Patterns of Culture

by Ruth Fulton

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Reading Patterns of Culture more than eight decades after its 1934 publication, the reader will notice both tremendous contemporary relevance and very dated language and attitudes. The ongoing importance of this pioneering work by Ruth Benedict (the name she used in most of her writing) includes the author’s insistence on looking into each culture in terms of its own values and priorities. Although this type of cultural relativism—an idea she adapted from Franz Boas, the “father” of American cultural anthropology—seems like common sense today, in the early-mid 20th century it was still a very new idea. Benedict is widely credited for making Boas’ ideas accessible to the general public, as well as extending his basic concepts through her own sharp insights into a wide variety of cultures.

The idea of ranking cultures from “primitive” to “advanced,” which Benedict still does, was generally associated with evolutionist perspectives that claimed that many human traits were unchangeable because they were based in biology. Benedict argues, in contrast, that nothing in culture is based in biology—although culture cannot violate the laws of nature—so that any individual born into any society could learn the ways of another. The “patterns of culture” into which Benedict sorts unique cultures are intended to give an idea of their tendencies, as well as to explain how extreme differences can arise among human beings. Such analyses, including apparently diverse practices such as child-rearing and warfare, are seen as evidencing cultural unity among all its members. At the same time, as Benedict stresses the psychological aspects of culture, she calls attention to the unique role of individuals.

The three introductory chapters that lay out her theories are useful for showing how each idea can be applied in diverse situations. Benedict is acknowledged both for the insights of her own fieldwork-based research as well as for her skill at translating academic research—in this book that of Reo Fortune as well as Boas—into terms accessible to general readers. She is not primarily a theorist, and the reader will note some loose ends when she tries to connect diverse cultural practices to the overarching tendency of that particular culture. In addition, although relativism made important strides in combatting racism, many critics have pointed to the over-emphasis on cultural similarities. The characterization of the Dobu, for example, as valuing treachery seems to play into stereotypes of indigenous Pacific islanders, while the contrasting characterization of Pueblo people as peaceful apparently downplays their active resistance to colonial domination.

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