Update September 2013: This post was written to encapsulate Ruth Benedict as a satiric counterpoint to Jared Diamond. For similar material, without the satiric counterpoint, see Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and the Anthropological Concept of Culture.


Ruth Benedict - Patterns of CultureRuth Benedict scores a blockbuster publishing international bestseller with Patterns of Culture. Inevitably Ruth Benedict’s extremely popular work will be compared to Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Ruth Benedict will surely be on Bill Gates’s summer reading list.

Early reviews give the edge to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, for its conceptual framework; for elaborating the ethnographic record without romanticizing or resorting to politically-correct euphemisms; for clarity of writing and accessibility; and for attention to impact in today’s society. Even more amazingly, Ruth Benedict accomplishes all this with a book published in 1934!

The 1934 review in the New York Times testifies to the enormous interdisciplinary accomplishment:

The sciences no longer work alone, each behind its own walls. They have pooled their front yards and from their windows as they labor they look up and down the row and see what the others are doing. And also they have developed a great common garden where all the sciences and the arts meet and walk about hand in hand while they discuss and compare and combine the results of their specialties. Out of such a combination has grown this book by Ruth Benedict, of the faculty of Columbia University. By training, vocation and chief interest she is an anthropologist, but a quartet of sciences, anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy, is responsible for the volume, which is expertly conceived and brilliantly developed.

Ruth Benedict on Race, Environment, and the Concept of Culture

The primary message of Patterns of Culture is the paramount importance of learned behavior in human existence. In contrast to prevalent notions of racial or biological determinism, or of human life as determined by the surrounding physical environment, or of humans confined by their place on an evolutionary hierarchy, Benedict posits that culture provides the patterning.

Benedict’s first chapter, “The Science of Custom” is beautifully written and crystal clear:

No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. Even in his philosophical probings he cannot go behind these stereotypes; his very concepts of the true and the false will still have reference to his particular traditional customs. John Dewey has said in all seriousness that the part played by custom in shaping the behavior of the individual as over against any way in which he can affect traditional custom, is as the proportion of the total vocabulary of his mother tongue over against those words of his own baby talk that are taken up into the vernacular of his family. (1934:2)

On the issue of race, or ideas of biological determinism, Benedict is succinct: “Not one item of his tribal social organization, of his language, of his local religion, is carried in his germ-cell. . . . Man is not committed in detail by his biological constitution to any particular variety of behavior. . . . Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex” (1934:12,14).

Benedict also wrote, with Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind (Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 85):

Teaching journals from the era reveal the tremendous popularity of The Races of Mankind in English, science and social studies classes across the nation. As publication approached one million copies, The Races of Mankind was released as an illustrated children’s book, an animated film, a set of 15 posters and a traveling exhibit. It remains the most popular text written by an anthropologist for teachers and young students to clear up the confusion of the race concept in simple, inexpensive and appealing formats. The Races of Mankind would play a major role in transforming the way American teachers spoke and taught about the race concept. Most importantly, this text assured teachers and students that culture, not race, was the key to understanding human diversity. (Zoë Burkholder, Franz Boas and Anti-Racist Education 2006:25)

Ruth Benedict was also the first “great anthropologist” cited by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits agree that although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. (Strength to Love, 37-38)

On the question of how much human behavior was influenced or determined by the physical environment, Benedict is likewise brief but potent: “The institutions that human cultures build up upon the hints presented by the environment or by man’s physical necessities do not keep as close to the original impulse as we easily imagine. These hints are, in reality, mere rough sketches, a list of bare facts. They are pin-point potentialities, and the elaboration that takes place around them is dictated by many alien considerations” (1934:35).

In short, Benedict endorses and popularizes what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms the “Boasian conceptual kernel” of U.S. anthropology:

  1. Human behavior is patterned. There exist within historically specific populations recurrences in both thought and behavior that are not contingent but structurally conditioned and that are, in turn, structuring.
  2. Those patternes are learned. Recurrences cannot be tied to a natural world within or outside the human body, but rather to constant interaction within specific populations. Structuration occurs through social transmission and symbolic coding with some degree of human consciousness. (Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises 2003:99)

Compare to Jared Diamond. Diamond has of course acquired some fame for arguing against biological determinism, and his Race Without Color was once a staple for challenging simplistic tales of biological race. But by the 1990s, Diamond simply echoes perceived liberal wisdom. Benedict and Weltfish’s Races of Mankind was banned by the Army as Communist propaganda, and Weltfish faced persecution from McCarthyism (Micaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home 1998:196,224; see also this Jon Marks comment on Gene Weltfish). Boas and Benedict swam against the current of the time, when backlash could be brutal. In contrast, Diamond’s claims on race and IQ have mostly been anecdotal. They have never been taken seriously by those who call themselves “race realists” (see Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney). Diamond has never responded scientifically to the re-assertion of race from sources like “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” and he helped propagate a medical myth about racial differences in hypertension.

And, of course, although Guns, Germs, and Steel has been falsely branded as environmental or geographical determinism, there is no doubt that Diamond leans heavily on agriculture and geography as explanatory causes for differential success.

Ruth Benedict: What Can We Learn from Primitive Societies?

From the beginning, Benedict begs us to break out of the prism of white culture and parochial thinking:

The psychological consequences of this spread of white culture have been out of all proportion to the materialistic. This world-wide cultural diffusion has protected us as man had never been protected before from having to take seriously the civilizations of other peoples; it has given our culture a massive universality that we have long ceased to account for historically, and which we read off rather as necessary and inevitable. We interpret our dependence, in our civilization, upon economic competition, as proof that this is the prime motivation that human nature can rely upon, or we read off the behaviour of small children as it is moulded in our civilization and recorded in child clinics, as child psychology or the way in which the young human animal is bound to behave. It is the same whether it is a question of our ethics or of our family organization. It is the inevitability of each familiar motivation that we defend, attempting always to identify our own local ways of behaving with Behaviour, or our own socialized habits with Human Nature. (1934:6-7)

In 1934, Benedict had already pinpointed the problem of only analyzing what everyone is now calling the WEIRD, Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic. Greg Downey’s We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough? remains the best analysis. As Downey puts it, “I worry that some of our cultural ideology and self deception may be smuggled in under the terms themselves, especially ‘Western,’ ‘industrialized’ and ‘democratic’” (see also Race, Monogamy & Other Lies They Told You–Agustin Fuentes as Anthropology 101).

As seen above, Benedict also has little use for gender neutral pronouns or politically-correct euphemisms. Benedict explicitly considers primitive cultures as a kind of laboratory:

With the vast network of historical contact which has spread the great civilizations over tremendous areas, primitive cultures are now the one source to which we can turn. They are a laboratory in which we may study the diversity of human institutions. With their comparative isolation, many primitive regions have had centuries in which to elaborate the cultural themes they have made their own. They provide ready to our hand the necessary information concerning the possible great variations in human adjustments, and a critical examination of them is essential for any understanding of cultural processes. It is the only laboratory of social forms that we have or shall have. (1934:17)

Moreover, Benedict has no use for romanticizing Noble Savages. Her chapter on Dobu zips the Dobuans with so many wonderful barbs it’s difficult to choose the best zinger. Benedict begins by noting the Dobuan reputation as the “feared and distrusted savages of the islands surrounding them” and then proceeds to confirm “the Dobuans amply deserve the character they are given by their neighbours. They are lawless and treacherous. Every man’s hand is against every other man. . . . The social forms which obtain in Dobu put a premium upon ill-will and treachery and make of them the recognized virtues of their society” (1934:131). The fun continues: “As Dr. Fortune says, ‘The Dobuans prefer to be infernally nasty or else not nasty at all’” (1934:171). And perhaps the last lines are the best:

The Dobuan lives out without repression man’s worst nightmares of the ill-will of the universe, and according to his view of life virtue consists in selecting a victim upon whom he can vent the malignancy he attributes alike to human society and to the powers of nature. All existence appears to him as a cutthroat struggle in which deadly antagonists are pitted against one another in a contest for each one of the goods of life. Suspicion and cruelty are his trusted weapons in the strife and he gives no mercy, as he asks none. (1934:172)

That’s not WEIRD the acronym, that’s just weird! [And please see below for alternative explanations]

Benedict similarly skewers the Kwakiutl for their “megalomaniac paranoid” tendencies:

The sulking and the suicides on the Northwest Coast are the natural complement of their major preoccupations. The gamut of the emotions which they recognized, from triumph to shame, was magnified to its utmost proportions. Triumph was an uninhibited indulgence in delusions of grandeur, and shame a cause of death. Knowing but the one gamut, they used it for every occasion, even the most unlikely. (1934:220)

Compare again Jared Diamond. Diamond has accused anthropologists of falsely romanticizing others, but by subtitling his book What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Diamond engages in more than just politically-correct euphemism. When most people think of a “traditional society,” they are thinking of agrarian peasant societies or artisan handicrafts. Diamond, however, is referring mainly to what we might term tribal societies, or hunters and gatherers with some horticulture. Curiously, for Diamond the dividing line between the yesterday of traditional and the today of the presumably modern was somewhere around 5,000-6,000 years ago (see The Colbert Report). As John McCreery points out:

Why, I must ask, is the category “traditional societies” limited to groups like Inuit, Amazonian Indians, San people and Melanesians, when the brute fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who have lived in “traditional” societies have been peasants living in traditional agricultural civilizations over the past several thousand years since the first cities appeared in places like the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yellow River, etc.? Talk about a big blind spot.

Benedict draws on the work of others, like Reo Fortune in Dobu and Franz Boas with the Kwakiutl. Her own ethnographic experience was limited. But unlike Diamond, Benedict was working through the best ethnographic work available. Diamond, in contrast, splays us with a story from Allan Holmberg, which then gets into the New York Times, courtesy of David Brooks. Compare bestselling author Charles Mann on “Holmberg’s Mistake” (the first chapter of his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus):

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (Mann 2005:10)

As for Diamond’s approach to comparing different groups: “Despite claims that Diamond’s book demonstrates incredible erudition what we see in this prologue is a profound lack of thought about what it would mean to study human diversity and how to make sense of cultural phenomenon” (Alex Golub, How can we explain human variation?).

Finally there is the must-read review Savaging Primitives: Why Jared Diamond’s ‘The World Until Yesterday’ Is Completely Wrong by Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International:

Diamond adds his voice to a very influential sector of American academia which is, naively or not, striving to bring back out-of-date caricatures of tribal peoples. These erudite and polymath academics claim scientific proof for their damaging theories and political views (as did respected eugenicists once). In my own, humbler, opinion, and experience, this is both completely wrong–both factually and morally–and extremely dangerous. The principal cause of the destruction of tribal peoples is the imposition of nation states. This does not save them; it kills them.

Ruth Benedict: Amazing Writer, Accessible, and Fourteen Languages

Before entering anthropology, Benedict was an English major and a poet. Her prose is crisp and direct, unencumbered by footnotes and academic citation garb. Before publishing Patterns of Culture, Benedict “debated with friends and her editor the merits and demerits of over fifty titles for the book, worried about the colour of its cover, rewrote its blurb several times, insisted that its price be as low as possible, and got [Margaret] Mead to publicize it in conversations and reviews” (MacClancy, Popularizing Anthropology, 1996:32).

Alex Golub at Savage Minds sees Benedict’s writing as guidance for contemporary anthropology blogs:

Another thing that has fallen of our radar is concision and elegance in prose. When I read this Benedict piece, I feel like blogging is in our disciplinary DNA. Benedict’s prose is clean, forthright, argument driven, and easy to understand — just like a blogger’s is (or should be). True, this was a speech written to be read, but anyone familiar with her work knows Benedict wrote like this for all occasions. And she is not the only one–Mead and Linton also produced prose like this. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to this sort of style? (Commentary on Ruth Benedict – Anthropology and the Humanities)

Patterns of Culture also features an extremely accessible price–new paperbacks are available for $6 on Amazon, with used copies available for around $2. It is already on the shelves of many local and public libraries. Many of Ruth Benedict’s writings are freely available Open Access–see the recently discussed Anthropology and the Humanities. Compare that with Diamond’s $20 e-Book!

Moreover, Patterns of Culture has been translated into at least fourteen languages, although fewer than the 25 languages claimed by Guns, Germs and Steel. Indeed, Jared Diamond has been praised for his writing, for making science popular and palatable. Others have been less convinced. As David Brooks reviews:

Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. . . . Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels. The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. (Tribal Lessons; of course, Brooks may be smarting from reviews that called his book The Dumbest Story Ever Told)

Ruth Benedict: Contribution and Impact

Benedict’s final points outline the idea of cultural relativism. Benedict believed this new understanding could make a difference:

The recognition of cultural relativity carries with it its own values . . . It challenges customary opinions and causes those who have been bred to them acute discomfort. . . . As soon as the new opinion is embraced as customary belief, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence. (1934:278)

As Patterns of Culture was re-printed and re-issued, it was almost always promoted as a gateway to tolerance. From a 1974 New York Times review: “Patterns of Culture is a signpost on the road to a freer and more tolerant life, liberating in its implicit assumption that American middle-class culture is merely one of many possible ways in which people may organize their social relationships–a way no better than any other” (Jean Zorn).

In many ways, Ruth Benedict does exactly what Wade Davis wanted Jared Diamond to do–rather than providing a how-to manual of “tips we can learn,” to really investigate the existence of other possibilities:

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space. This is not to suggest naively that we abandon everything and attempt to mimic the ways of non-industrial societies, or that any culture be asked to forfeit its right to benefit from the genius of technology. It is rather to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny therefore is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say that we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet. (Wade Davis review of Jared Diamond; and perhaps one of the best contemporary versions of this project is Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World)

Ruth Benedict and Jared Diamond: What Should Anthropology Do?

Benedict’s words from 1934 remain as fresh and important as ever, perhaps becoming even more relevant in the past decade:

Modern existence has thrown many civilizations into close contact, and at the moment the overwhelming response to this situation is nationalism and racial snobbery. There has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture-conscious, who can see objectively the socially conditioned behaviour of other peoples without fear and recrimination. (1934:10-11)

With that in mind, what should anthropology say about Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Should anthropology simply declare allegiance–as many anthropologists already have–on the grounds of cultural relativism, tolerance, appreciating diversity, and fighting ethnocentrism? Should anthropology ride Jared Diamond’s fame as a good-enough Ruth Benedict, or as a substitute for Margaret Mead?

My answer is no.

It’s not simply because Ruth Benedict did it better three-quarters of a century ago, although Patterns of Culture should not be overlooked. It’s because of all anthropology has learned since Benedict portrayed the peoples of the world as relatively isolated laboratories. Benedict does not go quite as far as Holmberg’s Mistake, but she fails to present the full picture of historical encounter and the ethnographic situation. Benedict knows better than to spin possibly libelous tales as fodder for human nature, but she misses the historical depth and positioning of the ethnographer (see also James Mullooly’s Does Jared Diamond do Ethnography?).

In short, as Benedict moves from the general concept of culture in the first pages to the notion of specific cultures in her accounts, the peoples become isolates, shorn from history: “Anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Ralph Linton emphasized the ‘wholeness’ of distinct cultures, a theme later revived by the work of Clifford Geertz” (Trouillot, Adieu Culture 2003:103). Although ideas of cultural relativism and tolerance do not need to depend on a cultural wholeness, that’s what happens in Benedict and a lot of later anthropology. About her three case studies, Benedict writes “they are travelling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable” (1934:223).

This history reveals the major theme missing from both Benedict and Diamond–an anthropology of interconnection. That as Eric Wolf described in Europe and the People Without History peoples once called primitive–now perhaps more politely termed tribal or traditional–were part of a co-production with Western colonialism. This connection and co-production had already been in process long before anthropologists arrived on the scene. Put differently, could the Dobuan reputation for being infernally nasty savages have anything to do with the white recruiters of indentured labour, which Benedict mentions (1934:130) but then ignores? Could the revving up of the Kwakiutl potlatch and megalomaniac gamuts have anything to do with the fur trade?

It would take many years before an ethnography challenging the Fortune-Benedict story of Dobu became available, and Dobu: Ethics of Exchange on a Massim Island by Susanne Kuehling is still hardly read in comparison to Patterns of Culture.

As Wolf announced in the first sentences of Europe and the People Without History:

The central assertion of this book is that the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality. Concepts like “nation,” society,” and “culture” name bits and threaten to turn names into things. Only by understanding these names as bundles of relationships, and by placing them back into the field from which they were abstracted, can we hope to avoid misleading inferences and increase our share of understanding. (1982:3)

In follow-up posts, I’ll attempt to outline how we can avoid the misleading inferences and increase rather than decrease our share of understanding. I agree with Alex Golub about taking care with hyperbole and strident rhetoric. But we still need a take-the-fight-to-the-streets moment for that better understanding of humanity.

Interestingly, that take-the-fight-to-the-streets moment may have been best provided by Eric Wolf himself in a 1980 New York Times piece about the 79th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, They Divide and Subdivide And Call It Anthropology:

An earlier anthropology had achieved unity under the aegis of the culture concept. It was culture, in the view of anthropologists, that distinguished humankind from all the rest of the universe, and it was the possession of varying cultures that differentiated one society from another. Each people was seen as having a distinctive, internally coherent repertoire of artifacts and customs, which–passed from generation to generation–created an enduring compact between the living and the dead. Looking at culture in this way, anthropologists had found seemingly secure explanations of why people behaved in certain ways and not others: it was “in their culture.” Similarly, changes in the way people behaved could be accounted for by pointing to changes “in their culture.” Other disciplines, especially psychology, sociology and history, acknowledged anthropology’s special jurisdiction over the study of cultural phenomena. . . .
What was once a secular church of believers in the primacy of Culture has now become a holding company of diverse interests, defined by what the members do rather than by what they do it for. There are unvoiced concerns within the profession about what anthropology has become and where it is headed. The old culture concept is moribund. But in its time, it unified the discipline around a concern with basic questions about the nature of the human species, its biological and socially learned variability, and the proper ways to assess the similarities and differences. Ultimately, a discipline draws its energy from the questions it asks. Whether anthropology’s basic questions are still those that marked its beginnings or new ones, the task of articulating them may be the meeting’s hidden agenda.

For more on Eric Wolf’s attempt to articulate a new agenda for anthropology, see the follow-up Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires. For more on understanding indigenous peoples and the idea of the native, see Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire.

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