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Patterns of Culture


PATTERNS OF CULTURE, an anthropological work published in 1934 that became one of the most widely read pieces of social science ever written in the United States. Its author, Ruth Benedict, did no fieldwork, but wrote evocatively about cultural diversity. She helped persuade a generation of Americans that members of their own society were generally too quick to judge negatively the values and practices of people different from themselves. Patterns of Culture did more than any other work to popularize "cultural relativism," the notion that the "good" is not absolute and universal, but relative to a particular culture.

Benedict made her arguments by describing the different ways of living found in the Zuni and Kwakiutl peoples of North America and the Dobu people of the East Indies. Benedict presented each case as an integrated cultural unit—a way of life that made sense within its own terms even if foreign to readers whose culture was that of the United States. Benedict wrote idealistically of an "arc of culture," a virtually infinite inventory of possibilities for human life, from which each society had in effect selected a set of specific elements in order to create their own way of life. In her most widely quoted construction, Benedict quoted an elderly Indian to the effect that at the start of the world, the creator had given to each of the world's peoples a "cup" from which to drink "from the river of life." That his tribe was in decline showed that their cup was now "broken."

Yet Benedict was not only evocative and descriptive, but openly didactic as well. She urged her readers to adopt more tolerant, generous attitudes toward peoples whose values and practices were different from their own. Patterns of Culture was later criticized by anthropologists and philosophers for begging difficult questions in evaluation, and for representing cultures as too autonomous and internally harmonious.


David A. Hollinger. "Cultural Relativism." In Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 7, Social Sciences. Edited by Dorothy Ross and Theodore M. Porter. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

David A.Hollinger

See alsoAnthropology and Ethnology .

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