Ruth Fulton Benedict (June 5, 1887 – September 17, 1948) was an American cultural anthropologist, who advocated cross-cultural and racial equality. She was a pioneer in her field, and also as a woman in academia. She is best remembered for her works on the national character of various cultures including several Native American tribes, and her most famous work on Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Although her work has been criticized, particularly since she practiced anthropology "at a distance" in the case of Japan (never visiting nor speaking the language), nevertheless she correctly assessed many aspects of the cultures she studied, and her work contributed to the peaceful surrender of Japan at the conclusion of World War II. An outspoken critic of racism and other discriminatory attitudes, she advocated tolerance of individual choices even when they went against society's norms and expectations. However, she remained quiet concerning her own lifestyle choices, indicating her lack of confidence either with the correctness of her own behavior, or with society's tolerance of such activities.
Ruth Benedict (née Fulton) was born on June 5, 1887, in New York City, although her close friend and colleague, Margaret Mead, stated that her actual birthplace was Shenango Valley in Upstate New York (Mead 1974). Her father, Frederick S. Fulton, a successful surgeon, died suddenly when Ruth was two years old, an event that had a tremendous impact on her family. Ruth’s mother, Beatrice Shattuck, a schoolteacher, could not forget her husband, and spent the rest of her life grieving for him. Ruth and her sister, Margery, had little contact with the outside world, and Ruth was often isolated, playing in her own fantasy world. She developed depression, which lasted well into her adulthood. Additionally, when Ruth was eight years old it was discovered that she was partially deaf.
By the end of the century, Ruth’s mother moved to Buffalo, and Ruth was enrolled in St. Margaret's Academy, where she started to write poetry under the name Anne Singleton. After completing high school, Ruth entered Vassar College. There she remained focused on realizing her personal goals, and graduated in 1909 with a major in English literature. Her sister, Margery, who graduated together with Ruth, was married the same year, and Ruth decided to travel to Europe. On her return, she settled in Buffalo and started to work for the Charity Organization of Buffalo. However, she could not find satisfaction there and eventually moved to join her sister in Los Angeles, where she became a teacher.
Life in Los Angeles was not fulfilling for Ruth either. She was searching for something more. When she met Stanley Benedict, a young biochemist, she thought that her quest was over. She married him in 1914, and they moved to New York City. The couple could not have children, and that strained their relationship. Spending hours in the house alone was frustrating for Ruth, as her restless mind was seeking for intellectual satisfaction. In 1919, Ruth enrolled in The New School for Social Research in downtown Manhattan, where she became inspired by lectures on anthropology by Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons.
In 1921, Ruth entered graduate school at Columbia University, where she started her coursework under the guidance of Franz Boas. At 34 years of age she was not eligible for any financial help, and was forced to live a very modest life, living in a small rented house. However, that did not discourage her. She soon became an excellent student, and Franz Boas, who hired her as his assistant, became more like a father than a simple mentor to her. She received her Ph.D. in 1923, based on her dissertation entitled "The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America," in which she discussed cultural aspects of individual religious experiences, and which was the beginning of her work on Native American cultures.
In 1924, Benedict began teaching at Barnard College and Columbia, where she remained as a lecturer until 1932. During this time she developed a close relationship with Margaret Mead, which began when Mead took her anthropology class. Their relationship, both as intellectual collaborators and friends, sometimes lovers, survived both their marriages and other affairs, and influenced their theories regarding the role of culture in sexual development and the normalcy of heterosexuality. Although Benedict wrote openly and open-mindedly about variations in sexuality in other cultures, she was quite circumspect about her own sexual life. It was not until after the death of Mead that the lesbian nature of their relationship was discussed openly (Banner 2003).
Although Ruth continued to live with her husband, Stanley Benedict never approved of her career. The couple finally separated in 1930.
Benedict continued to work as an anthropologist, writing papers and books, and conducting field research. She was appointed the executive director of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia in 1937, and founded the Institute for Intercultural Studies in 1941. There, she started her studies on European and Asian cultures, which were sponsored by the Office of War Information. She wrote her best selling book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in 1946, based on the data collected during this period. In 1947, Benedict served and president of the American Anthropological Association and received the Annual Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women. She obtained funding for a major project, Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures, which allowed her to travel to Europe to see first hand how accurate her cultural assessments had been in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, and Belgium. Benedict died of a coronary thrombosis in 1948.
In her work, Benedict was greatly inspired by her mentor, Franz Boas. Boaz, often considered the father of American anthropology, initiated "cultural relativism," the idea that no culture is inferior, including so called “primitive cultures." Ruth Benedict was affected by the passionate egalitarianism of Boas and continued it in her own research and writing. She believed that any culture, including a primitive one, should be viewed holistically, with all of its pieces combined in an integrated whole.
In her 1923 dissertation, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America, Benedict discussed the power of religious awe in Native American cultures. She was particularly interested in the methods by which different tribes sought visions and guidance. Benedict considered Boaz her own spirit guide, as she relied on his knowledge to inspire her in her own work.
Benedict continued research on American Indians through a series of ethnographic field studies, beginning under the supervision of Alfred Kroeber with the Serrano in 1922, followed by the Zuni in 1924, the Cochiti in 1925, and in 1926 on the Pima, and later the Apache in 1931, and Blackfoot in 1939. Through her experience with these various tribes she discovered differences in temperament and culture between the Pueblo and Plains Indian tribes, which led her to conclude that personality and culture are interconnected, in an isomorphic sense. This work led to the publishing of her most acclaimed work Patterns of Culture (Benedict, 1934), a bestseller that brought Benedict to the forefront of American anthropology.
When war broke out, Benedict was asked by the U.S. government to write about European and Asian cultures, in order to gain deeper understanding of the enemy. Her work led to the publishing of the The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Benedict 1946), her bestseller about Japanese culture.
According to Margaret Mead, the essential idea in Patterns of Culture (1934) is the view of "human cultures as 'personality writ large." Each culture, Benedict explained, 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. Using the Nietzschean opposites of "Apollonian" and "Dionesian" as the stimulus for her thought about these Native American cultures, she described how in ancient Greece, the worshippers of Apollo emphasized order and calm in their celebrations, whereas, by contrast, the worshippers of Dionysis, the god of wine, emphasized wildness and abandon. And so it was among Native Americans. She described in detail the contrasts between rituals, beliefs, and 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, most notably Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). 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.
In Patterns of Culture, Benedict expressed 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.
The Races of Mankind is a lesser-known work by Benedict, written in 1943. In this she wrote against the war, trying to encourage all types of people to join together and not fight amongst themselves. "The peoples of the earth," Benedict pointed 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."
Furthermore, Benedict tried to give a scientific explanation for racial differences, in order to proclaim that all races are equal. Benedict wrote:
Whatever our physical traits, regardless of the shape or size of our head, we are equally intelligent.... 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 differences.... [arose] because of differences of income, education, cultural advantages, and other opportunities.
The Races of Mankind can be thus seen as one of the important scientific works targeting racial oppression and inequality.
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is Benedict's (1946) study of the society and culture of Japan, incorporating the results of her wartime research. This book is an example of “Anthropology at a Distance": a study of a culture through its literature, newspaper clippings, films, recordings, and so forth. Unable to visit Nazi Germany or Japan during the Second World War, anthropologists made use of available cultural materials in an attempt 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.
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 military information. Japanese POWs, apparently, gave information freely and did not try to contact their families. Benedict's war work included a major study, largely completed in 1944, aimed at understanding Japanese culture. She played a major role in grasping the place of the Emperor in Japanese culture, and formulating the recommendation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that permitted continuation of the Emperor's reign should be part of the eventual surrender offer.
While The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has been criticized due to the fact that Benedict had no direct experience in Japan, the Japanese ambassador to Pakistan made positive reference to it in his public address in 2000:
The chrysanthemum has long been considered as a symbol of nobility, and the crest of the Imperial Household is a stylized representation of a chrysanthemum blossom. It has also been used as a symbol of the Japanese culture. 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. Numata (2000)
According to Mead (1974), other Japanese who have read this work, found it on the whole accurate, but somewhat "moralistic." It is still generally regarded as a classic, despite the post-war changes in Japanese culture.
Ruth Benedict was one of the first female anthropologists, and she helped to shape the discipline of cultural anthropology not only in the United States, but also for the rest of the world. While her methods were often criticized as not being sufficiently scientific, her writings are still considered classics of twentieth-century cultural anthropology.
Her 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 Races of Mankind (1943), which Benedict wrote with her colleague at Columbia University, Gene Weltfish, was an important attempt to use science to battle racism.
Despite being a female academic at a time of male domination, and even more unacceptably, bisexual, Benedict's contributions were acknowledged both in academia, as evidenced by her achievement award and being elected president of the American Anthropological Association, and by the government. She was recruited by the United States government for war-related research and consultation during World War II, and correctly assessed the importance of allowing Emperor Hirohito to save face by maintaining his position of emperor as a key term of Japanese surrender.
The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp in Ruth Benedict's honor on October 20, 1995.
Benedict's pioneering work in describing cultures as integrated wholes, and as an advocate of cross-cultural equality, is her continuing legacy.
Her work, like her life, was less clear on the relationship between an individual's beliefs and choices within the framework of their culture's belief system. Like her mentor, Boas, she did not completely accept the position of cultural determinism, believing culture itself to be the product of choices by the individuals making up that culture. While she recognized the importance of temperament and the ability of individuals to make choices that could ultimately alter society, she also emphasized the power of customs and learning as an argument for the infinite capacity of human beings to change. Viewing her personal life as a reflection of her theoretical position, it appears that while she herself advocated tolerance and acceptance of those going against cultural norms, she was less confident that society as a whole would embrace such individual choices. Or, possibly she was not convinced of the correctness of her own choices.
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