Form and Content

At the age of thirty-two, having struggled for years to discover herself in poetry and in an unsatisfactory marriage, Ruth Benedict took her first course in anthropology, studying with Franz Boas, whose work is the cornerstone of American anthropology. During the next fifteen years, she became an extremely influential anthropologist in her own right and published Patterns of Culture, which can be considered the key statement of the culture-and-personality school of anthropology, the tenets of which are as ingrained in modern thinking as are the theories of evolution and psycho-analysis.

Benedict argues that every culture is organized around specific beliefs that can be seen in the range of behaviors considered acceptable within that culture. These beliefs constitute the culture’s fundamental conceptions of reality and what it means to be human. Behaviors that are not consistent with these beliefs are not recognized as being natural to humans. Implicit, then, is the suggestion that the range of possible human behavior is much wider than that provided within any one cultural context; an “outsider” in one milieu may be an “insider” in another.

Indeed, this suggestion is central to Patterns of Culture, and it explains the interest this book has inspired among many feminists, for the freeing of “human nature” from its cultural constraints extends equally to women and men. Although Benedict never referred to herself as a feminist, the most passionately argued moments of Patterns of Culture arise in defense of what she calls “a more realistic social faith”—namely, cultural relativism, a premise central to much of the feminist critique and to late twentieth century progressive thought in general.

The book can be divided into three sections. The first introduces the concept of patterning, evidence for which is provided in the section that follows—an in-depth examination of three disparate cultures. This examination leads in turn to a discussion of “abnormal” behavior—what it means within a particular culture and what it could mean were one able to view behavior objectively, unblinded by one’s own cultural preconceptions. It is this last section that builds the argument for cultural relativism and that makes Patterns of Culture more a work of social criticism than an unimpassioned anthropological text.


It is with these concluding arguments that Benedict has most influenced feminist thought. The “white man” as defined by his culture takes the opportunity to “endlessly exploit” not only foreign cultures and the environment but also members of his own culture, male and female. Benedict’s plea for the necessity of cultural relativism has taken root under the banner of multiculturalism. Benedict’s arguments served as the harbinger of the backlash, which became evident in the 1960’s, against cultural exploitation. For this reason, Margaret Mead, herself a student of Benedict and an important voice in the women’s movement, in 1974 reassembled her 1959 collection of Benedict’s papers in order to conform to contemporary interests.


Caffrey, Margaret M. Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. Caffrey examines Benedict’s life and work from a feminist perspective, revealing her to have held beliefs not common until twenty years after her death. This book is valuable for the light it sheds on Benedict’s last years, which she spent conducting an ambitious federal project, and it also provides an unflinching portrait of her childhood and her sexuality.

Mead, Margaret. An Anthropologist at Work: The Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. This is the most complete collection of Benedict’s papers, ranging from her poetry to scholarly work. It is chronologically arranged in sections, and each section is prefaced by a biographical sketch by Mead. The portrait that emerges is slanted toward Mead’s own interests and is perhaps clouded by Mead’s emotional closeness to her subject.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow, 1964. One of the precursors to Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, this book offers a detailed examination of adolescence in Samoa and demonstrates that children in Samoa go through none of the turmoil associated with pubescence in Western cultures. The conclusion, then, is that the way in which a culture patterns its members accounts for much behavior. This constitutes a refutation of arguments based on “human nature.”

Mead, Margaret. Ruth Benedict. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. Mead revised her earlier collection of Benedict’s writings for more contemporary audiences, widening her scope to include references to Benedict’s feminism. She also provides a short biography that is somewhat more objective than her first effort was. This is a good introductory volume for students who are new to Benedict’s writings and life story. Includes a good bibliography.

Modell, Judith Schachter. Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Modell attempts to discern the pattern of Benedict’s life by locating its recurrent themes. She includes a wealth of quotations from journals and letters. Because Modell takes a more traditional biographical stance than Caffrey does, leaving certain topics off limits, some readers may find her book less interesting than Caffrey’s.