Science of Custom

Beginning Patterns of Culture

This was the comment page for the beginning chapters of Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. We read the chapters “The Science of Custom,” “The Diversity of Cultures,” and “The Integration of Culture” for Cultural Anthropology 2016 course. I wrote about this section of Ruth Benedict in a 2013 blog-post titled Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and the Anthropological Concept of Culture. For a 2021 update on teaching about race, culture, and anthropology in Intro-to-Anthropology, see the lecture based on Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?:

Rough notes are below followed by student comments.

After 300-400 years of colonial projects, during rise of institutionalized academics & social science, anthropology becomes social science version of: What about everyone else? (Trouillot, 19)
“the Savage became absence and negation” (Trouillot, 22)
Savage was argument about human nature & society: for or against utopia; for or against order (Trouillot, 22)

American Anthropology emerges

“Indians (especially ‘good’ Indians) became the preserve of anthropologists” (Trouillot, 18)
“Salvage Paradigm” (Welsch and Vivanco, 4)
Differently put: Salvage the Savage!
Boas and Benedict were working within the Savage Slot
However, it is important to note that “what happens within the slot is neither doomed nor inconsequential” (Trouillot, 23)

'what happens within the (Savage) slot is neither doomed nor inconsequential' (Michel-Rolph Trouillot)Click To Tweet

Savage as Evidence & Argument (Benedict)

Not just Absence or Lack: They have culture (Benedict, 6)
We all have Culture: That’s how we become particularly human (Benedict, 2-3)
Culture is what explains our behavior
Culture is not determined by our biology (Benedict, 13-15)
Culture not determined by physical environment (Benedict, 35)

Culture cannot be ranked hierarchically
Anthropologists need to get into the laboratory of cultures before it’s too late (Benedict, 17)

Benedict’s Great Arc (23-24)

And now, puberty rites
1. If extent of biological change were reflected in cultural ceremonies… (Benedict, 26)
2. Female biological puberty similar for human species but
Some societies minimize
Some consider profane, shelter, shun
Some consider sacred, welcome, kneeling

Savage as Evidence in America

1930s

Massive inequalities, capitalist crises and stock market fluctuations, high rates of unemployment and poverty
Us the Civilized versus Them the Savages
Segregated society, by neighborhood and school

2010s

Is it any wonder that Benedict can seem so relevant and fresh? (pp.10-11, 31-32, 36-37)

This interesting blog-post by Paul Shankman When Cultural Anthropology Was Popular: A Quiz is a potentially useful comparison.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, follow on Twitter, watch on YouTube, or subscribe to e-mail list.

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