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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

How a Culture is Born: The Groundbreaking Anthropology of Ruth Benedict.

Cultures are strange creatures. What you can do and say, who you can love and when, who you may kill and how, are all subject to the accretion over the course of millennia of seemingly random and mutually contradictory societal maxims and practices that create a set of ground rules that we nonetheless, by and large, understand and navigate safely through in the course of a day. We all know how to live in the cultures we belong to, but where did they come from? If you had to start one from scratch, how would you do it?

For much of the nineteenth century, that question had a pretty simple answer: put people in a place with resources and wait. To anthropologists of that era, all humans progressed through largely the same stages, all culminating in the pinnacle of human development, the fashionably dressed Victorian. Other cultures were to be evaluated and understood not on their own terms, but as adolescent civilizations stuck on the path of their ultimate destiny, and perhaps requiring a good shaking to set them moving forward again.

That view of the the nature of non-European societies and the anthropologist’s task in confronting and studying them was taken to task in the early 20th century by a group of anthropologists gathered around the revolutionary figure of Franz Boas, who was as devoted to rigorous methodologies that approached cultures on their own terms as he was to providing equality of opportunity for women seeking to study anthropology. We have already met one of the first great woman anthropologists to be influenced by him, Elsie Clews Parsons, as well as his most famous student, Margaret Mead, but between them he mentored an individual whose work was breath-taking in its audacity and profound in its modern implications, but whose name, known throughout the world in the 1930s and 1940s, has retreated further into the shadows with each new generation, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948).

Before the rush of American self-confidence and self-glorification that defined the public sphere in the 1950s utterly crushed the life’s work that she was no longer able to defend, Benedict was the reigning expert, consulted by universities, governments, and armies alike, on how civilizations form their basic guiding principles, and how those principles manifest themselves in driving decision-making among the individuals of those societies. But before she was the international anthropological celebrity Ruth Benedict, she was something else entirely, a girl named Ruth Fulton who had lost her father at the age of two, and who spent her youth living with a family who seemed exasperated by her every character trait.

Ruth Fulton’s younger sister was everything her mother and aunts thought good and desirable in a late nineteenth century American child - she was outgoing and domestically skilled, practically oriented, healthy, and beautiful. Ruth, by contrast, seemed happiest when by herself, buried beneath mounds of hay, reflecting upon the nature of death. She wasn’t handy at sewing or cooking, seemed to get no pleasure from social interaction, went into fierce tantrum states on a regular basis, and experienced recurring fits of debilitating nausea. She kept to herself in a way that Victorian ladies, with their expectations of exact sociability, found unsettling, but which her family eventually came to accept when it was discovered that Ruth was partially deaf.

A fitful, wilful, idealistic but depressed child who worshipped the memory of her saintly (at least in the cult of her memory) departed father, and was repulsed by the overt emotionality of her mother, Ruth felt herself an outsider among her family and larger society. She was a thinker and dreamer in a world that revered makers and doers, and it was not until high school that she began to find her equilibrium. She and her sister Margery had both been accepted with full scholarships to St. Margaret’s School for Girls on the condition that they perform well on the College Entrance Board Examinations and attend Vassar, thereby building up St. Margaret’s reputation as a Vassar feeder school.

Daughters of a single mother of limited financial means, the Fulton sisters needed the scholarship, and their work over the ensuing years showed them doing their utmost to earn it, Ruth ending with a 99% average over her time at St. Margaret’s and Margery with a 98.7%. They were both accepted to Vassar and began attending in 1905. Here, Ruth found herself as she plunged into the world of Big Ideas, particularly the philosophies of Walter Pater and Friedrich Nietzsche, and the ideas of the feminist theorist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. What they shared was a vision of life led on a grand scale that is not restrained by the purely arbitrary moral codes of one’s time and place, and the challenge to make of one’s time on this earth a continual process of self-development. From them Ruth internalized the idea that the society one finds one’s self in is not a monolithic and absolute structure to be knelt before, but a historically arbitrary set of principles and practices that can be challenged and weighed against other practices of other times and places.

That sort of culturally relativistic thinking would serve Fulton well when she later came to anthropology, but as a newly graduated English Literature student in 1909, suddenly thrust from the intellectually stimulating environment of Vassar and expected to make her way in the world as best she could, the words of Nietzsche often seemed more a judgment than a comfort. How could one live boldly, and actualize the full measure of one’s potential, as a woman in early 20th century America? As she drifted between the different social work and teaching positions that defined the spectrum of respectable middle class professions for women of her time, she felt keen depression as her life seemed to be slipping further and further from the bold ideals of her Vassar days.

As with many women in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth who graduated from college only to find a world actively unwilling to use the full measure of their intellectual gifts, Ruth Fulton began to convince herself that, yes, after all, she might find true fulfillment in marriage and children, and when the chemist Stanley Benedict came into her life in 1910, she permitted herself to be swept off her feet and into a marriage that proved little more than a steady misery to her in the decades to come. Benedict was a traditional man, and insisted that his needs were ever paramount. Ruth might engage in poetry composition or outside classes to the extent that they didn’t interfere at all in her support of him and his goals, and within a few years of marrying him, Ruth was feeling once again the old “blue devils” of depression pressing at her brain.

In 1919, at the age of 31, Benedict decided it was time for her to return to school and find a specialty she could turn to some positive good, both for her own psychological well-being, and for the larger world. She attended New York’s New School for Social Research, an experimental institution devoted to extended education that boasted a roster of some of the nation’s greatest teachers and thinkers, including two figures who would feature prominently in Benedict’s story, the anthropologists Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser. In anthropology Benedict found both the Big Questions that she had loved pondering at Vassar, and a branch of study that seemed tailor made for an individual who had always viewed societies as an outsider.

Benedict studied with Goldenweiser for a year, whereupon he recommended that she enroll in Columbia to study with his former teacher, the legendary Franz Boas. Columbia at the time was the center of a new approach to anthropology, with cultural relativism as its guiding principle, and rigorous fieldwork as its methodology. Boas had no patience for researchers attempting to use science to establish a hierarchy of races, and was devoted instead to efforts to see cultures through the eyes of those within them by collecting mythologies, conducting interviews, and witnessing ceremonies in order to minutely catalogue regional differences in practices and mindsets.

Benedict, who had grown up in a society of clearly arbitrary social standards that took themselves as universal laws, saw in anthropology a way to educate America about the relativity of its own beliefs and practices. Her work of the early 1920s was centered upon myths, and trying to untangle the thorny problem of why most cultures’ myths are such a chaotic jumble of inconsistent elements and story-telling practices (including our own). Why are there characters who seem to be heroes but act in opposition to that society’s basic values? What are the rules for when narrative consistency is important, and when it can take a back seat to imaginative fancy? How much freedom does a story-teller have to nudge a traditional tale in a new direction?

Historically, anthropologists had dealt with inconsistency in myths by referring to “traditional elements,” holdovers from previous eras that had ossified in the story-telling canon. No longer strictly meaningful or representative of the current belief nexus of the culture, they nonetheless had such traditional weight that they couldn’t be disposed of, even as their presence caused tensions in the mythological narrative that worked against the myth’s central purpose.

That answer didn’t entirely satisfy Benedict, who spent years on a grand collection and collation of Native American myths with the aim of getting at an understanding of their diversity and sometimes chaotic creativity. In the process of thinking about this problem, she developed new ways of considering the give-and-take between a culture and the individuals within it. In 1928, she laid out her new views in a groundbreaking paper entitled “Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest.” This paper posited that societies have, at their outset, the whole spectrum of human values and characteristics to choose from as the ones which will be most important to that society. Do we value accumulation of wealth, or charity? Do we believe the world basically means us well or ill? Is truth to be found in stoic submission to reality, or in flights of wild illogical fantasy?

Over time, pushed by the limits placed by external circumstances and the moral feedback loops created by previous decisions, a culture will have something approximating a “personality” of its own, with particular traits it values, and others it considers dangerous. Which traits get chosen in which capacities then play a role in the latitude that individuals have to transgress against the culture’s baseline assumptions, and how such transgressions cause them to view themselves. Myths, Benedict hypothesized, are as they are because they represent a culture’s creative presentation of its own base set of traits and assumptions, which were crafted in the historical mangle of its past, and bear with them the often contradictory elements of the process by which a culture defines itself.

Benedict published these ideas in her landmark book, Patterns of Culture, in 1934. It launched the Culture and Personality (C & P) movement in anthropology which represented a grand multi-disciplinary attempt to import the insights of psychology and sociology into the structure of anthropology. Instead of asking, as the British anthropological school of functionalism did, what purpose each object or practice serves in a society, the C & P school asked what values and psychological traits constitute the core of a culture, based in a minute study of the myths, practices, objects, and social relations in that civilization.

This was a fundamentally relativist approach to culture - two societies could not be placed on a central grand scale of evolution, but were rather all following their own paths guided by a core set of principles and valued character traits that informed the set of generationally transmitted learned behavior that is the essence of culture. Benedict, who by the time of Patterns had separated from her husband (though they never formally divorced) and discovered her own identity as a lesbian, felt that the book could fulfill a secondary role of educating America about the wide array of approaches different people have to the basic elements of life, including sexuality, and how the categorization of “deviants” in a society does more to determine their ultimate happiness than the “deviation” itself. Early 20th century American lesbians were often mentally unstable in a way that other cultures’ homosexual populations weren’t, Benedict argued, because living under constant fear of stigma and societal rejection carries a destabilizing psychological weight all its own. It is not homosexuality that is unhealthy, but rather the burden of being out of step with your culture’s current standards. These were new ideas to early 20th century America, and played their role in the eventual de-classifying of homosexuality as a mental illness by the psychological community.

Having shown to Americans that American culture is every bit as coded and strange, every bit as based upon arbitrary moral valuations, as any other culture, and having shown that its assumptions of universal normalcy were working real harm upon the individuals within it, Benedict in the late 1930s used her academic reputation and popular celebrity to counter theories about race that were being popularized by the Nazis and their supporters. Her 1940 book Race: Science and Politics and her subsequent pamphlet “The Races of Mankind” sought to demonstrate to a popular audience the vacuity of the notion of racial superiority and the need to reach for higher synergies that supported people’s differences and capitalized upon them to build a society stronger than the sum of its parts.

She continued this approach in her 1946 classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which sought, after years of propaganda that demonized the Japanese people, to explain the values that drove them, and draw parallels between those values and American practices. Rather than the militaristic, extremist alien culture portrayed in war propaganda, Benedict showed a people motivated by a moral currency of mutual obligation, focused less on the preservation of a central national ethos than on the preservation of the ties that bound person to person. Although it came under criticism later for being a too broad characterization of a complicated nation, its attempt to humanize a recent foe by explaining their cultural assumptions was a key tool, circulated amongst many policy makers of the era, for designing a post-war Japan based on reconstruction rather than racial revenge.

Professionally successful throughout the 1930s and 1940s, academically and personally these were years of struggle for Benedict. As Franz Boas’s health began to falter in the late 1920s and early 1930s, more executive control at Columbia fell to Benedict, though without a corresponding title or paycheck. Boas’s ultimate replacement was directly hostile to Benedict and the C & P approach generally, and did everything in his power to move the department away from the Boas-Benedict problem-solving model and towards a focus on rote learning of anthropological facts.

Meanwhile, Benedict and her husband had, by 1934, ceased living together, and the subsequent years saw Benedict in a series of romantic relationships with women who ultimately declined to settle down for the long term with Benedict, including Margaret Mead.

Benedict’s last years were spent in the pursuit of one last great dream, the Research in Contemporary Cultures (RCC) project, an outgrowth of her work during the war years in writing up profiles of foreign cultures to be used by the government to smooth their post-war redevelopment. The RCC project, heavily funded at first by the Navy, was a grand attempt to create profiles on foreign cultures that could be used in the development of a United Nations that functioned on the basis of mutual understanding, and would temper the United States’s tendency to view its civilization as the model to which all others must bend if they are to be successful and happy.

Unfortunately, two years into the project, Benedict, fresh from a tour of Europe explaining the mission and goals of the RCC, had a heart attack and died some five days later. Without Benedict at the helm, and with a rising generation far more interested in the accumulation of measurable data than the interpretation of something as nebulous as cultural personalities, the RCC drifted to a quiet end while C & P research generally faded to obscurity as an interesting but far too subjective branch of anthropology. A 1950s America sure of itself and its place in the world had little use for Benedict’s brilliant but highly individual flights of diversity-valuing moral, religious, and cultural relativism, and her work would have to wait several decades for a measured revival by an America fractured in spirit, lost in purpose, and eager for a wider world.


Most of Benedict’s major writings are still in print and easy to find in paperback editions. Though criticized fairly by later generations as too prone to generalizations from too restricted a data base, the breadth and spirit of her project is still engaging as she wrestles with the truly large questions of societal development and provides the normal educated reader with a myriad of fruitful starting points and thought exercises to plunge into what can often be a forbidding and jargony field of science. For books about Mead, the main source is Margaret Caffrey’s 1989 Ruth Benedict: Stranger in this Land, which is comprehensive in its knowledge of Benedict, her goals, and intellectual environment, but can also be frustratingly repetitive, while the organization makes the thread of her life a bit harder than perhaps it needed to be to grasp. There was also a dual biography of Benedict and Margaret Mead, Intertwined Lives, written in 2004 by Lois Banner that gives you nice accounts of two of the early-to-mid 20th century titans of anthropology in one volume, so that’s pretty cool!

This work was originally published as the 201st column of the Women In Science series, in 2021.


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