I’ve been trying to organize my thinking around archetypes into a broader landscape. Here’s my first stab at organizing a subset of the many I’ve played around with over the years. This exercise interests me because I am trying to level up my sophistication in dealing with archetypes.
Let’s do a quick guided tour.
For those who came in late, here are some of the articles where I’ve explored these archetypes:
- Losers, Clueless and Sociopaths are explored in the Gervais Principle series. Sociopathy in my scheme of things is a threshold to freedom archetypes, defined by a variety of patterns, rather than a singular pattern, but two useful patterns to keep in mind are the Barbarian and the Nomad. One is more likely to either lead from within or attack the social order from the outside. The other is more likely to leave a social order via self-imposed exile.
- Authoritarian high modernism as a leadership archetype is explored in A Big Little Idea Called Legibility.
- Gollums — increasingly degenerate and dehumanized individuals within a social order — are explored in The Gollum Effect.
- Trapped by Ideas and Trapped by Relationships are explored in Extroverts, Introverts, Aspies and Codies as well as various other pieces that explore more specific ones. The Turpentine Effect explores a trapped-by-ideas archetype, while The Locust Economy (about the Jeffersonian middle class) and You Are Not an Artisan explore trapped-by-relationships archetypes.
- I haven’t explored charismatic archetypes, but think Bill Clinton — people who make for better political entrepreneurs than technological or financial.
One way to think of this map is to treat the part inside the sociopathy threshold as “mainstream” or “stable part of social order” and everything outside as potentially destabilizing to the prevailing social order, and possibly excluded from it. So it is partly insider/outsider threshold in some sense.
There are many possible key variables you could use to organize a 2×2 like this. Belongingness and Intelligence bubbled to the top for me (over other obvious candidates such as introversion/extroversion) because they get at the coupling between personalities and social/cultural contexts.
Intelligence is particularly interesting because its definition at any given time is such an interesting function of culture. Intelligence models like IQ, EQ and Multiple Intelligences seem more useful to me in what they reveal about what society values at any given time, than for what they reveal about human personalities. Today grit is the de facto measure of intelligence we seem to care about (correlated with entrepreneurial success). In general, we seem to want to define intelligence in a way that models likelihood of non-disruptive success within a social order. When this actually works out, the threshold to sociopathy drifts further out.
Belongingness is a more direct measure of the degree to which individuals feel invested in the communities they inhabit. Within the threshold, it is mainstream belongingness. Outside, and above the 45 degree line, it is belongingness felt towards a peripheral nascent social order that sees itself as revolutionary. Below the 45 degree line and inside, you get displaced belongingness directed towards institutions. Outside and below, you get various patterns of anomie, one of which is being trapped in individual ideas.
Together, intelligence and belonginness track how more basic biological drives, getting ahead and getting along manifest in a given society. The third basic drive, getting away is represented in the diagram above as the region beyond the sociopathy threshold. So long as intelligence and belongingness stay roughly balanced, you have the potential for freedom. Inside the threshold, you lack enough of either quality in absolute terms to be free. Outside, if you get imbalanced, you get trapped patterns of exile to stable parts of the periphery.
I didn’t have time to sketch contour lines, but the arrow sort of goes through a pass between high mountains, from one valley (defined role inside of social order) to another (freedom outside, or inscrutable/deceptive role inside).
Some will no doubt object to my identification of freedom with the instinct to exit a social order or attack it from the periphery, but there are good reasons to do so that I’ve explored in scattered ways before.
Literary Archetypes versus Psychology and Sociology
I am increasingly of the opinion that traits (such as introversion/extroversion or openness) are better understood in terms of their manifestations in specific contexts (example, survivability in stable society versus societies undergoing rapid change) rather than in the abstract.
Archetypes are interesting to think with because they involve mashing up personality archetypes from psychology with revealing sociological contexts and current cultural trends. Building useful archetypes is a literary rather than technical matter. It is a rather schleppy sort of thinking work: sorting out patterns and behaviors, thinking through possible motivations, generalizing from context, tastefully pulling back from the temptation of over-fitting anecdotal data/essentializing or overusing something like Myers-Briggs. But when you do it right and a pattern pops out, it’s a nice little reward.
The biggest advantage of literary archetypes over psychological archetypes is that the former typically also include some aphoristic commentary on the sociological and cultural context. This is because human behavior is in part a function of how well individuals have been cast in an appropriate role. Miscast people display highly constrained behaviors born of stress or misery. Well-cast people display less constrained behaviors born of contentment and/or freedom.
So good literary archetypes tend to also include an assessment about whether well-adjustedness to the prevailing social order is a good thing.
I am increasingly of the view that this is the only reasonable way to think about real people. There is really no such thing as a useful context-free universal personality psychology. But at the same time, thinking in terms of a rigid dynamic model such as generational cohort archetypes (Boomer, X, Y) has limited utility when change is complex.
More empirical, instrument/testing based ways of modeling people might serve some aggregate purposes well, but the more you want to deal with people as individuals, the more you are forced towards the literary end of things.
Empiricist methods are also far more likely to become instruments of the prevailing social order, as I argued in The Quality of Life. This is one of the deeper reasons why I am reluctant to embrace behavioral economics models.
Working with Archetypes
I tend to save my somewhat ugly thinking-through process around archetypes for the Tempo blog, since the book has a section on archetypes that I am hoping to expand into a full chapter sometime. I often use Myers-Briggs as scaffolding there, as well as my favorite archetype pair, fox/hedgehog. Here’s a recent piece on the malleability/plasticity of archetypes.
I’ve had some interesting opportunities to work with archetypes on real problems over the past few years, and the results have gotten me interested in developing these casual explorations into something more ambitious. We’ll see where this leads. I’ll get to work on a geographic-metaphor map at some point.