Modernity and Mind: Essays on Culture Change, Volume 2

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In sixteen landmark essays Anthony F. C. Wallace illuminates the interconnections between cognition and culture and the formative social conditions of the modern world. Probing the psychological reality (or realities) of culture, Wallace offers incisive analyses of the cognitive foundations of kinship terms and the ability of cultures, past and present, to process complexity. He also examines whether beavers have a culture and reveals how the mazeway of modern American culture equips and enables a routine drive to work.

In the volume’s second section, Wallace interrogates the consequences of revolutionary changes in labor, technology, and society in the modern world. A series of essays details the multifaceted, pervasive impact of the Industrial Revolution on the coal-mining communities of Rockdale and Saint Clair, Pennsylvania. He also considers the implications of the disaster-prone coal-mining industry for risky technological enterprises today, such as nuclear power plants. An in-depth comparison between the administrative structures of a modern university and Iroquois-Seneca leadership rounds out this volume.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803248151
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Anthony F. C. Wallace is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Revitalizations and Mazeways: Essays on Culture Change, Volume 1 (Nebraska 2003) and The Social Context of Innovation: Bureaucrats, Families, and Heroes in Bacon's "New Atlantis" (Nebraska 2003). Robert S. Grumet lives in rural Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Revitalizations and Mazeways and has authored or edited several other studies of anthropological interest.
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Read an Excerpt

Modernity and Mind

Essays on Culture Change, Volume 2
By Anthony F.C. Wallace

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One


This essay questions four commonly held and logically coherent assumptions which together make up a theoretical system called "cultural determinism," and proposes a reformulation of certain current doctrines about the relationships between culture and personality which are based on the cultural determinist system. The four assumptions are (1) that culture is an external environment uniformly perceived by and pressing upon all members of a given society, (2) that this cultural pressure determines a uniformity of behavior, including parental behavior (which largely defines the child's experience), (3) that therefore all "normal" members of a society must have the same basic personality structure ("national character"), and (4) that consequently culture can be said to mold personality. The criticism itself is not a rejection of the idea of a determinative relationship between culture and a most frequently and most closely approximated personality type, or the idea of a determinative relationship between culture and other mass social and economic phenomena. It is, however, a denial of the adequacy of general formulations and of specific research designs based on the cultural-deterministic assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that culture is a unitary,external, "super-organic" environmental force which mechanically determines and molds individual behavior and, by extension, individual personality.

The word "determine" is an ambiguous one. A class of phenomena may be regarded as being determined by certain factors directly, without intervention of other factors, as for instance in the determination of a projectile's trajectory by such variables as the angle of the tube, gravitational pull, the force of the propulsive charge, atmospheric resistance, wind deflection, and the rifling of the bore. This sort of determination approximates the classic concept of causation in specifying necessary and sufficient conditions, both for a class of phenomena and for any specific case within that class. This may be called mechanical determination. But the word "determine" is often also applied to correlation data, and variables significantly correlated with a phenomenon are dubbed "determinants" of it even though the relationship may be admittedly indirect, obscure, and neither necessary nor sufficient as an explanation, as when an ecological zone of transition is recognized as a determinant of delinquency. What is essentially described by this sort of determinacy is a statistically significant concomitant variation of incidences, and so it may be called probability determination. Misunderstanding occurs, however, when the remaining problem of the "mechanical" determination of individual cases is overlooked, and a "probability" determination is interpreted as being the mechanical determination of specific events. This kind of fallacy is committed in cultural determinism, which asserts a mechanical determination by culture of individual event, behavior, and personality.


The idea of uniform behavior is implicit in the concept of culture. When ethnographers describe the culture of a society, they are describing ways of doing things which are more or less uniformly used. But the careful ethnographer recognizes that this uniformity of thought, speech, and action, although substantial, is not complete. Within the society there are individual differences in age, sex, geographical location, health and constitution, social class and caste, occupation, income, personality, and so on, and in many areas of behavior the cultural uniformity extends only to the boundaries of sub-groups more or less rigidly defined on the basis of one or more of the above criteria. This may lead ethnographers to speak of sub-societies and subcultures; they may refer to a "youth-culture," may say that their descriptions refer only to the urban middle class, may implicitly or explicitly exclude females from consideration. In addition to these variations, which might be called the "systematic alternatives" of a culture, there are also a number of more or less "random alternatives"-particularly in societies with competitive market economies. These alternatives are the several acceptable ways of doing virtually the same thing available to any given person-taking a bus instead of a trolley, buying a "contemporary" house or keeping an apartment, and so on. In their finer expressions, these random alternatives are sometimes called cases of "marginal differentiation." Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and other colas would hardly go down in the ethnographer's notebook as separate culture traits, nor would all different women's hats, or the variations of machine-made standardized parts. And, finally, while any given culture will have recommendations ready-made for handling practically all conceivable situations, a significant quantity of human behavior does not accord with its proper culture at all. While this quantity is apparently very slight, in comparison with the quantity of conforming behavior, and hence is often passed off as exceptional, it cannot realistically be ignored, any more than the physicist can ignore air resistance in calculating the behavior of a falling body, even though the acceleration of falling bodies is calculated on the assumption of a vacuum. The behavior of persons suffering from neurological or emotional disorders, for instance, may be strange to their culture. Even normal people now and then do things which are not culturally predictable. People make mistakes. People do wrong or foolish things. People invent new ways of dealing with problems which are not always widely accepted. The issue, however, is not so much whether or not individual behavior approximates cultural norms-it generally does-as the recognition that it is not culture which compels, but individuals who chose. Occasionally they choose not to use the culturally standardized way.

We may therefore say that the concept of culture itself, insofar as its implications of normality and uniformity are concerned, is a quasi-statistical one. A culture trait, as seen from this viewpoint, is a most frequently and most closely approximated type of behavior, a point on a distribution curve, and behavior can be called "conforming" to culture when it falls within the range of marginal differentiation around that point. One may speak thus of "cultural probabilities." One of these is the probability that any individual with a problem will use some culturally recognized technique for solving it. This probability will vary according to the problem, and presumably will be rather high-let us say, arbitrarily, on the order of .98. The probability of use of a specific cultural trait for a specific problem will vary according to the number of systematic and random alternatives the culture affords for the solution of that problem, and the extent to which the given area of behavior is culturally standardized at all, and will usually be much less than the first probability. Even lower probabilities attach to the likelihood of an individual's associates (parents, co-workers, spouse, children) presenting any given sequence of specific culturally standardized behaviors. A repetition of exactly the same sequence of behaviors in two cases, duplicating even the varieties of marginal differentiation, is evidently so improbable as to deserve being called impossible.

This argument does not involve a denial of the reality of culture, or of its importance as a probability determinant of other mass phenomena. The quasi-statistical regularities of culture certainly do exist, and are as real as other hard facts like mortality rates and cost of living indices. When one is concerned with mass phenomena, it is even correct to speak of "cultural factors" in the sense of probability determination. Thus, the fall in the net reproduction rate in the United States is demonstrably correlated (presumably in a non-mechanical determinative relationship) with, among other things, an increasingly urban concentration of the population. But individual behavior and particular events, to greater or lesser degree, may or may not exemplify the quasi-uniformities of culture, and even within the ambit of a culture may be exceedingly variable. To explain why any urban woman (or any group of urban women) has two children instead of eight, if one wishes to describe the mechanics of the case, it is obviously not sufficient merely to remark that she lives in a city. To do so would, of course, confuse mechanical and probability determination.


It is possible to consider the general problem of personality formation, in the context of this discussion, without subscribing to any particular substantive theory. We may say very generally that a personality is formed as a product of the particular experiences of an individual organism. Presumably, not all experiences are equally weighty in influence; there is general agreement, the writer supposes, that the developing organism's interaction with people are of primary significance. Within the first six years of life (which are said by many psychiatrists to be especially important, although we need not deny significance to later years), a child experiences innumerable events involving people. General categories of events would include birth, feeding, being cleaned, being talked to, being left alone, weaning, bowel and bladder training, learning to talk, play, self-care, minor or major injuries or illness, and as many other items as one wishes to detail. People involved include various selections and combinations of father, mother, brothers, sisters, playmates, adult relatives, adult neighbors, and others. Considerable variation is to be expected, on the basis of the theoretical considerations presented above, and in fact undoubtedly occurs in any society in all categories of infantile experience. These variations are partly a matter of accidents like death and illness, partly of marginal differentiation within accepted cultural norms, partly of traumatically deviant behavior by parents and other associates. They are also built into the culture itself as "systematic alternatives," in many cases being correlated with occupational groups, class, region, etc., and as "random alternatives," several ways being equally acceptable and feasible. The infinite variability of experience continues throughout the individual's life. The probability that any new born infant chosen at random in any society will have any given sequence of formative experiences, when such considerable variation exists in possibilities of experience in each category, is relatively slim.

The culture thus never can present itself as a constant environment to all members of a society, as every ethnographer knows after working with more than one informant. While the cultural quasi-uniformities in themselves exist, like sex ratios, they are not equally perceived by every one. It is gross fallacy to suppose that a culture is a uniform environment for all of a population. No two members of a society carry in their heads the same picture of its culture (not even if they happen to be professional culturologists), because no two persons have had the same experiences or have selected or invented the same techniques for solving their problems. The point should be made explicit: A culture, in its totality, is no more a part of any one's behaviorally significant environment than is the totality of his physical surroundings.

The implications of the foregoing considerations for the relationship of culture and personality should now be generally apparent. Inasmuch as individual personality, described as a set of techniques of behavior (both overt and covert) characteristic of a person, is assumed to be formed by a highly complex history of particular events involving interaction with a limited number of other persons, the probability of any definable sequence of formative events is equal to the probability of the emergence of a given type of personality, and the total number of individuals possessing that type of personality will be the product of that-probability and the size of the population. As previously stated, the probability of a given sequence of formative experiences is relatively low even if each component is culturally standardized; consequently the frequency of occurrence of a given national character type should be low, too.


In the summers of 1948 and 1949 the writer collected seventy Rorschach protocols (36 male and 34 female) from adult (age 16 and over) Tuscarora Indians resident on the Tuscarora reservation in New York State. There were 352 adult Tuscaroras according to the writer's census of 1948, 179 male and 173 female. The sample was very closely proportional by age and sex and contained rough quotas for such categories as chieftainship, clan-membership, membership in the lacrosse team, and the like. It was not a random sample, subjects being recruited by a process of personal contact involving a few intermediaries. The total population of the reservation was approximately 600. Although there were, of course, cliques, and persons could be ranked as of generally higher or lower social status, the population was apparently too small and homogeneous for an intrareservation class system to have developed with systematic differences in behavior and limitations of social contact. Acculturation, furthermore, had proceeded so far that even the extreme proponents of nativism and assimilation respectively were not systematically different in language, religion, dress, occupation, or attitude toward the clan system and chief's council.

The somewhat naive initial hypothesis was that there would be a clearly homogeneous personality type, recognizable even by superficial inspection of the records. The problem actually became one of defining any common structure at all. There was indeed one trait, high W per cent, held almost in common, but to describe a common structure it was not sufficient to concentrate on this one trait when fully 21 variables were under consideration. Nor was it possible simply to strike averages in all 21 categories, then interpret the pattern of the averages, and finally attribute this "type" to the whole population-a procedure which patently would have violated the fact that the subjects were not all alike, and would have introduced gross distortions in those variables where the distribution was asymmetrical.


Excerpted from Modernity and Mind by Anthony F.C. Wallace Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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