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African Culture And Personality: Bad Social Science, Effective Social Activism, Or A Call To Reinvent Ethnology?James E. LassiterAbstractBACKGROUNDThis paper surveys and assesses the writings of selected African scholars on what they regard to be pan-African culture and personality traits, and patterns and processes of African cultural adaptation (1). Suggestions are also made for reinventing the study of African social, cultural and psychological characteristics, and using such knowledge to help solve socioeconomic problems in Africa. Finally, comments are made regarding the impact of sociocultural particularism and Western individualism on the study of culture and cultural evolution.During the late 1950s and 1960s, national character and typical personality studies were broadly condemned, breathed their last gasp, and were ultimately relegated to the dustbin of bad social science. Since that time, various African scholars outside the social sciences have nevertheless been sustaining and redirecting group personality inquiry. They are not, however, approaching their subject as did Western social scientists in the first half of this century who used questionnaire instruments to determine if Africans were "traditional" or "modern" (2). This was a particularly popular approach among Western occupational psychologists working in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s who sought to scientifically assign statistical coefficients of modernization to African populations. They did this, for the most part, to find out which African groups were better suited for white or blue collar work in the colonial and post-independence socioeconomic setup (3). The majority of prior culture and personality researchers focusing on Africa were interested in creating and testing a "traditional/Western measuring device" (Dawson 1967), "assaying psychological modernization" (Doob 1967), or "measuring individual modernity" (Smith and Inkeles 1966, Kahl 1968, and Gough 1975 and 1976).African scholars writing on these subjects since the early 1960s have taken a humanistic, liberating or empowering approach. They have been specifically interested in identifying and explaining African psychological processes, personality characteristics, and the processes of African cultural adaptation to indigenous social conditions and exotic influences. For example, the work of University of Nairobi philosophy professor Joseph M. Nyasani (1997), which features prominently in this paper, is a recent attempt to define the "African psyche."CURRENT WESTERN PERSPECTIVES AND METHODSSince the 1960s, the predominant approach to social and cultural research among social scientists has been to examine a clearly defined society, population, sector, geographically defined area, or topic. Such research tends to steer away from cultural and psychological generalizations at higher levels of social organization such as the ethnic group, society, nation or geographical regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Culture and personality and broad cultural adaptation studies became and remain the target of the most severe criticism by social scientists and social advocates. Many, in fact, consider such inquiry to be no more than unscientific stereotyping, usually with malevolent intent and effect. Some argue that group personality studies are an anathema to cultural relativism and the particularistic study of singular populations and topics. Still others go as far as to assert that all culture and personality studies obscure the uniqueness of the individual, and divert attention and resources from more fruitful lines of inquiry such as the dynamics of class struggle and the scientific study of particular social structures and functions. At its worst, critics and social advocates say, group personality studies and inquiry into broad patterns of cultural adaptation on the part of social scientists exacerbate racism and bigotry. So, for the sake of not giving legitimacy to broad cultural generalizations,...
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