Toward a Science of Social Character
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 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
<--I'm editing starting her based on the article-->
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.
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
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
(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:
(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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