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Gordon Willard Allport was a leading personality and social psychologist of the mid-twentieth century. His initial fame came from his central role in establishing the scientific study of personality as a major component of academic psychology. In 1924 he taught at Harvard University what was probably the first personality course in North America. But it was his 1937 volume, Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, that firmly grounded the field. Immediately hailed by reviewers as a classic, this unique work offered a counter to the then-rising popularity of Freudian theory. The book legitimized personality as a scientific topic, and shaped the agenda for the study of personality for the ensuing decades.
Allport vigorously advocated an open-system theory of personality with emphases upon individual uniqueness, rationality, proaction, consciousness, and the united nature of personality. He stressed human values, dynamic traits, and the self. He focused more on the mature adult than on the early years of childhood. As such, Allport’s position was less anti-Freudian than it was a correction to right the balance in the conception of personality. This is illustrated by his proposition that the bulk of human motives and the personal attributes of adult persons become functionally autonomous from their likely developmental roots.
In 1954 Allport published his second classic work: The Nature of Prejudice. It too shaped its field for half a century. This book departed from previous conceptions of prejudice and advanced an array of new insights later supported by research. Two theoretical stances proved especially important. Allport held that intergroup contact under favorable conditions could substantially reduce prejudice and offer a major means of improving intergroup relations. Research throughout the world, as well as such events as the ending of apartheid in South Africa, support the theory. Allport also countered the then-fashionable assumption that group stereotypes were simply the aberrant cognitive distortions of prejudiced personalities. Advancing the view now universally accepted, Allport insisted that the cognitive components of prejudice were natural extensions of normal processes. Stereotypes and prejudice, he concluded, were not aberrant but all too human.
Though known principally as a theorist, Allport also had an active empirical career. In his efforts to forge a broad psychology, he employed a range of methods— from the study of personal documents to nomothetic tests and ingenious experiments. His most famous test measured basic values. His influential experiments opened up research on eidetic imagery, expressive movement, radio effects, and rumor.
Critics of Allport’s personality theory regard it as too static and overly oriented to the sane and mature. Social science critics regard Allport’s work as too individualistic and detached from social factors. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most cited writers in the social psychological literature.
Allport’s lasting influence is based on three interwoven features that characterize all his work (Pettigrew 1999). First, he offered a broadly eclectic balance of the many sides of psychology. Second, he repeatedly formulated the discipline’s central problems and proposed innovative approaches to them. Typically, his suggested solutions were loosely sketched out and not readily accepted. Years later, however, his ideas often gained acceptance and were expanded with new concepts. Finally, Allport’s entire body of scholarly work presents a consistent and seamless perspective both forcefully advanced and elegantly written.
- Allport, Gordon W. 1937. Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.
- Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1999. Gordon Willard Allport: A Tribute. Journal of Social Issues 55 (3): 415–427.
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