Form and Content
At the age of thirty-two, having struggled for years to discover herself in poetry and in an unsatisfactory marriage, Ruth Benedict took her first course in anthropology, studying with Franz Boas, whose work is the cornerstone of American anthropology. During the next fifteen years, she became an extremely influential anthropologist in her own right and published Patterns of Culture, which can be considered the key statement of the culture-and-personality school of anthropology, the tenets of which are as ingrained in modern thinking as are the theories of evolution and psycho-analysis.
Benedict argues that every culture is organized around specific beliefs that can be seen in the range of behaviors considered acceptable within that culture. These beliefs constitute the culture’s fundamental conceptions of reality and what it means to be human. Behaviors that are not consistent with these beliefs are not recognized as being natural to humans. Implicit, then, is the suggestion that the range of possible human behavior is much wider than that provided within any one cultural context; an “outsider” in one milieu may be an “insider” in another.
Indeed, this suggestion is central to Patterns of Culture, and it explains the interest this book has inspired among many feminists, for the freeing of “human nature” from its cultural constraints extends equally to women and men. Although Benedict never referred to herself as a feminist, the most passionately argued moments of Patterns of Culture arise in defense of what she calls “a more realistic social faith”—namely, cultural relativism, a premise central to much of the feminist critique and to late twentieth century progressive thought in general.
The book can be divided into three sections. The first introduces the concept of patterning, evidence for which is provided in the section that follows—an in-depth examination of three disparate cultures. This examination leads in turn to a discussion of “abnormal” behavior—what it means within a particular culture and what it could mean were one able to view behavior objectively, unblinded by one’s own cultural preconceptions. It is this last section that builds the argument for cultural relativism and that makes Patterns of Culture more a work of social criticism than an unimpassioned anthropological text.