Mar 17, 2011

Psychology: An introduction to the use of psychology in understanding culture and society

Since Joseph Campbell wrote and published his masterwork The Masks of God psychology has advanced quite a bit. Some of the phrasing of his statements will seem old and in some cases even acceptable scientific terminology has changed. So I have to do a little updating to some of his work from Primitive Mythology.

I thought I would open with one of my favorite psychological aspects of us which is how our curiosity and ability to play with material forms or ideas has probably led to all our psychological, technological and cultural achievements. [Note: All extracts below are in italics and are from Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology]
Every study undertaken by Man was the genuine outcome of curiosity, a kind of game. All the data of natural science, which are responsible for Man’s domination of the world, originated in activities that were indulged in exclusively for the sake of amusement. When Benjamin Franklin drew sparks from the tail of his kite he was thinking as little of the lightning conductor as Hertz, when he investigated electrical waves, was thinking of radio transmission. Anyone who has experienced in his own person how easily the inquisitiveness of a child at play can grow into the life work of a naturalist will never doubt the fundamental similarity of games and study.

Konrad Lorenz, Primitive Mythology Page 40

I began this study out of curiosity and it has continued to fascinate me, and with all the amazing historical articles I’m working on, I hope you will enjoy reading my research as much as I enjoy putting it together.

One of the biggest debates in our time is the one of ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ which has echoes of a debate which has been going on for a while;

Jung’s idea of the “archetypes” is one of the leading theories, today, in the field of our subject. It is a development of the earlier theory of Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), who recognized, in the course of his extensive travels, the uniformity of what he termed the “elementary ideas” (Elementargedanke) of mankind. Remarking also, however, that in the various provinces of human culture these ideas are differently articulated and elaborated, he coined the term “ethnic ideas” (Volkergedanke) for the actual, local manifestations of the universal forms. Nowhere, he noted, are the “elementary ideas” to be found in a pure state, abstracted from the locally conditioned “ethnic ideas” through which they are substantialized; (page 32)

To the explorer of that time elementary ideas were of the type as the language similarities of Latin and Greek or similarity in the attributes of their gods.

Two possibilities of emphasis are implicit in this observation of Bastian. The first we may term the psychological and the second the ethnological; and these can be taken to represent, broadly, the two contrasting points of view from which scientists, scholars, and philosophers have approached our subject.(page 32)

In other words, there are two aspects in analyzing culture, the psychological aspect which we as a species have in common (which I will be explaining more of later) and the ‘ethnological’ or social ideas and training that we are raised with and with which we function in society as Campbell explains:

“First,” wrote Bastian, “the idea as such must be studied … and as second factor, the influence of climatic-geological conditions.” Only after that, as a third factor, according to his view, could the influence upon one another of the various ethnic traditions throughout the course of history be profitably surveyed. Bastian, that is to say, stressed the psychological, spontaneous aspect of culture as primary; and this approach has been the usual one of biologists, medical men, and psychologists to the present day. Briefly stated, it assumes that there is in the structure and functioning of the psyche a certain degree of spontaneity and consequent uniformity throughout the history and domain of the human species.

But on the other hand, if climate, geography, and massive social forces are to be regarded as of more moment in the shaping of the ideas, ideals, fantasies, and emotions by which men live than the innate structures and capacities of the psyche, then a diametrically contrary philosophical position must be assumed. Psychology in this case becomes a function of ethnology; or, to quote one representative authority, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, in his work on The Andaman Islanders:
A society depends for its existence on the presence in the minds of its members of a certain system of sentiments by which the conduct of the individual is regulated in conformity with the needs of society. Every feature of the social system itself and every even or object that in any way affects the well-being or the cohesion of the society becomes an object of this system of sentiments. In human society the sentiments in question are not innate but are developed in the individual by the action of the society upon him. The ceremonial customs of a society are a means by which the sentiments in question are given collective expression on appropriate occasions. The ceremonial (i.e. collective) expression of any sentiment serves both to maintain it at the requisite degree of intensity in the mind of the individual and to transmit it from one generation to another. Without such expression the sentiments involved could not exist.
It will be readily seen that in such a view the ceremonials and mythologies of the differing societies are in no sense manifestations of psychologically grounded “elementary ideas,” common to the human race, but of interests locally conditioned; and the fundamental contrast of the two approaches is surely clear.

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