Culture of the individual and society – Edward Sapir

Is culture related to the individual or to society? What is the relationship between the individual and society within the culture itself, and within the study of culture? The anthropologist Edward Sapir, after having defined the links between personality and culture, brings an answer in his book Anthropologie.

If the study of culture consisted simply in aligning and describing exhaustively the infinite number of falsely independent patterns of behavior that are bequeathed from generation to generation by social processes, there would be no need to propose a new method of inquiry. The difficulties arise only when one mobilizes ex abrupt the statements of cultural anthropology to elucidate the behaviors. Once this has been done, we trust our hands; conduct is not a synthetic reconstitution of elementary models, each of which would be an analyzable entity presenting a historical continuity and a geographical distribution; on the contrary, it is the original crucible from which these models have been extracted. Consequently, if one can speak of cultural growth, it is not in the manner of a history reconstituted from the composite history of the models taken separately, but indeed in the manner of the evolution of a personality. This complete, virtual “culture”, which the ethnologist analyzes, is the rendezvous of systems of actions and systems of ideas which spill over each other; by a kind of verbal reflex, one manages to give them the appearance of a closed system of behavior. However, there is one thing to remember: this system only functions (if it has a function at all) insofar as the systems of action and ideas that have grown up in the minds of certain specific people function and react upon each other. Culture is not impersonal; large areas, instead of being “carried” by the group or community, are the exclusive preserve of certain key individuals, and these individuals, by necessity, give them a personal stamp. If they disappear, culture loses its rigidity, its objectivity; it deflates at once, and one sees very quickly what it is: a convenient conceptual fiction.

Edward Sapir (1921), Anthropology. Volume 1: culture and personality

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