A STUDY OF NATIONAL CHARACTER*
(by) Clifford Geertz
The University of Chicago
[= book review on: Lucien Pye: Politics, Personality, and Nation Building, New Haven/Ct./USA 1962: Yale University Press]
"What eye can pierce the depths in which the character and fate of nations are determined?" asked the author of what is perhaps the earliest modern essay in the genre in which Professor Pye's is the most recent--"how can we possibly judge of the infinite and infinitely intricate channels through which character and intellect are incessantly pouring their influence one upon the other?" For each of us there is, Burkhardt wrote, a tribunal whose voice is our conscience"--but let us have done with these generalities about nations. For the people that seems to be most sick the cure may be at hand; and one that appears to be healthy may bear within it the ripening germs of death, which the hour of danger will bring forth from their hiding place." Encouraged by Machiavelli's admission (perhaps it was a boast) that "we Italians are irreligious and corrupt above all others," Burkhardt of course went nevertheless on to present what is still one of the most perceptive, and one of the most caustic, psychological portraits of a whole people ever written. But the doubts he raised to stiffen his scholarly resolve still disturb a century later, when attempts to pierce the depths in which national character becomes national destiny are fortified, as is Professor Pye's, by Freudian psychology, organizational theory, and cultural anthropology. Professor Pye's incisive, exciting, yet ultimately disappointing book is directed toward discovering why Burma, seemingly "objectively" so well endowed, has advanced so little politically and economically. But the question it raises even more insistently is why studies of national character, on the surface similarly well endowed, have advanced so little scientifically.
The book falls naturally into three main sections. The first two "parts"--"The Problem of Nation Building" and "The Traditional Order and the Varieties of Change"--introduce the subject in conceptual terms, first generally, then with regard to Burma in particular. In these pages, Pye sets forth his central theoretical premise (" ... any form of political analysis ... must inevitably rest upon some set of assumptions and theories about human psychology on the one hand and a body of sociological knowledge and a philosophy of history on the other"), outlines the nature of the politics of transitional states, reviews existing approaches to the analysis of the nation building process, and provides an introduction to Burma as an appropriate case for the study of political modernization-or, more exactly, the failure to modernize. The next two parts--"The Political Culture: The Spirit and the Calculations of Burmese Politics" and "The Socialization Process"--form the heart of the book, for it is here that Pye ttempts to demonstrate the validity of his argument that the key problems of nation building reside in the psychological reactions to social change on the part of the society's political actors. Finally, in the last part--"Political Acculturation and Reactions to Changes in Identity"(to which is added a brief concluding "epilogue" on the prospects, dim in Burma, for nation building)--Pye presents some interview material on members of Burmese political and administrative elites to give factual body to his analysis. Through the whole exposition runs a controlling theme: the transition to modernity involves, on the level of the individual, a search for a new identity, and it is upon the successful resolution of this identity crisis that political, economic, and cultural advance ultimately depend: "If the pace of national development is to be accelerated, [the] vicious circle of psychological inhibitions must be broken so that new sets of sentiments and attitudes can replace those blocking decisive and purposeful action at the level of individual choice and impeding the creation of effective organizations at the collective level." To build new nations you need new men.
Of the three sections, the first is by far the most successful. Pye's general statement of the problem is clear and judicious; his model of "transitional politics," perhaps the most original part of the book, is altogether the best thing of its kind that we have; and his picture of Burma, naturally well endowed, economically stagnant, obsessed by politics almost to the exclusion of other concerns, and wracked by a clash between civil servant administrators and party politicians (the book was written prior to the second military take-over) is an all-too-compelling one. The third section, though perhaps a little thinner than one might wish, is also relatively successful in its attempt to give an "inside view" of what it feels like to be an administrator or politician in independent Burma. It is in the vital central portion of the book, where the general orientations of the first section are to be linked to the case material of the third, that the weaknesses of the work appear. In these pivotal eighty pages, where Pye's analysis needed to become most coercive, it grows most flaccid; where it needed to be most subtle, it is most stereotyped.
In part, the problems are ones of method. The material on Burmese personality structure, socialization processes, social sentiments, and the like is, as Pye recognizes, thin and uneven-ranging from Gorer's simple reading of the Bateson and Mead analysis of Balinese character into the literature on Burma to Sein Tu's interesting but entirely speculative notions about the homosexual resolution of the oedipal predicament in Burmese families. Pye's own addition to the factual side seems to have been mainly limited to his 79 open-ended interviews with civil servants, politicians, and "observers and critics of the political scene," which though doubtless of great value are not brought into connection with his general analyses in any direct and systematic way, but rather are quoted selectively for illustrative purposes or invoked as hidden authority for statements which remain otherwise unsupported ("Our interviews revealed clearly that in Burmese politics it is almost impossible for people to represent their controversies as conflicts of social and not personal interests"). National character studies have been plagued by the notion that they demand less rigorous standards of scholarship than other social scientific studies, when in fact they demand, given the elusiveness of the object of investigation, even more exacting ones. Pye largely avoids the freeassociation fantasying which mars so much of the work in this field, and he is frank about the limitations of his data. But his book shows much less of an advance in research design, much less originality in method, than one would have expected from the author of Guerilla Communism in Malaya, and it is crowded, especially in the middle section, with highly general assertions whose empirical basis is obscure ("At heart the idea of improving the national economy has little meaning beyond the idea of making it possible for Burmese rather than foreigners to cheat and exploit others").
But fundamentally, it is not weaknesses in method that have marred this bold attempt to plumb the soul of a people, but in thought. It is on the conceptual side that the book falls short of becoming what it might have been, of accomplishing what Pye set out, with an intellectual courage one can only admire, to do. On the theoretical level, the work not only does not represent an advance over such predecessors as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Balinese Character, or The People of Alor, but in some ways a retrogression from the analytic penetration--these studies, for all their faults, achieved.
This is seen most clearly with respect to the two main concepts upon which Pye relies: "culture" (here, "political culture") and "identity." These two concepts, one now well established, the other just beginning to be so, have, in their more uncritical uses, a curious similarity, if not precisely in content, then in the sort of concepts they are. Both are, or have a tendency to be, extremely eclectic, spreading out like huge tents to shelter a tremendous variety of not wholly commensurate phenomena under a single cover. Both are, or have a tendency to be, self-sufficient, to be employed as explanatory frameworks independently of other concepts to which they might be explicitly and systematically linked, and thus to reduce anthropology on the one side and psychology on the other to one-concept sciences. And both are, or have a tendency to be, radically subjective in content, so that the hard outlines of both social and personality structure dissolve into a flow of formless sentiment and elusive ideation, leaving sociological and psychological dynamics-of class and power, or sex and repression-hopelessly indeterminate. Pye has not gone to extremes in any of these tendencies, Boasian on theone side, neo-Freudian on the other. But he has also not escaped their seductive force to make of "culture" and "identity" the powerful intellectual tools that, their proto-scientific globalism purged, they can be, as the fact that in his hands the two concepts merge to the point that they seem virtually interchangeable perhaps demonstrates.
Consider the treatment of (political) culture. At the very time that anthropologists are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with an omnibus concept of culture and have been attempting to analyze it into some distinct set of systematically interrelated elements, to place it in the context of a differentiated theory of culture, Pye-as Almond, upon whom he here depends-seems to be moving back toward a more generalized notion. Thus, he can include indiscriminately "the realities of power and the authority structures of a society," "modes of estimating causality," "constellations of values," and "patterns of emotional responses" as "dimensions" of political culture without any apparent awareness of the vastly different levels and types of abstraction involved in isolating these various factors and the problematic character of their interrelations. Thus, too, he can spend a long footnote discussing the question of whether the United States, England, and several of the Commonwealth countries have a common political culture but different political systems (as Almond claims), or have the same kind of political system but different political cultures (as he prefers)--precisely the sort of arid argument which anthropology seems just now finally to be outgrowing. But the most serious defect of Pye's concept of culture is not this analytic indeterminancy as such, but the radical subjectification of the concept which gives rise toit. For 'Pye, "culture" is not really, or at least not primarily, a cultural concept at all, but, like identity, basically a psychological one: "... a political culture can be found only in men's minds in the patterns of action, feelings, and reflections which they have internalized and made a part of their very existence."
This view of culture as consisting of a complex of psychological orientations toward an undescribed "reality" lying outside of it leads to a description of the determinants of action which, for all the bows to "objective factors," is cast almost entirely in terms of postulated "feelings," "sentiments," "images," etc., on the part of "the Burman," "the Burmese," or even, shades of the group mind, "Burmese society," and almost not at all in terms of the distribution of wealth, control over the instruments of force, flow of the tokens of status, or patterns of personal obligation. In these pages, the fact that the Burmese are desperately concerned not to provoke neighboring Communist China is attributed to the Burmese feeling that most people cannot control their hostile emotions when provoked, a feeling in turn said to grow out of the unpredictable nature of the Burmese mother's relationship to her child, without even a raising of the question as to whether such a policy might reflect rather more an awareness of some hard geopolitical realities. The fact that there are "few conclusive events in Burmese politics" is ascribed directly to the fact that, given their childhood experiences, "neither the participants nor the people expect clear and definite climaxes," without any concern with whether the patterning of political forces in Burma make climactic, or "conclusive," events possible, or even what, as a political event, such a climax would be. (For sheer political drama it would be hard to top the Aung San assassination.) The point is not that the psychological dimension of politics is unimportant: it is crucial. It is not that cultural patterns are not internalized in the personalities of social actors: they are. It is merely that, by absorbing properly cultural and social processes into psychological ones, explanation is short-circuited and the precise weight and importance of psychological factors as such rendered indeterminate. "A quality of unfulfillment" may indeed lie "at the heart of the Burmese spirit of politics." One can well believe it. But how are we to determine the extent to which this quality stems from the peculiarities of Burmese character structure or from, say, the inherent difficulties in ordering a multi-ethnic state when the "plural society" problem is itself psychologized into a simple reflex of the ethnic Burman's "fierce pride" in Buddhism?
Yet, at the same time, the parallel globalization of the identity concept weakens even the psychological analysis. By using "identity" almost precisely as he uses "culture"--as a summative term for Burmese "feelings," "attitudes," and "views" concerning the socio-political world and their place in it--rather than as a well-defined concept set firmly in a developed psychological theory, the sort of penetration into social and political matters that, rightly handled, psychoanalysis can give is lost. One gets a depth psychology without depth. In place of a rigorous analysis of specific personality structures and processes, we have vague comments about "the search for identity," the dangers of "identity diffusion," and the" strains" produced by "rapid changes in identity." In the hands of Erikson--expecially the Erikson of Childhood and Society--as well as those of certain other "ego-psychologists," the concept of identity remains embedded in a somewhat revised but still articulated psychoanalytic theory, so that it is a supplement to, and in part a correction of, classical Freudianism, not a replacement of it. Here, it drains the power of that theory into the same sort of generalized subjectivism that Pye's concept of culture produces. In fact, the part (III) governed by the former concept seems, as a pattern of analysis, indistinguishable from that (IV) governed by the latter, so that the tension, which Erikson has on occasion exploited so effectively, between the flow of an extra-personal historical tradition and the intra-psychic predicaments of an individual personality located at a particular point in that flow is almost completely dissipated. The same things, or at least the same sort of things, are simply said twice, presented once as aspects of "political culture," once as aspects of "the personal and collective search foridentity," and both men and institutions disappear into a flat and edgeless image of the Burmese mind.
The basic weakness in Professor Pye's sensitive, well written, and often extremely shrewd book is thus the failure to disentangle psychological, cultural, social, and economic factors from one another in such a way that the play of power and passion, of value and interest, of duty and desire can be clearly revealed. It is perhaps from this general weakness, too, that what to someone not a Burma scholar (and thus incompetent to judge the factual accuracy of Pye's characterizations) seems the oddest and, a priori, the most dubious aspect of his general interpretation: the viewing of all Burmese psychological traits--or at least all those discussed-as impediments to progress and modernization. The question whether, even granting the correctness of his description of Burmese character, some aspects of it may not be facilitative rather than inhibitory of political rationalization and economic growth is a rather more open one than Pye seems to think. Even if he is right, and the Burmans are hyper-individualistic, distrustful, liable to violence, fond of empty social form, and prefer uncertainty to determinism, is it so clear, especially in the absence of an explicit analysis of the Burmese polity and economy as such, that these could not turn out to be very valuable traits in supporting modernization? Are a tendency to avoid climactic situations or an elitist view of politics in and of themselves anti-developmental?
Is a wide gap between public professions and private opinions necessarily "worse" than a narrow one, a skepticism about planning "worse" than a passionate belief in it, a high valuation of power "worse" than a .Teffersonian fear of it? Professor Pye regards the answers to these questions as self-evident, and his book becomes, as a result, a dirge for Burma's future. But here we may recall again Burkhardt's warning about the sick and the healthy among nations and recall, too, that having described the Renaissance Italians as greedy, faithless, selfish, ruthless, sexually amoral, violent, obsessed with intrigue and driven. by jealousy, he then saluted them, rightly, as the first truly modern men, the pioneers of the civilization in which we now live and against whose standard Professor Pye is measuring Burma's condition and assessing her prospects.
* Lucien Pye, Politics, Personality, and Nation Building. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962. Pp. xx + 307, $7.50.
A Study of National Character (book review), in: Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jan., 1964), pp. 205-209.
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