Benedict Publishes

Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture contributed to new directions in anthropological theory, methodology, and philosophy.

Summary of Event

The field of anthropology began to develop new concerns and methods in the beginning of the twentieth century. Having its origins in the nineteenth century, it focused originally on the concerns of that period: classification and development of human races, languages, and societies. Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin) with the general concept of evolution, strongly influenced the thinking of the time, so that by the end of the nineteenth century, studies classified societies on a hierarchical scale to determine the phases, stages, and states through which all human groups passed. Karl Marx Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels Engels, Friedrich added to this evolutionary perspective by stressing the causes of human evolution and argued that the mode of production is the prime force on which political, judicial, and ideological superstructures are based. The evolutionary perspective, however, assumed that there is a universal “human nature” and did not consider the different meanings and functions similar traits can have when in different contexts. [kw]Benedict Publishes Patterns of Culture (1934)
[kw]Publishes Patterns of Culture, Benedict (1934)
[kw]Patterns of Culture, Benedict Publishes (1934)
Patterns of Culture (Benedict)
Cultural anthropology
[g]United States;1934: Benedict Publishes Patterns of Culture[08480]
[c]Anthropology;1934: Benedict Publishes Patterns of Culture[08480]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1934: Benedict Publishes Patterns of Culture[08480]
Benedict, Ruth
Boas, Franz

Ruth Benedict.

(Library of Congress)

It was in this era that Franz Boas, a German-born American and the father of American anthropology, joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. He scorned the sweeping generalizations of many evolutionists because they were selective in the facts they used and their ideas did not account for the more sophisticated observations of cultural variability. Boas emphasized fieldwork and firsthand observation. He founded the culture history school, the name of which is misleading, given that Boas tended to favor the functionalist approach, which considered societies as likened to organisms where the parts are interdependent. Boas argued that cultures should be considered as a whole. He emphasized the importance of life histories and drew attention to the relationship between culture and personality.

Boas inspired a number of students who became prominent anthropologists, one of whom was Ruth Benedict. Benedict’s humanistic ideas led her not only to challenge the rigid scientific methodology that some considered to be essential in anthropological research but also to argue that anthropology belonged with the humanities and not the social sciences. She discovered anthropology after the age of thirty, and she believed that the discipline enabled her to contrast different peoples and different historical periods. She was a student at the New School for Social Research, where she was greatly influenced by Boas. She was also influenced by Robert Lowie and was directed in her fieldwork among the Serrano Indians by Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber, Alfred

Benedict completed her doctoral dissertation in 1923 and was appointed an assistant to Boas. In 1927, she studied the Pima Indians and was struck by the contrast between them and the Pueblo Indians. The Pueblo emphasized harmony, whereas the Pima emphasized extremism. During this time, Benedict began to view culture as a total configuration, not merely a matrix in which personalities develop; she saw culture as being like a personality on a large scale. She presented this view of culture, which developed into the theoretical framework for her book Patterns of Culture, at the Twenty-third Congress of Americanists in 1928. She did not publish her book until 1934, however.

After Boas’s retirement, Benedict became chair of the anthropology department at Columbia University. She also served as editor of the Journal of American Folklore, directed field trips, and wrote poetry. World War II opened up new avenues, and Benedict received a research posting in Washington, D.C., where she applied anthropological thought to contemporary societies. After returning to Columbia University in 1946, she published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Chrysanthemum and the Sword, The (Benedict) a book that some consider to be her masterpiece.

Patterns of Culture, however, remained Benedict’s most popular work, and its publication was the central event in her life. The work was not only a culmination of her questioning in the 1920’s but also the fulfillment of a sense of social responsibility and a desire to lead society to new values and goals. It was a course given at Columbia University by Kroeber, however, that triggered the effort. At the insistence of Boas, Kroeber acquiesced to give a series of lectures on the cultures of Highland South America. Benedict thought that Kroeber’s lectures and contributions were dry, and out of exasperation she made the impulsive decision to write her own book, which became Patterns of Culture. In Patterns of Culture, Benedict argued that every culture is an integrated whole, a “personality writ large.” As her friend Margaret Mead Mead, Margaret later explained, Benedict showed that “each historical culture represents a many-generational process of paring, sifting, adapting, and elaborating on an available ’areal forma,’ and that each culture, in turn, shapes the choices of those born and living within it.” Benedict recognized that hereditary factors contribute to differences in behavior and also that those who do not conform to the culture within which they live have difficulties.

To support her argument, Benedict analyzed and compared the cultures of three peoples: the Kwakiutl Kwakiutl of western Canada, the Zuni of the southwestern United States, and the Dobuans Dobuans of Melanesia. She chose them because she considered the data available on each culture viable. She had studied the Zuni, Zuni was familiar with the literature concerning them, and could also draw on Ruth Bunzel’s field materials. Boas had studied and written extensively on the Kwakiutl, and she had full access to his published and unpublished materials, as well as spending many hours discussing the Kwakiutl with him. Benedict had a high regard for Reo Fortune’s work on the Dobuans and got permission from him to use his material.

Building on her earlier work, she used Friedrich Nietzsche’s terms “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” as classification terms but used the psychological term “paranoid” for her third category. Also, she had become acquainted with Gestalt psychology, an approach that agreed with her insights, so she used the Gestalt framework in her analysis. She compared the three cultures. The Kwakiutl were “Dionysian” because, as she viewed them, they were egocentric, individualistic, and ecstatic in their rituals. Located on a narrow strip of the Alaskan coast, the Kwakiutl were wealthy, living off the products of the sea. Technologically, they were superior; they worked wood without metal tools, built houses and ceremonial halls, and raised great totem poles. In spite of this wealth, however, they were Dionysian in their ecstatic dancing. Often, a dance leader foamed at the mouth, seemed mad, and sometimes even threw himself on burning coals. Wealth was for display, not use. The Kwakiutl would lend out etched sheets of copper, blankets, and canoes with obligatory interest, which often began with the children. The potlatch was a ritual competition in which gifts were heaped on a rival who could not repay or a contest of wild destruction during the recitation of hymns of self-glorification. If the guest could not destroy an equal amount, he was shamed. The same contest was performed at a wedding, where the bridegroom’s party might try to overpower the father of the bride with heaps of gifts. During other forms of revenge, innocent parties were killed to avenge natural deaths. A boy struck by his father was shamed into committing suicide; similarly, a wife heaped with accusations of adultery was sent home to take her own life eventually. The ideal character among the Kwakiutl was to strive constantly to escape limitations, to achieve excesses, and to break into the order of experience. Thus they valued drugs and alcohol, fasted, and used self-torture and frenzy.

The Zunis were “Apollonian” because they were restrained—they did not condone excessive or disruptive psychological states. They preferred a noncompetitive, gentle, peace-loving, and middle-of-the-road existence. In fact, it was forbidden for a serving priest even to feel anger. They emphasized the ceremony, the perfection of ritual, and had hierarchies of kachinas, or masked gods, some of which were impersonated in dances. Marriage was a personal affair with little ceremony attached to it, and divorce was easy. The society was matrilineal, and when a wife became tired of her husband, she merely laid his belongings on the doorstep and he went home to his mother. Dreams and hallucinatory experiences were avoided, but prayers lasting an hour long were repeated without mistakes. Aggressive, ambitious individuals were frowned upon and suspected of sorcery. The ideal person was easygoing and socially poised and made others feel comfortable.

The Dobuans, were considered paranoid because they emphasized magic, and everyone feared and hated everyone else. The Dobuans were of Melanesia and part of the kula ring studied by Bronisław Malinowski. Unlike Malinowski’s Trobrianders, the Dobuans displayed antagonisms and hostility. They used charms to defend their yam crops against competitors. If there was a problem, it was ascribed to evil magic. They saw life as dominated by treacherous rivalry; adultery was common and violent jealous outbursts were frequent. Dobuans used incantations to cause disease in those they disliked, and all had antidotal spells. They used charms to protect themselves and their property as well as to infect trespassers and thieves. Death was always attributed to magic, with women being particularly suspect. Often on the death of a spouse, the survivor was suspected of magical murder. The Dobuans disapproved of laughter and believed that laughter during gardening prevented yams from growing. The ideal person cheated, stole, charmed, and poisoned his way to eminence.


When Patterns of Culture was published, it initially received acclaim. The New York Times said it was “expertly conceived and brilliantly developed.” Kroeber, in the American Anthropologist, called it “an important contribution” but also noted that Benedict’s configuration approach should be further developed to give anthropology “new stimuli and insights.” In spite of the initial favorable reaction and the book’s popularity among nonanthropologists, the approach was eventually abandoned because it was considered impressionistic, reductionist, and not susceptible to replication. It explained behavior by focusing on cultural patterns and did not account for the variation within particular groups. Also, some of the data came to be challenged by other studies.

In spite of these limitations, however, Patterns of Culture made a significant impact at a crucial time, influencing both anthropologists and nonanthropologists. It raised philosophical and theoretical issues while building on and developing existing concepts. Some of the criticisms were exactly what Benedict had argued against. For twenty years, many had tried to discredit subjectivity in anthropology. Benedict, with her humanistic orientation, reintroduced subjectivity into analysis, but it was subjectivity based on verifiable facts. This marked a clear split between what Kroeber termed “scientific” anthropology and “historical” anthropology. A debate within the discipline of anthropology concerning the merits and validity of each approach followed. Benedict defined anthropology as a discipline that studies differences between cultural traditions, so that the concern is what particular cultures do to people. She presented “culture” as an integrated whole made by humans, which means that every culture is integrated and implies that a culture is more than the sum of its parts.

By studying whole cultures and seeing culture as a total configuration, Benedict adopted Boas’s emphasis on the collection of information and took it further by integrating data around a concept; in her case, it was the cultural configuration. This gave impetus to cultural relativism, Cultural relativism which argued that whole cultures should be studied rather than cultural traits or culture as a general concept. Benedict also brought forth the issue of the relationship between the individual and society. She showed that culture provides a stimulus for certain behavioral patterns and that individuals influence their culture—that is, influence flows both ways. People who do not fit into a society thus do not necessarily have to blame themselves. In fact, Benedict showed that even though some cultures evaluate certain behaviors as abnormal, other cultures provide environments where people practicing those behaviors function well. These revelations gave impetus to the culture and personality focus in anthropology.

For nonanthropologists as well as anthropologists, Benedict set forth a concept of culture and showed the importance it has in everyday life, even in modern society. She challenged the biological deterministic position that dominated the thinking of the time and replaced biology with culture as a prime determinant in human behavior. She also communicated the concept of cultural relativity to the public, leading people to be more open to evaluating others on their own terms rather than from outsiders’ ethnocentric bias. This formed the basis for reevaluation of cultural practices, such as sex roles. One ramification was that women did not have to be seen as innately weaker or inferior, given that in other cultures they hold a dominant position.

Patterns of Culture has remained a popular book, and much of the philosophy and many of the concepts it sets forth are as relevant in the twenty-first century as they were at the time it was initially published. The appearance of this book was an important step toward an understanding of human behavior that is part of the foundation of human knowledge. Patterns of Culture (Benedict)
Cultural anthropology

Further Reading

  • Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. 1934. Reprint. New York: Mariner Books, 1989. Classic work sets forth Benedict’s philosophical and theoretical views concerning the analysis of human behavior.
  • Bohannan, Paul, and Mark Glazer, eds. High Points in Anthropology. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Briefly describes some of Benedict’s contributions to anthropology as well as criticisms of her ideas. Includes Benedict’s original writings to allow readers to judge the ideas as they appeared in the primary sources.
  • Caffrey, Margaret M. Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. Highly acclaimed, well-researched, and insightful portrayal of Benedict and her works. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • Harris, Marvin. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Updated ed. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2000. Presents analysis of anthropological theories from the cultural materialist perspective.
  • Hays, H. R. From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology. 1958. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. An account of the development of anthropology from a literary perspective.
  • Honigmann, John J. The Development of Anthropological Ideas. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1976. Addresses the development of anthropology from the cultural perspective of the American school.
  • Mead, Margaret. Ruth Benedict: A Humanist in Anthropology. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. A portrayal of Benedict by a close friend and scholar who had access to much of her correspondence.
  • Modell, Judith Schachter. Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Insightful biography offers analysis of Benedict’s life and work.
  • Young, Virginia Heyer. Ruth Benedict: Beyond Relativity, Beyond Pattern. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Biography by one of Benedict’s last graduate students draws on the anthropologist’s unpublished and lesser-known works as well as her personal correspondence and other materials to illuminate the final years of her life.

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