Ruth Benedict  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Ruth Benedict (born Ruth Fulton, June 5, 1887September 17, 1948) was an American anthropologist. She classified different cultures by their emphasis of using either shame or guilt to regulate the social activities of their members.

Biography

She was born in New York City, and attended Vassar College, graduating in 1909. She entered graduate studies at Columbia University in 1919, studying under Franz Boas, receiving her PhD and joining the faculty in 1923. Margaret Mead, with whom she may have shared a romantic relationship, and Marvin Opler were among her students and colleagues.

Franz Boas, her teacher and mentor, has been called the father of American anthropology and his teachings and point of view are clearly evident in Benedict's work. Boas is author of many classic works including Race, Language, and Culture—perhaps the most potent anti-racist text to emerge from the academic world in his time. In it Boas attempts to prove that race, language, and culture are independent. After Boas, it was no longer possible to say that any given race was inferior, incapable of the highest culture humanity had to offer, and still be taken seriously. Ruth Benedict was affected by the passionate egalitarianism of Boas, her mentor, and continued it in her research and writing.

Patterns of Culture

Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934) was translated into fourteen languages and was published in many editions as standard reading for anthropology courses in American universities for years.

The essential idea in Patterns of Culture is, according to the foreword by Margaret Mead, "her view of human cultures as 'personality writ large.'" Each culture, Benedict explains, chooses from "the great arc of human potentialities" only a few characteristics which become the leading personality traits of the persons living in that culture. These traits comprise an interdependent constellation of aesthetics and values in each culture which together add up to a unique gestalt. For example she described the emphasis on restraint in Pueblo cultures of the American southwest, and the emphasis on abandon in the Native American cultures of the Great Plains. She used the Nietzschean opposites of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as the stimulus for her thought about these Native American cultures. She describes how in ancient Greece, the worshipers of Apollo emphasized order and calm in their celebrations. In contrast, the worshipers of Dionysus, the god of wine, emphasized wildness, abandon, letting go. And so it was among Native Americans. She described in detail the contrasts between rituals, beliefs, personal preferences amongst people of diverse cultures to show how each culture had a "personality" that was encouraged in each individual.

Other anthropologists of the culture and personality school also developed these ideas—notably Margaret Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa (published before "Patterns of Culture") and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (published just after Benedict's book came out). Benedict was a senior student of Franz Boas when Mead began to study with them, and they had extensive and reciprocal influence on each other's work. Abram Kardiner was also affected by these ideas, and in time the concept of "modal personality" was born: the cluster of traits most commonly thought to be observed in people of any given culture.

Benedict, in Patterns of Culture, expresses her belief in cultural relativism. She desired to show that each culture has its own moral imperatives that can be understood only if one studies that culture as a whole. It was wrong, she felt, to disparage the customs or values of a culture different from one's own. Those customs had a meaning to the people who lived them which should not be dismissed or trivialized. We should not try to evaluate people by our standards alone. Morality, she argued, was relative to the values of the culture in which one operated.

As she described the Kwakiutls of the Northwest Coast (based on the fieldwork of her mentor Franz Boas), the Pueblos of New Mexico (among whom she had direct experience), the nations of the Great Plains, and the Dobu culture of New Guinea (regarding whom she relied upon Mead and Reo Fortune's fieldwork), she gave evidence that their values, even where they may seem strange, are intelligible in terms of their own coherent cultural systems and should be understood and respected.

Critics have objected to the degree of abstraction and generalization inherent in the "culture and personality" approach. Some have argued that particular patterns she found may only be a part or a subset of the whole cultures. For example, David Friend Aberle writes that the Pueblo people may be calm, gentle, and much given to ritual when in one mood or set of circumstances, but can be suspicious, retaliatory, and warlike in other circumstances. Nevertheless, Benedict's elegant descriptions are vivid, readable, and easy to relate to. New generations of students continue to find her arguments persuasive even after the culture and personality school has been abandoned by anthropologists generally.

In 1936 she was appointed an associate professor at Columbia University. However, by then Dr. Benedict had already assisted in the training and guidance of several Columbia students of anthropology including Margaret Mead and Ruth Landes.

Benedict was among the leading cultural anthropologists who were recruited by the U.S. Government for war-related research and consultation after U.S. entry into World War II.

One of her lesser known works was a pamphlet "The Races of Mankind" which she wrote with her colleague at the Columbia University Department of Anthropology, Gene Weltfish. This pamphlet was intended for American troops and set forth, in simple language with cartoon illustrations, the scientific case against racist beliefs.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ruth Benedict" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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