Ethnological Light on Psychological Problems

Ellsworth Faris
The University of Chicago


Ethnological Light on Psychological Problems. – Many important practical problems are at the same time important theoretically, which is both fortunate and unfortunate, for while interest is lent, prejudice is aroused. Sociology has at times wrongfully assumed that general psychology can determine in advance the nature of the persons who constitute groups. Social origins, which is the comparative study of ethnological material, offers an indispensable method in this field. The current psychological methods often err in abstracting the person and assuming as innate that which is social in origin and nature. This is in line with a very ancient and widespread tendency which identifies the natural with the familiar. Nature is often only the older and more venerable convention. Specific instincts which are so often assumed as innate cannot be identified as innate when the infinite variety of customs is studied. Ethnological material offers a neglected field for the study of psychology, for the human personality is created in a social situation and can be found only in some concrete set of social relations.

It is at once fortunate and unfortunate when the important practical problems are also the problems of greatest interest to the theorist. It is fortunate, for it gives a sense of reality and vitality to the work of the theorist which is a distinct advantage: it is unfortunate in so far as it tends to becloud the issue with prejudices and interests which even the scientist may vainly strive to escape. These prejudices and interests not only confuse the mind of the investigator, hindering his method and warping his conclusions, but condition the reception of his work by his critics and his public to the lasting detriment to the cause of truth.

There are many questions which are of concern to the social psychologist which fall within this category and which clearly show the effect of preconception and bias. I have in mind such questions as the relation of nature to nurture, the relation of original nature to the modifications effected by social experience, including the origin of the differences between the several racial and national groups. Of most emotional interest is the problem of the capacity and possibilities of the colored races, and the effects of miscegena-

(114) -tion. Less important but still within the list would come such questions as the nature of religion and of superstition, the differences between the sexes, the problem of the nature and number of the human instincts or whether there should be any such instincts assumed, the relation of the individual to the group, and such like.

The greater part of these questions are rightly regarded as psychological, and the sociologist usually assumes that their solution must come from individual psychology and that groups cannot be understood without the possession of these solutions from the laboratory. Now the ethnologist has a similar problem, and he has decided that he does not need to wait for the results of psychology. At least Lowie has so argued in his Ethnology and Culture. Of course the ethnologist is chiefly interested in setting forth the objective cultures and as his material is objective, his ideal is to form hypotheses without assumptions concerning the mental processes of the people whom he studies.

It is the object of this paper to call attention to the attitude toward social origins which the sociologist can take and which has been so much neglected. If we assume that personality is a group resultant, that human nature is inconceivable apart from language, then it is clear, since there is no such thing as a language in general, that personality will develop in a concrete local situation. If we assume that human nature cannot be conceived apart from wishes, and if we agree that ideals and life-organizations can only exist in a society, then the study of social origins ought to throw much light upon human nature. Each group develops its own type of leadership, and its own brand of human nature, and the study and comparison of widely separated groups is therefore one method of studying psychology.

The psychological methods are familiar, being matters of common knowledge. Introspection has never been wholly discredited, but its limitations have been increasingly recognized of late, for introspection is always memory, and memories, alas, are influenced by our wishes and greatly modified by them. And the wishes of the individual are always related to the wishes of the group, the purposes of the individual to the purposes of the group, so that

( 115) introspection reveals human nature as modified and fashioned in social life.

Experiments in laboratories have clarified many difficult questions, but the results have, on the whole, been of most value, when the problems have been most simple. Experiments on sensations have yielded the largest results, and in these cases it is not always easy to distinguish psychology from physiology.

A distinctly newer method is that of abnormal psychology. The recent and well-known attempts of Freud and others to apply the concepts used in their work with neurotic patients to normal psychology are not so helpful as was at first hoped. And when the writers go farther afield and explain social origins by psychological principles, it is no longer acceptable. The explanation of totem and taboo by Freud which enables him to explain the culture of African natives on the basis of the dreams of neurotic Austrian women is as simple and naive as it is unsound. A recent explanation of this method recites the story of a Fuegian who related that the first man climbed down out of heaven on to earth by a grapevine. The psychiatric ethnologist writes that this is frankly a sex myth, the inverted bowl of the sky being the uterus, and the grape-vine being the umbilical cord!

Still another type of genetic explanation has arisen from a study of the war neuroses of soldiers. Now soldiers who break down with so-called shell shock are for the most part suffering from fear. The abnormalities of sex observed among them are most apt to take the form of homosexual practices. And it was to be expected that the writers on these cases should attempt to apply the conclusion to social origins and the mind of primitive man. The influence of this can be seen in Psycho-therapy by Kempf.

All that needs to be pointed out in this connection is that psychiatric theories of primitive man assume a sort of recapitulation and vestigial reversion which dues not stand the test of objective field investigation. Primitive man is not to be understood nor most clearly viewed from the consulting-room of the neurologist in our great cities.

Quite another method of studying human nature is that of animal psychology. Unfortunately, this is chiefly anecdotal in

( 116) character, and uncritical in the highest degree. It can hardly be called a method of explaining instinct. It is rather a custom. Most of the discussion of curiosity, constructiveness, fear, anger, and such like has leaned chiefly on the dog, the wolf, the ant, and the bee. An Englishman recently wrote a book on human instincts, the greater part of which is taken up with the opinion of former writers of books, but when one comes toward the middle of the volume upon the first discussion of an instinct, it is concerned with the wild ox of Demaraland.[1]

None of these methods should be minimized. In their own field they stand independently and even outside it they sometimes suggest analogies and insights that are of great value, but they do not get to the real data of their problem. If we are to understand human nature, we must study human nature; and if we study human nature, we must not study some unreal and deceptive abstraction of it. Individual or differential psychology is a very fruitful field. But its data are partly social.

In one sense it is true that the views of human nature which we now hold to be erroneous have a common error. They all tend to identify the natural with the familiar. They failed to take account of the larger human group. Savages they did not have access to, and babies were not considered of sufficient importance. The philosopher who believed in God thought of his belief as natural. He who believed in a king held that the rule was by divine right and in accordance with the very nature of the universe. Those who opposed a doctrine did so from the belief that their own introspections were a revelation of nature itself. Descartes taught that ideas were inborn, and the inborn ideas of Descartes were those current in the Europe of his day. Locke taught that the mind was a blank and the slate wiped clean, but he made no study of children, nor did he have any real method of assembling facts.

The confusion of nature with the customary still exists as a heritage from the Greeks themselves. They indeed made a distinction between nature and convention, but the nature which they described seems to us to be merely an older convention. Aristotle taught that it was natural for a negro to be a slave, but

( 117) not for a Greek. In the stoic worship of nature, the wrongs and ills to which men were accustomed were inflicted on the sufferer by nature. Said Marcus Aurelius, "When you kiss your child, say to him, ‘Perhaps you will be dead tomorrow.’ Mr. Strachey records of Doctor Arnold that when he lay in pain upon a couch he asked his son to go thank God for this pain which had been sent to him. Many who read this passage feel that somehow the poor are the naturally unfit. McDougall records in his book on Is America Safe for Democracy ? that the negro race is very strong in the instinct of submission.

The point of all of this is that men have generalized broadly upon a fractional experience, in realizing the extent to which plastic human nature can be made to assume definite forms. Instincts asserted of human beings have been created by psychologists, and sociologists alike to "explain" any given phenomena, whether war, pioneering, or vagabondage. Biologists may doubt the Darwinian formula of survival and natural selection as applied to individuals, but psychologists have kept the faith when considering instincts. We have plenty of trouble now, but in the Golden Age nature was always right and every instinct was brought in on account of its survival value. The implications of the current doctrine are three in number:

1. Instincts are the same in man and animals.

2. Instincts exist because they were first useful.

3. Instincts can be observed in their activity by anyone who will make himself familiar with human conduct.

A corollary of these beliefs is that individual psychology formulated according to this method is a prerequisite to the question of group life.

It seems necessary to question all these assumptions. There is probably a real difference between man and the animals. A study of cultural groups does not wait for the psychology of the individual. On the contrary, the individual can only be known fully by means of the methods of social investigation. The group will help illuminate the nature of this process.

And here comes in the task of the sociologist, for it is he who is chiefly interested in the processes of human nature which are involved in culture and which the ethnologist notices only inciden-

( 118) -tally. If the problem of instincts cannot be solved by a study of primitive peoples, at least the problem could be greatly illuminated. One writer asserts that hunting and fighting alone interested primitive man. Therefore, all work is drudgery and no one ever really likes it. The student of primitive life might investigate further instances of the building of houses, clearing of land, child-caring, and other forms of group life which bear no relation to hunting or fighting, and which are intensely interesting. The findings on this subject would throw much light on the theoretical question involved. Graham Wallas insists that the human race inherits an instinct for irregularity in work, and since primitive man did no regular work, modern man finds it irksome. The response of primitive people to regular work like their response to regular meals could be noted, and the facts ought to throw some light on the problem.

The burden which primitive man has to bear is very heavy at the present time, particularly the moral burden. Primitive man is blamed for juvenile delinquency, marital infidelity, family desertion, dislike of work, crime, and war. The thin veneer of civilization is a metaphor from the furniture factories at Grand Rapids, but it implies an unjustifiably uncharitable view toward the poor savage. Anyone who has carefully studied the literature of primitive peoples, and has given due weight to the absence of punishment of their children, and who has considered the relative completeness of the social control which they have developed, will look for another explanation of our adolescent rebellion. It is entirely possible that we ourselves have invented many original sins and that there are new and modern ways of acting the fool. Certainly, the question of a native tendency to storm-and-stress on the part of the adolescent can be illuminated by a study of primitive peoples .On this, as on many psychological problems, it is possible to shed much light from ethnology.

Many other questions, such as that of the culture epochs on which hangs the question of recapitulation, the question of sex differences, and the relation of the individual to the group, are all capable of illumination by methods which include the comparison of cultures.

For example, the theory of culture epochs is passing in ethnology. Polyandry was supposed to be a phase of culture having a definite

( 119) relation to a specific form of economic organization. When, however, it is found that polyandry exists in Tibet where there is agriculture, among the Todas who are pastoral, and among certain Eskimo tribes who are still hunters, the conclusion which the social psychologist is led to make is fairly obvious.

Another instance of the value of this method is in the names of relationship which the ethnologists are now studying with great zeal and promise of interesting results. When we find that among many peoples there is no word for father or mother, but only a word denoting parent; when in other societies there appears no distinction between child and grandchild, or between mother and aunt— when these and a score of other similar facts are noted, the conclusion is inevitable that the psychological basis of the family is a more variable phenomenon than is usually assumed. On this psychological problem there remains yet much light to be shed from the study of primitives.

The study of words is in itself very instructive, and the structure of the grammar of primitive people which is as yet so imperfectly known, will in future lend much real aid to the study of human nature.

The sex differences are still highly important to us and form a problem as yet quite unsolved. Schurz in a classic utterance has explained the outstanding facts of primitive life to be the well known psychological fact that women are not gregarious. Mrs. Talbert, however, in her work among the Ibibios describes a most elaborate system of secret societies, thus discrediting the explanation by objective citation of new facts.

The question of diffusion as against independent origin, which is now a storm center of ethnological debate, must be settled by the ethnologists and anthropologists among themselves. The argument is now often so heated that epithets and names fly very freely. The sociologist should and will wait for the experts to agree, but the point here is that when they shall have agreed we shall be able to know much more than we now know about the relations of the individual to the group.

The social psychologist must no longer assume that he cannot attack the problem of collective behavior or understand cultural groups without a working theory of individual psychology. Social

( 120) psychology was at one time proposed as the science of the individual as modified by the social processes of the group. We must take seriously the statement that no such pre-existing individual is discoverable.

Primitive man has been very frequently invoked as an explanation of some social phenomenon of modern life. He has oftener been coerced into justifying a political interest or buttressing an established practice. He has at times helped a devoted reformer in his effort to uproot established institutions that have cumbered the ground. He has done much service in furnishing the human element in mythologies and cosmologies. Sociologists have used him to furnish concrete confirmation of their deductive conclusions. Herbert Spencer used him to show that evolution demanded a halfway stage between animal and man. Sumner brought him in to prove that man is an irrational and helpless creature, too plastic and too helpless to boast. Westermarck employs him to illustrate his own doctrine of instincts and the emotional doctrine of morality. McDougall makes use of him, as do most psychologists, to illustrate and confirm the doctrines of the instincts.

Few of us have, however, studied him. Here lies a vast treasure of psychological knowledge for the most part untouched. Primitive man who is really primitive is gone and gone forever. None of us ever saw him alive. Contemporary uncivilized peoples exist, and the careful, objective, scientific study of their manners, customs, ritual, speech, and other behavior is destined richly to reward those who are able to study them. We may indeed hope to solve some of our theoretical problems here.

The social psychologist must no longer assume that collective behavior can only be studied after we have in hand a complete statement of the nature of the individual. Social psychology is not merely a study of the modification of the individual that occurs in social situations. It is time to realize that these facts are ready to hand, and that the individual which psychology was supposed to study does not exist and never did. And, since he does not exist, he cannot be modified in a social group. On the contrary, he is created in a social group. He can be found only by looking there.


  1. Of course this does not refer to experimental animal psychology, which is not a study of human nature at all, but exists quite independently.

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