Nature of Society: Ethnography from Benedict to 2016

The Nature of Society

This is the comment page for “The Nature of Society” (chapter 7, pp.223-250) and “The Individual and the Pattern of Culture” (chapter 8, pp.251-278) in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture as well as Welsch & Vivanco, chapter 4, “Ethnography: Studying Culture” (61-79). It is part of the Hartwick College Cultural Anthropology 2016 course.

This interesting blog-post by Paul Shankman When Cultural Anthropology Was Popular: A Quiz is possibly helpful (hint, one of the answers is Ruth Benedict).

Rough notes below, then Disqus comments.

“The Nature of Society”

“they are traveling along different roads” (223)
Uniqueness, can’t compare, can’t hierarchize, whole directs the parts
It’s not biology… it’s culture (233-236)
Against Western hierarchies and idea of “eternal sanity” (237)
“the great arc” (237)

But not all peoples–some are unintegrated hodge-podge (223-224)
But if we could really see the integration… (228)
But they aren’t all homogeneous
And “it would be absurd to cut every culture down to the Procrustean bed of some catchword characterization” (228)
Is Benedict hedging? Providing disclaimers? Spelling out anthropological research agenda?

“The Individual and Culture”

Benedict:251
Individuals <-- --> Culture (253)
Individuals depend on culture
Culture is made by individuals
Attempting to go beyond antagonism, instead as mutual reinforcement
Most people malleable (254)
But we tend to persecute the aberrant (262-265)
In Middletown (272-277)

Could anthropology change the world? (249, 278)

Not Utopia, but could train ourselves to judge our own society (248-49)
Social relativism often seen as despair (278)
Causes “acute discomfort”
But will be “new bases for tolerance”

Coffee Table Benedict

1950, cover with colored heads
“An analysis of our social structure as related to primitive civilizations”
1959, more colored heads
“The description of three primitive societies which has become a classic comment on our time”
1989, as ethnic blanket pattern
2005, with multiple quotes from the New York Times
Appreciating cultures becomes way of being sophisticated!
Compare with Benedict (278)
If Benedict is so bad, why does anthropology keep re-publishing?
Judging Books by Their Cover by Jennifer Esperanza
“Why we must challenge misrepresentations of race and culture on our textbook covers.”

How did Benedict fare within anthropology?

Culture groups:
Kwakiutl, Boas-approved
Dobuans, nobody re-studied
Challenged on Pueblos, one place where she did fieldwork: Discrepancy between what people say and what people do
Benedict not really cited within anthropology anymore
Problem: How do you get cultural whole?
Problem: Relating culture to the individual
Still, book after book on The Balinese, The Tiv, The !Kung

How did Benedict fare outside anthropology?

(and see Welsch & Vivanco:73-74)


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