At the outset, Benedict makes a case for the careful study of primitive cultures. The arguments she presents seem unremarkable now, but at the time she was writing, many Western academicians could see no point in examining cultures far less developed than their own. Benedict addresses this short-sightedness, faulting “the white man” (her words) for not realizing that customs and cultural institutions determine the individual’s perception, and that more of human behavior is socially ingrained than is biologically determined. The principal reason for studying primitive societies, then, is that they provide case material, in a form far simpler than that offered by Western cultures, for the differentiation between culturally determined and biologically determined behavior.
The diversity of cultures, each with institutions and behaviors that often seem diametrically opposed to those of other cultures, in itself offers evidence for the weighting of the equation toward social determination. Benedict argues that there is a great arc of possible human interests and behaviors of which each culture embodies but a fraction. Indeed, a culture that included too much material would be as unintelligible and as unmanageable as a language that employed every sound possible to the human vocal apparatus. The necessity for the selection of specific behaviors and the rejection of others explains the diversity of cultures, each of which is an example of the endless combinations that are possible.
These combinations are not arbitrary. Each exhibits “a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action” with “characteristic purposes not necessarily shared by other types of society.” This fact leads Benedict to argue against the mere cataloging of behavior, which many anthropologists engage in instead of attempting to portray the culture as an articulated whole.
Benedict’s own attempts to portray the patterns of three very different cultures occupy more than half of the book. She chooses two tribes of North America, the Pueblo and the Kwakiutl, and one of New Guinea, the Dobu. She discovers in...
(The entire section is 867 words.)