Most often associated with the work of Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), configurationism focuses on understanding phenomena as organized wholes rather than as aggregates of distinct parts. A reaction to European diffusionism, which dealt with isolated traits, configurationism instead stressed the integration of traits with the other elements of culture. Benedict best expressed this approach in her immensely popular book Patterns of Culture (1934), which focused on a comparison of three peoples: the Zuni of New Mexico, the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, and the Dobuans of Melanesia. As Benedict (1934) stated, “The basic contrast between the Pueblos and the other cultures of North America is the contrast that is named and described by [Friedrich] Nietzsche in his studies of Greek tragedy” (p. 78), that is, Apollonian (harmonious and restrained) and Dionysian (megalomanic and unrestrained). While Greek tragedy had both, some Native American cultures, according to Benedict, focused on one or the other.
For example, in their search for supernatural power, the dionysian Kwakiutls (and Plains Native Americans) induced visionary experiences by individualized fasting, self-torture, and the use of drugs, while the apollonian Zuni (and other Pueblo Native Americans) harmoniously grouped together and recited by rote an extensive ritual, numbing their minds and allowing the supernatural to take over. The Dobuans were paranoid, secretive, and treacherous. In each case, all beliefs, behaviors, and cultural institutions were shaped and interrelated by the one dominant configuration.
Benedict (1934) clearly thought that cultures could be adequately described by psychological terms and that “a culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action” (p. 46). Although she traced her intellectual ancestry to the psychologist Wilhelm Dilthey and the historian Oswald Spengler, Franz Boas was her mentor, and she dwelt on Boasian themes of cultural determinism and cultural relativism.
Echoing the appraisal of many anthropologists, H. Sidky stated (2004), “What Benedict provided in her Patterns of Culture was description, not explanation” (p. 156). Her scholarship was more humanistic than scientific, idiographic rather than nomothetic. Benedict (1934) explicitly accepted the circular argument that cultures are different because they are different when she approvingly quoted a “chief of the Digger Indians” saying, “God gave to every people a cup…but their cups were different” (pp. 21-22). She apparently drew no causal connections among ecology, subsistence, and culture. The unkindest reading of Benedict is that her writings are an obfuscation and elaboration of stereotypes springing from a folk model. And her work did, indeed, create an industry of anthropologists and journalists traipsing off to New Mexico to find drunken Indians and off to British Columbia to find somber ones.
Beautifully written (Benedict was an accomplished poet), Patterns of Culture is probably the most widely read book in anthropology. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it is still in print. As Alan Barnard (2000) has pointed out, “Her premise that culture determines both what is regarded as correct behaviour and what is regarded as a normal psychological state, remains one of the strongest assertions of relativism in anthropology” (p. 104). And Patterns of Culture did introduce the anthropological concept of culture to the lay public.
- Barnard, A. (2000.) History and theory in anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Benedict, R. (1934). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Mead, M. (1959). An anthropologist at work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Mead, M. (1974). Ruth Benedict. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Modell, J. S. (1983). Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Sidky, H. (2004). Perspectives on culture: A critical introduction to theory in cultural anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.