Patterns of Culture

by Ruth Fulton

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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 each a “consistent pattern of thought and action” founded in a generalized attitude toward the world and toward others which permeates the consciousness of the individual members of the tribe. She finds that the Pueblos, for example, distrust all forms of excess. In consequence, all their institutions, from their marriage arrangements to their religious ceremonies, exhibit a startling lack of intensity. Ceremonies are entirely formulaic, with the stress laid on strict adherence to each movement and word prescribed by tradition, and with no provisions for religious ecstasy or trance. A good person is considered one who fits in, is friendly, and causes no problems.

For the Dobu, however, goodness—or, more correctly, success—is associated with treachery and ill will. Everyone, even one’s wife or husband, is a potential enemy against whom one must exercise a guileful sorcery, both to protect oneself and to attack the other. The Dobuan blames every bad happening, from minor aggravations to real catastrophes, on the machinations of an enemy. Dobuan institutions reflect this paranoia and are essentially prescriptions for revenge and for the prevention of the enemy’s attacks.

An entirely different set of assumptions governs the behavior of the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, a tribe already extinct in Benedict’s time. In many ways, the Kwakiutl operated at the opposite pole from that of the Pueblo; the greater the display of excess, the more worthy the individual. Excess for them meant a self-glorifying exhibition of wealth; exorbitant sums were paid for brides and in rituals of exchange called potlatches. Often a Kwakiutl would destroy incredible amounts of material possessions; such wantonness was held as evidence of great wealth indeed.

What becomes clear...

(This entire section contains 867 words.)

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from these examples is that the various institutions common to human society—such as mourning, marriage, coming-of-age, and economics—do not indicate “generic drives and motivations” that determine the range of behaviors associated with them. Rather, they provide “certain occasions which any society may seize upon to express its important cultural intentions.” Marriage for the Zuni, for example, does not serve the same cultural function that it does for the Dobu or the Kwakiutl. The biological function served by marriage—procreation—is eclipsed by the accretions of content that are purely local and cultural. This is as true for “the white man” as it is for the “primitive.” Western institutions, Benedict states, are just as “compulsive,” not “basic and essential in human behavior,” as Westerners might like to believe.

This assertion leads Benedict to a consideration of “abnormality.” What a culture excludes from the immense range of possible human interests is labeled abnormal. A culture that provides a rich field for the exercise of these interests, however, also provides for the satisfaction of its members. A culture that narrows its focus—that, for example, subsumes all interests, from sex to death, under the will to power, as does Western culture—creates a situation in which the natural tendencies of many of its individual members are thwarted. In support of this idea, Benedict compares the acceptance of homosexuality in many cultures with its nonacceptance in the West. Those whom a culture considers normal, however, “have a license which they may almost endlessly exploit,” often to the detriment of the society itself.