Character Structure is an explanatory construct inferred from habitual or significant actions of an individual, which denotes an interrelated set of attitudes, values, learned motives, drives, ego defences, and learned forms of impulse expression. This structure develops through time as an outcome of the experience of the individual. The character structure is generally conceived of as a relatively enduring and organized pattern of behaviour; hence it is predictable and research can be done on it. Because of its social consequences and because induced change in character is possible, character structure may be evaluated with reference to standards, moral or otherwise.
The term character structure is used in three related fields of social science: psychoanalysis (where it appears to have originated), clinical and ‘dynamic’ psychology, and cultural anthropology. In psychoanalytic writings it is often used interchangeably and synonymously with character (however, character is sometimes used with different emphases in ‘non-dynamic’ psychology, sociology and education, and in common speech). ‘Psychoanalytic characterology dates back to Freud’s paper on ‘Character and Anal eroticism’ published in 1908. This paper marked the shift from neurotic symptom to neurotic character. Freud and his fellow workers became increasingly aware of the fact that any symptom was embedded in a person’s character, hence that in order to understand and cure a symptom one has to understand the total character structure. They proceeded from the analysis of the symptom to the analysis of the character’.
Character structure is first of all an organization of behaviour tendencies, with a considerable degree of permanence. It is described by O. Fenichel (The psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, New York: W. W. Norton, 1945, p. 467) as ‘the ego habitual modes of adjustment to the external world, the id, and the superego, and the characteristic types of combining these modes with one another’. In clinical psychology the term ego structure is more commonly used. Ego structure; however tends to emphasize the hierarchy of values and the cognitive functions of the individual, while character structure places more emphasize on defences, reaction formations, and sublimations, i.e. on the more devious and less direct means by which the individual deals with the conflicts between impulses and external forces.
The term is sometimes given a slightly different usage in anthropology, to stress the fact that people of similar cultural experience have similar character structures. E. Beaglehole (‘Character Structure, Psychiatry, vol.7, 1944, p.148) says that ‘character structure may be thought of as an organization of the needs and emotions within each person that fits him to respond adaptively to the major social values of the group’. E.H. Erikson (‘Childhood and Tradition in two American Indian Tribes’ in C. Kluckhohn & H.A Murray (eds.), Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture, New York: Knopf, 1949, p.194) speaks of ‘the collective or official character structure of the Yurok’.
The term character is sometimes used by non-psychoanalytic writers in a sense very similar to character structure, but not generally containing all of the implications of the latter. For example, G. H Mead (Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934, p.162-3) emphasizes the organized and structural nature, the developmental process, and the culturally common aspect, as well as the moral and ethical relevance of character: ‘the structure….on which the self is built is this response which is common to all. ……Such responses are abstract attitudes, but they constitute just what we term a man’s character. …….. (the “generalized other”) guides conduct controlled by principles, and a person who has such an organized group of responses is a man who we say has character, in the moral sense’.