Term of Art: Authoritarian Personality

authoritarian personality: A term coined by Theodor Adorno and his associates through a book of the same name first published in 1950, to describe a personality type characterized by (among other things) extreme conformity, submissiveness to authority, rigidity, and arrogance toward those considered inferior.

Adorno was a member of the Frankfurt School who fled the Third Reich, first to Britain and then to the United States, where he conducted extensive empirical research on the anti-Semitic, ethnocentric, and fascist personalities. In attempting to explain why some people are more susceptible to fascism and authoritarian belief-systems than are others, Adorno devised several Likert attitude scales which revealed a clustering of traits which he termed authoritarianism. Several scales were constructed (ethnocentric, anti-Semitic, fascist) and part of the interest in the study came from examining these scales. During interviews with more than 2,000 respondents, a close association was found between such factors as ethnocentrism, rigid adherence to conventional values, a submissive attitude towards the moral authority of the in-group, a readiness to punish, opposition to the imaginative and tender-minded, belief in fatalistic theories, and an unwillingness to tolerate ambiguity. These authoritarian attitude clusters were subsequently linked, using Freudian theory, to family patterns. Intensive interviewing and the use of Thematic Apperception Tests identified the authoritarian personality with a family pattern of rigidity, discipline, external rules, and fearful subservience to the demands of parents.

The Authoritarian Personality is a classic study of prejudice, defense mechanisms, and scapegoating. The term itself has entered everyday language, even though the original research has attracted considerable criticism. Among other weaknesses, critics have suggested that the Adorno study measures only an authoritarianism of the right, and failed to consider the wider ‘closed mind’ of both left and right alike; that it tends, like all theories of scapegoating, to reduce complex historical processes to psychological needs; and is based on flawed scales and samples. For a detailed exposition and critique see John MadgeThe Origins of Scientific Sociology (1962). See also CRITICAL THEORY.

Excerpted from: Matthews, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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