Morale and National Character

We shall proceed as follows: (1) We shall examine some of the criticisms which can be urged against our entertaining any concept of "national character." (2) This examination will enable us to state certain conceptual limits within which the phrase "national character" is likely to be valid. (3) We shall then go on, within these limits, to outline what orders of difference we may expect to find among Western nations, trying, by way of illustration, to guess more concretely at some of these differences. (4) Lastly, we shall consider how the problems of morale and international relations are affected by differences of this order.

Barriers to Any Concept of "National Character"

Scientific enquiry has been diverted from questions of this type by a number of trains of thought which lead scientists to regard all such questions as unprofitable or unsound. Be-fore we hazard any constructive opinion as to the order of differences to be expected among European populations, therefore, these diverting trains of thought must be examined.

It is, in the first place, argued that not the people but rather the circumstances under which they live differ from one community to another; that we have to deal with differences either in historical background or in current conditions, and that these factors are sufficient to account for all differences in behavior without our invoking any differences of character in the individuals concerned. Essentially this argument is an appeal to Occam's Razor—an assertion that we ought not to multiply entities beyond necessity. The argument is that, where observable differences in circumstance exist, we ought to invoke those rather than mere inferred differences in character, which we cannot observe.

The argument may be met in part by quoting experimental data, such as Lewin's experiments (unpublished material), which showed that there are great differences in the way in which Germans and Americans respond to failure in an experimental setting. The Americans treated failure as a challenge to increase effort; the Germans responded to the same failure with discouragement. But those who argue for the effectiveness of conditions rather than character can still reply that the experimental conditions are not, in fact, the same for both groups; that the stimulus value of any circumstance depends upon how that circumstance stands out against the background of other circumstances in the life of the subject, and that this contrast cannot be the same for both groups.

It is possible, in fact, to argue that since the same circumstances never occur for individuals of different cultural back-ground, it is therefore unnecessary to invoke such abstractions as national character. This argument breaks down, I believe, when it is pointed out that, in stressing circumstance rather than character, we would be ignoring the known facts about learning. Perhaps the best documented generalization in the field of psychology is that, at any given moment, the behavioral characteristics

* This essay appeared in Civilian Morale, edited by Goodwin Watson, copyright 1942 by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. It is here reprinted by permission of the publisher. Some introductory material has been edited out.

of any mammal, and especially of man, depend upon the previous experience and behavior of that individual. Thus in presuming that character, as well as circumstance, must be taken into account, we are not multiplying entities beyond necessity; we know of the significance of learned character from other types of data, and it is this knowledge which compels us to consider the additional "entity."

A second barrier to any acceptance of the notion of "national character" arises after the first has been negotiated. Those who grant that character must be considered can still doubt whether any uniformity or regularity is likely to obtain within such. a sample of human beings as constitutes a nation. Let us grant at once that uniformity obviously does not occur, and let us proceed to consider what sorts of regularity may be expected.

The criticism which we are trying to meet is likely to take five forms. (1) The critic may point to the occurrence of subcultural differentiation, to differences between the sexes, or between classes, or between occupational groups within the community. (2) He may point to the extreme heterogeneity and confusion of cultural norms which can be observed in "melting-pot" communities. (3) He may point to the accidental deviant, the individual who has undergone some "accidental" traumatic experience, not usual among those in his social environment. (4) He may point to the phenomena of cultural change, and especially to the sort of differentiation which results when one part of the community lags behind some other in rate of change. (5) Lastly, he may point to the arbitrary nature of national boundaries.

These objections are closely interrelated, and the replies to them all derive ultimately from two postulates: first, that the individual, whether from a physiological or a psycho-logical point of view, is a single organized entity, such that all its "parts" or "aspects" are mutually modifiable and mutually interacting; and second, that a community is like-wise organized in this sense.

If we look at social differentiation in a stable community—say, at sex differentiation in a New Guinea tribe8 — we find that it is not enough to say that the habit system or the character structure of one sex is different from that of another. The significant point is that the habit system of each sex cogs into the habit system of the other; that the behavior of each promotes the habits of the other.9 We find, for example, between the sexes, such complementary patterns as spectatorship-exhibitionism, dominance-submission, and succoring-dependence, or mixtures of these. Never do we find mutual irrelevance between such groups.

Although it is unfortunately true that we know very little about the terms of habit differentiation between classes, sexes, occupational groups, etc., in Western nations, there is, I think, no danger in applying this general conclusion to all cases of stable differentiation between groups which are living in mutual contact. It is, to me, inconceivable that two differing groups could exist side by side in a community with

8 Cf. M. Mead (Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, New York, Morrow, 1935), especially Part III, for an analysis of sex differentiation among the Chambuli; also G. Bateson (Naven, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1936) for an analysis of sex differentiation among adults in Iatmul, New Guinea.

9 We are considering here only those cases in which ethological differentiation follows the sex dichotomy. It is also probable that, where the ethos of the two sexes is not sharply differentiated, it would still be correct to say that the ethos of each promotes that of the other, e.g., through such mechanisms as competition and mutual imitation. Cf. M. Mead (op. cit.).

out some sort of mutual relevance between the special characteristics of one group and those of the other. Such an occurrence would be contrary to the postulate that a community is an organized unit. We shall, therefore, presume that this generalization applies to all stable social differentiation.

Now, all that we know of the mechanics of character formation—especially the processes of projection, reaction formation, compensation, and the like—forces us to regard these bipolar patterns as unitary within the individual. If we know that an individual is trained in overt expression of one-half of one of these patterns, e.g., in dominance behavior, we can predict with certainty (though not in precise language) that the seeds of the other half—submission—are simultaneously sown. in his personality. We have to think of the individual, in fact, as trained in dominance-submission, not in either dominance or submission. From this it follows that where we are dealing with stable differentiation within a community, we are justified in ascribing common character to the members of that community, provided we take the precaution of describing that common character in terms of the motifs of relationship between the differentiated sections of the community.

The same sort of considerations will guide us in dealing with our second criticism—the extremes of heterogeneity, such as occur in modern "melting-pot" communities. Suppose we attempted to analyze out all the motifs of relationship between individuals and groups in such a community as New York City; if we did not end in the madhouse long before we had completed our study, we should arrive at a picture of common character that would be almost infinitely complex—certainly that would contain more fine differentiations than the human psyche is capable of resolving within itself. At this point, then, both we and the individuals whom we are studying are forced to take a short cut: to treat heterogeneity as a positive characteristic of the common environment, sui generis. When, with such an hypothesis, we begin to look for common motifs of behavior, we note the very clear tendencies toward glorying in heterogeneity for its own sake (as in the Robinson Latouche "Ballad for Americans") and toward regarding the world as made up of an infinity of disconnected quiz-bits (like Ripley's "Believe It or Not").

The third objection, the case of the individual deviant, falls in the same frame of reference as that of the differentiation of stable groups. The boy on whom an English public-school education does not take, even though the original roots of his deviance were laid in some "accidental" traumatic incident, is reacting to the public-school system. The behavioral habits which he acquires may not follow the norms which the school intends to implant, but they are acquired in reaction to those very norms. He may (and often does) acquire patterns the exact opposite of the normal; but he cannot conceivably acquire irrelevant patterns. He may become a "bad" public-school Englishman, he may become insane, but still his deviant characteristics will be systematically related to the norms which he is resisting. We may describe his character, indeed, by saying that it is as systematically related to the standard public-school character as the character of Iatmul natives of one sex is systematically related to the character of the other sex. His character is oriented to the motifs and patterns of relationship in the society in which he lives.

The same frame of reference applies to the fourth consideration, that of changing communities and the sort of differentiation which occurs when one section of a community lags behind another in change. Since the direction in which a change occurs will necessarily be conditioned by the, status quo ante, the new patterns, being reactions to the old, will be systematically related to the old. As long as we confine ourselves to the terms and themes of this systematic relationship, therefore, we are entitled to expect regularity of character in the individuals. Furthermore, the expectation and experience of change may, in some cases, be so important as to become a common character-determining factor10 sui generis, in the same sort of way that "heterogeneity" may have positive effects.

Lastly, we may consider cases of shifting national boundaries, our fifth criticism. Here, of course, we cannot expect that a diplomat's signature on a treaty will immediately modify the characters of the individuals whose national allegiance is thereby changed. It may even happen—for example, in cases where a preliterate native population is brought for the first time in contact with Europeans—that, for some time after the shift, the two parties to such a situation will behave in an exploratory or almost random manner, each retaining its own norms and not yet developing any special adjustments to the situation of contact. During this period, we should still not expect any generalizations to apply to both groups. Very soon, however, we know that each side does develop special patterns of behavior to use in its contacts with the other. 11 At this point, it becomes meaningful to ask what systematic terms of relationship will describe the common character of the two groups; and from this point on, the degree of common character structure will increase until the two groups become related to each other just as two classes or two sexes in a stable, differentiated society. 12

In sum, to those who argue that human communities show too great internal differentiation or contain too great a random element for any notion of common character to apply, our reply would be that we expect such an approach to be useful (a) provided we describe common character in terms of the themes of relationship between groups and individuals within the community, and (b) provided that we allow sufficient time to elapse for the community to reach some degree of equilibrium or to accept either change or heterogeneity as a characteristic of their human environment.

10 For a discussion of the role played by "change" and "heterogeneity" in melting-pot communities, cf. M. Mead ("Educative effects of social environment as disclosed by studies of primitive societies." Paper read at the Symposium on Environment and Education, University of Chicago, September 22, 1941). Also F. Alexander ("Educative influence of personality factors in the environment." Paper read at the Symposium on Environment and Education, University of Chicago, September 22,1941).

11 In the South Seas, those special modes of behavior which Europeans adopt toward native peoples, and those other modes of behavior which the native adopts toward Europeans, are very obvious. Apart from analyses of "pidgin" languages, we have, however, no psychological data on these patterns. For a description of the analogous patterns in Negro-white relationships, cf. J. Dollard (Caste and Class in a Southern Toivn, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1937), especially Chapter XII, Accommodation Attitudes of Negroes.

12 Cf. G. Bateson, "Culture Contact and Schismogenesis," Man, 1935, 8: 199. (Reprinted in this volume.)

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