Social Character in a Mexican Village: A Sociopsychoanalytic Study

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Editorial Reviews

A reprint of the 1970 groundbreaking study combining psychoanalytical and anthropological methods to analyse the impact of industrialization on "peasants." Fromm and Maccoby consider a Mexican village from the perspectives of social character, socioeconomic and cultural factors, gender relations, alcoholism, childhood formation of character, and cooperative and anticooperative attitudes within the village's structure. The new edition has an introduction by Maccoby who describes the study's methodology in detail and discusses its results in the light of present day circumstances. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780138156701
  • Publisher: Prentice Hall
  • Publication date: 1/1/1970
  • Pages: 303

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Social Character in a Mexican Village

A Sociopsychoanalytic Study

By Erich Fromm, Michael Maccoby


Copyright © 1970 Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0758-0


The Social Character of the Peasant and Problems of Methodology

This study deals with the social character of the Mexican peasant. Its aim is to analyze the interrelations and interactions between his emotional attitudes rooted in his character and the socioeconomic conditions under which he lives.

The Peasant

In this introductory chapter we need to discuss the basic concepts in our investigations: the concept of the "peasant" and of peasant character; the dynamic concept of character and of social character, and the problem of methodology in the study of the social character.

What is a peasant? In the following we call peasants such villagers whose main occupation is farming, although they may also work as potters or fishermen. The English word peasant, like the Spanish word campesino, means a man of the countryside, of the land. However, peasants are distinguished from both modern farmers and many indigenous tribesmen who also work the land.

Unlike that of the modern farmer, the peasant's mode of production is highly individualistic. The peasant works close to the margin of subsistence. He does not have the capital or the technology employed by the modern farmer. He works alone or with his family, with one or several hired hands, using no more complicated tools than a hoe and a plow.

The peasant differs from most indigenous tribesmen in that he is dependent on the urban society, economically, culturally, and politically. He must sell his produce in urban markets, and in exchange he needs money to buy the goods produced in the city. His religion, many of his medical practices, and much of his folklore (many games and songs) were developed in the city. Furthermore, the peasant is subject to the government of the city or state, which levies his taxes, makes and enforces laws, and drafts him into its armies. In contrast, many primitive tribesmen live in isolated villages which are self-controlled, and culturally and economically autonomous; compared to these tribesmen, peasants are relatively powerless in making basic decisions that affect their lives.

In this definition of peasantry, one theoretical problem remains. How do we define the agricultural worker who is not an independent small farmer, but who works as a peon, or day laborer (jornalero), on a plantation or hacienda? Like the peasant, the peon uses rudimentary methods. Like the free peasant he depends on the city for his culture and religion, and he is even more powerless, economically and politically. The essential difference lies in the fact that the peasant owns—legally or factually—his land and is dependent only on nature and the market; on the other hand the peon resembles a serf more than a free peasant. The peon class might be defined in S. Mintz's terms as "rural proletarians." Peasant villages, such as the one we have studied, frequently have a population made up of both peasants and peons.

Over half the population of the world still lives in peasant villages. Increasingly, peasants are being subjected to new pressures as most countries, with the exception of those that are highly industrialized, are trying to move from an agricultural to a partly or mainly industrial production. In the process of industrial development, a number of people from the countryside are swelling the population of the cities where to make a living they must adapt to work that is different from what they have known before. At the same time, new demands for greater production are being made on the farmers who are expected to feed growing populations and support the process of industrialization. The peasant is expected to change both his attitudes and techniques to satisfy new goals set by the city.

The traditional peasant agriculture produced only the surplus necessary to provide the food for a small and relatively stable population. However, in the modern world, agriculture is expected to provide for an overgrowing population. Technological advances in agriculture offer the promise of greatly increasing production. For the first time in thousands of years the human and animal driven plough, in its more or less developed forms, is being replaced by the tractor, and the work done by the human arm can be done by machines for ploughing, planting, and harvesting. New seeds requiring careful fertilization, such as the Mexican dwarf wheat, promise much greater yields to feed hungry populations. The "peasant" can become a "farmer" who uses techniques and methods entirely different from those that characterized agriculture in past history.

How does this change take place? What does it require humanly? Not only does the peasant have to use complicated machines, but optimal production also requires a change from his traditional individualistic form of work. To learn new techniques, he must cooperate with extension services, try out hybrid seeds and new methods, and work in coordination with others. He may need to cooperate with others by fitting himself into an overall plan as it exists in large farming enterprises, be they cooperative, capitalist, or communist.

From the traditional peasant's point of view, the new agricultural technology may be felt as more a threat than an opportunity. It requires that he learn new skills and change deep-rooted attitudes. Yet, if he does not adapt to the new technology, he runs the risk of being overrun. In capitalistic countries, he is unable to compete with the agricultural entrepreneurs who are the first to employ the new methods. In communist countries, peasants have been forced even more directly to adapt to the new system. In all of these countries, it is not possible for the peasant to stand still. The new technology and social forms have upset the traditional society.

It is often assumed that the new tasks and the changed ways of functioning—either for industrial work or mechanized farming—require merely schooling and some technical training. From this viewpoint "education" is all the peasant needs in order to adjust himself to the demands of industrial society. However, experiences throughout the world show that schooling and technical knowledge are not enough to transform the old-fashioned peasant into a modern farmer even when he wants to learn the new methods. Indeed, as we shall see in Chapter 3, the schooling received by villagers is not likely to be of use to them in their work. Those who have studied the problem closely conclude that a change of attitudes, or, as we would prefer to say, "character," is required before literacy and new technological knowledge will make any decisive difference. It is a most interesting fact that peasants in most parts of the world (the exception seems to be Southeast Asia) share by and large the same attitudes and behavior traits. They are highly individualistic, conservative, suspicious and reluctant to spend. It seems to us, as we shall try to explain later, that this attitude fits in best with the mode of production of traditional agriculture, while it does not fit in with the requirements of mechanized or industrial agriculture. The farmer in the industrial society must be open to new ideas, cooperative to a certain degree, capable of planning and investing for the future, and hence willing to spend something now, the reward for which accrues only at a future time. In all countries in the process of industrialization—both capitalistic and communistic—a lag is to be found between new technological possibilities and the peasant's ability to adapt his personality to making use of the new ways. This holds true for most countries within the Soviet bloc, for most of Asia, for countries in the Mediterranean area, as well as for a number of Latin American countries. (The same difficulty existed, of course, for the transformation of the peasant in Northern Europe and the United States from the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century. This transformation, however, was a very slow one compared with the rapid pace of industrialization taking place now and expected in the future in many of the countries just mentioned.)

In discussing the future of the peasant an important issue needs to be raised. The general trend in the world is determined by the attempt to employ more advanced technology everywhere. This means that agriculture should develop in the direction of industrial society, implying optimal use of machinery and the rational organization of work. If this were all, there would be no problem, except the technical one. But together with the new techniques go new values which tend towards maximal consumption, the subordination of man under the requirements of the machine and profit, alienation, the destruction of traditional peasant culture with its transutilitarian value of enjoyment of life in art, dance, music, and rituals. It seems that the trend throughout the world is toward technical improvement of agriculture (even though so far very little has been done in this direction) and the destruction of life-centered values. To most people, this may present no problem; they are willing to bury the traditional culture if the new "progressive" spirit is furthered.

For some people, like the authors of this book who are concerned about the high price in human terms which is paid for industrialization, the question arises whether a new industrialized agriculture could be created which could be blended with the humanistic spirit (which found one expression in traditional culture). We shall return to this question in Chapter 10, but we raise the issue here because it is the perspective under which this whole book must be understood.

Many attempts to persuade, encourage, or force the peasant to change have failed, in part because planners have not understood or respected his character. Peasants in communist countries have preferred to kill their cattle rather than to give the government the larger part of it, or to give it to a commune. Often they have remained adamant even when it seemed that compromise might have been better from the standpoint of their long-range material advantage.

In many predominantly agricultural countries, however, certain changes are taking place in the attitudes of peasants due to the fact that radio sets and at least a few television sets are now to be found in many villages and furthermore to the fact that because of improved transportation many peasants visit larger cities. Their appetites are whetted for the commodities which the industrial production offers. As the material products of the industrial society appear more attractive, the peasants become less satisfied with the traditional standard of living and traditional pleasures. They want money to buy the consumer goods advertised on radio and television and to participate in the glamour of the new industrial culture. Many of the Mexican peasants used to attain this aim, although in a very modest way, by going as seasonal workers (braceros) to the United States and returning with wrist watches, radio sets, and secondhand cars. Frequently, those with more initiative chose this solution, and in this way the village was often drained of its most energetic and enterprising elements. But this solution of a symbiotic relationship with a foreign economy and culture was, of course, no solution for the Mexican peasant in general, even while it lasted. Unless his whole agricultural system is made more productive and leaves him with a greater surplus, he is simply not able to buy the commodities he wants, and his "rising expectations" lead to disappointment and to apathy. Very often he leaves the countryside under the illusion that just by being in the city he can participate in the brilliant life he has seen on the movie screen, only to find that his living conditions have not improved, and that he is forced into a slum existence. A much better system of schooling in the village, and industrial training courses might improve his chances in the city. But even if schooling and industrial training were greatly improved, his personal character would still be an obstacle to making a good living. Punctuality, discipline, planning, abstract thinking are necessary to make the best use of such new training possibilities even if they existed more amply. Without these traits, a person cannot rise above the level of simple manual work. The result of all these circumstances is that. on the one hand, while industry needs skilled workers, the increasing numbers of unprepared peasants coming to the city do not fulfill the requirements of the industrial society; and on the other hand, not many peasants who remain in the village fulfill the conditions for a more advanced method of agricultural organization.

Once one's attention is turned to these considerations, the study of the character of the peasant, and particularly the interaction of psychological and socioeconomic factors in the formation and possible change of his character becomes relevant for all agricultural societies in transition: we believe that a better understanding of the Mexican peasant will further an understanding of the possibilities for the peasant in other societies.

The Dynamic Concept of Character

There is, of course, a considerable literature on the peasant, written from a sociological and anthropological standpoint, although this literature is by no means as extended as one would expect, considering the importance of the problem. Most of the literature on peasants is written from the standpoint of describing behavior traits, attitudes, ideas and economic systems of peasants, while this study is a sociopsychological one, focused around the dynamic concept of character and "social character." We believe that just as psychoanalysis studies the character of an individual in terms of analyzing the underlying forces which in a structuralized form make up his character and motivate him to feel and think in certain ways, the character common to a whole group, social character, has the same dynamic function and can be studied empirically. The salient point here is our psychoanalytic conviction that the behavioristic concepts conventionally used in the study of peasants and other social groups, do not penetrate to the psychic forces which motivate and feed the attitudes and behavior traits.

This brings up the old disagreement between psychoanalytically and behavioristically oriented social scientists. The majority of social scientists criticize psychoanalysis for what they consider to be a lack of scientific method; the psychoanalysts have retorted that with the narrow (and old- fashioned) criteria of the scientific method, the behaviorists deal only with the less important problems, rather than find new methods which suit the more important ones. However this may be, we cannot hope, in presenting this study, to convince those social scientists who have no confidence in the psychoanalytic theory; on the contrary, its shortcomings may even reinforce their negative position. On the other hand, we cannot even count on the sympathy of many of our psychoanalytic colleagues, because the revisions of Freud's theories which we have made will appear to some of them as an abandonment of Freud's essential findings, although we ourselves, together with not a few others, believe that they constitute a needed development of his theories, and an affirmation of what is their essence.

In publishing this work we count on having the attention of those who are not dogmatically sealed off from at least being interested in a new venture: the application of psychoanalytic categories to the study of social groups, by the minute examination of the personality of each member of the group, by the simultaneous and equally minute observation of all socioeconomic data and cultural patterns, and, eventually, by the attempt to use refined statistical methods for the analysis of the data.

In developing our theme and our methods, we were aware that even more than in most research, we would have to learn while we were working, and indeed had we had the knowledge we have now at the beginning, we would have improved the study considerably. But we are not too much disturbed by this, because we are interested not only in the correctness of all our conclusions and hypotheses, but equally in demonstrating a new method for the application of psychoanalysis to social science.

The behavioristic view is that behavior is the ultimately attainable and at the same time scientifically satisfactory datum in the study of man. From this standpoint behavior traits and character traits are identical and from a positivistic standpoint, even the concept "character" may not be legitimate in scientific parlance.


Excerpted from Social Character in a Mexican Village by Erich Fromm, Michael Maccoby. Copyright © 1970 Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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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Table of Contents

Introduction to the Transaction Edition
1 The Social Character of the Peasant and Problems of Methodology 1
2 A Mexican Peasant Village 31
3 A Socioeconomic and Cultural Picture of the Village 41
4 The Theory of Character Orientations 68
5 The Character of the Villagers 83
6 Character, Socioeconomic and Cultural Variables 126
7 Sex and Character 144
8 Alcoholism 156
9 The Formation of Character in Childhood 179
10 Possibilities for Change: Character and Cooperation 203
11 Conclusions 226
Appendix A: The Interpretative Questionnaire and Examples of Scoring 239
Appendix B: Scoring Agreement and the Use of the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Tests 271
Bibliography 292
Index 295
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