Anthropological Concept of Culture

Ruth Benedict & Culture

Franz Boas is commonly acknowledged as a founding figure in US academic anthropology. But it was his student Ruth Benedict who introduced the US brand of Boasian Anthropology to the world via the 1934 best-seller, Patterns of Culture. From the very first chapter, “The Science of Custom” and the first page, “anthropology is the study of human beings as creatures of society,” the introduction by Boas himself, and then a 1958 preface by Margaret Mead, Patterns of Culture was meant to be the book about the concept of culture. As Zoë Burkholder notes in Franz Boas and Anti-Racist Education, Boas was “a famously obtuse writer” and later “asked Benedict to translate his ideas on race and culture for popular audiences” (2006:24) for a pamphlet The Races of Mankind (written with Gene Weltfish). Ruth Benedict was a crucial conduit of Boasian anthropology for popular consumption. (For a different perspective on Boas as writer, see the Jonathan Marks comment below.)

As Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes in Anthropology and the Savage Slot, anthropology “inherited a field of significance that preceded its formalization” (2003:9). Accounts of others, and the use of stories about the Savage, became an argument within an emergent West on the possibilities of utopia against the necessity of order. “Just as the Savage is a metaphorical argument for or against utopia, so is utopia (and the Savage it encompasses) a metaphorical argument for or against order, conceived of as an expression of legitimate universality” (2003:22).

By the time of Boas and Benedict, arguments about others had already been ongoing for hundreds of years. “Now as before, the Savage is only evidence within a debate, the importance of which surpasses not only his understanding but his very existence. Just as utopia itself can be offered as a promise or as a dangerous illusion, the Savage can be noble, wise, barbaric, victim, or aggressor, depending on the debate and on the aims of the interlocutors” (2003:22-23; see also Anthropology and Human Nature).

Boas and Benedict also stepped into a world that had been deeply transformed, not just by peoples in constant interaction, contact, and trade, but by the direct and indirect effects of several hundred years of colonization:

Eurocentric ideas first developed and nurtured successively by the Renaissance, the first wave of colonialism, the Enlightenment, and the practice of plantation slavery in the Americas, had gathered new momentum with colonialism’s second wave. By the time the social sciences were standardized in degree-granting departments, non-Western areas and peoples were thought to be fundamentally different both in essence and in practice. (Trouillot 2003:19; Update 2017: see Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution for a plea to current anthropology textbooks to understand the first wave of colonialism)

By the time of Boas and Benedict, colonialism was in its second wave. Most peoples had been deeply modified by previous engagements, even if only as a spin-off effect from direct colonization. Additionally, ideas of others had shifted more toward absence and negation. “Colonization became a mission, and the Savage became absence and negation” (Trouillot 2003:22).

The common explanatory devices for what others were like illustrated this absence and negation. The Savage could be explained through crude environmental or geographic determinism, or as a racial determinism, newly buttressed by the idea of each race located in evolutionary hierarchy. Boas and Benedict hoped the concept of culture would counter these forms of determinism.

Ruth Benedict on Race, Environment, & 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, Ruth 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).

The primary message of Patterns of Culture is the paramount importance of learned behavior in human existence.Click To Tweet
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 US 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 patterns 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. (2003:99)

Ruth Benedict: What Can We Learn from Primitive Societies?

Although her language can be dated, Benedict begs us to break out of the prism of white culture and parochial thinking. While she may be using words like primitive, it is a call for cultural relativism:

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 other places, Benedict’s words from 1934 remain as fresh and important as ever, perhaps accounting for the re-publication of Patterns of Culture in 1989 and 2005:

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)

Moreover, Benedict provides a counterpoint to all the outrage that minor changes in custom will wreak social havoc:

Our fears over even very minor shifts in custom are usually quite beside the point. Civilizations might change far more radically than any human authority has ever had the will or the imagination to change them, and still be completely workable. The minor changes that occasion so much denunciation today, such as the increase of divorce, the growing secularization in our cities, the prevalence of the petting party, and many more, could be taken up quite readily into a slightly different pattern of culture. Becoming traditional, they would be given the same richness of content, the same importance and value, that the older patterns had in other generations. (1934:36-37; see also Jon Marks on Facebook for how this section echoes Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1930 essay on Parenthood)

Ruth Benedict: Cultures as Laboratory

Benedict makes a brilliant case for cultural patterning and for cultural relativism. But she also lends credence to a template that would consider each separate group 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)

In so doing, Benedict minimized and played down not just western colonialism, but the degree to which all peoples had been forged through interaction, contact, and trade. (For more, see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History for an alternative reading, and the follow-up Globalization Stories: Systematic Erasure of Continuous Encounters.)

For Benedict, the concept of culture in the abstract, as a shaping idea for all human activity, slid easily and necessarily into an investigation of cultures as a noun-form plural. “Anthropologists are turning from the study of primitive culture to that of primitive cultures, and the implications of this change from the singular to the plural are only just beginning to be evident” (1934:50). Certainly this could be seen as progress, in the sense of no longer investigating all others as if they were one and the same: the savage is the savage is the savage. However, in making this turn, Benedict would also (perhaps more than Boas) turn to consider each as a separate whole. “Anthropological work has been overwhelmingly devoted to the analysis of culture traits, however, rather than to the study of cultures as articulated wholes” (1934:48).

And that’s one place–before we even reach Ruth Benedict’s analysis of The Pueblos of New Mexico, Dobu, and The Northwest Coast of America–where the difficulties begin. The idea that others were self-contained laboratories would underlay an idea of what anthropologists could accomplish that persists into Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. (See the earlier Patterns of Culture: From Culture to cultures for similar material written as satiric counterpoint to Diamond; see also Jared Diamond and Future Public Anthropology for an overview of scholarship on Diamond-Mead.)

And so as important as Ruth Benedict’s concept of culture has been, and as important as it is to re-assert the Boasian concept of culture, it does little to help anthropology attack the Savage slot. “The direction of the discipline now depends upon an explicit attack on [the Savage] slot itself and the symbolic order upon which it is premised” (Trouillot 2003:23).

Instead, at least for many readers, it seems that Ruth Benedict’s concept of culture contains the seeds of how culture starts looking like race.

Anthropology must make an explicit attack on the Savage slot & the premises of its symbolic order.Click To Tweet

Updates & Resources on Benedict’s Concept of Culture

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Ruth Benedicat and the Anthropological Concept of Culture.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 9 September 2013. Revised 5 October 2017.

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  • Helga Vierich

    Wonderful and very informative. It helps clarify the deep antithesis between views that were once commonplace – that some people, specifically those with “simple” cultures, were somehow dumber (biologically inferior, especially in morals and intelligence) to those in cultures which represented the higher levels of “enlightenment” and technology. Boas’ position was deeply hostile to this, o he repudiated this biological (genetic) rational behind colonialism and inequality. However, we have come full circle. Now those of us with an interest in human cultural evolution have to balance our growing understanding of how human cognition evolved with the understanding of just how deep “being cultural” is part of being human.

    Is it just me, or am I wrong in getting the impression that the whole field of socio-biology, when taken up by some anthropologists, has developed in repudiation of the idea that human behaviour is “socially constructed”? I don’t think it is, since this was the essential straw man set up by Tooby and Casmides. Unfortunately this straw man has come to be a rationale for disposing of the need to look at cultural differences as well as universals. There is no awareness, as far as I can see, that the differences tell us just as much about our pan-specific cognitive abilities as the universals do.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for the comment. Indeed we do seem to have “come full circle,” and I’ll hope to talk more about that in follow-up posts. Benedict could have done more to close the loop on what we now call a biocultural approach. However, I’m not at all sure that would have prevented the backlash against Boas-Benedict-Mead that began in the 1970s. An accurate history of that backlash, as well as the anthropological response (and non-response) has yet to be written. The straw man inaccurate history has of course been written, Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate. It may take many years, and much greater ideological distance, before someone can sort through what happened.

      • Helga Vierich

        Greater ideological distance?

        I am not so sure it would require much more than to finally, somehow, make it very very clear that the people on this planet who are not presently ensnared in our global industrial civilization have OTHER economies. Not LESS DEVELOPED economies, NOT inadequate or failing economies, NOT economies that are somehow indications of lesser minds, NOT economies that need to be improved so that the countries within which they occur can register more exports and higher GNP.

        We have to make it very clear – and do it with data – that the human beings on this planet that hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and gardeners and other people with local subsistence economies are not just so much evolutionary collateral damage in the growth of ‘OUR’ civilization.

        The fact that many of these subsistence economies are thousands of years old, and appear quietly sustainable, if just left alone, is not only overlooked, it is assumed away. These people are often called marginal, and even, “outside the mainstream” of human evolution.

        Biologically, intellectually, and morally, these people who happen to live in these economies are equally evolved human beings. Citizens of Zurich and New York are not smarter or more evolved human beings than African foragers or New Guinea yam growers with pigs at their feet.

        I would not be so concerned if it were merely a kind of economic-chauvinsm. But the fact is, most of these subsistence economies are not run by “white” males, either.

        Why do you think so many evolutionary biologists were relatively comfortable with Philippe Rushton’s work? Because it gave them a “scientific” theory – the K vs. “r” reproductive strategy – originated by E.O. Wilson himself – and used by Rushton to “explain” why Africans are less intelligent, more criminal, more athletic and emotional, and, I suppose, less “civilized” than the rest of humanity. It was a poisonous mishmash and handily debunked by all kinds of data on human biological and nureu-plasticity, but no one debunked it hard enough, it seems. It has given rise to a growing collective “meme” of “scientific racism”.

        AAA may have issued a statement on race. But no one believed them. Within anthropology, the matter was settled, but the rest of the world did not get that memo. We still have a huge fight on our hands even getting that simple point across, especially in the United States where it runs contrary to the whole current mythology of race.

        I think this can only be down by analyzing the machinery of power and force. The economic agenda of colonialism was pretty much laid bare by a previous generation of cultural anthropologists although much remains to be done there as well, Now we need to really take on the economic agenda of corporations, states, and “power” elites.

  • Rahman Nasir Uddin

    Succint but illuminating that unfolds the emergence and journey of “culture” as a core and governing concept of anthropological interest and in ethnographic investigation. It altogether reflects upon the intellectual nexus of Boas, Benedict, and Mead who laid down the bases of American anthropology what it is as of today. Good piece and worth-reading.

  • Jon Marks

    I’m with you most of the way, but I’d like to put in a word for Papa Franz. Their literary styles were quite different; Benedict writes nearly poetically, but to call Boas “famously obtuse” is a slander. I responded to that charge in the November 2006 Anthropology News: “While I share her admiration for the anti-racist work, I don’t quite see how
    Zoë Burkholder could characterize Franz Boas in her Oct AN article as “a famously obtuse writer,” given the success and influence of The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) and its successor, Anthropology and Modern Life (1928). For several years, beginning in 1887, Boas had actually been geography editor at Science magazine; his writing was, if anything, famously acute.”

    • Hi Jon, thank you for this clarification. I’ve tracked down your Anthropology News commentary and thought it would be useful to reproduce this too:

      I would like to add something as well about The Races of Mankind, published in 1943 by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish. After the United Service Organizations (USO) purchased 55,000 copies for distribution to the Armed Forces, and an estimated 250,000 copies were in print, it came to the attention of Rep Andrew J May of Kentucky, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, that the pamphlet contained the subversive and anti-American message that blacks had the same intellectual capacities as whites. While it is ironic that the pamphlet had been purchased to show our troops what they were fighting for, the distribution of The Races of Mankind was summarily halted. A decade later, it would be invoked as evidence of Gene Weltfish’s communist sympathies, as she invoked the Fifth Amendment to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was fired by Columbia University for it. The matter is discussed in detail by David H Price in Threatening Anthropology (2004).

      On the issue of Boas as writer, great suggestions, and I look forward to re-examining this assertion. However, it does seem that most of Boas’s best work is as compilations of essays and lectures rather than book-length manuscripts, no?

      • Jon Marks

        I assign The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), which is available for free on Google:
        I think it’s a very straightforward read (as long as you don’t get distracted by the pornographic doodle on p. 29), although stylistically very different from Benedict.

        • Hi Jon, thank you for the recommendation–and the warning!

  • Julia

    Benedict, Boas student continued to work on a lot of Boas ideas. Benedict progressed some of his theories and added a few of her own. The results were complied into her book, “The Science of Custom”. She follows Boas biggest theory and further supports the idea of the separation between culture and race from genetics. Benedict on page 13 describes a situation where a Oriental child was adopted by an Occidental family and grows up learning the culture of his adoptive parents and forfeiting the culture of his biological parents. Benedict goes on to say how, ” All over the world, since the beginning of human history, it can be shown that peoples have been able to adopt the culture of people of another blood”(pg13). This is just one example of how culture and genetics are separated. Benedict also speaks about how we can learn from other cultures other than our own to grasp a larger understanding of humanity.

    • Hi Julia, thanks! Indeed Benedict powerfully deploys the adoption evidence. The much-later “twin studies” would claim that there was more in-built biological heritability than had been assumed, but to my view that misses Benedict’s basic message regarding the very different outcomes based on extreme social environment changes.

  • Frank Salamone

    True. I was surprised by famously obtuse as well. I have found him clear and also his ideas as evolving until his death. Also, the ending of this article is puzzling indeed. Suddenly, culture becomes racism?

    • Hi Professor Salamone, it’s an honor to have your comment! I believe the “famously obtuse” comment was aimed at Boas’s writing, and although I take the Jon Marks corrective comment, I still don’t think it can be said that Boas had the writing abilities of Benedict for producing widely-read books outside of anthropology.

      On the issue of how culture became a kind of “race-lite”: is that really in dispute for what happened to the culture idea in its trajectory outside of anthropology? I’m currently reading Leith Mullings Interrogating Racism in the 2005 Annual Review of Anthropology. As Mullings puts it:

      All this will necessitate a radical reappropriation of the concept of culture. The limitations of the Boasian approach to culture, with its many confluences, its ahistoricity, and its lack of groundedness in processes of economy and power have allowed it to become essentialized, doing the work of race (Brodkin 2001, Visweswaran 1998). We see this in the culture of poverty or underclass concepts in the United States, in culture as irreconcilable difference embodied in the new racisms of Europe, in color blindness in the United States, as well as in the essentialism of liberal varieties of multiculturalism. An appropriate concept of culture must confront political economy and incorporate relations of power. (2005:685)

      It wasn’t exactly suddenly, but outside of anthropology culture is often used to do the work that race once did.

    • Tim Mason

      Suddenly? Kuper’s ‘Culture: The Antrhopologist’s Account’ (published in 1999) made this point with some force.

      • Hi Tim, thank you for the comment. I did think that the critique of how culture became “race-lite” had been around for a while. It is possible though that the “suddenly” refers to my blog-post. I hope the follow-up, Culture starts looking like race, clarifies.

  • John McCreery

    Let us take it as given that the mosaic view in which cultures are discrete wholes is obsolete. We must still address the issue that Benedict’s shift from culture (singular) to cultures (plural) tries to address. Customs, habits, artifacts, wherever we turn humanity is various and boundaries are drawn between those which belong to “us” and those we attribute to “them.” Generic characterizations of culture (singular) are vacuous. Accounts of differences must begin with boundaries where differences matter or distributions in time or space intersect. The question is how to proceed, and the answer, dear anthropologist friends, lies in sociology. The description of a culture must begin with a definition of the group whose members are said to share that culture. There are as many possible cultures as possible groups — and, here is the key, groups may overlap. As Georg Simmel observed, has it already been a century ago, people commonly inhabit multiple social circles. As A. Irving Hallowell observed, complete agreement is not a necessary condition for cooperation. Mental models (also values, conventional sentiments, whatever) need only overlap enough to get on with the business at hand. As Everett Hughes taught Howard Becker, who tells the story in his Tricks of the Trade an ethnic group does not exist because individuals share certain traits; it is, instead, because both those inside and those outside the group agree that they do. With a few basic notions like these to work with, we need not concern ourselves with the Platonic form of Culture (universal and singular) or the Romantic illusion that in a properly organized world those who share the same blood, language and habits will occupy a single, geographically bounded space.

    • Hi John, thank you for commenting here. I think you are quite correct that many times anthropology needs a dose of sociology. I don’t know, however, if we still in fact need the word culture. As Trouillot put it:

      There is no reason today to enclose any segment of the world population within a single bounded and integrated culture, except for political quarantine. The less culture is allowed to be a shortcut for too many things, the more sociocultural anthropology can thrive within its chosen
      domain of excellence: documenting how human thought and behavior is patterned and how those patterns are produced, rejected or acquired.
      Without culture, we will continue to need ethnography. Without culture, we may even revitalize the Boasian conceptual kernel, because we will
      have to come to the ground to describe and analyze the changing heads of the hydra that we once singularized. (2003:116)

      I also think, as I put it in a follow-up post Culture, Culture, Everywhere, that in some ways continuing to use “culture” talk makes a theoretical hash of current research efforts into the biocultural.