Ruth Fulton Benedict, renowned anthropologist, ethnographer, field researcher, and founder of the integrative approach to culture, viewed small-scale culture holistically based on a theory of “cultural relativism.” Mentored by Franz Boas, Benedict examined interactive choice, personality, and patterns of culture among the Serrano, Zuni, Cochita, Pima, Pueblo Indian, Dobu Islander, and Zuni Pueblo cultures. Her analytical approach has been recognized as the configurational approach to culture, and she is recognized as an early contributor to both the theory of “cultural relativism” and “cultural determinism.”
Born in New York State on June 5, 1887, Benedict received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Vassar College (1909), taught English literature in secondary schools for 3 years, and conducted research about literary women before studying under Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons at the New School for Social Research (1919-1921). They introduced her to Franz Boas, at Columbia University, who mentored her for her PhD degree in anthropology (1923). She later became editor of the Journal of American Folklore.
Benedict was beset with seemingly insurmountable personal problems as a child. Her father, Frederick S. Fulton, who was a surgeon, died suddenly when she was 2 years old. Her mother, Beatrice Skattuck, who was a school teacher, was traumatized by his death and grieved endlessly as she frequently moved with her daughters Ruth and younger sister Margery to escape the persistent pain of her loss. As a child, Benedict resented her mother, conceptualized an imaginary friend whom she preferred to Margery, and withdrew into her own imaginary world. Her relationship with the reality of social interaction was painfully difficult, as she had partial deafness, suffered from depression, had frequent psychogenic seizures and uncontrollable tantrums, and an inwardly directed temperament and shyness. Suffering from personality disorder, poor socialization and social skills, and low socioeconomic status compared with her age cohorts, Benedict struggled with challenges yet found an inner strength to prevail. She labored to maintain a cool and rational exterior, began to write poetry, and overcame obstacles with a power of infinite capacity to realize her potential academically, while maintaining reason and an insight into the dynamic relationship between culture and personality. She was very bright and receptive, gained a scholarship to Vassar, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and her confidence to excel and make a difference grew exponentially.
In 1914, Benedict married Stanley Benedict, a bio-chemist. Their relationship was empty and void of the intellectual dynamics that Benedict aspired to. During that time, she began to pursue her interests, and an anthropologist of immeasurable strength and influence was nourished. Encouraged by Boas and Edward Sapir, she was to become a role model for women in the 20th century.
Benedict began her investigation of the interaction between individual creativity and cultural patterns (the culture-personality isomorphism) and established the approach of analyzing cultures through choices made by individuals. Based on field studies among the Serrano (1922), Zuni (1924), Cochita (1925), and Pima (1926) cultures, she developed her theory that culture is a dynamic synergy of personality and cultural systems are related to varieties of human temperament. To Benedict, humanistic cultural potentialities existed in all cultures, a psychic unity of mankind: Individual cultures manifest differentially the inherent potentialities of humans.
At Columbia University, Benedict was assistant professor to Boas (1931), acting executive director of the Department of Anthropology (1936), associate professor and executive officer (1937), founding member of the Institute for Intercultural Studies (1941), a recipient of the Annual Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women (1946), principal investigator of the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures Project (1947-1951), and professor (1948) before her death on September 17,1948.
In 1934, Benedict’s American classic and best seller, Patterns of Culture, was published. It remains the most readable introduction to anthropology as a fusion of humanistic science and humanities. The book has influenced generations of anthropologists, including her former student and friend Margaret Mead, whom she had met at Barnard College. Their friendship was strong, lasting, and extraordinary.
Benedict’s other major works include Zuni Mythology (1935), Race: Science and Politics (1940), and the best-selling The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946). Together with Patterns of Culture, these works have had a profound effect on cultural anthropology and stand as first-rate scholarship and science.
Benedict’s theory of “cultural relativism” (each culture is distinctive and particularistic in problem solving) coupled with her theory of “cultural determinism” (synergy of dramatic individual adaptation and customs) generated the argument of human potentialities and adaptation, which became inspirational to the progressives of the post-World War II era who emphasized individual choice and change over state control.
Benedict was a pioneer among anthropologists, a role model for women of the 20th century, and an inspiration to the women’s movement. Her work links anthropology and the humanities, and science and cultural regularities, and her emphasis on social change helped influence the transition from the perspective of static cultural patterns to the perspective of dynamic cultural patterns.
- Caffrey, M. M. (1989). Ruth Benedict: Stranger in this land. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- 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.