Benedict Ruth and Cultural Anthropology

4724368111_edf22edbddAmerican cultural anthropologist who developed what is known as the configurational approach to anthropology, exploring the way in which the diverse institutions, activities and traits of a given culture are integrated into a patterned whole (or Gestalt).

Patterns of Culture (1935) is Benedict Ruth’s (1887-1948) best known work, and indeed one of the most widely read books in cultural anthropology. Its core is a comparative study of three small scale, pre-industrial cultures: the Pueblo Zuni Indians of New Mexico, the Dobu of Melanesia and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. The inspiration for this comparison came from Benedict’s own fieldwork in 1927. She was struck by the difference in culture between the generally reserved and ordered Pueblo Indians and their more ecstatic neighbours. In Patterns of Culture Benedict classifies the distinction by borrowing from Nietzsche‘s Birth of Tragedy (1872). The (Pueblo) Zuni are Apollonian. As such, they distrust disorder and excess, keeping to the middle of the road, and not meddling with disruptive psychological states. Individualism is suppressed, as is it suspected of being disruptive to tradition and precedent (Benedict 1935 pp. 56—57). This is in marked contrast to Dionysian cultures, represented in Patterns by the Dobu and the Kwakiutl. Here the disruption of boundaries is sought, not least in the pursuit of supernatural visions through extreme forms of behaviour, such as selfmutilation and deprivation (p. 58). In Kwakiutl religious ceremonies the ‘chief dancer . . . should lose normal control of himself and be rapt into another state of existence. He should froth at the mouth, tremble violently and abnormally, do deeds which would be terrible in a normal state’ (pp. 126—127). The highly competitive Dobu are characterised as having ‘the simplicity of mania. All existence is cut-throat competition, and every advantage is gained at the expense of a defeated rival’ (p. 102).

It may be noted that Benedict is not offering a detailed commentary upon Nietzsche. However, she implies that she understands Nietzsche as having analysed, in the Dionysian and Apollonian, the two competing themes of ancient Greek society, just as she has identified the themes of the Zuni, Dobu and Kwakiutl societies. Benedict’s core point in identifying such themes is that all the institutions and activities within the society will express the theme of the society. In effect, it is the theme that serves to integrate the different elements of a society nto a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (and that also entails that the task of the anthropologist is not merely to document and compare different cultural traits in diverse societies, but rather to interpret those traits within the cultural Gestalt within which they occur) (pp. 33-37).

Benedict seeks to explain the emergence and perseverance of a theme within a culture in terms of the selection of certain potentialities of human psychology and behaviour from the gamut of all those that are possible. She draws an analogy with phonology, to argue that just as a human language can only work if it selects a few of all the possible sounds that a human voice can make, so a culture can only work if it too is selective (pp. 16—17). In this way a culture will encourage certain psychological traits and repress others, but perhaps more importantly, the culture is then the source of all meaning and purpose in human life. Benedict notes, for example, that puberty is not a biological phenomenon. Rather, each culture will select a different age upon which to focus puberty rights, and will give puberty, and thus adulthood, different meanings (celebrating or otherwise marking puberty differently). As she notes,’ [a]dulthood in central North America means warfare. Honour in it is the great goal of all men. . . . In Australia . . . adulthood means participation in an exclusively male cult. . . . Any woman is put to death if she so much as hears the sound of the bull-roarer at ceremonies’ (p. 18).

This approach to anthropology raises a number of major issues. First, Benedict is aware that not all cultures will be fully integrated about a single theme. She identifies societies in British Columbia that are characterised by their cultural borrowings from their neighbours, and thus by the ultimate poverty of the culture, as it fails to elaborate or explore any element in depth or with consistency (p. 161). Second, she is aware that while most people ‘are plastic to the moulding force of the society in which they are born’, not all the members of a society will fit in equally well (p. 183). There may still be Dionysians within Zuni society and Apollonians within Dobu society. What for Benedict is then of interest is the fact that the labelling of character traits as ‘abnormal’ is necessarily a cultural event, so that was it is to be abnormal will vary between cultures, and the treatment of the abnormal will vary. She notes how homosexuality is handled in many American Indian cultures, through the role of the man-woman. While the player of such a role may evoke embarrassment and scorn, he will have a place within society, and may nourish (p. 189-190).

Finally, Benedict’s work was among the first to raise fundamental questions about cultural relativism. Her work focuses upon the diversity and incommensurability of moral and political values, and she claims in her conclusion that all patterns of human life are ‘equally valid’ (p. 201). In practice she does judge some societies as better or worse than others (for example, by commenting upon the impoverishment of British Columbian cultures), but more importantly, she sees the founding moral values of anthropology to be strongly antidiscriminatory. Her emphasis upon the cultural malleability of human beings leads to an unconditional rejection of racism, an imperative to understand others – see, for example, her wartime work on Japan (Benedict! 1946) — and a recognition that one’s own cultural values are in no sense natural or absolute.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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