By Daniel Yong ~
Ruth Benedict was one of the first women to be recognized as a professional leader in anthropology. Despite discovering her passion for anthropology at the age of thirty-two, she went on to lead one of the most distinguished careers in the field. As an anthropologist, Benedict made significant contributions to anthropological theories of culture and was President of the American Anthropological Association. Despite these accomplishments, Benedict was largely diminished–in part due to her situation as a successful woman in a male-dominated field and in part due to her ideas that spoke against the norm at the time. Over time, Benedict has been recognized as a paramount transitional figure in the field of anthropology. Yet as a female academic, her career remains in part overlooked by history. Here, I will examine Benedict and her work, highlighting details of her life, her contributions, and the way her disability–deafness–influenced the unique approach she took towards anthropology. I will first explore how her partial deafness gave rise to a distinct temperament that led to success in her fieldwork. Next, I will outline the literary focus that Benedict developed early in life, paying particular attention to how her inclination towards written works manifested in her ethnography. Finally, I will examine how Benedict’s disability pushed her towards a detail-oriented anthropological approach.
Ruth Fulton (Benedict) was born on June 5, 1887. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father was a doctor, but Benedict led a traumatic childhood. Her father died when she was two, and her mother, deeply affected by his death, became subject to fits of grief. As a child, she contracted a case of measles which left her partially deaf. Despite this disability, Benedict was an excellent student. She attended Vassar College to study English literature, and she graduated having published poetry and award-winning essays. Yet even as a college graduate, she soon realized the restrictive career paths available to her as a woman. After spending several years working in social work and teaching, she enrolled in a course at the New School for Social Research–“Sex in Ethnology” taught by Elsie Clews Parsons. Parsons was a feminist ethnographer, and she believed that “the more thoroughly a woman is classified the more easily is she controlled.” As a student, Benedict found a role model in Parsons–someone who shared her rejections of convention. Over the next two years, she enrolled in more courses, some with Alexander Goldenweiser. Goldenweiser examined the psychological questions related to culture, and together Parsons and Goldenweiser played a significant role in influencing Benedict’s early insights towards feminism and the psychological patterning of culture. Following her study under Parsons and Goldenweiser, Benedict was referred to complete a PhD under Franz Boas at Columbia University. Benedict and Boas shared an extremely close relationship both academically and personally, as he became both a mentor and father-figure in her life. Following the completion of her PhD, Benedict was a lecturer in anthropology at Barnard before continuing her career through an Assistant Professorship (and later, Professorship) at Columbia.
Benedict was a transformative figure in anthropology. She strongly believed in “cultural relativism”–the notion that other cultures should not be judged by our own standards, but rather on their own terms. Unlike many of her contemporary social scientists, Benedict explicitly argued against racist beliefs, going so far as to publish The Races of Mankind, a pamphlet distributed among U.S. troops during World War II where she made a scientific case against racism. As a student of Boas, she adopted the idea of culture as a mental phenomenon. She believed that culture is something that is learned, integrated, and shared, but she took this belief further by raising the question of coherence in culture. Moving beyond Boas, she proposed that each culture has a distinct personality–one that patterns the attitudes and behaviors of its individuals.
This belief of patterning, which she referred to as the configuration of a culture, is the foundation of one of her most significant contributions to anthropology–the establishment of “culture and personality” as a school of anthropological thought. In Patterns of Culture, Benedict examined how culture shapes human life. At its core, Benedict’s belief was that human cultures are “personality writ large.” In other words–what can be said of an individual and personality can be said of a society and culture. She examined the cultures of three societies: the Zuni of New Mexico, the Dobuans of Papua New Guinea, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Here, she described two dominant personality types: Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian type emphasizes order and restraint, while the Dionysian emphasizes wildness and pleasure-seeking. Using these two personality types, she characterized the Zuni as Apollonian, the Kwakiutl as Dionysian, and the Dobuans as exhibiting an Apollonian worldview with Dionysian mania. These case studies became one of the most criticized parts of Patterns of Culture; critics claimed that the Dionysian-Apollonian opposition was too much of a binary framework for understanding society. Despite this criticism, it may be useful to consider these personality types not as a prescriptive typology, but rather a reflection of how culture is “personality writ large.” Benedict did not consider society, nor culture, in the singular. To Benedict, culture was not a result of progress along some linear course throughout history. Individual societies gave rise to their respective cultures that each existed as a wholly developed manifestation, not as a “primitive” precursor to culture. Benedict believed that each culture chose only a few characteristics of human nature to define itself, and those traits became the leading traits of people in that culture. But no trait exists in isolation–to Benedict, human nature is discussed in plurals. Society, she believed, is the sum of the relationships contained within, and a culture, “like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.”
Unlike other anthropologists, Benedict faced a unique challenge when it came to field work–her deafness. More so than her colleagues, Benedict was forced to rely heavily on interpreters to accomplish her ethnographic studies. Anthropological work utilized ethnographic studies that involved observation and conversation, and her deafness made conversation difficult. Rather than being discouraged by her disability, Benedict was able to use her disability to her advantage. We can see how her deafness influenced her anthropological approach in three distinct yet synergistic ways–her temperament, her literary focus, and her focus for fine details.
As a child, Benedict’s partial deafness–which wasn’t discovered until she started school–left her feeling out of place and isolated. She preferred to play alone, as she often found it confusing when multiple people spoke at once. As an anthropologist, this reserved nature developed into mannerisms and a personality that helped her find success. Benedict’s partial deafness played into her temperament–as one of her Zuni interpreters recalled, she was “polite,” “generous,” and “spoke gently.” This became an advantage for Benedict, as she was able to conduct fieldwork where others may have failed. In 1925, she traveled to Peña Blanca, a village where she hoped to stay while studying the nearby Cochiti people. While Parsons and Boas, worried for her safety, had advised her “not to set foot in Cochiti,” Benedict ended up living in the Cochiti pueblo itself. She later wrote, “I never get this sense of the spiked dangerous fence that Elsie, and Dr. Boas in this case, make so much of.” As Barbara Babcock wrote, this was likely because “the Cochitis that I know recall the same gentle, generous lady that the Zuni do.”
Her childhood experiences also seeded her interest in literary work. Benedict felt alienated in her childhood, and at a young age she learned to use literature as an escape. When she was seven years old, she began to write short verses and read anything she could find. Reading and writing were her outlets, and her passion for both continued to develop as she studied English literature at Vassar College. When she began a career in anthropology, Benedict was drawn to written data. She preferred to study texts and other anthropologists’ data, developing a fondness for “scrappy ethnography.” Benedict’s inclination towards writing, coupled with her training in English literature, influenced her ethnographic approach as she was particularly attuned to the written aspects of culture. Benedict examined culture as “writ,” and she began to “read cultures as texts and texts as cultural documents.” This was a unique and pioneering approach to cultural study. As Babcock wrote, “long before anthropologists were talking about ‘key symbols,’ ‘root metaphors,’ ‘master tropes,’ and cultural ‘texts’ . . . she was writing it.” This literary focus played a significant role in one of her later works, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Written during World War II, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was a study of Japanese culture and society conducted primarily through its literature. Unable to visit Japan, Benedict delved into the minutiae of Japanese written texts. Despite not following the methods of traditional ethnographic study, her approach studying culture at a distance was highly impactful. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword strongly influenced American ideas about Japanese culture, and its Japanese translation became a best-seller in Japan. As an anthropologist, Benedict’s literary focus also helped her understand the limitations of the field. Unlike many of her contemporary social scientists, Benedict explicitly recognized that ethnography is a written practice and commented on its limitations, “there is always the possibility that the description of the culture is disoriented rather than the culture itself . . . it would be absurd to cut every culture down to the Procrustean bed of some catchword characterization.”
Alongside her temperament and literary focus, Benedict developed a detail-oriented approach to anthropology. As her student Dorothy Lee recalled, “She taught us meticulous attention to detail, because to her mind no detail was trivial; it was to be examined carefully as a clue to society’s peculiar expression and arrangement of reality.” Her partial deafness forced her to read over the shoulders of the people she studied, trying to experience culture as they did. In doing so, she began to develop an ethnographic approach that was uniquely poised towards fine detail. In 1931, Benedict headed “Project 35,” an investigation of culture and personality in “North American Indians.” She was dissatisfied with “the highly formal accounts of primitive cultures which had been customarily given by ethnologists,” and she sought to improve upon previous ethnographic work by proposing longer periods of residence and greater attention to detail. In her anthropological work, Benedict found value in collecting and analyzing life histories. Many anthropologists, including Boas, believed life histories had “limited value.” Benedict argued for their importance; in her presidential address to the American Anthropological Association, she wrote, “the unique value of life histories lies in that fraction of the material which shows what repercussions the experiences of a man’s life – either shared or idiosyncratic – have upon him as a human being.” This focus on detail–finding value in the “fraction of the material”–marked a distinct characteristic of how Benedict approached anthropology.
Benedict’s temperament, literary focus, and detail-oriented approach to anthropology were distinct ways in which she was influenced by her disability. We can see how her deafness was an advantage, as her unique ethnographic practices consequently contributed to her theory of culture and personality. With this pioneering method, Benedict worked to build up the meaning of a culture. She believed that “data were meaningless without abstraction from them of a higher order of meaning,” and in Patterns of Culture, she sought to do exactly this. As Babcock writes, “Patterns enacts what it describes – the organization of the ‘rags and tatters of cultures’ into a pattern through an integrating principle.” Both Patterns of Culture and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword reflect Benedict’s unique approach to anthropology and ethnography. Despite her apparent disability of partial deafness, Benedict developed a pioneering anthropological practice, and her contributions toward understanding culture signified a marked transition in how anthropology viewed and approached culture as a subject.
About the author:
Daniel Yong is a fourth-year student studying Biology at the University of Chicago. He is hoping to pursue a career in medicine and is deeply passionate about pediatric health. In his free time, he likes to watch movies and indulge in his fountain pen collection.
Featured Image: Ruth Benedict in 1937. Source: LC-USZ62-114649, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
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 Briscoe, Virginia Wolf. “Ruth Benedict Anthropological Folklorist.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 92, no. 366, 1979, p. 458., doi:10.2307/540511.
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 Ibid, p. 461
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