African Culture And Personality: Bad Social Science, Effective Social Activism, Or A Call To Reinvent Ethnology?

by James E. Lassiter

Abstract

Western social scientists abandoned typical personality and national character studies during the 1960s. However, many sub-Saharan African scholars in various disciplines, those resident on the continent and elsewhere, have continued to identify, describe and make use of what they consider to be widespread African psychological characteristics and patterns of cultural adaptation. These include core African cultural values and themes, and what the scholars believe are common African responses to the requirements of social life and external cultural influences. To them, the analysis and use of these widely shared values, themes and adaptive responses are crucial for achieving viable and sustainable African national and community development. In fact, a number of the thinkers argue this endeavor is necessary for the ultimate survival of Africa and its cultures. In contrast, Western and non-Western social scientists have given up pursuing such broad concepts and adaptive processes as areas of invalid and/or harmful social science inquiry. This paper attempts to identify and assess the nature, range, quality, and utility of research and writing by selected African scholars on African culture and personality and recurring African responses to indigenous social life and Western acculturation. It does so by reviewing and analyzing a sampling of writings by African scholars published since the mid-1960s. Generally, the paper asks: What are African scholars, commentators and the public, saying about Africa’s various ethnicities and Africanness and why is it important to them? The feasibility of applying such understandings to the socioeconomic conditions and practical problems of contemporary African societies is also examined. In terms of social science theory and methodology, the paper offers justification for reinstating within anthropology, and more specifically ethnology, the study of African and non-African core values, cultural themes and patterns of response to social needs and external cultural forces. Finally, the contrast between the approaches of social scientists and the African scholars surveyed is discussed in the context of the historical shift in the social sciences from generalization to particularism; and, more broadly, in the context of the rise and dominance of individualism over communalism in the global community.

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James E. Lassiter is currently a Senior Refugee Program Manager in the U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. He was trained in anthropology and African Studies at the University of Oregon (M.S., 1975; Ph.D., 1983) and has published in his area of expertise. In addition to conducting anthropological research in Swaziland from 1980-83, he served as a Peace Corps administrator in Tanzania and Ghana and as a Senior Desk Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.