Benedict, Ruth (1887–1948)

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Benedict, Ruth (1887–1948)

American anthropologist whose research on Native Americans, as well as contemporary Europeans and Asians, made her a leading member of the culture and personality school of anthropology. Name variations: (pseudonym) Anne Singleton. Born Ruth Fulton in Shenango Valley, New York, on June 5, 1887; died in New York City, on September 17, 1948; daughter of Beatrice (Shattuck) Fulton and Frederick Fulton; sister ofMargery Fulton (b. 1889); attended Norwich Public School, 1895–1900; attended St. Margaret's Academy, 1901–05; A.B. Vassar College, 1909; M.A., New School for Social Research, 1921; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1923; married Stanley Rossiter Benedict, on June 18, 1914 (separated 1931); children: none.

Father Frederick Fulton died (March 1889); traveled to Europe (1909); worked for the Charity Organization Society, Buffalo, New York (1911); taught at the Westlake School for Girls, Los Angeles, California (1911–12); taught at the Orton School for Girls, Pasadena, California (1912–14); completed biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1917); enrolled at New School for Social Research, New York (1919); enrolled at Columbia University (1921); undertook field work on the Serrano Indians (1922); lectured at Columbia University (1923–26); undertook field research on the Pueblo Indians (1924); separated from Stanley Benedict (1931); was editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1924–39); was assistant professor Columbia University (1931); death of Stanley Benedict (1936); served as member of the National Research Council (1941–43); death of Franz Boas (1942); employed by the Office of War Information (1943–46); served as leader of the Columbia University Contemporary Cultures Project (1946–48); elected president of the American Anthropological Association (1947); diagnosed with a heart condition (1947); appointed full professor at Columbia University (1948).

Selected publications:

Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934); Zuni Mythology (NY: Columbia University Press, 1935); "Religion," in General Anthropology (Franz Boas, ed. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1938); Race: Science and Politics (NY: Modern Age, 1940); The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946); Thai Culture and Behavior (Data Papers No. 4, Southeast Asia Program. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1952).

Ruth Benedict was born June 5, 1887, on a farm in the Shenango Valley of upper New York State. Her mother Beatrice Shattuck Fulton was a graduate of Vassar College, and her father Frederick Fulton was a doctor of medicine. In January 1889, Ruth's only sister Margery was born. The siblings were a study in contrast. While Margery was sociable and talkative, Ruth proved to be studious and shy. Her shyness was

belatedly explained in 1895, when it was discovered that Ruth was partially deaf.

When Frederick Fulton died of a mysterious illness in March 1889, the loss had a profound impact on Ruth Benedict. Years later, she could still recall his last days:

My memories have to do … with a worn face illuminated with the translucence of illness and very beautiful…. The power that such faces had over me I never associated with my father till the day I took my mother to the Boston Museum to see my favorite of all such faces, El Greco's Fray Hortensio Paravicino…. Finally she turned to me and said, "It is your father. It is your father just before he died. There are no pictures of him as he looked then, but now you know what he looked like."

In 1892, the family moved to Norwich, New York, where Benedict's mother taught school. Beatrice Fulton was extraordinarily independent for a woman of her day. From Norwich, Beatrice moved her family to St. Joseph, Missouri, Owatonna, Minnesota, and finally, Buffalo, New York, pursuing her career as a teacher and librarian. Every summer, the family returned to the farm in the Shenango Valley.

In Buffalo, Beatrice enrolled her daughters in the prestigious St. Margaret's Academy. Both sisters excelled academically. In 1905, they enrolled at Vassar College, where Ruth studied English literature, indulging a long held passion, and made Phi Beta Kappa. Throughout her life, she wrote fiction and poetry, eventually publishing under various pen names, including Anne Singleton. Upon graduation in 1909, Ruth traveled to Europe with friends, while her sister married Robert Freeman, a minister.

Upon her return, Benedict briefly worked for the Charity Organization Society in Buffalo. In 1911, she moved to California to join Margery and her husband. There Ruth taught at the Westlake School for Girls and the Orton School for Girls. In California, Benedict confronted the limitations imposed upon women in early 20th-century America. In 1912, she wrote: "So much of the trouble is because I am a woman. To me it seems a very terrible thing to be a woman. There is one crown which is perhaps worth it all—a great love, a quiet home, and children."

In 1913, she fell in love with Stanley Benedict, a biochemist and brother of a Vassar friend. Seeking emotional and intellectual fulfillment through marriage, on June 18, 1914, she wed. The couple moved to Long Island, New York, where Stanley began a distinguished career at Cornell Medical College. Meanwhile, Ruth busied herself with providing a home for her husband. During World War I, however, she learned that she was unable to bear children. It was a crushing blow, which swept away the illusion of marital bliss. Over the years, the couple would grow apart, eventually separating in 1931. Neither would ever remarry, and, upon his death in 1936, Stanley Benedict would will his entire estate to his estranged wife.

In the early years of her marriage, Benedict became increasingly interested in feminism. In order to fill the void, she set out to write the biographies of Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner , and Mary Wollstonecraft . Only the Wollstonecraft biography was ever finished. The book was as much an exploration of Wollstonecraft's struggle to find intellectual and spiritual fulfillment, as it was of Ruth Benedict's own efforts. Completed in 1917, the Wollstonecraft manuscript was rejected by a succession of publishers. Still searching for a creative outlet, in the fall of 1919, Benedict enrolled at the New School for Social Research. As Margaret Mead noted:

During the whole decade beginning in 1911, when she had successively tried social work and teaching and then put so much hope into her marriage to Stanley, her desperate need was to find herself—to commit herself to a way of life that had meaning for her and that drew on all her talents…. The decisive turning point in her life came in 1919, when she went to the New School for Social Research.

There, Benedict discovered the young discipline of anthropology, through the courses of Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons . Her initial attraction to the field paralleled her interest in Wollstonecraft. Why, she asked, did contemporary culture push women to the peripheries of society? Benedict's interest in feminism led to a broader examination of the factors which marginalized people, occupational groups, or classes within culture.

Parsons convinced the 34-year-old Benedict to enroll in the doctoral program under Franz Boas at Columbia University. As head of the anthropology department, Boas was responsible for admitting dozens of female graduate students—more than could be found in other campus anthropology departments. While at Columbia, Benedict met Margaret Mead. What began as a teacher-student relationship, soon blossomed into a lifelong friendship. As Benedict's first graduate student, Mead occupied a special place in her life, and upon Benedict's death she became her literary executor.

Franz Boas rejected the theories of scholars, such as G. Elliot Smith and W.J. Perry, who argued that a single wellspring existed for the world's cultures. He was equally opposed to the German school, represented by Fritz Graebner, W. Koppers and others, who stressed the diffusion of cultural traits and values from a small pool of ancient civilizations. Instead, Boas advocated a comparative approach, which emphasized the diversity of cultural attributes and the effect of cross-fertilization of various cultures.

Ruth Benedict's 1923 dissertation, "The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America," revealed the depth of Boas' influence. She challenged Emile Durkheim's assertion that the source of religious values are imbedded in social structures. Instead, Benedict sought the origin of religious attitudes in the presence or absence of associated spiritual concepts, and an appraisal of the impact of such ideas upon different Native American tribes. She also contrasted magic and religion, based upon the motivational, valuative, and attitudinal discrepancies of the devotee and the spiritual leader.

Her life illustrates an important intersection of women's history and the history of a social science.

—Judith Modell

Benedict's thesis came to the attention of Edward Sapir, then at the University of Ottawa. The talented linguist wrote to her: "I put it in with such papers as Goldenweiser's 'Totemism' (1910) and Waterman's 'Exploratory Element in American Mythology' (1914) except that it impresses me as being decidedly more inspiring than either of these." Benedict and Sapir developed a strong bond, based on professional interests and a mutual love of poetry. They encouraged each other in attempts to publish their verse. By 1928, both had completed manuscripts of their collected works. The failure of either Benedict or Sapir to attract a publisher, however, led Benedict to devote her energy to anthropology.

Her early career moved slowly. From 1923 onward, she was a lecturer at Columbia University. In 1925, she was appointed editor of the Journal of American Folklore. It was not until 1931 that she was rewarded with the post of assistant professor in the department of anthropology—without tenure. In 1937, she was promoted to associate professor, but her gender always held her back. As Mead noted, when the question of a full professorship arose, "the faculty … felt that the addition of a woman to their ranks … would lower their standing in the academic community."

Aside from her initial field work with the Serrano Indians in 1922, Benedict's early research was conducted primarily with printed sources. In 1924, however, she undertook field work with the Zuni Pueblos, and in 1927 a project was begun among the Pima Indians. Ruth Benedict was acutely aware that these cultures were vanishing rapidly; one of her great contributions was the recording of their ceremonies and myths. Due to her deafness, however, she was unable to learn their languages, which makes her field research all the more remarkable.

While working with the Pima in 1927, Benedict was struck by the extraordinary difference between Pueblo and Plains Indian culture. She employed Friedrich Nietzsche's schema of Apollonian and Dionysian to describe the contrast. Benedict argued that the Zuni Pueblos were a somber and moderate culture and should therefore be classified as Apollonian. The Pima Indians, on the other hand, represented a more expressive, emotional, ecstatically spiritual culture, which fell into the category of Dionysian.

These psychological portraits have been strongly criticized over the years, on the grounds that they are stereotypical and abstract. Although many have argued that Benedict's theoretical framework was too rigid and her evidence too general, colleagues such as Boas and Mead were quick to defend her. Benedict, they argued, did not advocate cultural types based on psychological or biological determinates. Rather, she sought to uncover the cultural development of a community, often using extreme case studies to highlight the traits which make a culture unique.

While Benedict worked with the Pima, Boas was completing a textbook entitled General Anthropology and asked her to contribute a chapter on religion. As in her earlier work, Benedict distinguished magic and religion mainly in terms of the differing values between the worshipper and the practitioner.

During the spring of 1932, Ruth Benedict decided to write her first book. Her efforts resulted in the pioneering study Patterns of Culture in which she rejected the piecemeal classification and dissection of customs and cultural values. Edward Sapir shared her view. In 1928, after reading her dissertation, he had suggested an approach which became the foundation of Benedict's theory of Configurationalism. Sapir wrote:

A logical sequel … is another paper on the historical development of the guardian spirit in a particular area, the idea being to show how the particular elements crystallized into the characteristic pattern. This "how" would involve consideration of some of the more general patterns of the area or tribe and should perhaps show, unless you balk at psychology under all circumstances, how the crystallization could form a suitable frame of adequate individual expression.

Configurationalism, Benedict's most important theoretical contribution, approached cultures holistically. She attempted to identify the fundamental traits of each culture. Thus, she applied to groups the psychological concepts generally applied to individuals. While individuals within a culture might possess different strengths and weaknesses, cultures value ideal types, and therefore she argued, encourage conformity. Benedict believed that those who best approximated the ideals of their culture were also the ones who were the most well adjusted. In her theory of cultural relativism, she pointed out that the same trait that might label a person an outcast in one culture might make them a saint in another.

Patterns of Culture demonstrated that culture was individualized on a grand scale. The character of culture, Benedict argued, is formed by a multigenerational process of selection and rejection, of adaptation and incompatibility, and of elaboration or contraction. The nature of the personality of a culture, and choices faced by it, in turn help to shape individual members.

Although Franz Boas had retired in 1936 after falling seriously ill, Ruth Benedict was not appointed associate professor until 1937, when it became necessary for her to become acting head of the department. Ralph Linton was eventually appointed head of the anthropology department.

The rise of anti-Semitism and racial distinctions in Europe and the United States brought Benedict into conflict with members of the Columbia faculty. Many accused her of being a Communist, but she was fearless in her defense of free speech. In 1939, she took a sabbatical from Columbia and penned a thin volume entitled Race: Science and Politics, in which she coined the term "racism." Although an early advocate of cultural relativism, Benedict developed the concept of synergy, which argued that any culture which is detrimental to the advancement of humanity was liable to be judged as such. She refuted the claims of racial superiority and analyzed the motivation of racial propagandists. The book created a storm of controversy, especially with those scientists who were backing master-race theories espoused by Hitler and Germany. In the foreword to the 1945 edition, Benedict wrote:

In race attitudes the behavior of the employer, the union member, the neighbor on our block, the waiter in the restaurant, the customer in the grocery store add up to the only total there is or can be…. For the dominant race cannot have freedom for themselves unless they grant it without regard to race or color. As Booker T. Washington once said, "To keep a man in the ditch, you have to stay there with him."


Science and Politics became a bestseller, and an important means of furthering the comparative approach to cultural analysis. Benedict's writing did not flinch from pointing out flaws in contemporary society. Race: Science and Politics led to the publication of a Public Affairs pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind," and an animated-short film, Brotherhood of Man.

With the involvement of the United States in World War II, Ruth Benedict joined the National Research Council. In 1943, she was invited to work for the Office of War Information. There, Benedict produced cultural studies of Rumania, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Thailand, and Japan. Her work was an important departure, for it attempted to study complex cultures through interviews with foreign nationals living in the United States.

Her study of Japan resulted in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. As with her other books, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword became a bestseller, portraying a country governed by complex social obligations, which made up the fabric of Japanese society. It is not known whether General Douglas MacArthur read the book, but his Japanese postwar occupation policy bore a striking resemblance to Benedict's ideas. In one of the more prescient passages of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, she wrote: "Japan, if she does not include militarization in her budget, can, if she will, provide for her own prosperity before many years, and she could make herself indispensable in the commerce of the East."

Ruth Benedict returned to Columbia University in 1946. In the wake of her work on Japan, the Office of Naval Research allocated a grant to establish a program of research into contemporary cultures. The most ambitious research program of its time, it involved dozens of anthropologists, and Benedict became its head. In 1947, she was elected president of the American Anthropological Association. A year later, she was finally appointed full professor at Columbia University.

For several years, Ruth Benedict had been plagued by headaches and dizziness. In 1947, she was diagnosed with a heart condition. Two days after returning from a trip to Europe, she suffered a coronary thrombosis, and she died on September 17, 1948.

Ruth Benedict was one of the leading figures in the culture and personality school, which dominated anthropology during the 1930s and the 1940s. Her legacy is the continued emphasis on the comparative approach to culture, and values and themes which give cultures their distinct personalities. Her most important work, Patterns of Culture, was responsible for popularizing the concept of culture, hitherto a technical term known only to specialists. The theory of Configurationalism has become a useful tool for all anthropologists. Patterns of Culture, translated into a dozen languages, remains one of the best introductory anthropology texts available. Race: Science and Politics demonstrated Benedict's social consciousness at a pivotal juncture in American history. The book sought to influence public opinion and foster social tolerance. Today no university library collection is complete without a copy. The same may be said of other works, such as the immensely popular The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

Ruth Benedict was one of the first women in the United States to attain prominence as a social scientist. Her work, during and after the Second World War, initiated the study of contemporary culture from an innovative perspective. The techniques she developed are still in use among academic and governmental institutions the world over. Benedict was a shy woman and found lecturing a chore, especially given her poor hearing. Nevertheless, she had a lasting impact on her students, many of whom went on to become leading anthropologists. Following the death of Franz Boas in 1942, Ruth Benedict became the undisputed master of American anthropology.


Barnouw, Victor. "Ruth Benedict," in American Scholar. Vol. 49. Washington, DC: United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, 1980, pp. 504–509.

Fleming, Donald. "Benedict, Ruth Fulton," in Notable American Women 1607–1950. Edward T. James, ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Mead, Margaret. An Anthropologist At Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. NY: Atherton Press, 1966.

——. Ruth Benedict. NY: Columbia University Press, 1974.

——. "Ruth Benedict," in Totems and Teachers. Sydel Silverman, ed. NY: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Modell, Judith. "Ruth Fulton Benedict," in Women Anthropologists. Edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, and Ruth Weinberg. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988.

suggested reading:

Modell, Judith. Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1983.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Benedict, Ruth (1887–1948)

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