In This Article Ruth Benedict

  • Introduction

Anthropology Ruth Benedict
by
Judith Schachter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0204

Introduction

Ruth Fulton Benedict, an American anthropologist (1887–1948), is best known for her contribution to the “culture and personality” school of American anthropology. Her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, offers an analysis of cultures in terms of dominant character or, as she writes, a “configuration” based on selection from a wide arc of possible ways of organizing life. The concept of configuration figured in the writings she did over the next two decades, including her 1946 study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She extended her analysis of the integrity and character of a configuration to assess the freedom and opportunity provided to individuals. In comparing societies on this basis, Benedict qualified the “cultural relativism” for which she is often known, and proposed an anthropology that produced critical culture consciousness as the basis for change. On that theoretical foundation, throughout the 1930s she wrote critically of a contemporary American culture that suppressed and marginalized individuals whose temperaments did not fit the dominant ethos—one of ambition, competition, individualism, and narrow definitions of gender identity. While her writings analyze the impact of cultural values, customs, and ideologies on the individual, she never portrayed culture as deterministic but claimed that individuals have the capacity to change the conditions under which they live. The anthropologist’s duty was to present the variability that might guide individuals to “direct” change in society in a rational and enlightened way. Less well-known is her work as editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1925–1940), and her writings on myths and tales. The stories people tell, she wrote, compose an “autobiography” of their culture. The threat of fascism across the Atlantic pushed Benedict to act on her responsibility as an anthropologist first by publishing a condemnation of racism in Race: Science and Politics (first published 1940) and then by joining the government to serve as a scientist-advisor. A series of reports on nations participating in the global conflict culminated in the influential The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). In her postwar project, Research on Contemporary Cultures (RCC), Benedict pursued her wartime practice of applying anthropological insights to highly complex societies. She did not live to see the fruits of the project or the criticisms that pointed to the dangers of such inquiries in the service of American imperialism.

Culture and Personality

In 1921, Benedict became a student of Franz Boas at Columbia University. Two years later, a library-based dissertation, “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America” explored the cultural implications of individual religious experience, initiating the culture and personality theory that marked her contribution to American cultural anthropology (Benedict 1923, cited under Fieldwork). A short stint of fieldwork in 1924 in the Southwest Pueblos gave her firsthand ethnographic data for Benedict 1934, although subsequent fieldworkers, including the authors of Li An-Che 1937, Bennett 1946, and Pandey 1972, revised her interpretation. She added material from the fieldwork of her colleague Reo Fortune on Dobu Islanders and her mentor Franz Boas on the Kwakiutl (Benedict 1934). The triad gave rise to the concept most commonly attached to her anthropology: “culture as personality writ large.” The phrase embodied a theory of coherence and the nature of links between individual and culture that she refined in writings of the next two decades. Behind the phrase lies an examination of the consequences of fit, and lack of fit, between person and culture. Often viewed as the fourth case, the United States receives sharp criticism from Benedict for its denial of fulfillment to individuals who possess temperaments “uncongenial” with dominant cultural traits. Here, too, she offers a version of her argument that society, not innate nature, creates the category of “abnormal.” Her method—challenging a presumed normality of familiar customs by normalizing the customs of other cultures—is clearly in evidence in the 1934 book. In paperback form, Patterns of Culture remains a best-selling anthropological monograph, a foundational work for the subdiscipline that, as Lindholm 2007 points out, is currently known as “psychological anthropology.”

  • Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is Benedict’s most well-known statement of the thesis that culture is personality writ large; based on three ethnographic examples, and a discussion clearly placing US culture at the forefront of her disciplinary contribution.

  • Bennett, John W. 1946. Interpretation of Pueblo culture: A question of values. Southwest Journal of Anthropology 2:361–374.

    DOI: 10.1086/soutjanth.2.4.3628541E-mail Citation »

    Bennett offers a rigorous critique of Benedict’s description of the Zuni Pueblo, using data from his longtime fieldwork in the Southwest to challenge her characterization of the culture as Apollonian.

  • Li An-Che. 1937. Zuni: Some observations and queries. American Anthropologist 39.1: 62–76.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1937.39.1.02a00060E-mail Citation »

    An early negative review of Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, and one of the first to denounce her ethnography of the Zuni Pueblo. The review suggests that Benedict created an ideal culture, suited to her temperament, rather than representing the actual complexities of day-to-day life in the Pueblo.

  • Lindholm, Charles. 2007. Culture and identity: The history, theory, and practice of psychological anthropology. Oxford, UK: Oneworld.

    E-mail Citation »

    Lindholm traces the history of the subdiscipline currently known as “psychological anthropology,” an extension of the culture and personality field to which Benedict contributed theory and method. The text covers related contemporary issues in psychology and psychoanalysis, and indicates the pertinence to Western societies.

  • Pandey, Triloki N. 1972. Anthropologists at Zuni. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 116:321–337.

    E-mail Citation »

    An anthropologist of the Zuni, Pandey places Benedict’s work in a longer history of fieldwork among the Southwest Pueblo groups. He expands on her characterization of the Zuni as orderly, somber, and ceremonial. His paper has been reprinted in several collections.

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