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Ruth Benedict in 1937

Ruth Benedict (born Ruth Fulton, June 6, 1887 – September 17, 1948) was an American anthropologist.

She was born in New York, 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 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 point of view can be seen in his student's, Ruth Fulton Benedict. 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 she proves that these three are independent: race, language, and culture. 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[edit | edit source]

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 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. 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 worshippers of Apollo emphasized order and calm in their celebrations. In contrast, the worshippers 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 personality and culture school followed through on these ideas--notably Margaret Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Abram Kardiner was 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 persons who lived them which should not be summed up or superficialized. We should not try to evaluate people by our standards alone. Morality, she felt, was relative.

As she described the Kwakiutls of the Northwest Coast, the Pueblos of New Mexico, the nations of the Great Plains, and the Dobu culture of New Guinea, she gave evidence that their values, even where they disagree with the values of the anthropology student who is reading Patterns of Culture, belong to coherent cultural systems and should be respected.

Whatever ethical imperatives have since been described by anthropologists as universal, not culture-bound, Benedict's work as a pioneer in describing whole cultures, and as an advocate of cross-cultural equality, has lived.

Critics have argued that particular patterns she found may only be a part, 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 the opposite situation. Nevertheless, while disagreements with Benedict are in the literature, her brief descriptions are felt to be vivid, readable, relevant to every human being, and as far as they go, penetratingly perceptive and accurate.

In 1936 she was appointed an associate professor at Columbia University.

Benedict was among the leading social 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.

The Races of Mankind[edit | edit source]

"The world is shrinking" begin Benedict and Weltfish. "Thirty-seven nations are now united in a common cause--victory over Axis aggression, the military destruction of fascism" (p. 1).

The nations united against fascism, they continue, include the most different physical types of men."

And the writers explicate, in section after section, the best evidence they knew for human equality. They want to encourage all these types of people to join together and not fight amongst themselves. "The peoples of the earth," they point out, are one family. We all have just so many teeth, so many molars, just so many little bones and muscles--so we can only have come from one set of ancestors no matter what our color, the shape of our head, the texture of our hair. "The races of mankind are what the Bible says they are--brothers. In their bodies is the record of their brotherhood."

Environment has to do with our physical traits. Dark skin affords some protection against strong tropical sunlight, for example.

But whatever our physical traits, regardless of the shape or size of our head, we are equally intelligent. "The best scientists cannot tell from examining a brain to what group of people its owner belonged....Some of the most brilliant men in the world have had very small brains. On the other hand, the world's largest brain belongs to an imbecile."

Environment has more to do with intelligence than birth does, including how much money is spent on schools. "Southern Whites," for example, scored below "Northern Negroes" in the IQ tests administered to the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I. And the per capita expenditures on schools in the south were only "fractions" of those in northern states in 1917.

The difference....[arose] because of differences of income, education, cultural advantages, and other opportunities.

Not only is the intelligence of people the same, on the whole, but the blood has the same chemical composition. Different peoples don't have different blood--"all the races of man have all [the] blood types"--and can receive transfusions from one another to save lives.

And all people are of mixed race, produced by "the movements of peoples over the face of the earth...since before history began."

This knowledge, and more, was intended to work against superiority--the superiority "a man claims when he says, 'I was born a member of a superior race.'....Racial prejudice," writes the authors, "makes people ruthless."

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword[edit | edit source]

Benedict is known not only for her earlier Patterns of Culture but also for her later book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the study of the society and culture of Japan that she published in 1946, incorporating results of her war-time research.

This book is an instance of Anthropology at a Distance. Study of a culture through its literature, through newspaper clippings, through films and recordings, etc., was necessary when anthropologists aided the United States and its allies in World War II. Unable to visit Nazi Germany or Japan under Hirohito, anthropologists made use of the cultural materials produced studied at a distance. They were attempting to understand the cultural patterns that might be driving their aggression, and hoped to find possible weaknesses, or means of persuasion that had been missed.

Benedict's war work included a major study, largely completed in 1944, aimed at understanding Japanese culture; for the Allies were in combat with Japanese armed forces in the Pacific Theatre of the second World War.

Americans found themselves unable to comprehend matters in Japanese culture. For instance, Americans considered it quite natural for American POWs' to want their families to know they were alive, and to keep quiet when asked for information about troop movements, etc. While Japanese POWs, apparently, gave information freely and did not try to contact their families. Why was that? Why, too, did Asian peoples neither treat the Japanese as their liberators from Western colonialism, nor accept their own supposedly obviously just place in a hierarchy that had Japanese at the top?

Benedict played a major role in grasping the place of the Emperor of Japan in Japanese popular culture, and formulating the recommendation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that permitting continuation of the Emperor's reign had to be part of the eventual surrender offer.

While one critic has written that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is "long since... discredited since Benedict had no direct experience in Japan" and described it as "considered shallow and overtly racist", the Japanese ambassador to Pakistan stated this in a public address:

In 1946, Ruth Benedict, a well-known American cultural anthropologist, published a book on Japan entitled “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword”, which has been a must reading for many students of Japanese studies.

Other Japanese who have read this work, according to Margaret Mead, found it on the whole accurate but somewhat "moralistic." Sections of the book were mentioned in Takeo Doi's book, The Anatomy of Dependence, where he uses some of her concepts to expand upon his ideas, as well as giving a critique of the concepts covered in the book.

It is still generally regarded as a classic whose value continues even despite the post-war changes in Japanese culture.

Post-War[edit | edit source]

She continued her teaching after the war, advancing to the rank of full professor only two months before her death, and died in New York on September 17, 1948.

A U.S. postage stamp in her honor was issued October 20, 1995.

Additional Note[edit | edit source]

A building at SUNY Stony Brook University, named Benedict College is named after both Ruth Benedict and her achievements in the field.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Remarks by H.E. Mr. Sadaaki Numata ... 25 November 2000
  • Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1934.
  • The Races of Mankind, Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 85, Public Affairs Committee, Inc., New York, 1943.
  • "A New Preface" by Margaret Mead in Patterns of Culture, paperback Sentry Edition (Houghton Mifflin), Boston: 1959.
  • Sandall, Roger, 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women by Hilary Lapsley (1999) ISBN 1558491813
  • With a Daughter's Eye by Mary Catherine Bateson (1984) (memoir of Margaret Mead by her daughter, documenting relationship between Mead and Benedict)
  • Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle by Lois W. Banner (2004) ISBN 0679776125

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