Person-Centered Approaches to Culture
The 1997/98 Fellows Program, "Person-Centered Approaches to
Culture," will examine the link between personality
and culture. The program will be directed by Thomas
A. Gregor, Professor of Anthropology, and Volney P.
Gay, Professor of Religious Studies, Professor of
Psychiatry, and Professor of Anthropology. Seven
other members of the Vanderbilt University faculty,
along with Gilbert H. Herdt, an anthropologist from
the University of Chicago, will also participate in
the year-long seminar at the Warren Center. Professors
Gregor and Gay recently met with Letters to
discuss the relationship between individuals and
LETTERS: Would you explain your motivations for
directing this Fellows Program?
GREGOR: My own
interest in the seminar is based on my research as
an anthropologist. I study a small-scale culture in
the Xingu National Park, which is in the Mato Grasso
of Brazil. There are ten village tribes there which
speak completely unrelated languages, but who have
somehow forged a system of peace. In many ways they
are remarkable. I spent approximately two years
studying their life ways, language, history, culture,
gender organization, and process of socialization.
What I have found is that in small-scale cultures
like this, there is a seamless connection between
the life of the individual and the life of the larger
GAY: Yes, and Freud
probably is the most remarkable spokesperson of the
relationship between a person and his or her culture.
Freud argued that the institutions of culture
parallel the types of personality. He said in a
famous passage in Totem and Taboo that the
institution of religion is like an obsessional
neurosis; philosophy is like a paranoid system; and
art is like hysteria. Of course, every thing turns on
the word "like." By that he meant that they are similar
structures, but not identical.
GREGOR: Volney has already referred to
Freud's wonderful collection of essays, Totem and
Taboo, that was published in 1916. These essays are
extraordinary and in some ways mark the beginning of
personality and culture research in anthropology.
One of them, "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," is
an effort to show links between taboos, which are
cultural rules, and the obsessive compulsive
neurosis, which is an individual pattern. The
correspondences are extraordinary. Take the taboo,
for example, which enjoins people either to perform
or not to perform certain kinds of behavior. There
are taboos on sexuality, such as the incest taboo,
which would be a primary example, cross-culturally.
When you ask individuals why they avoid incest, you
may be offered an after-the-fact explanation such as
genetic damage. More fre quently, the explanation is
horror, that it is frightening and dreadful to have
sexual relations with one's family.
GAY: At the cultural level, Freud used an example of
the breath of the Maori Chief. If the Chief breathes
on something, he makes that thing taboo, because he
himself is taboo.
GREGOR: Yes, the Chief cannot
blow on the fire, because the heat of the fire would
convey his breath to the pot, the pot to the
liquid, the liquid to the stew, and thus no one could
eat the stew be cause it had been contaminated by the
Chief's sacred breath. Here we have a personal rule
on one hand, and a matter of culture on the other.
Freud's genius was to draw the extraordinary
parallels that exist between the two. He asked if
there might be something in common about the adherent
of a taboo and a victim of an obsessive compulsive
neurosis, and what that might be. He argued that
behind compulsions, obsessions, and taboos, there
are forbidden wishes.
GAY: Freud added to cultural
studies a whole theory of instincts, wishes which
drive prohibitions, evoke taboos, and so produce
indirect expressions we call cultural symbols. In
other words, Freud in 1900 gave rise to the modern
sense of sexuality, that it is somehow animalistic
and a problem for culture. And Freud has not gone
GREGOR: First, there is a wish—a
temptation—which is confronted by a prohibition. The
result is to disguise the wish.
GAY: Right, and you
can measure the size of the drive by the amount of
GREGOR: So if someone, for
example, will not step on cracks on the sidewalk
because he or she is afraid that terrible harm will
come to a close family member, a psychotherapist
might begin to look at the nature of the relationship
between that person and that family member.
Similarly, in the case of a taboo like the rule about
the Maori Chief, you might begin to wonder if there
is some temptation to harm the Chief.
myths that explain the taboo underscore its
importance and power. The chiefs are taboo because they
have the capacity to affect and control sexual
lives. Therefore, like a father and mother, chiefs
are resented and, to a degree, are protected by being
GREGOR: Freud was not with out error. He
noted that small scale tribal societies often have
many taboos, whereas cultures that were
industrialized have far fewer. He concluded that
people in tribal societies were more psychologically
ambivalent and conflicted than we are. That is,
compulsion and obsession are the same as taboo. I
think this is generally regarded by anthropologists
as a mistake. There is no evidence that people in
small societies are highly neurotic. Yet the
parallels between psychopathologies and taboos are
many. The relationship between the two may be one of
the topics we will explore this year in the seminar.
GAY: Many anthropologists and social scientists have
read Freud and reacted against him in some sense.
Take, for example, anthropologists like Claude Lévi
Strauss. In his last book, The Jealous Potter,
Lévi-Strauss discussed how so-called "primitive"
persons basically pre-empt Freud, because they talk
about displacement, conversion, and dream process.
That is, Lévi-Strauss decided that "primitive"
persons do not need psychoanalysis, because
psychoanalysis is simply a rediscovery of something that
primitives have always known.
LETTERS: Are you
suggesting that, because there are so many links
between psychopathologies and cultural institutions,
cultures are sick?
GREGOR: There is a recent book by Robert Egerton
called Sick Societies. It begins with the statement:
"All cultures are sick. Some are sicker than others,"
a statement I personally subscribe to. To an extent,
cultures are built out of individual experiences, and
may well incorporate elements of the pathological in
their institutions. Look at what happens when a
single individual—an Adolph Hitler, for example—
gains control of a society.
LETTERS: To what extent
does an individual have an impact on his or her
GREGOR: It is an important question: do
great men and women act on history? Do the
personalities of artists shape artistic movements
and traditions? This is a question central to the
humanities and social sciences.
GAY: This is almost cliché in discussions of Hitler. Was Hitler a
remarkably brilliant sociopath whose personality was
such that he created horrors that otherwise might not
have occurred? There is no doubt, at least one could
think, that a certain person who comes at the right
time in history can transform what we consider vast
cultural institutions. That is an open debate. Was
Abraham Lincoln the linchpin that made possible the
Northern victory in the Civil War? Would George
McClellan have given up, resigned, and thus altered
GREGOR: There seem to be certain
areas of culture in which the relationship of the
individual to the culture is most vivid. It seems to
be what anthropologists call "expressive culture,"
which includes aspects of culture that are most
plastic and fluid. Examples include folklore, the
arts, beliefs about the supernatural, and religion
in general. The group I work with sound like field
biologists when you ask them about the relationship
of fish to the trees which exist along the banks of
rivers that flood. They explain that the fish
accumulate around these trees because they eat the
fruit that falls into the water. Then when the banks
of the river are inundated by the flood that comes
every year, the fish swim out onto the flood plain,
defecate the seeds that they have consumed from the
fruit, and then these trees are found in new areas.
This connection of fish and floods was actually only
discovered in the 1980s, and it has been known
indefinitely by the villagers.
An anthropologist, Victor Turner, wrote several
important books on ritual process, religion, and
theater. Turner is Freudian in his own way, in that
he talks about this fascinating parallel between
individual genius and the cultural transformation of
that genius. He presents an elaborate theory of this
in From Ritual to Theater, which is a beautiful study
of the origins of popular theater out of ritual
context. Clearly Greek tragic theater came out of a
Greek tragic ritual process, "the goat song." Killing
the goat as ritual process may in fact be a
development from killing human beings, going back a
thousand years before. Turner has an interesting
point about the intersection between personality and
culture. People we esteem as great geniuses now were
deviant in their own times, or even ill. Persons who
are not orthodox, if they survive, later seem to
become especially important.
GREGOR: Religious systems may be shaped by personality. Hence religion
has elements of paranoia associated with it, in that
both are not amenable to logic or testing against
reality; they are matters of faith. From an
anthropological point of view the paral lel that is most
vivid is paranoia and witchcraft. I work in a small scale culture in
which people are regularly executed for witchcraft.
Witches are believed to make magical darts which are
invisible, but which, when tossed through the air,
are fatal. When you question adherents about
witchcraft and point out that this is a system which
is at variance with what is known about how people
live and die, the response generally is, "What do you
know about this? You are not a witch; you come from
an altogether different cul ture." Intriguingly, the
notion that people are out to get you through
invisible means, often darts are thrown through the
air, is common in systems of witchccaft and
paranoia. Yet the adher ents of witchcraft beliefs
are not clinically paranoid. Once again, it poses a
question for us about the relationship of the
individual and culture. Witchcraft beliefs, in par
ticular, reflect a paranoid thought style and tend to
get eroded by things like enlightenment.
Freud said religious systems are pathological, you
will find religious persons who agree and yet are
still religious. One could say they are also ironic,
or they are self-conscious about it. John Donne, an
English poet and theologian, discussed the
metaphorical importance of God in a beautiful series
of sermons. Persons like Donne, before the rise of
social science, operated within a culture, but were
also able to realize there is something peculiar
about believing these things. So they affirmed it,
but they did not believe it in some simple way.
Why do you want to pursue your investigation of
personality and culture in the context of an
GREGOR: The seminar is a
particularly apt way to explore these issues. We have
scholars in the humanities who will be examining
literary and art historic traditions from
person-centered points of view. These scholars will
be joined by social scientists who have a perspective
which is more psychologically based.
GAY: You can
see academic departments as small groups, in Tom's
sense of the word. We are cults in the sense that we
have our own shrines, deities, and languages.
Therefore obscurity is rampant in each of my
disciplines: religion, psychoanalysis, and
anthropology. So it is important that universities
should do what we are doing in this seminar.
GREGOR: It is
an investment on the part of the University in
GAY: And faculty
GREGOR: The obscurantism of a particular discipline
is probably more easily visible from without. The
seminar will strip the skin from our eyes, to an
extent. We will see ourselves and each other in ways
that are new and refreshing. It is wonderful to be
able to have a group of very bright, accomplished
colleagues with whom one can test one's own ideas and
to whom one can contribute ideas. This is just an
GAY: This seminar is analogous to the Oxford High Table, where senior faculty
at Oxford have dinner. It is understood that most
faculty will go to most of the dinners and talk. It
is a free for-all. Someone once said a lot of great
books get published be cause people eat dinner
together. It is kind of an ideal for the life of an
What are the strengths of a
study of culture that pays close attention to personality?
GREGOR: It is holistic. Psychologists
are concerned with the individual, sociologists with
the group, and humanists and an thropologists with
culture. We hope to bring all these perspectives
together on a limited set of problems.
GAY: It is
important to note that when we say "individual" and
"group," we are being very much naive
psychologically. We are presuming that because Tom and I are separate entities
that in a way we are individuals, because we are
different when we are separate. But it might be
psychologically that persons are much more complex
and interdependent than they seem, in a concrete
physical sense. We hope that our seminar will help us
all think better, with more complexity, about these
core issues, about what "person" means and what
"culture" means as concepts that dominate discourse
in the humanities and social sciences.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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