre-eminent.

Anthropology now is moving even further in this direction, towards the dissolution of categories such as the person and Western forms of gender. Ruth Benedict journeyed the other way, to a synthetic view of culture. She had spent her early adulthood in social work and schoolteaching, but she was not content with either. Exploring feminism, reading Pater and Nietzsche, she was searching, as Caffrey puts it, for a place to stand from which to move the world. Boasian anthropology in the Twenties became for her that place. Having long since embraced Nietzschean relativism (‘hard and abstract moralities,’ he had written, ‘were not eternal outlines, but a world of fine gradations and subtly linked conditions, shifting intricately as we ourselves change’), she accepted the immanence of chaos. This for the Modernists of her time was something to be dealt with by synthesis, by the discovery of new kinds of order within the dissonance. Benedict entered anthropology at a time when the deconstruction of general ideas began to be replaced by re-integration as the primary aim, and this also seems to have been her own personal inclination. But she avoided a simple idea of order and looked instead for a ‘principle of unlimited possibilities’. Her poetry of the Twenties seems to show a kind of Post-Modern play with disciplined forms in order to break through and beyond them. In her first anthropological study, of the Guardian Spirit among the Plains Indians, she insisted that humans build up culture out of disparate elements, combining and re-combining them, and that we must abandon the idea that culture is a universal organism with an overall structure. But she followed Boas in proposing the idea of limited patterns ‘of that which cultural recognition has singled out and standardised’, not a closed system, but rather material handed down through generations and subject to diffusion. Her major contribution was in the creative use of the psychology of her time. She rejected Freud and Jung, whose theories of archetypes harkened back to the old absolutism, but Gestalt psychology offered a way forward. This theory, that people respond to configurations rather than to unique events, fitted neatly with the idea of cultural, and later social, ‘patterns’ which was being developed in anthropology.

The idea of a cultural pattern, as the Boasians used it, meant a sequence of expected events in customs and beliefs formed by the inertia of tradition. Benedict’s insight was to perceive of cultural patterns as the internal life of people, not simply recognised and standardised, but moulded by them and therefore changeable and fragile. She used the metaphor given to her by an old Serrano Indian informant of ‘cups of clay’.

God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life. They all dipped their cups in the water, but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now. It has passed away.

Nietzsche had used the cup as a metaphor for individual personality. Benedict here for the first time heard it used as a metaphor for group personality. This provided her first glimpse of a holistic view of culture, but one which remained open-ended, subject to change, and free of absolutism or the rigidities of British functionalism.

This in essence was the idea which Benedict was to develop through her life’s work. There were fundamental psychological sets to cultures, the differences between them being established by comparison. They were perspectives of vision, which did not consist of specific traits but which provided for choosing among traits and creating new ones from within. As Benedict used the idea in her two major books, Patterns of Culture and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, it enabled her to make some anthropologically subtle observations. Mead’s work along the same lines was less reflective, more field-based, and more directly aimed at dislodging preconceptions of the universal rightness of American cultural patterns. Both of them became increasingly politicised with the rise of Nazism, but they rejected the kind of utilitarian ethics associated with British functionalism. They wanted to create a better society, but they held that there was no point in discussing the social usefulness of a custom – there is no logic in what culture emphasises or what it doesn’t. There is a lot of useless stuff in culture. What matters is to become aware, to see, for example, that even emotions such as jealousy are culturally-directed, to understand that unthought-about cultural preconceptions can lead one astray. Benedict used to ask her students at Columbia to pick out the Jews in her class and used their mistakes to point out the fallacies of racism. Both Benedict and Mead were against the ‘melting-pot’ ideal of American culture. Instead of neutralising differences, American democracy should respect differences and preserve a sense of ethnic pride.

The culmination of this argument for Benedict was her book about the Japanese (‘the most alien of enemies’), The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). This was a major work in the Culture and Personality mode, and its aim was to make the Japanese understandable to the Americans, not by tempering their alienness, but by laying it out, sharp, acid and clear. It is widely recognised still as a classic account, despite the fact that Benedict never went to Japan. She used an extraordinarily wide range of materials: child studies, Rorschach tests, histories, analysis of films and literature, newspaper cuttings, and interviews with Japanese in America. The book was written for a general readership and soon it came to have a meta-function which, in the circumstances of post-war America, Benedict went along with. As Margaret Mead wrote, ‘it was the kind of book which was “safe to put in the hands of Congressmen alert to resist the ‘schemes of long-haired intellectuals’”.’ The War Department wrote to Benedict expressing a wish to meet her and discuss the broad aspects of applying the knowledge of the patterns of various cultures to the long-range concerns of national security. This soon led to the huge National Character research project, financed by the Navy, the attempt to analyse and compare several complex modern societies by the Culture and Personality method, in which both Mead and Benedict joined. Busy ideologues surrounded them and soon produced a host of clumsy texts.

The project was greatly criticised almost immediately. With Hitler only just defeated, other anthropologists saw the commitment to cultural relativism as pernicious. A new theory of cultural evolution was becoming dominant, the idea that ‘laws’ of evolution operate in all societies, implicitly denying the uniqueness of each culture. The theory was generalising and ‘scientific’, aligned to biology in its theoretical orientation. The Culture and Personality approach was labelled ‘historical’, ‘subjective’ and ‘soft’. The project’s emphasis on child-rearing practices, particularly swaddling, as an explanation for national character was seen as simplistic and ridiculous. In fact, Benedict had seen swaddling, not as a unitary or causal explanation, but – by comparison of the various societies which use it – as an indication of the different ways in which cultural values are communicated to infants. Her belief was that ‘recognition of cultural differences among civilised nations can promote international co-operation,’ but she died in the knowledge that anthropology did not in the end have the effect that she had hoped for: post-war American policy increasingly tried to fit other cultures into its own. She was dismayed to find ideals of the National Character research totally reversed: it was generally perceived as perilously close to flipping over into quasi-racist stereotypes.

Paradoxically, anthropologists today criticise Mead and Benedict for quite opposite reasons. Of course, the reactionary attack exemplified by Derek Freeman, denying the possibility of significant variation and change in male-female relations or family roles, is still with us. But a recent study of the Chambri in New Guinea (the people Mead called the Tchambuli) accuses her, not of overemphasising cultural variation, but of not going far enough. She failed to follow up her own insight that other cultures create different sorts of person from those existing in the West. In her effort to make cultures such as the Chambri relevant to our own she described native personality types as permutations of Western patterns. She infuriated people of her day by often focusing on female domains and generalising on this basis about society as a whole, but she did not see, as her own work has helped present anthropologists to suggest, that men’s experiences as gendered subjects, not simply cultural exemplars, is itself hardly studied. Even the ‘feel’ for a culture, hard-gained as Mead insisted from the experience of fieldwork, the latest anthropology now rather tendentiously warns us is suspect, classing it as subjective, not dialogical or inter-subjective. Actually we should recognise that it was an achievement to make the American public think anything at all about the Chambri. One of the anthropologists of the Chambri study discovered that she had been brought up on Mead’s Tchambuli book: her mother had acquired it when she was four and passages about new ways of rearing little boys and girls were underlined.

Clifford Geertz puzzled as to why the courtly and sensitive Benedict should have bothered at all with ‘the trappings of activist social science’. Caffrey’s biography gives a psychological answer. Benedict even as a child had a huge anger. Her mother, fearing that Ruth’s almost daily hysterical tantrums would harm her sister, came to her one night as she lay sobbing in bed, bringing a Bible in one hand, a candle in the other. Ruth was made to swear she would never have another tantrum. She did make the vow, but her open anger was replaced by depression which only gradually lifted as she came to express herself in other ways in adult life. After the affair with Mead she accepted her lesbianism. In doing this, she was led actively to question contemporary ideas about therapeutic psychology. Decades before it became an orthodoxy, she saw homosexuality as linked to the gender roles allowed by society. She argued that the key issue was self-respect. If a person had a respected or at least accepted role in his or her society, then the psychic harm which psychoanalysts insisted the homosexual must suffer would be defused. She thus insisted on a relative definition of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’: homosexuality would be normal if given a chance by the culture. Caffrey writes: ‘in trying to gain a new perspective for her homosexuality, Ruth Benedict struck a blow for her own self-respect.’ Activism may have come hard to her, but she was a woman with many talents and many fronts to fight.

Geertz sees Benedict as bitterly satirical, the Swift of her time, but fatally entangled by Mead and others in clumsy moralism and ‘the anthropology of leaflets and high policy’. The implication of Caffrey’s book is that some kind of pragmatic synthesis in anthropology is possible, perhaps even required by our personal and political responsibilities. It is a place from which to change the world. But the perils are great.