Culture and personality

Understanding the nature of human experience

By William Wetherall

A review of
Anthony J. Marsella, George De Vos, and Francis L.K. Hsu (editors)
Culture and Self: Asian and Western Perspectives
321 Pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared as
"About ourselves" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 137(31), 30 July 1987 page 42

"The self has returned! After almost seven decades, there has been resurgence of interest in the concept of self." Concept seems to be the key word in this generally readable academic "contribution to the renaissance of interest in the self." Throughout Culture and Self, culture concepts of self are treated as variables in both normal and abnormal behaviour.

The book aims "to provide teachers, students, scholars, and professional practitioners with a comprehensive resource for understanding the reciprocal relationships between culture and self in Western and Asian thought, and the implications these relationships have for human adaptation and adjustment."

"All of the chapters," according to the preface, "proceed from the premise that the self is a necessary construct for explaining those emergent qualities of human behaviour that proceed from person-context relationships; it is these qualities that are most associated with meaning, consciousness, and knowing in human experience." Readers are immodestly told that they "will find the chapters a fascinating journey across time and culture in the search for understanding to roots of human behaviour."

In nine chapters divided into four parts, eight contributors dominated by psychological anthropologists (who study the relationship between personality and culture) explore many narrow topics which, stitched together, barely justify the broadness of the title. The writers contend that "selfless" theories of human behaviour, which stress culture and social structure almost to the exclusion of self-consciousness as a determinant of behaviour, fail to explain the complexities of human adaptation because they reduce experiences of selfhood to mechanistic notions of personality and social roles.

The first chapter describes the theories which have evolved in Western social science as counterparts of the "religious and/or philosophical systems that were built on premises of a man-centred moral universe with human experience as the starting point for explaining human behaviour."

Social scientists are reluctant to reconsider "how and to what degree human self-consciousness has to be reconciled in formulating the dimensions of a valid social science." In the past, they have had difficulty in breaking away from traditional concepts of behaviour. And "even today", anthropology, psychology and sociology are not free from ethnocentric biases."

Examinations of the Western concepts of self could be considered the heart of the book. Frank Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, in San Francisco, presents an intellectual and cultural history of self in a West that is generally "European, Commonwealth, and American" and particularly "North American."

Johnson, who has done filed work in Japan, also compares Western and Japanese impressions of self. In the US, "the desirability of 'becoming independent'" is an object of training from early in life, whereas in Japan "the acknowledgment of interdependencies in family, work, and friendship relations is highly conscious and integral to successful social navigation in Japanese life."

This does not mean that Americans are really independent. As Johnson observes, "the rhetorical belief in independence acts to conceal the the complex interdependencies in family and social relationships." People who are not really independent need to believe and act as if they are. This "psychological" (subjective sense of) independence "has the effect of inflating a sense of individualism" as reflected in popular expressions like "doing your own thing."

Unfortunately, Johnson does not say what he thinks about "rhetorical" belief in interdependency among Japanese or the presumably false sense of security and stability that supposedly comes from acting as though one can always count on others.

For example, why do Japanese commit suicide? Perhaps, like their Western counterparts, those who contemplate suicide suffer from the realisation that they lack the personality traits to survive in a society which cannot hear the distress calls of its members.

Another section on Asian perspectives on self expands the discussion of self into selected Asian societies. Berkeley anthropologist George De Vos considers "Dimensions of the Self in Japanese Culture." Syracuse anthropologist Agehananda Bharati looks at "The Self in Hindu Thought and Action." China is covered by Harvard intellectual historian Tu Weiming on "Selfhood and Otherness in Confucian Thought," as well as by anthropologist Godwin C. Chu, from the East-West Centre at the University of Hawaii, on "The Changing Concept of Self in Contemporary China."

The book ends with Anthony Marsella's essay on "Culture, Self, and Mental Disorder." Marsella, a University of Hawaii psychology professor, argues that "culture and self are reciprocally related phenomena." Hence, "cultural differences in self partially account for cultural variations in both normal and abnormal behaviour."

One example of where "culture emerges as a critical variable in the field of mental health" is depression. In all studies of depression in different cultures, Marsella claims, "non-Western samples differ in the expression of depressive affect and disorder."

Japanese, according to Marsella, tend to associate depression with external objects like storms, clouds and mountains. Westerners, on the other hand, are said to associate their depression with internal moods such as sadness, despair and dejection. They experience isolation and detachment from others, presumably because their culture stresses the self.

Marsella concluded that "the imposition of Western psychiatric assumptions on non-Western people is not only unwarranted, but potentially dangerous in its implications." Psychiatrists, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists "must begin first and foremost with an understanding of the nature of human experience."

As far as they go, such platitudes will delight the advocates of ethnopsychiatry, who believe that the "universals" of Western mental health are figments of a culture that suffers from delusions of grandeur. But they fail, as this book ultimately does, to clarify what is common to the nature of self that makes all cultures human.

Depression, whether storm or sadness, seems to result in the same pathology. Even after reading this book, the depressed individual will discover that, where East and West meet, alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviours lead to identical states of intoxication and death.


Part of my reasons for reviewing the book is that it explored whether culture effects how people experience depression in always fashionable "Asian and Western" dialectic.

De Vos was my mentor at Berkeley and I knew a couple of the other contributors, including Frank Johnson. I was interviewed by Johnson a year or so before this book came out, when he came to Japan for a few months to do research on dependency. He was also interested in depression, and he mentioned Marsella's work to me.

Anthony Marsella had been writing on issues in comparative mental health, with a focus on Asia, since the 1970s. At the time Culture and Self was being compiled, he and Geoffry M. White had already co-edited Cultural Conceptions of Mental Health and Therapy (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1982), which is Number 4 in Reidel's "Culture, Illness, and Healing: Studies in Comparative Cross-Cultural Research" series.

Francis L.K. Hsu, a psychological anthropologist like Marsella and De Vos, was probably the best known of the three. He had edited a widely-used textbook called Psychological Anthropology: Approaches to Culture and Personality (Homewood (Illinois): The Dorsey Press, 1961), and had authored or co-edited many books on the psychology of "Americans" and "Chinese" and "Chinese in America", and many comparative studies of "Asian" mental health.

I was not then, when I reviewed Culture and Self, and am not now, particularly sympathetic to the view that culture significantly affects how people experience depression. I see mostly fashionable "national character" analyses of results of very limited observations, which are not subject to tests of reliability (repeatability) or validity (relevance to actual life).

Johnson's book

Frank Johnson's book came out as Dependency and Japanese Socialization (New York: New York University Press, 1993). "Dependency" alludes to Doi Takeo's work, and "socialization" suggests how much Johnson had been influenced by De Vos and his psychocultural analysis of the formation of behavior in the dynamic interplay between culture and personality.

The subtitle of Johnson's books is "Psychoanalytic and Anthropological Investigations into Amae". "Amae" was then a major buzzword in Japanese studies, thanks to Doi, who since the 1950s had been arguing that it was a key to understanding Japanese culture and behavior.

Doi wrote the foreword to Johnson's book. Regina Garrick, who had studied under Doi and others at the University of Tokyo after being mentored by De Vos at Berkeley, did a lot of word-crunching for Johnson's book, and is credited for writing its ten-page "Glossary of Japanese Terms".

I would probably have reviewed Johnson's book had I still been writing for FEER when it came out. It would not have been an easy book to digest in a thousand words. It is a bit of a hodgepodge, on account of it's being over ambitious. Johnson touched on too many subjects not really related to his "amae" thesis.

As such, Johnson's thesis is too dependent on secondary sources he was unable to vet. It might, however, inspire someone more empirically inclined to do some serious clinical comparisons in both Japan and the United States, in order to determine if personal experiences of depression in the two countries are, in fact, significantly not just shaped but also altered by culture -- for stripes on a horse don't make it zebra.

12 February 2006