Personality, Society and Life History

Chapters 8 and 9 have described how structures of gender relations enter into personal life and shape personalities. The fact is clear, but how to understand it is more difficult. ‘Enter into’ is a metaphor, and we might ask just what is being ‘entered’. Has personality some distinctive substance, as implied by the other familiar metaphor for these relationships, that personality is ‘moulded’ or ‘shaped’ by social pressure, like clay under a potter’s hands?

The critique of socialization theory and the discussion of the ‘project’ in chapter 9 both imply that the answer is no. The components of personality traditionally discussed in psychology – attitudes, abilities, drives, repressions, fantasies and so on – are not separate from social interactions. On the one hand practices have a ‘personality’ dimension. It makes good sense, for instance, to talk of the characteristic emotional problems of particular social practices, such as teaching. (Indeed this is a theme in recent research on teachers.) On the other hand personality needs a social field for its realization. People can, of course, hide some aspect of themselves. (Teenage girls have often been advised to make sure they do not seem more clever than the boys they want to date.) But personality in general is not hidden; nor is deliberate hiding usually very successful. As Freud remarked about sexual motives in ‘symptomatic acts’, ‘He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.’

Here the argument on gender converges with the current rethinking of social psychology in texts like Rom Harre’s Social

Being and Personal Being, Paul Secord and co-workers’ Explaining Human Behavior, Edmund Sullivan’s A Critical Psychology and the joint work by Julian Henriques and others, Changing the Subject. These theorists have tried to move beyond the approach that founds psychology on the category of the ‘individual’, beyond the belief that laboratory experiment is the paragon of methods, and beyond the conceptualization of social context as a ‘variable’ to be correlated with ‘behaviour’. Instead this work implies a historical conception of the person. As Harre observes, the very idea of individual character and the self is the product of collectives, of particular societies. The approach emphasizes the situational meanings of action and explores how personal life is constructed through the play of social relations. In Sullivan’s phrase, ‘the person is person only as I-and-you’; the personal world is relational.

In the terms used in this book, personality has to be seen as social practice and not as an entity distinct from ‘society’. Personality is what people do, just as social relations are what people do, and the doings are the same. Yet there is a difference which makes personality a coherent object of study. Personality is practice seen from a particular angle, which I will call the perspective of the life history. Psychologies of personality that have stressed the case study as the basic form of understanding are thus an important resource for social analysis. John Dollard’s nearly forgotten Criteria for the Life History is a brilliant summary of early versions that demonstrates this point.

There is a strain of individualism in much case-history research, where dynamics are treated as wholly internal to the case. This amounts to seeing the life history as the only form in which practice can be understood. The structural and institutional analyses in Part II above show this is untenable for the analysis of gender. The most penetrating case-study research, including Dollard’s own Caste and Class in a Southern Town, combines the logic of the life history with the logic of institutional analysis.

At least in our society, people experience themselves and their practice most readily in terms of a life trajectory, a personal past and a personal future. Personal time can also be conceived in terms of a ‘life cycle’, and a good deal of academic research on the family, growth and ageing is done in that framework. But history is not cyclical, and a personal history is not an unfolding. It is a construction, something made.

What is ‘made’, specifically, is the coherence, intelligibility, and liveability of one’s social relationships through time. Sartre’s notion of personal life as a ‘unification’, a making-into-a-unity, is important here. Without it, social analysis reduces a life to a collection of roles learnt, expectations enacted or structural locations occupied: Ralf Dahrendorf s Homo Sociologicus, the man – who-is-his-roles. Some of the recent work on the construction of subjects by discourses, influenced by Althusser and Foucault, comes very close to this conception.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre treated the life history as a unification with a single principle, the ramifying consequences of some initial, constitutive choice. I argued in chapter 9 that such a view over-simplifies the person and misses the importance of contradiction. Even on Sartre’s model, initial choices may be multiple. More importantly, complexities of personal life arise from structural contradictions that go far beyond the particular person.

However much detail is known about a given life, personal life becomes unintelligible if the structural bases of practice are not kept in view. A striking demonstration is* the attempt to document ‘total personality’ in a study already referred to, Robert White’s Lives in Progress. In a monumental exercise in longitudinal method White followed three ‘normal’ upper-class Americans from their student days well into adulthood, applying a battery of psychologi­cal tests and collecting data from interviews and essays. The detail is remarkable; the insight resulting is remarkably small. Lacking organizing questions about structure, the study runs out into the sands of eclecticism and blandness, flavoured with a faint life – cycle ideology of ‘natural growth’.

The contrast with Freud’s study of an upper-class Russian, the ‘Wolf Man’, is notable. Not that Freud had a theory of social structure worth twopence, but as a therapist he was highly sensitive to structural effects in the dynamics of personal life. The ‘Wolf Man’ is a howling mass of contradictions, and his personality is contradictory because the elements of an emotional life offered him were impossible to work into a smooth and consistent whole. Obviously enough the class relations between peasants and landowners in pre-revolutionary Russia were in tension. The case history shows how these relations intersected with gender dynamics – ambivalences between husband and wife, divisions of labour among servants in childcare and housework, rivalries between girls and boys – to construct a household that was an emotional minefield for the small boy.

My experience of life-history interviews suggests that the conclusion about the contradictory bases of personal life might hold very generally. The materials offered a growing person are lumpy and indigestible; ‘unification’ is often hard and may be impossible. The evolving pattern of a person’s life often involves disjunction, incoherence or schism. Sartre does not consider that the practice of unification, like all other practices, may fail. Some theorists even suggest that participation in contemporary society requires schism in the person. Laing in The Politics of Experience argues this way about ‘normality’ in a mad society, as do some feminist critiques of the front that has to be put up by conventional femininity.

Lives are not monads closed off from others. People experience themselves as having shared pasts and sharing the present; ‘for we are members one of another’, as the Apostle Paul wrote. (The metaphor is stronger in seventeenth-century English: the phrase means roughly ‘we are each others’ limbs’.) This sharing may be as intimate as the story of a marriage or a love affair never spoken of beyond the two concerned, or as public as the proceedings of parliament.

Collective practice is not reducible to a sum of individual practices. In a strict sense there is no such thing as ‘individual practice’ at all; the phrase is an abstraction from a tissue of relational conduct. Even masturbation involves socially constructed fantasies, techniques of arousal and a kind of minimal society in which you are the object of your own cathexis.

So a personal life is a path through a field of practices which are following a range of collective logics, and are responding to a range of structural conditions which routinely intersect and often contradict each other. It is no wonder that theories of personal life which reify ‘the individual’ and his or her features — such as trait theories of personality and the scalar conceptions of gender discussed in chapter 8 — give very little grip on reality. The structure of personality is not the structure of an object. It is a particular unification of diverse and often contradictory practices.

Thus the concept of personality is logically co-ordinate with the concept of an ‘institution’, being another empirical unification of practices. The gender analysis of personality will explore the same menu of structures as the gender analysis of institutions in chapter 6.

To some extent it already does. Analyses in relation to the structure of cathexis are very familiar in classical psychoanalysis. An analysis in relation to the structure of power has been sketched by Shulamith Firestone, and in another context by the psychoanalysts of colonialism, Octave Mannoni and Frantz Fanon. Personality analysis in terms of the structure of labour is the least common, though it exists in embryo in the work of the German psychologist Frigga Haug and the theoretical work of Edmund Sullivan in Canada.

A pattern of practice is likely to appear frail when formulated in terms of its constitutive contradictions and dialectics, tensions and layerings and historical transformations. If it keeps one shape over a long period that is because a lot of energy has been invested in keeping it that way. The Prince family in chapter 1 shows one version of this. Another is shown by the business and professional families found in our study, and by J. M. and R. E. Pahl in Managers and their Wives. These are families whose personal lives are kept in order by the immense labours of a wife, who appears to have no career but whose work is the absolute condition of her husband’s apparently ‘individual’ success.

But it is also important to register the potential resilience of a given organization of practice. Where it constitutes dominant social interests, it constructs motives to expend a great deal of energy in defence of the status quo. The depth of anti-feminism among men, discussed by William J. Goode, is a case in point. Personality does not constitute social interests, but it embodies personal relations to social interests which may act powerfully as motives: defences, identifications, commitments and fears. Where these interlock in related lives, a pattern may result that is proof against severe stresses. Stable marriages are perhaps the most familiar example.

Personality dynamics are not the secret key to society, as the first generation of Freudians like Ernest Jones supposed. Nor are they irrelevant, as sociological structuralism supposes. In the context of a theory of practice, personality appears as one of the major sites of history and politics. It is connected with other sites like institutions, but has its own configurations. The rest of this chapter will explore some of these configurations and try to map the sexual politics that happen on this site.