Identity and Culture: joining the psychological and anthropological perspectives

by | Jan 24, 2022 | 0 comments


Countless psychologists have written about the forming of identity and ego development as a section within Developmental Psychology. Similarly, many anthropologists and intercultural authors have written about cultural identity. Few authors have approached the topic bringing together both the psychological and the anthropological perspectives. This paper aims to emphasize this integrative perspective: personality development is a universal psychological process that happens within the cultural environment of an individual.

Therefore, in practice, it is always influenced by culture and should not be treated as universal. Rather, it needs to incorporate the specific cultural values that influence individual development as part of Developmental Psychology. Wursten’s seven Mental Images as a synthesis of Geert Hofstede’s culture values framework, are an important reference for understanding personality development in individuals, since they can also be used to create a useful typology of superegos.

Introduction: the notion of self and identity in Developmental Psychology

Children begin to develop a sense of identity (“I am something different from the world around me”) usually between the ages of 18 to 24 months, according to most authors(1). As their personality continues to develop further between 24 and 48 months of age, the notion of “right” and “wrong” begins to emerge, gradually acquired by learning from the adults and others around them.

From then on, identity is further developed as a notion of “who I am” and “what do I regard as right and wrong” as a response to what I am learning.

Psychoanalysts such as Freud(2), Jung(3), and notably Anna Freud(4) and Melanie Klein(5), who dedicated themselves to observing and treating young children, described the development of the “self” as consisting of the Id (impulses and emotions), the Ego (reason) and the Superego (values), the latter consisting of a “conscience” (what is right and what is wrong) and an “ideal ego” (who I want to become, what kind of person I think that I should be, in order to deserve appreciation from others and also from myself in regards to my “conscience”).

All this has been the object of many writings in psychology(6), but for most authors a key aspect has been omitted: culture. There is indeed a whole school of thought among psychologists known as “culturalists” since the 1950’s, notably led by Erich Fromm(7) and others; but even these culturalists had not, at the time, identified that the influence of culture on the formation of individual identity goes beyond being a universal phenomenon.

Yes, it is a universal phenomenon in the sense that all children have their sense of identity heavily influenced by their cultural environment; but authors even until now have stopped short of analyzing how different types of culture influence different notions of identity in individuals from different culture.

This has happened due to a schizoid separation between developmental psychologists, on one side, and interculturalists, on the other.

Practically all developmental psychologists dedicate themselves to studying children almost as if all children were brought up in the same kind of culture. This can be explained as a typically individualist culture bias: in individualist cultures, where most scholarly writing on developmental psychology tends to occur (US, Canada and Western Europe), the cultures emphasize a “universalist perspective.” In practical terms, this is an assumption that (paradoxically) individuals are affected by culture in a similar way all over the world. It fails to consider that if cultures are different, they might influence individuals also in different ways.

This bias results in psychologists describing personality development as if it followed the same pattern in New York and in New Delhi… something that any beginning interculturalist would regard as somewhat ridiculous.

And yet, on the other side of this schism, interculturalists discuss cultural differences without due consideration to the psychological development of personalities, as if the stages of individual personality development were not a factor when understanding how cultures evolve and change.

When you look at scholarly articles on culture, seldom (if ever) do you see any reference to psychologist authors, let alone classics such as Freud or Jung. By the same token, most psychologist authors (even the so-called culturalists) seem oblivious to the writings of Hofstede(8) and other culture specialists. And yet these two fields of study are very much interconnected, since they simply look at human development from slightly different angles. Looking at culture without understanding the psychological development aspect will provide an incomplete picture; just as looking at personality development without taking into account how culture differences affect individual development also leads to an incomplete understanding of people.

The problem with Freud, Jung and the psychoanalysts (plus Fromm and the culturalists) is that they had never met Hofstede (who came with a next generation of psychologists and basically founded the notion of measuring culture). When you take a step back and consider Hofstede’s research studies from the perspective of psychological analysis, you may realize that Hofstede did something quite extraordinary: he measured (Jung’s) the collective unconscious!

Carl Jung postulated that not only do individuals have an unconscious (and subconscious) aspect to their minds (as explained by Sigmund Freud), but humanity shares a “collective unconscious:” certain aspects that are not only personal and individual, but shared by communities without them even realizing it (because these aspects are by definition unconscious). These include (but are not restricted to) values and norms that constitute a sort of collective superego.

Most major proponents of personality theory, from B. F. Skinner(9) to Carl Rogers(10) and many others within that spectrum, seem to have ignored the fact that values are different from culture to culture. Also, most notable psychology authors were culturally biased by individualism (they mostly came from individualistic cultures) sharing the notions that (a) truth is universal; (b) there is a universal truth that applies to all cultures; (c) we can speak of human beings as being “cultureless”; (d) as scientists, we are unbiased; and (e) individualism is superior to collectivism.

Of course, these authors were quite unaware of their bias, simply because the very notion of culture bias was something that was not widely recognized at the time.

Many interculturalists, on the other hand, write about culture as if it had nothing to do with psychology or personal development; yet we should not completely isolate sociology, anthropology and interculturalism from the study of personality. This artificial isolation in analysis is often, in itself, an individualistic bias.

Therefore, we should add a (mental) footnote to every major book written on personality development, identity, and the development of “self”, stating that they all carry a culture bias from their authors: in the vast majority of the cases, an individualist bias, since most authors in the field come from individualist cultures.

Bridging the schism

When we do attempt to make connections between these two perspectives (anthropology/sociology and psychology) we come to some rather interesting developments.

(1)   We know from psychology that some individuals develop what is called a “dependent personality,” characterized by an increased need for external validation to cement a person’s notion of identity. Often these personality types are the ones afflicted with addiction behaviors: addiction to drugs, alcohol, religion or sex. Basically, such personality types have difficulty in developing a sense of autonomy. They need an external factor on which to depend on, in order to reduce anxiety. So, they turn to alcohol (or drugs, etc.) in order to function. Many addiction therapists in rehabilitation centers will tell you that in many cases the best hope for a cure to these afflictions is simply to replace a more self-destructive form of addiction (like heavy drugs) with a less damaging one (such as religion). From a psychological point of view the dependency is still there, but at least the individual may be doing less damage to themselves and to others.

It would be interesting to explore how culture differences might be playing a role in the formation of dependent personalities. Some fascinating hypotheses might be the subject of research studies for MS or PhD theses. Are some types of addictions more prevalent in certain types of cultures? Are certain personality disorders (other than dependency) more frequently observed in certain cultures, compared to others?

(2)   Certain behaviors are regarded as a sign of mental illness in certain cultures, while in others they are just accepted as normal and socially expected conduct. We know for a fact, for instance, that in the Netherlands (a Network culture by Wursten’s(11) description) the lack of assertiveness has been officially regarded as a specific mental affliction that may be the subject of psychotherapy sessions covered by health insurance plans. This is quite consistent with the typical low Power Distance and high Individualism values of Network cultures, but it would not be regarded as a mental problem in high Power Distance and low Individualism cultures such as those found in most Latin American countries, for instance.

(3)   The sense of belonging to a group/community is regarded as a universal human need. It is described as part of Abraham Maslow’s(12) (a globally acclaimed psychologist brought up in a Contest/Individualist culture) “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” widely accepted as a universal concept. And yet, we do know that the needs classified by Maslow as “Love & Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization” are expressed and regarded differently when we look at collectivist cultures compared to individualist ones. The feeling of belonging to a group carries much more weight in an individual’s personal development within a collectivist culture, compared to what happens in an individualist culture.

The ideal ego of most people in individualist cultures includes a sense of autonomy and independence, of feeling in control of your own life. It often includes also the ability to live largely removed from others, alone in the woods somewhere, with little or no contact at all with other people(13). To someone brought up in a collectivist culture, by contrast, this sort of life style would be tantamount to psychological torture. We probably do not need to discard Maslow’s “pyramid of needs” altogether, but we should certainly consider that the way the needs at the top three levels (belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization) express themselves quite differently depending on the culture environment in which a person has been brought up. Once again, the sense of identity and of “feeling whole,” knowing who I am and who I want to be can be very different depending on culture.

(4)   A related aspect regards how threatening (or not) is the currently changing culture environment perceived by individuals. Both Freud and Hofstede have written about the fact that individuals tend to regress to earlier stages of psychological development when faced with (perceived as) threatening environments. Regressive behavior is a fundamental part of Freud’s theory of personality development. And Hofstede has remarked that when people are exposed to cultures perceived as foreign (different from their own) they tend to fall back on the values they were brought up with as children. In practice, this means that expats tend to behave in a way that exacerbates their home country values, even more than individuals who remained in their home countries with little exposure to other cultures.

Should we consider then, as Fukuyama(14) has mentioned in his book “Identity,” that the social tensions we have observed in the past decade in North America and Europe, which include political polarization and the rise of conservative populism, are largely the product of social environments that have exposed people to more complexity and diversity, thereby triggering defensive (conservative and regressive) behaviors as reactions to perceived threats to their identity?

When Hofstede observed that “values are preferences for one state of affairs versus another, accompanied by strong emotions,” can we surmise that this emotional response is due to the perceived threat to an individual’s identity? We might also conclude that in an increasingly complex and culturally diverse world, where not only people are exposed to values from “foreign” cultures, but also people may feel perplexed by their inability to effectively operate their personal telephones (which have been replaced by complicated computer devices) and home appliances such as televisions, ovens and toasters. All these challenges may lead to people feeling more frequently insecure and under threat, therefore more prone to reacting defensively and regressing to a more conservative stance.

The way people react and express their regressive behavior is also, of course, influenced by culture. Therefore, individualists might tend to become even more individualist and react by isolating themselves and advocating individual freedoms; low Power Distance advocates might protest more vehemently against figures of authority. Conversely, collectivists might band together more often; and high Power Distance advocates might call for more authoritarian forms of government.

The main lesson here is that it would be foolish not to consider the differences in culture values when trying to understand both collective and individual behaviors across geographies and functional communities.

(5)   Another relevant aspect regards the reactions to the pandemic situation, which adds yet another threat to the existence of people in different cultures (and let’s not forget about the changing climate, still another threat). Governments have struggled with averting an even greater health crisis caused by the pandemic. After over two years in trying to cope with that, perhaps they will begin to understand that indeed there is no “single set of policies” that can be universally applied and accepted across cultures. People will tend to accept those measures that are consistent with their culture and reject those that are not; this is because the latter are perceived as threats to their very identity, which they are valuing even more as a defensive coping mechanism.

Therefore, wearing masks was very much rejected as a practice in the Netherlands at the beginning of the pandemic, because it went against the very Dutch value of speaking openly and frankly. How would you be able to geen blad voor de mond nemen (speak without holding a leaf in front of your mouth)(15) if your mouth is covered by a face mask? Even the term “face mask” translates into the Dutch language as mondkap (“mouth cap”), stressing the fact that it covers your mouth… and as such represents an obstacle to open expression of your opinions.

At the same time, maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters among people was something easily embraced in the Netherlands, since that is quite consistent with the Dutch habit of keeping about a meter away from each other to respect individual privacy. When you look at pictures of Dutch people in public parks before the pandemic, they look the same as the pictures taken during the pandemic: people keep distance from each other as they lay on the grass taking in the sun. Respecting each other’s physical space is part of the Dutch identity; it is part of who they are and who they feel that they should be; it is part of their ego and of their collective superego, of what Jung called the collective unconscious.

By contrast, compare that with what has been observed in the Brazilian environment, a Social Pyramid culture that is quite collectivistic. The most difficult safety measure for Brazilians has been to keep physical distance from each other. Before the pandemic, Brazilians were always standing quite close to each other and constantly touching each other’s arms and shoulders to emphasize a point in conversation, even with complete strangers whom they have just met a few seconds before. Maintaining physical distance is perceived as unnatural in collectivist cultures and it poses a threat to people’s identity. When forced to do so, they suddenly feel that they are no longer themselves, provoking very emotional reactions.

It is not surprising that we have seen protests against the safety measures recommended (sometimes imposed) by governments all over the world. People react emotionally against those measures that threaten their identity. The anglophone press stresses that the protests are against individual freedom and self-determination; but the reality is that in different cultures people feel more strongly about different measures: the measures that go against the values linked to their individual and collective identities.

In conclusion

The combination of the psychological perspective on identity and the anthropological/sociological perspective on culture as a collective construct needs to be further explored in order to enhance our understanding of people as individuals and as communities. Existentialists say that “man is a being in the world” (“man” was historically used as a genderless expression referring to human beings)(16). This phrase stresses the fact that we should not refer to human beings separate from their environment, because the reality is that people do not exist separated from their environment. People only exist in an environment, like figure and background in Gestalt(17) theory. To think and discuss human beings outside of their environment is a fantasy, an abstract concept that does not exist in the real world. Therefore, we must always consider the psychology of individuals as something that exists within a (cultural) environment; and when we discuss culture as a collective construct, let us not forget that the psychological development of individuals from childhood to adulthood and throughout their life span is part of the picture; and should not be ignored as such.

We live in difficult times characterized by volatility and uncertainty, increasing change, complexity and ambiguity. Climate change represents a formidable threat to our physical environment, and the frequency of pandemics is just one of the consequences we can identify. Globalization has brought with it the rapid dissemination of technologies that can make life easie… but they can also make life more challenging and difficult. In this threatening physical, cultural and psychological environment, we will need to pool all our disciplines together in order to survive and continue to exist in our world. This includes understanding our individual and collective identities and cultures.


  1. Lerner, Richard M. – Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science – John Wiley, 2015.
  2. Freud, Sigmund – The ego and the id – Hogarth Press, 1949.
  3. Jung, Carl Gustav – Psychology of the unconscious – Kegan Paul Trench Hubner, 1916.
  4. Freud, Anna – Psychoanalytic psychology of normal development – Hogarth Press, 1982
  5. Klein, Melanie – The psychoanalysis of children – Vintage Publishing, 1997
  6. Mitchell, Peter and Ziegler, Fenja – Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology – Psychology Press, 2012.
  7. Fromm, Erich – The Art of Loving – Harper & Brothers, 1956
  8. Hofstede, Geert – Culture’s Consequences – Sage Publications, 2003.
  9. Skinner, B. F. – Beyond freedom and dignity – Mass Market Paperback, 1971.
  10. Rogers, Carl – On becoming a person – Constable, 1961
  11. Wursten, Huib – The seven mental images of national culture – Independently published, 2019.
  12. Maslow, Abraham – Towards a psychology of being – Martino Fine Books, 2011
  13. Hofstede, Geert et al – Cultures and organizations: software of the mind – McGraw Hill, 2010.
  14. Fukuyama, Francis – Identity: the demand for dignity and the politics of resentment – MacMillan, 2018.


Submit a Comment