Patterns of Culture

by Ruth Fulton

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

Ruth Benedict was a strong advocate of the holism of culture, meaning that all the parts were interdependent and the whole shows internal consistency. That consistency in turn created patterns that could be traced among different cultures.

A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action . . . Such patterning of culture cannot be ignored as if it were an unimportant detail. The whole, as modern science is insisting in many fields, is not merely the sum of all its parts, but the result of a unique arrangement and interrelation of the parts that has brought about a new entity.

Benedict points out that culture influences every aspect of human thought and endeavor, down to the distinction between truth and falsehood.

No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. Even in his philosophical probings he cannot go behind these stereotypes; his very concepts of the true and the false will still have reference to his particular traditional customs.

Much of the book is devoted to the cultural patterns evidenced by three different societies: the Zuni Pueblos, the Dobu, and the Kwakiutl. She selected each one because it shows a distinct worldview that shapes every aspect of customs, behaviors, and material culture. For example, she notes how the Zuni people differ from other Native American groups, even those close by. Their culture is marked by a kind of moderated calm.

The Zuni are a ceremonious people, a people who value sobriety and inoffensiveness above all other virtues. Their interest is centered upon their complex and rich ceremonial life . . . No field of activity competes with ritual for foremost place in their attention.

In contrast, the Kwakiutl people of Northwestern North America were exuberant in their orientation to life, including the way they carried out feasts and rituals.

[T]he tribes of the Northwest Coast were Dionysian. In their religious ceremonies the final thing they strove for was ecstasy. The chief dancer . . . should lose normal control of himself and be rapt into another state of existence.

Benedict encourages the study of culture to help gain perspective on one’s own culture, including its shortcomings. She points out the negative effects of ethnocentrism, that one regards one’s own culture as natural and all others as deviant or inferior.

We interpret our dependence, in our civilization, upon economic competition, as proof that this is the prime motivation that human nature can rely upon, or we read off the behaviour of small children as it is moulded in our civilization and recorded in child clinics, as child psychology or the way in which the young human animal is bound to behave.

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