First Find Your Child a Good Mother: The Construction of Self in Two African Communities

By Paul Riesman | Go to book overview
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I
INTRODUCTION

We hold without question two basic assumptions in the West about the personality of individuals. 1 The first is that one's personality influences the whole life course, for at every moment, it affects one's chances of success or failure. The second is that one of the most important factors shaping the personality is the way the parents raise the person from the very beginning of childhood.

There have been countless anthropological studies relating childhood, personality, and culture. In nearly all of these the researcher has assumed that early child care, toilet training, and all other normal experiences that children in a given culture undergo should be considered, from a sociological point of view, as the socialization process of the society. In this perspective, the problem for society is to transform the raw material--that is, a newborn infant--into an adult member of the society, and thus nearly everything that happens to the child is interpreted as if it had some role to play in that transformation. It follows from this idea that since different societies need different kinds of people--agricultural societies need farmers, pastoral societies need herdsmen and warriors, commercial societies need intrepid traders--the socialization required to produce these kinds of differences would also have to vary.

While doing fieldwork among the Fulani of West Africa in the years 1966 to 1968, I accepted these assumptions without question. I was quite Freudian in my thinking about the human mind and the importance of early childhood for the formation of personality. Fulani children seemed happy, adults seemed stable and self- confident, and it seemed quite likely to me that the explanation for these qualities lay in the way Fulani mothers dealt with the early "crises" of human development as described and analyzed by Erik Erikson.

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