Character and Social Structure

Our central aim is to build a working model in terms of which we can use the data of world history and the perspectives of the social sciences and psychologies in an effort to understand the types of human beings that have arisen in varying kinds of social structure.

C. Wright Mills & Hans Gerth (1953) ‘Character and Social Structure,’ New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.

Intended as a textbook for courses in social psychology, Mills & Gerth’s ‘Character and Social Structure’ engaged with the problem of coordinating and integrating the perspectives of psychology and sociology.  Gerth and Mills believed this promised: “a view of man as an actor in historic crises, and of man as a whole entity.”  It was a general view of institutions and social structures and how they are related to persons.

The basic variables of their  “working model” include the central concept of social role, defined as “recurrent interactions” which form “patterns of mutually oriented conduct.”  The concept plays a triple function entering into the description of both the person and the social structure and is also the conceptual linkage between the two. (See the excerpt on Veblen on the emphasis on the ways in which habits of thought are an outcome of habits of life and  the dependence of thought styles on the organization of the community).

The primary and integrative concept at the level of the individual is character structure, put as: “the relatively stabilized integration of the organism’s psychic structure linked with the social roles of the person.” The description of social structure is more complex and involves reference to institutions (role configurations “guaranteed” or “stabilized” by authority), institutional orders (a classification of institutions by their dominant, objective function into one of the following categories: political, economic, military, kinship, and religious), and spheres (such “aspects of social conduct which characterize all institutional orders: technology, symbols, status, and education).

An important role is assigned to language: set out as the primary influence in the socialization process.  The term “Vocabularies of motive“,  proposes that motivation is concerned with the social contexts and functions of “motive imputation and avowal”. This also emphasises the self which becomes the leading construct for the analysis of character structure.

Six chapters on social structure deal with the selection and formation of individuals by institutions; various forms of social control, social contexts and functions of communication, social stratification, and social integration.  Four chapters on “Dynamics” deal with problems of social change, leadership, collective behavior, to define the “master trends” in contemporary society.


Joseph A. Scimecca (1977) ‘The Sociological Theory of C. Wright Mills,’ National University Publications, states that the book  synthesized the personality formation of the pragmatists with the emphasis upon social structure of Max Weber and the German sociologists.  He defines the model as working as centered on Roles as interpersonal: oriented to the expectations of Others. These others also play roles, and a mutual expectation is set up creating patterns of social conduct. The individual’s psychological functions are shaped by specific configurationsof roles which he has incorporated from his society. Scimecca identifies five major institutional orders that make up the skeletal structure of the ‘total society’:

1. The political order:  those institutions within which men acquire, wield, or influence the distribution of power and authority within social structures.

2. The economic order: those establishments by which men organize labor, resources, and technical implements in order to produce and distribute goods and services.

3. The military order: those institutions in which men organize legitimate violence and supervise its use.

4. The kinship order: the institutions which regulate and facilitate legitimate sexual intercourse, procreation, and the early bearing of children.

5. The religious order: those institutions in which men organize and supervise the collective worship of God or deities, usually at regular occasions and at fixed places.

The Institutions is said to form the persons by shaping the various roles s/he enacts in an institutional framework, producing character traits as defined by particular institutional orders.  In Mills & Gerth’s model no general psychological traits exist as universals in the character structure; psychological traits are shaped by specific contexts. Institutional formation of personality lies in the circle of significant others formed by institutions. The internalized expectations of the institutional leaders; which acts as a means of social control, changing the generalized other of the institutional member toward the institutional head, who in the process becomes a significant other.  What Mills calls the theory of premiums and traits of character has four basic tenets:

1. A general trait that is generally premiumed has a high chance to be presented by the person and to be firmly organized into his character.

2. A specific trait that is generally premiumed will tend to spread, to become a general trait.

3. A general trait that is specifically premiumed will tend to become a specific trait, or, if kept general, to be modified or camouflaged in all contexts except the one in which it is specifically premiumed.

4. A specific trait that is specifically premiumed will tend to be stabilized; a person predominantly composed of such traits will be a compartmentalized specialist.

The Symbol Sphere is that which socially defines the situations an individual confronts: Roles are rejected or accepted by means of symbols and they provide the person with a frame of reference to understand his social experience, a frame of reference which is thereby related to the operation of specific institutions. For Scimecca. Symbols, since they involve specific modes of conduct and the integration of these modes, give rise to special vocabularies. This is discussed by Mills & Gerth in six contexts:

1. The vocabulary is a major element in the style of life which sets off different status groups.

2. In the economic order, the jobs that people do together give rise to specialized trade jargons.

3. Families may develop special terms understood only by its members.

4. The symbols of the political order may be visual or auditory, like the flag or the national anthem, or they may be sentimentalized places like the Capitol or written documents as in the constitutional states of modern democracies.

5. The symbol spheres of the military order and of the political order are blended in the modern national state.

6. In the religious order the symbol sphere is very important, since the contents with which religion deals and the sanctions it employs are “psychic.”


The book itself is broken down as follows:

An initial perspective encompassing The Biological Model and The Sociological Model.  It then deals with Character & Social Structure in terms of the Components of Character Structure; the Components of Social Structure and The Tasks of Social Psychology.

The Organism and Psychic Structure is dealt with in terms of The Social Relevance of the Organism; Impulse and Purpose; Feeling and Emotion; Impression and Perception; The Interrelations of the Psychic Structure;  and The Social Unity of the Psychic Structure.

The Person is dealt with in terms of Language, Role, Person;  Images of Self; Unities of Self; Generalized Others;  The Social Relativity of the Generalized Other and Types of Persons.

The Sociology of Motivation is dealt with in terms of: The Sociological Approach; Vocabularies of Motive; The “Real” Motives and Awareness of Motives.

Biography and types of childhood are dealt with in terms of: The Organism; The Psychic Structure;  Learning; Language and Person; Four Theories of Biography; The Theory of Adolescent Upheaval; The Relevance of Childhood; The Social Relativity of Childhood Influences.

Under the general heading of Social Structure, Institutions and Persons are dealt with in terms of: The Institutional Selection of Persons; The Institutional Formation of Persons; The Theory of Premiums and Traits of Character ; Anxiety and Social Structure.

Institutional Orders and Social Controls are dealt with in terms of:  The Political Order; Nation and State; Democracies and Dictatorships; Economic Institutions; Types of Capitalism; The Military Order; Characteristics of Six Types of Armies.  With a further treatment of: Religious Institutions; Characteristics of World Religions;  The Kinship Order; The Educational Sphere; Types of Social Control; Orientation to Social Controls.

Symbol Spheres are dealt with in Six Contexts; Monopoly and Competition of Symbols; Communication;  The Autonomy of Symbol Spheres.

Stratification and institutional orders are dealt with in terms of: Occupations; Class Structure; The Status Sphere; Class and Status; The Status Sphere and Personality Types; Power; Stratification and Institutional Dominance; Stratification and Political Mentality.

The unity of Social Structures is dealt with in terms of: The Unity of Sparta; Units and Their Relationships; Modes of Integration; Why Rome Fell.

Social-historical change is dealt with in terms of Six Questions; The Range of Theory; The Technological Sphere; Social-historical Change.

The sociology of Leadership deals with: The Leader as a Man: His Traits and Motives; Images of the Leader and Motives of the Led; Three Functions of Authoritative Roles; Contexts and Roles; Role Dynamics and Leadership.

Collective Behaviour is examined in terms of:  The Structural Contexts of Collective Behavior; Aggregates, Crowds, and Publics;  Movements, Parties, and Pressure Groups; Revolution and Counterrevolution;  Anticapitalistic Movements and Parties.

The Master Trends are defined as: The Co-ordination of Political, Economic, and Military Orders; Psychological Aspects of Bureaucracy;  The Decline of Liberalism;  and Character Structure in a Polarized World.


One interesting comparison is to Erich Fromm (1942) ‘Character and Social Process,’ an Appendix to Fear of Freedom:

The concept of social character is a key concept for the understanding of the social process. Character in the dynamic sense of analytic psychology is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society. Character in its turn determines the thinking, feeling, and acting of individuals. To see this is somewhat difficult with regard to all our thoughts. Since we all tend to share the conventional belief that thinking is an exclusively intellectual act and independent of the psychological structure of the personality. This is not so, however, and the less so the more our thoughts deal with ethical, philosophical, political, psychological or social problems rather than with the empirical manipulation of concrete objects. Such thoughts, aside from the purely logical elements that are involved in the act of thinking, are greatly determined by the personality structure of the person who thinks. This holds true for the whole of a doctrine or of a theoretical system as well as for a single concept, like love, justice, equality, sacrifice. Each such concept and each doctrine has an emotional matrix and this matrix is rooted in the character structure of the individual.

We also have Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This specifies the idea of social character without the biological elements.

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