Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887–1948), originator of the configurational approach to culture, was a mature woman when she entered anthropology. At Vassar College, from 1905 to 1909, her main training was in English literature. Then, after three years of teaching, she turned to research and experimental writing about women who were literary figures. Thus, she came to anthropology without previous experience in science. This discipline attracted her as one that made it possible to place in manageable perspective the contrasts between the cultures of different peoples and between different historical periods. With her background in the humanities, she approached a body of cultural materials as a whole, in the sense in which the productive output of a writer or a painter forms a whole, and she conceived of a group of human beings and their culture as forming a total intellectual, religious, and aesthetic construct (Benedict 1922).
A student first of Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons at the New School for Social Research from 1919 to 1921, she was led through them to Franz Boas at Columbia University. There in 1923 she received her doctorate on the basis of her thesis, “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America” (1923). The focus of her interest was the integration of this theme, a pervasive one in North American Indian religions, with various tribal values, such as wealth, success in warfare, success in hunting. However, she had not yet developed a theory of how this integration came about, and she presented it as arbitrary and essentially random in character, a view that she herself later abandoned but that is sometimes still attributed to her.
From this study of the guardian spirit and the vision quest among North American Indians, she turned to comparative work on folklore and, in the same period, undertook the editorship of the Journal of American Folklore. In her folklore research she still stressed the fortuitous distribution of widely diffused traits and themes that, in various ways, became integrated into different cultures. In this she continued the tradition of Boas’ students, who used the wide distribution and local stylistic adaptation of folklore themes and plots to illustrate the importance of diffusion as a mechanism of cultural development.
During this early period she learned inexplicitly and by example to do highly responsible scientific work, without as yet having a basic involvement in the wider issues of scientific method. She had no specific concern for method divorced from matter, and she became restless when her colleagues or students strayed from a holistic consideration of the data to questions that were solely methodological in intent—as when a psychologist suggested making a field trip not to explore the culture of a particular people but simply to “test a test.” Trained as a scholar, with a great respect for words, syntax, and metaphor as precise tools of intellectual endeavor, she learned to be a first-class comparative ethnographer and field worker without any conscious shift in role from scholar to scientist, even when she wrote “The Science of Custom” (1929). This article emphasized the uses to which our understanding of human culture can be put, rather than the study of culture as a science. In its implications, this approach, which stressed man’s ability to make rational use of his knowledge of culture, is a precursor of conceptions (such as those of Conrad H. Waddington and Julian S. Huxley) of man’s increasing participation in the evolutionary process. Temperamentally opposed to the study of uniformities, she insisted throughout her work on the importance of maintaining a sense of openness in history, including the future as well as the past in any perspective.
Although the type of unpatterned diffusion study in which single traits or trait complexes could be traced in great variety and without integrative consistency fitted her sense of the irony and capriciousness of human life and history, it failed to satisfy her disciplined appreciation of creative holistic constructs. While doing field work among the Pima in 1927, she was struck by the tremendous contrast between the culture of the Pueblo Indians, with its behavioral emphasis on harmony, order, and restraint, and Pima culture, with its emphasis on extreme types of behavior. Now, for the first time, she felt she had found an organizing principle that would give form to the scattered observations coming out of diffusionist research and comparative studies of folklore.
She saw individual cultures as drawing differentially on the inherent potentialities of human beings, emphasizing certain potentialities in successive generations and ignoring or even disallowing other potentialities. Using the cultural content available to them—techniques, forms of social organization, religious themes, and so on—the heritors of each culture elaborate a particular personality style at the expense of other possible styles. Ruth Benedict used the terms “personality writ large” and “time binding” to describe characteristics of this process of selection, which she saw as occurring over many generations and as involving many individuals, whose participation in the development of a cultural style can be regarded as analogous to an individual’s development of his own personality style on the basis of his own available tradition.
This major insight, first developed in her paper “Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest” (1930), which she presented at the 23d International Congress of Americanists in 1928, laid the groundwork for all her later significant contributions. In her expansion of the insight that culture can be seen as personality writ large, she initially drew on classical figures invoked by Nietzsche and labeled Pueblo culture as Apollonian and the contrasting cultures of other North American Indians as Dionysian. These designations she treated as “categories that bring clearly to the fore the major qualities that differentiate Pueblo culture from those of other American Indians” (Patterns of Culture 1934a, p. 79).
True to her sense of open-endedness, she included in her analysis two other cultures (on neither of which, however, she had done field work) with different emphases—Kwakiutl and Dobu. For these, unfortunately, she drew not on classical imagery but on abnormal psychology for her labeling; the Kwakiutl she characterized as megalomaniac and the Dobuans as paranoid. This borrowing from the poorly developed science of psychiatry, coming at the same time that she published her famous paper “Anthropology and the Abnormal” (1934b), resulted in intradisciplinary controversy and confusion. To a certain extent this was, and remains, an obstacle to the appreciation of her major contribution in Patterns of Culture—the delineation of the forms in which human beings, reared in an ongoing society, selectively elaborate some human potentialities, at the expense of other potentialities that would be inconsistent with the central emphases of the particular society.
In “Anthropology and the Abnormal” she was concerned primarily with the ways in which particular cultures are able to integrate various forms of extreme behavior, such as epileptic seizure, trance, hallucinatory experience, and so on, rather than with the question of whether or not certain forms of mental disorder characterize some members of all human societies. Psychologists and psychiatrists who wished to disregard culture as an intervening variable construed this paper as an attempt to prove that mental disorders or homo-sexuality are completely determined by cultural mechanisms. The central issue, however, is a different one, that is, the way in which psychological capacities, such as memory in its different forms, or psychological mechanisms, such as displacement, sublimation, and projection, are related to ways in which cultural forms are patterned, with stress on the place of each stylized component of behavior in the pattern. The differences between the several ways in which the vision quest (in which American Indians seek their guardian spirits) is related, say, to a search for ecstasy or a search for power could now be placed in the context of the historically shaped, psychologically comprehensible cultural style.
This configurational formulation provided a theoretical framework for anthropologists who were interested in such problems as the relationship of constitution and temperament to culture, or different types of enculturation. Ruth Benedict was not a psychologist, and she was intrinsically uninterested in the establishment of general laws. This confused some, but it challenged other research workers whose primary interest in comparative studies of culture was in the possibilities they offered for establishing biopsychological universals. At the same time her ability to discern and describe an integrated central cultural pattern exasperated those who had neither the desire nor the ability to do so, and she was sometimes accused of an absolutism she never intended (Barnouw 1949; 1957).
With her sense of the infinite range of human potentialities, Ruth Benedict emphasized the great variety of cultural configurations that have been and still may be found; moreover, she insisted that each item of culture must be judged relative to the culture in which it occurs. Ironically, this disciplined combination, in which the detail must be judged within a specific configuration but which leaves open the number and types of configurations human culture may present, sometimes has led to another basic misinterpretation. For she has been treated as the great apologist of a very different form of cultural relativism, a cultural relativism of values which (because the values of one culture are contradictory to those of another) denies that there are ethical imperatives of any kind. Actually she was deeply convinced that the causes to which she entirely devoted her anthropological skills between 1939 and 1945 were founded in anthropological knowledge: those causes were the abolition of racial and ethnic discrimination, based on theories of race difference contrary to anthropological findings on the psychic unity of mankind (Benedict 1940), and the demonstration that warfare, which is not a basic biological trait but a cultural invention and which was compatible with some earlier forms of society, has become lethal to civilization.
The work of the last years of her life was the outgrowth of her work during World War ii, when she conducted a series of studies of “culture at a distance,” using anthropological techniques of work with cultural wholes and living informants in combination with the analysis of cultural products— films, plays, novels, works of history, and so on— to produce cultural descriptions relevant to the prosecution of the war and, later, the formulation of conditions of peace. After making preliminary studies on Rumania, the Netherlands, and Germany (not published) and a study on Thailand (1952), she did her major work on Japan. In 1945, when the war was over, she wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) as a contribution to an understanding of the cultural potentialities of Japan as part of a peaceful and cooperative world. The spirit of cultural appreciation and the humane understanding that pervade this book made it the most acceptable of all the wartime contributions by anthropologists to the field that has more recently come to be known as “national character” research. Although the accuracy of many small details has been criticized, the book has had an enormous influence both within Japan and among those who worked with the Japanese after the war. It is perhaps the best example of the use of a comparative cultural approach to intercultural communication in the reduction of nationalistic acrimony and ethnocentrism.
Soon after the publication of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict was invited to join a working group of social scientists gathered under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research to plan further research. Members of this unique group were encouraged to design their own investigations related to a study of human resources. Out of this, in 1947, came Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures (Mead 1951). The organization of this large project expressed Ruth Benedict’s special approach to work—her concern with the well-being of each individual student and colleague, her attentiveness to individual styles of field work and different interests in theory, her willingness to spend precious hours carefully editing a student’s fumbling English. This concern and attentiveness now governed the selection of personnel to work on the new project. Through work on seven cultures (i.e., the national cultures of France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Syria, China, and pre-Soviet Great Russia and, later, the shtetl culture of eastern European Jews), the research sought to explore further the methods of studying cultures at a distance that had been hastily improvised during the war, and to test and expand their possibilities of continuing usefulness. Some of the cultures selected were accessible to field work; others were not. Ruth Benedict invited collaborators into the project (and welcomed those who invited themselves) not as they met the formal requirements of a rigid interdisciplinary design, but on the basis of their research interests. From the beginning the focus of the work was on the sharing and integration of materials rather than the delineation of different methodological view-points. In consequence, some 120 people, having very different capabilities and levels of experience and representing 14 disciplines and 16 nationalities, worked together, some of them for as long as four years, without falling into the divisive and sterile cross-disciplinary arguments that have defeated so many multidisciplinary ventures (Mead & Métraux 1953). The project and related successor projects resulted in a series of model studies of the cultures of France, Germany, Poland, Russia, precommunist China, and the eastern European shtetl, and in the development of a manual, The Study of Culture at a Distance, which discussed and illustrated the branch of applied anthropology that is relevant to the relations of national governments to their citizenry as well as to relations among national groups.
After years of teaching at Columbia University, Ruth Benedict was tardily made a full professor in 1948. That summer she was invited to attend a UNESCO conference in Czechoslovakia on the cross-cultural study of child-rearing practices (Benedict 1949). The trip to Europe, her first since 1926, gave her an opportunity to assess at first hand some of the cultures she had studied at a distance. Late in the summer she also attended the international anthropological meetings held in Brussels. A week after she returned home, she died, leaving as a legacy a vast, sprawling research group and an array of projects to which those doing the research were sufficiently committed to be able to complete them.
Ruth Benedict’s work constituted a bridge between anthropology and the humanities; this was her most valuable contribution (Benedict 1948). Her early training in English literature, the years she devoted to writing poetry (published under the pseudonym of Anne Singleton; see Benedict 1959), and her passionate interest in the relationship between creator and creation, whether the creator was Earthmaker in an Indian myth, the nineteenth-century rebel Mary Wollstonecraft, or a contemporary poet like Robinson Jeffers, peculiarly fitted her to become a link between the young science of anthropology and the living humanities. Patterns of Culture is written so lucidly that it makes an ideal introduction to the ideas of anthropology, for unlike other anthropological works on which humanists depend, such as James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, it is informed not only by scholarship but also by disciplined, although implicit, scientific method.
Ruth Benedict’s profound effect on cultural anthropology has been blurred by the small parochial quarrels that have centered on such minor points as whether every recognized cultural trait can be fitted into a configuration; whether her use of labels taken from psychiatry was or was not appropriate, whether she was or was not influenced by the thinking of certain philosophers, and so on; and also by the perpetuation of ill-informed interpretations of her earlier work.
But her identification of the relationships between cultural systems and the varieties of human temperament continues to underlie, however inexplicitly, all later work in the field of culture and personality. Her emphasis on human culture as an open system served as a transition from earlier conceptions of history and from attempts to fit all cultures into the Procrustean beds of limited conceptual systems—e.g., the frustration–aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al. 1939; Bateson 1941) or basic personality theory (Kardiner 1939) or the conception of dynamic equilibrium (Chappie & Coon 1942)—to our present-day inclusion within one conceptual scheme: transcultural regularities in the relations between biology and environment, the indeterminate events of history, and cultural regularities.
Ruth Benedict’s work falls into several categories, over-lapping in time and emphasis. There are intensive, detailed, scholarly cooperative studies of written sources on North American Indian ethnology. There is field work, emphasizing folklore: among the Serrano 1922; the Zuñni 1924, 1925, 1935; the Cochiti 1925, 193la; and the Pima 1926. Ruth Benedict led two anthropological training groups: one among the Mescalero Apache 1931b; and the other among the Blackfoot 1939. She edited the Journal of American Folklore (1925–1939); she originated and elaborated upon the idea of configuration in culture, work that culminated in Patterns of Culture 1934a; in the decade 1935–1945 she was actively committed to causes to which she felt anthropology was relevant; and, finally, she participated, from 1943 to 1948, in the development of techniques whereby the methods of anthropology could be applied to the study of modern cultures, combining an intensive use of sophisticated informants and the analysis of cultural products.
(1922) 1959 The Vision in Plains Culture. Pages 18–35 in Margaret Mead, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → First published in Volume 24 of the American Anthropologist.
1923 The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs 29:1–97.
1924 Zuñi. Unpublished manuscript.
1925 Zuñi and Cochiti. Unpublished manuscript.
1926 Pima. Unpublished manuscript.
1929 The Science of Custom. Century 117:641–649.
(1930) 1947 Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest. Pages 14–23 in Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Readings in Social Psychology. New York: Holt.
1931a Tales of the Cochiti Indians. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 98. Washington: The Institution.
1931b Mescalero Apache: Student Training Under Auspices of Southwest Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe. Unpublished manuscript.
1934a Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Houghton Mifflin.
(1934b) 1959 Anthropology and the Abnormal. Pages 262–283 in Margaret Mead, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → First published in Volume 10 of the Journal of General Psychology.
1935 Zuñi Mythology. 2 vols. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 21. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
1939 Blackfoot: Student Training Direction Under Joint Auspices of Columbia University and University of Montana. Unpublished manuscript.
(1940) 1959 Race: Science and Politics. New York: Viking.
1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
1948 Anthropology and the Humanities. American Anthropologist New Series 50:585–593.
1949 Child Rearing in Certain European Countries. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 19:342–350. → Contains one page of discussion.
1952 Thai Culture and Behavior: An Unpublished Wartime Study Dated September, 1943. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Data Papers No. 4. Ithaca, N.Y.: Department of Far Eastern Studies, Cornell Univ.
1959 Selected Poems: 1941, by Anne Singleton [pseud.]. Pages 473–490 in Margaret Mead, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → Published posthumously.
Barnouw, Victor 1949 Ruth Benedict: Apollonian and Dionysian. University of Toronto Quarterly 18:241–253.
Barnouw, Victor 1957 The Amiable Side of Patterns of Culture. American Anthropologist New Series 59: 532–535.
Bateson, Gregory 1941 The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis and Culture. Psychological Review 48:350–355.
Chapple, Eliot D.; and Coon, Carleton S. 1942 Principles of Anthropology. New York: Holt.
Dollard, John et al. 1939 Frustration and Aggression. Yale University Institute of Human Relations. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
Journal of American Folklore. → Published quarterly since 1888 by the American Folklore Society, University of Pennsylvania.
Kardiner, Abram 1939 The Individual and His Society: The Psychodynamics of Primitive Social Organization. New York: Columbia Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.
Mead, Margaret 1951 Research in Contemporary Cultures. Pages 106–118 in U.S. Office of Naval Research, Groups, Leadership and Men: Research in Human Relations. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press.
Mead, Margaret; and MÉtraux, Rhoda (editors) 1953 The Study of Culture at a Distance. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Mead, Margaret 1959 An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A critical study of Ruth Benedict, illustrated from her own writing.
"Benedict, Ruth." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/benedict-ruth
"Benedict, Ruth." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/benedict-ruth
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Benedict, Ruth 1887-1948
One of the major figures in the development of American cultural anthropology, Ruth Benedict was educated at Vassar College (AB, 1909) and Columbia University (PhD, 1923), where she studied under the American anthropologist Franz Boas. Starting in the late nineteenth century, Boas and his students mounted an attack on social-evolutionary theories of human history. Boasian anthropologists showed that the evolutionists’ hypothesis of universal stages of development (“primitive,” “barbarian,” “civilized”) were belied by historical facts, especially by the diffusion of cultural materials and the movements of people. That people borrowed language and culture from one another meant that no group of people, and no cultural whole or stage, had an identity that remained fixed over time. But this concept left open the question of what Benedict came to call “cultural integration.” Given that cultures were ceaselessly changing, how were anthropologists to talk about the coherence that people experienced in their life-worlds? Benedict’s two masterworks, Patterns of Culture (1934) and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), provide elegant answers to that question.
Benedict begins Patterns by pointing out that because the possibilities for a viable way of life are almost limitless, “selection” becomes a “prime necessity” of human history (p. 23). A group of people creates, borrows, and selects materials that it “integrates” into a consistent pattern, a cultural totality. In Benedict’s approach, the meaning of any item that has been incorporated into the whole depends upon its place within that whole; over time, disparate culture traits are woven together in a fundamental pattern such that any one of them can be understood only in terms of its relationship to all the others. Moreover, because cultural wholes are patterns of values in terms of which humans understand the world, people tend to understand (and misunderstand) other cultures by interpreting them in terms of their own. There is, therefore, a tension in Benedict’s anthropology between scientifically authoritative descriptions of integrated cultural patterns and ironic reflections on the way Western cultural values structure her readers’ (and her own) understandings of other cultures.
This tension is exemplified in Chrysanthemum, a book that came out of Benedict’s work analyzing cultures for the United States government during World War II. Chrysanthemum begins with a discussion of Japanese conceptions of hierarchy and indebtedness, for these contradict the crucial American values of equality and freedom. For example, because Japanese understand family relationships as grounded in indebtedness, they accept both filial and parental duties that to Americans seem overly severe and lacking in love. Similarly, civic duty in Japan is understood as repayment of debt to the supreme authority at the apex of the social hierarchy (the emperor). A person’s self-respect is bound to his fulfillment of such duties. By contrast, American self-respect depends on freedom, hence Americans tend to view governmental regulation as a violation of their dearest values—leading Japanese to find Americans to be lawless. Each culture misunderstands the other because apparently similar traits take on different significances in each.
As her study of Japan illustrates, Benedict believed that anthropology, by helping people to see their culture in a new light, could lead them to change customs that were no longer useful or humane. But such reforms were not to be imposed by force; rather, they should emerge, Benedict thought, from democratic discussion, both nationally and internationally. Benedict herself was willing to assert strong value judgments in her work, as, for example, in her critique of the obstacles women of her time and milieu experienced trying to balance family and career (a balance that was difficult for her to achieve, as her biographers make clear). Moreover, the work of Benedict and other anthropologists on the Japanese (carried out while Japanese Americans were being placed in internment camps) has come to seem problematic to historians and anthropologists who, since Vietnam, have become increasingly dubious that social science in the service of political power can promote democratic ends. Yet, as American difficulties in places like Iraq at the turn of the twenty-first century make clear, there is a place for the kind of anthropologically informed understanding of other cultures that Benedict did so much to advance. It is no surprise, therefore, that a New York Times essay on the rebuilding of Iraq concludes with the question, “Where are the new Ruth Benedicts?”
SEE ALSO Anthropology, U.S.; Boas, Franz; Mead, Margaret
Caffrey, Margaret. 1989. Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Mead, Margaret. 1959. An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Stille, Alexander. 2003. Experts Can Help Rebuild a Country. New York Times, July 19.
"Benedict, Ruth." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/benedict-ruth-0
"Benedict, Ruth." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/benedict-ruth-0