Ruth Benedict and her Relentless Pursuit of Cultural Models

Ruth Fulton Benedict (New York, 1887-1948) was an American writer and anthropologist.

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Ruth Fulton Benedict (New York, 1887-1948) was an American writer and anthropologist. She began his professional life writing poetry, but later discovered anthropology. During her time as a student, she became friends with the anthropologist Margaret Mead. However, her mentor and teacher was Franz Boas. In fact, the disciples of Boas were in charge of spreading relativist ideas in the anthropological discipline. In addition, her studies tended bridges between the psychology and the anthropology, since it belonged to the current that today is known like culture and personality.

The life of Benedict was not the most common, if we consider the time in which he lived, since the world of research was exclusive of men. At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, women did not have it so easy; access to university studies was something that was, for the most part, relegated to men.

For this reason, Ruth Benedict is a fundamental figure of the last century; not only because of her contributions to anthropology, but because of the exceptional nature of her case: she was a woman and of humble origin. Throughout this article, we will discover your contributions and investigate your life and work.

First steps in the academic world and discovery of anthropology

The life of Ruth Benedict and her academic career broke the established patterns for the women of her time. Ruth’s father was a surgeon, but he died when she and her sister were still small. The family moved from the city to the countryside to live with Ruth’s grandparents. Her mother devoted herself to teaching, but the family’s economic situation was not entirely stable.

Ruth and her sister were very good students and, thanks to that, they obtained scholarships that allowed them to access higher education. In spite of its situation, Ruth Benedict managed to go to the university and graduated in 1909 in the University of Vassar, specializing in English Literature. Subsequently, she dedicated herself for three years to be a secondary school teacher.

When he was around 30 years old, he enrolled at Columbia University to study Philosophy and Anthropology. Her motivations were to give a social and intellectual meaning to his life, beyond literature. There, she met the great American anthropologists of the time: Franz Boas, Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber.

“What really unites men is their culture, the ideas and the standards they have in common.”

-Ruth Benedict-

Her first field work was during the summer of 1922 among the serranos, an ethnic group that resides in two Indian reservations in southern California. At that time, she was under the direction of Alfred Kroeber. Her first anthropology classes were taught by Franz Boas to a group of high school graduates between 1922 and 1923. The following year, she moved to Columbia, where he began as an assistant to finally work as a teacher from 1930 onwards.

The beginnings of Ruth Benedict’s career represent the progressive empowerment of women in North America at the beginning of the 20th century. She worked outside his home, did numerous fieldwork throughout her country and edited scientific journals, among other activities. An example of empowerment that, unfortunately, was not the norm in his time.

Ruth Benedict and his contributions to anthropology

Her doctoral thesis was published in 1934 under the title: Patterns of Culture (Cultural Models); This work is currently considered a classic of anthropology. All the ideas that Benedict exposes in this work continue in force at present, being widely accepted, although in her moment they counted, in addition, with the factor of the novelty.

In Patterns of Culture, she proposes that cultures give a greater privilege to certain personalities and reject others, forming specific cultural models. Therefore, cultural models directly influence the shaping of the personality of each member of a society.

During the Second World War, Ruth Benedict discovered an area of ​​novel study for her time. She applied anthropological thought to the study of contemporary and modern societies through interviews and written documents and not so much through field work.

During this time of conflict, Ruth Benedict used her knowledge and experience to study, over long distances, societies in Romania, Siam, Germany and the Netherlands. Almost at the end of the war, she became interested in Japan, and thus was born a book entitled: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Text that today is considered a classic. In it, she analyzes the most characteristic cultural models of the Japanese culture of the time.

These experiences of doing anthropology at long distance led to the creation of a manual on the subject: The Study of Culture at a Distance (The study of distance culture). In the spring of 1947, she commissioned a large-scale project on the contemporary cultures of France, Germany, Poland, Russia and China.

Due to her original career and freedom from ties, Ruth Benedict reached the presidency of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1946. Institution of great power within the anthropological discipline.

The search for cultural models

In her book Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict emphasizes that what is truly important in the formation of individual behavior is culture and not biological aspects. Therefore, behavioral differences between various societies are due to their culture, which is shaping different models. To prove it, he compared three different cultures to each other:

  • Zuñi (New Mexico): culture that, for the author, was characterized by a broad tolerance.
  • Dobu (island of the archipelago of Entrecasteaux, New Guinea): it is a culture in which they had social relations in which hostility was predominant, with a normative value.
  • Kwakiutl (Vancuver Island): had a pathological sense of social prestige, being the most important in daily life.

After describing each of the three cultures in detail, Ruth Benedict reflects on various theoretical issues. As, for example, culture as an object of study of anthropology, the importance of cultural diversity and the complex relationship between individual and collective; that is, between the personality of each member and the cultural models within a society.

“A culture, like the individual, is a more or less consistent model of thought and action.”

-Ruth Benedict-

Benedict concludes that cultures are configurations of beliefs, attitudes, knowledge and emotions that characterize a society. This is not a mere accumulation, but rather an interrelated set that forms particular cultural models.

Benedict was a woman ahead of her time, had love affairs with women and lived what she liked the most. His studies are still valid today and, in addition, she managed to see the threat of Nazism and tried to contribute against it from education.

Educating and understanding the great diversity of cultures are powerful tools for dealing with racism.