Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

The author, generally known as Ruth Benedict, is one of the most important American cultural anthropologists of the twentieth century. She was instrumental in developing the “culture and personality” school, which emphasizes the psychological aspects of culture. Different societies, Benedict and others argued, tend toward different “patterns” that affect all members of that society. Because these patterns are culturally imposed, rather than biologically based, they can be changed. This formulation, an extension of the relativism of her professor and mentor, Franz Boas, directly challenged racist ideas about non-white peoples. In practice, however, it proved difficult to detach psychological tendencies from innate capabilities so that culture and personality analyses also incurred charges of racism. These criticisms sharpened in regard to Benedict’s evaluation of Japanese culture during World War II.

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The book’s principal theme is the importance of these patterns in shaping thoughts and ideas as well as behavior. Because parents and other adults begin molding children’s ideas and actions in infancy, all children grow up with that culture embedded in their consciousness. The patterns tended to reveal two fundamental types, the “Dionysian,” which tended toward excess and ostentation, and the “Apollonian,” which preferred restraint and moderation.

A second major theme is the underlying similarities of concepts among diverse cultures so that patterns are discernible even when specific manifestations of theme seem different. Closely related to this idea is Benedict’s choice of three cultures to analyze in the book; each represents a cultural type. These are the Pueblo of the US Southwest, the Kwakiutl of the North American Pacific Northwest, and the Dobu of New Guinea.

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