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Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict Essay - Critical Essays

Benedict, Ruth

Introduction

Ruth Benedict 1887-1948

(Full name Ruth Fulton Benedict; also wrote under the pseudonym Anne Singleton) American anthropologist, essayist, and poet.

Benedict was a leading figure in the development of American anthropology. Her most famous works, Patterns of Culture and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, are noted for applying concepts of psychology to anthropological studies. Both books greatly influenced later anthropologists and helped to popularize the subject of anthropology among the general public.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City and raised on a farm in upstate New York, Benedict attended Vassar College on a scholarship. Upon her graduation in 1909 she worked as a social worker and teacher. In 1914 she married biochemist Stanley Benedict (the couple later separated). In 1919 she returned to college and studied anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Benedict later enrolled at Columbia University to study with the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas, whose pioneering concept of "cultural relativity"—that is, the idea that a culture should be evaluated on its own terms rather than from an outside perspective—dominated anthropological thought of the time. She became Boas's teaching assistant in 1922; the following year she received her doctorate degree in anthropology. During this time she began doing fieldwork among Native American tribes of the West. Benedict taught at Columbia University until her death in 1948.

Major Works

Benedict's works relate the concept of culture to the psychological concept of personality. She asserted that just as personality determines the development of the individual, each culture contains a dominant mental pattern, "a personality writ large." In Patterns of Culture, based on her field experiences, Benedict compared several native cultures, including the Zuffi of New Mexico and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Influenced by the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, she attributed traits to each group that reflected the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy that Nietzsche articulated in his The Birth of Tragedy. She regarded the Zuili, who valued a sober, orderly, and harmonious way of life, as having an Apollonian perspective of the world. Conversely, in the Kwakiutl Benedict saw a Dionysian pattern of thought and behavior characterized by excess and self-destructiveness. Throughout Patterns of Culture, Benedict questioned the concept of normality and proposed the theory that no culture is ethically or morally superior to another. She continued to explore this theory in Race: Science and Politics and The Races of Mankind. In 1946 Benedict published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an analysis of Japanese society. This book, which identifies and examines the central themes in Japanese culture, helped to shape America's policy toward Japan following World War II.

Principal Works

The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (nonfiction) 1923

Tales of the Cochiti Indians (folklore) 1931

Patterns of Culture (nonfiction) 1934

Zufli Mythology. 2 vols. (folklore) 1935

Race: Science and Politics (nonfiction) 1940

The Races of Mankind [with Gene Weltfish] (nonfiction) 1943

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (nonfiction) 1946

An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict (essays, journals, letters, and poetry) 1959

Criticism

Gordon Bowles (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: A review of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, September, 1947, pp. 237-41.

[In the following review, Bowles discusses Benedict's observations and analyses in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.]

It is difficult to judge fairly the merits and demerits of a descriptive analytical study when the author lacks firsthand acquaintance with his source material. In the present instance, the author has sought to meet the handicap by a threefold program of extensive reading, the generous use of well-qualified informants, and the employment of modern techniques of critical analysis. She has also attempted to turn this handicap into an advantage by using the data as a demonstration of what a trained observer can do with secondhand data at long range.

The reader cannot help being impressed by the orderly manner in which the data have been assembled and by the incisive phrasing and keen logic with which they have been presented. These speak for themselves and are a tribute not only to the author but to the entire study of society as a science. Dr. Benedict is certainly to be congratulated in having made available such an excellent study. The reader gets the impression, however, that the justification for such an experiment has been carried somewhat to excess. He feels that the study has sufficient merit in itself as not to have necessitated such a complete apologia as that contained in Chapter I, no matter how important and true its content.

The Chrysthemum and the Sword is an interpretation of Japanese personality and character primarily during periods of response to emotional stress and, as Dr. Benedict points out, "All the ways in which the Japanese departed from Western conventions of war were data on their view of life and on their convictions of the whole duty of man."

By far the most valuable aspect of the study is the analysis of the Japanese sense of loyalty, especially as this involves the incurring of obligations and their repayment. A very useful table is given … which outlines schematically these obligations and their reciprocals.

The obligations or on of an individual are fivefold: those received from the emperor, from the parents, from one's lord, from one's teacher, and through the contacts of daily life. Each on has its reciprocal payment but the payment is of two kinds, those which have no limit in time or space and which can never be fully repaid (i.e., duty to the Emperor, to one's parents, and to one's work) and those which can and must be specifically repaid. The first is termed gimu and the latter girn or debts which are repaid "with mathematical equivalence." Such giri payments are of two types: giri-to-the-world, which involves duties to one's liege lord, duties to one's family, duties incurred as a result of gifts of money or favors, and finally duties to closely related kin such as aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces; the second type of giri, that to one's name, involves the clearing of "one's reputation of insult or imputation of failure." This giri involves also two other factors: "One's duty to admit no (professional) failure or ignorance" and "One's duty to fulfill the Japanese proprieties, e.g., observing all respect behavior, not living above one's station in life, curbing all displays of emotion on inappropriate occasions, etc."

Chapters 5 through 8, the heart of the book, are devoted to this summary of Japan's ethical code, to...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)

Elgin Williams (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "Anthropology for the Common Man," in American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 1, 1947, pp. 84-90.

[In the following essay, Williams reviews the mass-market edition ofPatterns of Culture, providing an introduction to the methodology and principles that are central to this work.]

Publication of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture in a 25 cent edition is an extremely important event. What it means is no less than this: Anthropology has now become available to the man on the street.

What is it that has now become popularly available? Great interest will attach, for one thing, to Dr. Benedict's colorful and suggestive use of the...

(The entire section is 3255 words.)

A. L. Kroeber (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: A review of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, in American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 3, 1947, pp. 469-72.

[Kroeber was a leading figure in American anthropology during the middle decades of the twentieth century and published numerous studies of Native American cultures. In the following review, he praises Benedict's treatment of the relationship between psychology and culture in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.]

This analysis of Japan [The Chrysanthemum and the Sword] is a book that makes one proud to be an anthropologist. It shows what can be done with orientation and discipline even without speaking knowledge of the language and...

(The entire section is 1443 words.)

Victor Barnouw (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Ruth Benedict: Apollonian and Dionysian," The University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, April, 1949, pp. 241-53.

[Barnouw is an American anthropologist and fiction writer. In the following essay, he provides an analysis of the underlying principles of Patterns of Culture.]

"The Chippewa can not kill thefatherr' Ruth Benedict exclaimed to me one day, looking up gravely from my much blue-pencilled thesis and emphasizing each word separately. "They can not kill the father! Contrast with Eskimo!" My adviser turned her meditative eyes upon me and inquired, "Can't you fit that in somewhere?" As often happened, I felt that I almost saw her...

(The entire section is 5977 words.)

Margaret Mead (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Patterns of Culture: 1922-1934," in An Anthropologist at Work. Writings of Ruth Benedict, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959, pp. 201-12.

[Mead was a leading figure in American anthropology whose works, including Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), emphasized a vital relevance between "primitive" and modern societies which she believed could illuminate contemporary social problems. In the following excerpt, she studies Benedict's defining methods and principles as an anthropologist.]

Ruth Benedict stood midway between the older type of anthropology, in which theoreticians—men like Tylor...

(The entire section is 3712 words.)

Robert B. Downs (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Society versus the Individual: Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture, 1934," in Famous American Books, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971, pp. 290-97.

[Downs is an American librarian and critic who has published a variety of works, including literary studies and several surveys examining books that have had a significant social influence. In the following essay, he discusses Benedict's approach to anthropology in Patterns of Culture.]

For a serious and scholarly anthropological study to achieve sales in excess of a million copies was unheard of until the publication in 1934 of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. In hardback and paperback editions this...

(The entire section is 2636 words.)

Elrin Hatch (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "From Irrationality to Utility in Cultural Integration: Ruth Benedict," in Theories of Man and Culture, Columbia University Press, 1973, pp. 75-91.

[Hatch is an American anthropologist. In the following essay, he analyzes Benedict's view of the relationship between individuals and their culture.]

Victor Barnouw, one of Benedict's graduate students at Columbia, describes the impression she made on him then. "Like most of Ruth Benedict's students, I looked up to her with a mixture of veneration and bewilderment." He speaks of her "silvery aura of prestige, dignity, and charm." This aura was partially due to her remoteness. She was hard of hearing, shy, and...

(The entire section is 4968 words.)

Sidney W. Mintz (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Ruth Benedict," in Totems and Teachers: Perspectives on the History of Anthropology, edited by Sydel Silverman, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 141-70.

[Mintz is an American anthropologist who has written extensively on the cultures of Caribbean countries. In the following essay, he examines the way in which Benedict's anthropological writings reflected her personal character and concerns.]

Ruth Benedict, whom Margaret Mead described as "one of the first women to attain major stature as a social scientist," came to anthropology relatively late in life, in comparison with her contemporaries. She discovered anthropology only after a long search, and after...

(The entire section is 6981 words.)

Judith Schachter Modell (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Patterns of Culture," in Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, pp. 184-215.

[Modell is an American anthropologist. In the following excerpt from her biography of Benedict she discusses the themes in Patterns of Culture in relation to Benedict's life and times.]

In Patterns of Culture Ruth Benedict focused on a topic with personal ramifications and a professional legitimacy; self and society was not a new topic for her or her discipline. She went beyond the self-is-nothing-without-society theorem and, though readers did not always notice, beyond a mere equivalence of personality and culture. Ruth claimed...

(The entire section is 5559 words.)

Clifford Geertz (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Us/Not-Us: Benedict's Travels," in Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 102-28.

[Geertz is an American anthropologist whose numerous works focus on the cultures of Indonesian countries and reflect a method of study that combines various disciplinesincluding history, philosophy, psychology, and literary criticismto analyse cultural structures and phenomena. Describing himself as an "interpretive social scientist," he is considered one of the most important figures in contemporary anthropology. In the following essay, Geertz examines Benedict's prose style, beginning with a passage from her essay "The Uses of...

(The entire section is 8163 words.)

Margaret M. Caffrey (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Patterns of Culture: Between America and Anthropology," in Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land, University of Texas Press, 1989, pp. 206-40.

[Caffrey is an American anthropologist. In the following excerpt from her biography of Benedict, she assesses the impact that Patterns of Culture exerted on anthropology as a developing field of study.]

Patterns of Culture had a multiple impact on American thought. It acted as a signal of and a catalyst for the final acceptance of a profound paradigm change in the social sciences and in American society and set in place the new twentieth-century paradigm or world view which had been taking shape up to that...

(The entire section is 10585 words.)

Richard Handler (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Ruth Benedict and the Modernist Sensibility," in Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text, edited by Marc Manganaro, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 163-80.

[In the following essay, Handler considers Benedict's anthropological writings as representative of a "modernist sensibility. 'I

In recent works, Michael Levenson (1984) and Kathryne Lindberg (1987) have charted the tension within literary modernism between the quest for self-expression and the desire to recover a viable tradition. Both critics, in strikingly different ways, have presented the dialogue and debate between Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (among others) as emblematic of the larger...

(The entire section is 7122 words.)