Ruth Benedict and Cultural Anthropology

Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

On June 5, 1887, American anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Fulton Benedict was born. Benedict’s theories had a profound influence on cultural anthropology, especially in the area of culture and personality. Her major contribution to anthropology, compares Zuñi, Dobu, and Kwakiutl cultures in order to demonstrate how small a portion of the possible range of human behaviour is incorporated into any one culture.

Ruth Fulton Benedict first attended lectures at the New School for Social Research while searching for a career path that fit her best. She took classes taught by Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser, a student of Franz Boas which sparked her interest for anthropology. At Columbia University, Benedict worked as a graduate student with Boas who she also became friends with. Ruth Benedict completed her dissertation on “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America” and earned her PhD in anthropology in 1923. She was then encouraged by Edward Sapir to study the relations between individual creativity and cultural patterns.

In 1922, Ruth Benedict taught her first anthropology course at Barnard college, with Margaret Mead among her students. Boas kept supporting Benedict and appointed her as Assistant Professor in Anthropology in 1931.[4Franz Boas retired in 1937 and while Ruth Benedict initially seemed to be the obvious candidate to follow his footsteps, the university president appointed Boas former student Ralph Linton to the position. It is believed that the department became devided between Linton and Benedict’s followers who did not really care for each other either.

However, Ruth Benedict managed to become one of the most influential and famous anthropologists of her time, along with her student Margaret Mead. Both women were known to have had a fruitful work relationship and established a close friendship. Benedict was among the leading cultural anthropologists who were recruited by the US government for war-related research and consultation after the US entry into World War II. Benedict received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women in 1946. After the war, Benedict further completed her work ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword‘ and kept teaching. She advanced to the rank of full professor only two months before her death in September 1948.

One of Ruth Benedict’s most influential works was ‘Patterns of Culture‘, published in 1934. It was translated into 14 languages and published in several editions. In it, the idea of patterns in culture is Benedict’s “view of human cultures as ‘personality writ large”. She found that each culture 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. These theories also influenced the works of contemporary anthropologists, including Margaret Mead in her ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’. In her work, Benedict expresses her belief in cultural relativism. She intended 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.

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