Toward a Science of Social Character

by Michael Maccoby

International Forum of Psychoanalysis 11: (33-44), 2002

I came to Mexico to assist Erich Fromm in studying the social character of Mexican campesinos and to be analyzed by him as a part of my training at the Mexican Institute of Psychanalysis. Fromm considered this study a way of increasing understanding of social character and contributing to Mexico where in 1950 a group of psychiatrists had invited him to found the institute. In particular, the study sought to understand the roots of alcoholism and violence among villagers who had received ejido land after the Mexican revolution of 1910-20. Fromm hoped to discover ways to treat these pathologies, social as well as individual.

I won't try to summarize the findings, which were published in Social Character in a Mexican Village. (1) We did discover that the oppression of the past perpetrated by the hacienda system had formed a passive and fatalistic male social character, vulnerable to alcoholism and violence. We also learned that a combination of opportunity and psychoanalytic understanding of unconscious fears of becoming independent of irrational authority could strengthen the productiveness and self esteem of young men from these families.

Social Character in a Mexican Village(1) also describes the method of an interpretive questionnaire and how to analyze social character from the responses. During the past 30 years, I have continued to use and develop Fromm's methodology to study social character with a particular focus on its relationship to technology and work. (2)(3)(4)

Social character is a difficult concept, particularly because it crosses academic boundaries of psychology, sociology, anthropology and economics. In this brief paper, I want to focus on three aspects of social character that need to be clarified, if we are to fully develop a science of social character. These are: the difference between individual and social character; how social character changes; and how social character develops.

Character and Social Character

Fromm used Freud's character types as building blocks for his theory of social character. However, Fromm left some confusion about the difference between individual and social character. Let's start with Freud's normal psychological types. He calls these, in a 1931 paper, (5) "libidinal types," but in fact, he describes them more in terms of object relations. Thus, Freud's erotic type who seeks loving relationships and is vulnerable to dependency becomes Fromm's receptive type. Freud's obsessive type (formerly the anal character) who is conservative and cautious with a strong moral attitude becomes Fromm's hoarding type. And Freud's narcissist who is aggressive and innovative becomes Fromm's exploitative type. None of Fromm's types contradict Freud's descriptions. However, they do elaborate on them.

In Man For Himself (1947), Fromm (6) added three new elements to Freud's normal typology, significantly enriching it. The most important is the concept of productiveness, with roots in Spinoza's conception of activeness in The Ethics. The degree of productiveness which means active interest in work, knowledge and other people modifies and transforms a character type. There is a major difference between the obstinate and stingy unproductive obsessive personality and the orderly, hardworking productive obsessive personality. (Fromm's concept of the productive character is more problematic, an ideal for human development rather than a type based on observation. For further discussion see Maccoby, 1996. (7)) The second of Fromm's contributions is the concept of the socio-political relationship, especially, the authoritarian mode of relationship. The third contribution is a new personality type posited by Fromm, the marketing character.

The confusion comes when social character is described solely in terms of individual character. A peasant farmer and the bureaucrat may both be moderately productive obsessive - hoarding characters, but because their social contexts are different, their social characters are also significantly different.

The dynamic values or emotional attitudes shared by a group, the social character, can be understood as internalized culture, interacting with individual character. The culture provides not only ideals but also meanings of behavior. It allows different variations of a social character, for example the obsessive bureaucrat and the helpful, receptive bureaucrat. A crucial interaction has to do with the fit, or lack of it, between individual character and culture. Some character types fit better than others. Culture changes more slowly than the social environment, and character changes even more slowly. A strong individual character which meshes with the social character and is firmly adapted to a culture will resist cultural change. This is particularly true for people with moderate to low productiveness; change upsets effective adaptation and causes them extreme anxiety and resentment. People in this situation become vulnerable to leadership which promises to reinstate the lost culture or provide a new one which reconnects their character giving their lives a satisfying sense of meaning. Fromm first described this interaction in relation to the Germans who supported Hitler. Fromm described a hardworking, frugal patriotic social character rooted in an obsessive-hoarding personality whose savings had gone up in smoke with the inflation of the 20s and who had been humiliated by defeat in World War I. (8) For this group, Hitler offered a potent mixture of regaining German glory and a focus for resentment directed against the Jews. He offered to reconnect a social character that had lost its moorings to a new society.

In our study of campesinos, Fromm and I described the interaction between the male decedents of hacienda peons and the post revolutionary ejido. These submissive, fatalistic, unproductive receptive men lacked the independence required by peasant farming. They rented out their lands to the entrepreneurs (productive narcissists) and became heavy drinkers.

For some villagers, whose families had remained free of the haciendas, the social character needed for independent farming meshed with a productive obsessive individual character. But many of the villagers we studied, and others that my colleagues and I have interviewed during the past 30 years, were a mix of types. This was also the case for 75 percent of the German workers and white collar employees studied by Fromm in 1930. (9)

Although only 10 percent of the Germans showed an authoritarian character, no more than 15 percent had the deep democratic convictions to oppose the Nazis, once they were legally in power. Given the revolutionary social conditions that existed in Germany, a relatively small group was able to change the culture, restructuring institutions that would shape the social character of the future.

For most people, the social character is not deeply rooted in their individual character. Rather, it is an internalization of cultural norms that determine social attitudes and give meaning to social behavior. Most people go along with the prevailing consensus, and the more productive people of any type are best able to adapt to a changing social environment.

How Social Character Changes

Social Character in a Mexican Village (5), introduced the concept of social selection. This describes a process analogous to Darwin's natural selection, in which people with a certain individual character type prosper in a particular social environment, especially in times of social change. Ultimately these people gain control of a society and are able to change social institutions so that they shape the social character that supports the new institutions.

Thus, productive narcissistic villagers who were entrepreneurs exploited new capitalistic opportunities to increase their wealth and transform village culture. They strengthened schools and diverted funds from traditional fiestas to building new roads and instituting basketball and soccer, games that stimulated teamwork and a competitive spirit. The more productive traditional peasants, especially the younger generations, who were descendants of free compesinos went along with the new leaders. The unproductive, especially the descendants of peons, were unable to adapt and became unhappy cultural misfits. The chart Social Character in a Mexican Village presents these three social character types, with different socio-economic roots and different ideologies.


Modern history suggests that a similar process of social selection has periodically caused changes in the social character. A century ago, in the U.S., productive narcissists emerged to exploit new technologies in steel, railroads, automobiles, electricity and oil. These industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller crushed competitors and built great companies. Their companies became relatively stable bureaucracies which became models for government organization and schools. Families raised children to adapt to these institutions. The industrialists endowed foundations and universities to enshrine their names and also to develop the skills and attitudes required by the bureaucracies.

At the middle of the 20th century, the productive obsessive bureaucratic character dominated American institutions. However, the rise of a service society began to select and shape the marketing character. In the 60s, increased affluence and revolutionary social movements for civil rights and women's liberation and against the war in Viet Nam began to loosen up the conservative bureaucratic social character and challenge the legitimacy and authority of the established elite. In the 70s and 80s, the culture continued to move in the direction of service, which now comprises 75 percent of work. As women increasingly entered the workplace and became wage earners, the hierarchical paternalistic family was transformed.

These changes were intensified and given a new direction in the 90s as another revolution in technology transformed work and organizations. As in the past, productive narcissistic entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Case and Jack Welch, to name the best known, created new industries, using the discoveries of information and communications technology. Those leaders and others like them are now shaping how people work, learn and how they define themselves.

Impatient with bureaucracies, the new productive narcissists downsized and automated work to cut costs, maximize flexibility and institutionalize continuous change. Loyalty and years of service no longer guaranteed life-time employment. It was also more cost-effective to contract out services, sometimes to small entrepreneurial firms or reduce labor costs by exporting work to Asia and Latin America. The model for information age work became Silicon Valley where managers and professionals reinvented themselves as "free agents" ready to change jobs if they could get a better deal. They identified themselves in terms of their skills and projects rather than as belonging to a company.

To become more productive, organizations began to redesign work. New modes of work required not only new skills but also new values. A new organizational ideology emphasized innovation, interactive networks, customer responsiveness, teamwork, and flexibility. The economic organizations creating the greatest wealth had to become interactive instead of bureaucratic. They had to manage intelligence rather than energy. Instead of the paternalistic bureaucratic manager, the interactive managers were expected to be coaches of empowered individuals and teams, of young employees who knew more about technology than their elders.

To describe this shift, consider the chart: Organizational Social Character. It summarizes changes in socio-economic base, the social character, and the ideals, ideology, or social self rooted in the bureaucratic and interactive social characters.


Social Character and the Life Cycle-Bureaucratic vs. Interactive

Fromm's concept of social character lacks a developmental framework. The social character does not appear full blown in childhood but is formed throughout the life cycle. In Social Character in a Mexican Village (1), we described how schooling and forms of play contributed to forming the social character of the campesino.

To go further, I have used Erik H. Erikson's (10) eight stages of life to explore social character and social self development in the United States. Erikson based his stages on the idea that people had to respond to the challenges of both their bodies and cultural expectations at different ages. How they met these challenges or accomplished these life tasks formed their competencies, values, emotional attitudes and sense of identity or self.

What Erikson first wrote in 1950 and revised in 1963 now seems dated and sexist. This is because the different cultural roles Erikson describes for men and women fit the bureaucratic, not the interactive era. Furthermore, the idea of psychosocial developmental stages can be misleading. First of all, Erikson, like most social scientists, uses the concept of development without defining it. What do we mean by development? Is it just maturation? Or growth? Maturation is a biological process that occurs in all living organisms. Growth can be either positive or chaotic as in cancerous growth. I would prefer to define human development as growth of competence, a process in which individuals increase their ability to both determine and satisfy their needs. In terms of this definition, human development implies increased awareness and ability to frustrate compulsive needs that weaken a person, while reinforcing those needs that are consciously embraced and are strengthening. Optimal individual development for any social character requires a supportive community, freedom from oppression and opportunity to satisfy creative needs. For the bureaucratic and interactive social characters, both the positive developmental outcomes and the typical psychological problems are different.

Secondly, while I find Erikson's eight stages a useful construct to think about psychosocial life tasks, these stages should not be considered mechanistically as though one moves through life on a track, stopping at fixed stations to wrestle with these challenges. I see development more in terms of complexity theory, as determining operating principles that direct a complex self organizing system to adapt continually to both its environment and its biological maturation.

Although success in mastering a life cycle task increases the chances of success at the next level, failure at a particular stage does not mean that an individual has forever lost the chance to develop. Some people master psychosocial tasks or challenges despite early failure, with help from others. Correspondingly, the stresses of life may undermine development. The individual may be driven by unconscious needs and forced to wrestle with old issues.

With these cautions in mind, I have applied Erikson's framework to compare the bureaucratic and interactive social characters throughout the life cycle in terms of both positive developmental outcomes and typical psychological problems.


The charts Positive Life-cycle Development and Typical Developmental Problems & Causes summarizes the outcomes for Erikson's eight stages. The bureaucratic social character struggled with issues of independence, starting with separation from mothers who were stuck in the home and might try to live through their children. For males, the resolution of Oedipal struggles with the father began in childhood but continued with father-figure teachers and bosses in the hierarchies of school and work. The challenge of intimacy could lead to a solution that submerged the individual, especially females, within a semi tribalistic family that stifled independence. In the bureaucratic workplace, individuals fit their selves in narrow roles. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Illich, old age might bring a despairing sense of never having been oneself, only what others expected him to be.

In contrast to the bureaucratic social character's overdependence on authority, the interactive social character may struggle with a lack of confident parenting, from childhood through adolescence and a lack of leadership thereafter. Rather than suffering from obsessive conformity, the interactive child lacks controls. Rather than over identifying with a parent, he or she feels part of a different world in which issues of group acceptance dominate. Rejection by the group can even cause the kind of destructive anger that erupted in a high school when boys who had been made outcasts shot and killed fellow students and teachers in Columbine, Colorado. Rather than constructing identity from traditional categories of profession and class, the interactive adolescent also factors in issues of ethnic, racial, and sexual identity, and identity as a consumer of style in clothes and music (like hiphop). Rather than feeling inferior, when he does badly on tests, the interactive child may overestimate the self as a defense against low self-esteem. Rather than losing the self in love and work, the interactive character may suffer from a constructed false self, intimate relationships become superficial and too easily dissolved. The adult interactive character may lack generative values and feel no responsibility to mentor the young. Compulsively driven to succeed, he or she may lose a sense of meaning and become a victim of burnout.

Finally, psychological issues should be viewed in terms of a changing concept of positive development throughout the life cycle. The productive interactive individual is focussed on continual learning and competency in creating and sustaining networks of mutual development. Lacking a sense of stability in organizations and relationships, he or she becomes more concerned with discovering and expressing an authentic self as opposed to being what others want him or her to be. This can be a naive affirmation of ideals, a group identity based on shared life stages, an expression of grandiosity or a serious exploration of the inner life that leads to new commitments.

The differences between these social characters have significant implications for psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. The traditional psychoanalytic method based on bureaucratic rules is being replaced by a more interactive approach emphasizing shared learning and mutual development.

In conclusion, Erich Fromm, building on Freud's insights and discoveries, gave us the concept of social character. Of course, other social analysts had described national traits, notably Tocqueville in Democracy in America (11) and Karl Marx describing of French peasants and communards in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (12). However, Fromm not only described character; he presented a theory of how social character is shaped, and its function for society. He also developed a method to study social character through an interpretative questionnaire. As we clarify and expand on this theory and methodology, we stand on his shoulders just as he stood on those of Freud.


(1) Fromm F. Maccoby M. Social Character in a Mexican Village. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall: 1970, reprinted with new introduction by Michael Maccoby. New Brunswick, NJ Transaction Publishers; 1996.

(2) Maccoby M. The Gamesman: The New Corporate Leaders. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1976.

(3) Maccoby M. The Leader, A New Face for American Management. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1981.

(4) Maccoby M. Why Work? New York: Simon and Schuster; 1988. Why Work? Motivating the New Work Force. 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Miles River Press; 1995.

(5) Freud S. Libidinal Types. (1931) Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 21. Page 215.

(6) Fromm F. Man for Himself. New York: Rinehart; 1946.

(7) Maccoby M. The Two Voices of Erich Fromm: the Prophet and the Analytic. In: Contina M, Maccoby M, editors. A Prophetic Analyst. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson; 1995.

(8) Erikson EH. Children & Society. New York: Norton; 1950, 1963.

(9) Fromm E. Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart: 1941.

(10) Fromm E. The Working Class in Weimar Germany. Cambridge: Harvard.

(11) Tocqueville A. Democracy in America. New York: Vintage Books; 1990. Reprint. Originally published: New York: A.A. Knopf; 1945.

(12) Marx K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Written: Dec 1851 - Mar 1852. First Published: First issue of Die Revolution. New York: 1852.

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