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.
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.
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.
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
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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...
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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 concepts "Apollonian" and "Dionysian." People interested in their "complexes" (and that includes almost everybody!) will derive pleasure and profit from her shrewd application of psychoanalysis to anthropology. But there can be little doubt that overriding contribution of Patterns of Culture is the liberalizing tradition of the science, the tradition which has shown itself already powerful in dealing with race prejudice and hatred. The message of Patterns of Culture is that
the possible human institutions and motives are legion, on every plane of cultural simplicity or complexity, and… wisdom consists in a greatly increased tolerance toward their divergences. No man can thoroughly participate in...
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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 residence in the country.
Dr. Benedict deals definitely with culture, and equally definitely with psychology. In her own manner the two are interfused; the cultural value standards are stated as such, and so too is it stated how normal individuals act under them. The skilful interweaving of the many facets of a large culture hardly lends itself to summary or to concept concentration, especially since the Japanese tend to view life as consisting of so many "circles" or departments. So a running series of her findings will be touched on here; as Dr. Benedict says, the tough-minded are content that differences should exist.
Japanese organization is hierarchical. Society still is aristocratic. Respect and its...
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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 point, but not quite. However, I jotted a hurried note—"Chips don't kill father.… Esk.(?)"—and said that I would have to think about it.
Like most of Ruth Benedict's students, I looked up to her with a mixture of veneration and bewilderment. With her silvery aura of prestige, dignity, and charm, she seemed to be like a symbolic representative of the humanistic values of the Renaissance. Yet Ruth Benedict often seemed to have a kind of private language and way of thinking which made communication uncertain. She used unexpected verbal short-cuts, tangential observations, and symbols to convey her meaning; but these stratagems did not always succeed. In this particular case, I debated with myself for several days about her...
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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 or Frazer, Lang or Crawley—worked with materials gathered by others—with old documents, travelers' and missionaries' accounts, or with notes laboriously written down by native converts—and the kind of anthropology related to living cultures, which grew out of field work in the South Seas and in Africa. Because she wanted vivid materials, she valued old eyewitness accounts of American Indians, such as those found in the Jesuit Relations; because she wanted materials meticulously collected by the rigorous textual methods which Boas insisted upon, she herself was willing to spend long, grueling hours of work among Indians whose cultures, through the erosion of contact with cultures brought from Europe centuries before, had hardened in...
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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 extraordinary work has made publishing history by reaching best-sellerdom in the English language and in numerous translations.
There may be significance in the fact, too, that Ruth Benedict's student and close friend Margaret Mead is also the author of several extraordinarily popular and successful studies of primitive societies. The two writers broke away from traditional approaches to anthropology and started new trends, which continue to dominate the field. Conceivably, the feminine viewpoint brought a warmth and understanding of human beings that was lacking in the dry, technical reports of their male confreres.
The older anthropologists were generally theorists who relied upon materials gathered by...
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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 frequently melancholy, and consequently she tended to remain aloof from people. But she was also a remarkably generous person, for she gave freely of both her time and money to friends and students who were in need.
Benedict was born in New York City in 1887. Her father, a surgeon, died when she was two years old, leaving her mother to support the family as a teacher and librarian. Because of a scholarship, however, Ruth and her sister were able to attend Vassar, and they graduated together in 1909.
Ruth taught school for two years after graduation, and in 1914 married a biochemist at the Cornell Medical College.
Benedict was restless before her marriage, and she apparently hoped that her...
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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 having sought fulfillment in many other pursuits, only one of which—writing poetry—seems to have provided her with deep satisfaction. Having discovered anthropology, she was to become one of its most distinguished and distinctive practitioners. It is because certain of her unusual and highly original contributions now appear to have been forgotten or ignored that I will offer here what is only a narrow view of her scholarship.
Benedict was born in 1887, the older of the two daughters of Dr. and Mrs. Frederick S. Fulton. Her father died while she was still a baby, and only a few weeks before the birth of her sister. The girls' mother did not remarry, and grieved her loss unremittingly. The emotional qualities of her...
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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 that individuals needed society for their very individuality and that societies needed individualities in order to survive, adjust to crisis, and change.
Ruth also had a particular idea about how to present these points. In proper anthropological fashion, her fieldwork experiences gave her a clue. She applied a Zufii concept of "the ideal man" to her discussion of self and society and in the process substantiated her notion of "pattern."
Through their "ideal," Zufii Indians perpetuated a standard of individual behavior. The standard reflected cultural values and became a vehicle for transmitting pattern from society to individuals. Ruth Benedict borrowed the idea to express connections between individual...
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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 disciplines—including history, philosophy, psychology, and literary criticism—to 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 Cannibalism. 'I
We have done scant justice to the reasonableness of cannibalism. There are in fact so many and such excellent motives possible to it that mankind has never been able to fit all of them into one universal scheme, and has accordingly contrived various diverse and contradictory systems the better to display its virtues.
The present decade, indeed, is likely to appreciate to an unusual degree the advantages that attach to cannibalism so soon as the matter may be presented. We have already had recourse to many quaint primitive customs our fathers believed outmoded by the progress of mankind. We have watched the dependence of great nations upon the old device of the pogrom....
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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 time. In clear, compelling language Benedict drew together the scattered new ideas, filtered them through her own thinking and experience, and articulated a coherent social philosophy, a new set of axioms people could use to give direction to their lives and thoughts. In writing a book about configurations among primitive peoples, Benedict was covertly giving her readers a new underlying configuration for American culture based on the new values and beliefs. As a cornerstone of the new configuration, for the general educated public at large and for the other social sciences as well the book culminated the decade-long debate over biology versus culture. At the beginning of the decade biology was firmly entrenched as the primary motivator of...
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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 opposition of individuality and tradition, or deconstructive originality and cultural constraint. In my work on the literary endeavors of Boasian anthropologists, I have examined a similar tension in the development of a culture theory that could accommodate both cultural holism and human individuality. Using Levenson and Lindberg to reexamine an essay in which I compare the literary and anthropological writings of Edward Sapir to those of Ruth Benedict, I might now offer the following formula: Pound is to Eliot as Sapir is to Benedict. Put less cryptically, the contrast between Pound's iconoclasm and Eliot's Catholicism is similar to that between Sapir's emphasis on the individual and Benedict's championing of culture. Sapir focused on the...
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Mead, Margaret. Ruth Benedict. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1974, 180 p.
Biography that draws extensively on Benedict's letters and private journals.
Ruth Fulton Benedict: A Memorial. New York: Viking Fund, 1949, 47 p.
Memorial tributes to Benedict, including contributions by Margaret Mead, Alfred Koeber, Erik Erikson, and Robert Lynd.
Bennett, John W. "Echoes: Reactions to American Anthropology." American Anthropologist 55, No. 3 (August 1953): 404-11.
Discusses reactions to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword among Japanese scholars.
Briscoe, Virginia Wolf. "Ruth Benedict: Anthropological Folklorist." Journal of American Folklore 92, No. 366 (October-December 1979): 445-76.
Examines Benedict's contribution to folklore as a scholarly discipline.
Kardiner, Abram, and Preble, Edward. "Ruth Benedict: Science and Poetry." In their They Studied Man, pp. 204-14. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1961.
Overview of Benedict's major works.
Reuter, E. B. Review of Race: Science and Politics. The American Journal of Sociology XLVI (1940-41): 619-22.
Somewhat negative view of Benedict's study of race relations. Reuter...
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