Ruth Benedict Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ruth Benedict 1887-1948

(Full name Ruth Fulton Benedict; also wrote under the pseudonym Anne Singleton) American anthropologist, essayist, and poet.

Benedict was a leading figure in the development of American anthropology. Her most famous works, Patterns of Culture and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, are noted for applying concepts of psychology to anthropological studies. Both books greatly influenced later anthropologists and helped to popularize the subject of anthropology among the general public.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City and raised on a farm in upstate New York, Benedict attended Vassar College on a scholarship. Upon her graduation in 1909 she worked as a social worker and teacher. In 1914 she married biochemist Stanley Benedict (the couple later separated). In 1919 she returned to college and studied anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Benedict later enrolled at Columbia University to study with the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas, whose pioneering concept of "cultural relativity"—that is, the idea that a culture should be evaluated on its own terms rather than from an outside perspective—dominated anthropological thought of the time. She became Boas's teaching assistant in 1922; the following year she received her doctorate degree in anthropology. During this time she began doing fieldwork among Native American tribes of the West. Benedict taught at Columbia University until her death in 1948.

Major Works

Benedict's works relate the concept of culture to the psychological concept of personality. She asserted that just as personality determines the development of the individual, each culture contains a dominant mental pattern, "a personality writ large." In Patterns of Culture, based on her field experiences, Benedict compared several native cultures, including the Zuffi of New Mexico and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Influenced by the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, she attributed traits to each group that reflected the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy that Nietzsche articulated in his The Birth of Tragedy. She regarded the Zuili, who valued a sober, orderly, and harmonious way of life, as having an Apollonian perspective of the world. Conversely, in the Kwakiutl Benedict saw a Dionysian pattern of thought and behavior characterized by excess and self-destructiveness. Throughout Patterns of Culture, Benedict questioned the concept of normality and proposed the theory that no culture is ethically or morally superior to another. She continued to explore this theory in Race: Science and Politics and The Races of Mankind. In 1946 Benedict published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an analysis of Japanese society. This book, which identifies and examines the central themes in Japanese culture, helped to shape America's policy toward Japan following World War II.