One of several concepts used by social scientists to refer to the individual (others include self and identity ). The concept has its origins in the Latin word persona (meaning ‘mask’), and refers to the set of more or less stable characteristics, as assessed and judged by others, that distinguish one individual from another. These characteristics are assumed to hold across time and place and to underlie behaviour. The term personality consequently refers to the individual as object (the object of external evaluation) whereas the concept of self refers to the individual as subject (as the source of action and self-reflection).
Like attitude , the notion of personality is primarily invoked in the attempt to predict or explain individual behaviour, and refers to what an individual brings to a situation that belongs to them. However, whereas attitudes are object-specific- that is, they are directed towards specific persons or things-the term personality refers to broader, more general orientations and tendencies. The underlying assumption is that behaviour is a function of two factors-personality (or attitudes) and situation-the relative importance of the two varying from situation to situation. Some situations almost entirely override personality differences (a fire in a cinema creating widespread panic); others allow personality differences to flourish.
The precise way in which personality is conceptualized and measured varies enormously. These is an underlying tension between the concept's connotations that each individual is unique, with a distinctive personality which should be described as a whole, and the demands of positivist science for generalizations based on the exploration of standard personality characteristics across a range of persons. The former suggests an ideographic approach to personality, in which the description and analysis of the unique individual is the focus, whereas the latter suggests a nomothetic approach in which the emphasis is on studying a range of people and examining shared characteristics. This is usually associated with more atomistic and fragmented models of personality. To some extent, however, this opposition is deceptive since most approaches to personality attempt both to develop general models of personality and to describe individual cases.
The Freudian theory of personality has been most widely used in the detailed examination of an individual's personality, as in Freud's own classic case-histories, like those of Dora and the Wolf Man. These detailed analyses are, however, grounded in a general theory of personality which, in its best-known version, delineates a tripartite personality structure of id, ego, and superego. Behaviour is the result of the dynamic interplay of the forces of id, ego, and superego, and the individual's personality is determined by his or her success in progressing through the different stages of psycho-sexual development during the first five years of life.
Freudian theorizing has been most influential in clinical contexts where the particular individual is the focus and it is necessary to describe and examine the individual's personality in detail. This is mainly accomplished through observations made in the course of diagnostic interviews and therapy. However, projective tests have also been widely used in clinical contexts, as an aid to the exploration of personality dynamics. Within academic psychology, nomothetic approaches have been more usual, and there has been a greater focus on the development of standardized measures of personality. One common approach has been the so-called trait approach. The term trait refers to a personality characteristic or disposition-a tendency to act or react in certain ways-and the trait approach seeks to identify the key personality traits, to describe individuals in terms of these traits, and to examine the association of these traits with behaviour.
The American psychologist Gordon Allport , in his studyPersonality (1937), developed the idea of personality traits, sorting through the enormous number of words in everyday language used to describe individuals and grouping and selecting them on a commonsense, intuitive basis. He emphasized the uniqueness of the individual and the interconnectedness of personality traits, and his concerns were more ideographic than nomothetic. In contrast, Raymond B. Cattell used factor analysis to select out a far more restricted list of independent personality traits, and developed a personality test to measure them. He conceptualized sixteen traits as bipolar dimensions of personality: such as dominance versus submission, radicalism versus conservatism, emotional sensitivity versus toughness. In a similar vein, Hans Eysenck further reduced the number of personality factors, postulating that the two key personality dimensions are extraversion-intraversion and neuroticism. Although the factor analytic techniques used by Cattell and Eysenck have been strongly criticized, the type of pencil-and-paper tests of personality they generated have been widely used.
Sociology's relation to the study of personality has often been ambivalent if not overtly hostile. Durkheim's assertion of the need for a distinctively sociological explanation of suicide led him to reject the relevance of psychological factors such as ‘psychopathic states’. There has been a general tendency to see personality as belonging to the domain of psychology rather than sociology. What this means in practice is that some measure of personality may be included in a social survey simply to establish that observed differences are not due to personality. However some sociologists, notably Talcott Parsons , have attempted to explore the possible relationships between personality and social structure. Drawing on the work of cultural anthropologists who linked culture and personality, work which was itself strongly influenced by Freudian theorizing, these sociologists have examined not only the way in which personality is shaped by social forces, but also the fit between personality characteristics and the social organization (whether the broader society or some more restricted institution or organization such as a business company or religious group). Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) can be viewed as one such study. See also ( authoritarian personality ; Culture and Personality School ; mass society ; narcissism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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