Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
Ruth Benedict (the name under which the author usually published) argues for the importance of culture in analyzing not only behavior but the underlying values and thought processes that lead to such behaviors. The cultural patterns that each society develops, she argues, correspond to the underlying values that guide proper attitudes and are revealed in every aspect of life, including language, daily activities such as cooking, and rituals. Beginning in infancy, even “baby talk” is culturally marked and, Benedict emphasizes, inescapable: no human being grows up without culture. Equally important, such features are not carried in any “germ-cell”; that is, “culture is not...biologically transmitted.” Rather than a random assortment of traits, however, cultures may be sorted in to patterns, and not only the external manifestations but interior states are culturally derived. In the last regard, Benedict was a key figure in the “culture and personality” studies that emphasized psychology.
Overall tendencies toward restraint and modesty—the Apollonian type—may be observed in opposition to those showing exuberance and excess—the Dionysian type. While such types are not absolute, analyzing cultures according to these tendencies can help the anthropologist understand the motivations behind customs that seem incomprehensible or repellent. Thus, using cultural patterns fits within the larger idea of “cultural relativism,” which promotes understanding cultures on their own terms rather than judging them according to one’s own biases.
It should be noted that the book appeared in 1934, at a time when global awareness of such things as the rise of Nazism was just beginning. Benedict called for increased cultural analysis.
There has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture-conscious, who can see objectively the socially conditioned behavior of other peoples without fear and recrimination.
While Benedict used her own fieldwork-based research in the Southwestern United States, she also draws on the anthropological research done by Reo Fortune in the Pacific and Franz Boas in the Pacific Northwest. She devotes one chapter each to the Pueblo peoples, focusing on the Zuñi, the Dobu, and the Kwakiutl.
The cultural pattern that she finds unique among the Zuñi, in contrast to other Native American peoples, is their value on “sobriety and inoffensiveness.” This orientation—of Benedict’s Apollonian type—shapes their extreme attention to performance of ritual, which is needed to ensure proper ways of living. For the Dobu of New Guinea, Benedict finds an emphasis on risk-taking and involvement in magic. Using Fortune’s analysis of their reputation as “sorcerers,” Benedict shows how apparently hostile customs such as raiding enemy groups depends on social organization that reflects the matrilineal structure. The Kwakiutl, living within the abundance of the Pacific coast, developed tendencies toward excess and generosity. Their cultural traits, including lavish feasts called “potlatch,” show the striving for ecstasy consistent with Dionysian orientation.