|Ruth Fulton Benedict|
Ruth Benedict in 1937
|Born||June 5, 1887
New York City
|Died||September 17, 1948 (aged 61)
New York City
|Education||Ph.D. in anthropology, Columbia University (1923)|
She was born in New York City, and attended Vassar College, graduating in 1909. She entered graduate studies at Columbia University in 1919, studying under Franz Boas, receiving her PhD and joining the faculty in 1923. Margaret Mead, with whom she may have shared a romantic relationship, and Marvin Opler were among her students and colleagues.
Franz Boas, her teacher and mentor, has been called the father of American anthropology and his teachings and point of view are clearly evident in Benedict's work. Boas is author of many classic works including Race, Language, and Culture—perhaps the most potent anti-racist text to emerge from the academic world in his time. In it Boas attempts to prove that race, language, and culture are independent. Ruth Benedict was affected by the passionate egalitarianism of Boas, her mentor, and continued it in her research and writing.
Ruth Benedict was born in New York City on June 5, 1887, to Beatrice and Frederick Fulton. Her mother worked in the city as a schoolteacher, while her father pursued a promising career as a homoeopathic doctor and surgeon. Although Mr. Fulton loved his work and research, it eventually led to an early death. His career was cut short when he acquired an unknown disease during one of his surgeries in 1888. Due to his illness the family moved back to Norwich, New York to the farm of Ruth’s maternal grandparents, the Shattucks. A year later he died in March, ten days after returning from a trip to Trinidad to search for a cure.
Mrs. Fulton was deeply affected by her husband’s passing. Any mention of him caused her to be overwhelmed by grief; every March she cried at church and in bed. Ruth hated her mother’s sorrow and viewed it as a weakness. For her, the greatest taboos in life were crying in front of people and showing expressions of pain. She reminisced, “I did not love my mother; I resented her cult of grief…”. Because of this, the psychological effects on her childhood were profound, for “…in one stroke she [Ruth] experienced the loss of the two most nourishing and protective people around her—the loss of her father at death and her mother to grief”. Because of these traumatic experiences, Ruth began to create what she called two separate “worlds.” “Her” world she associated with her father, death, and beauty. This world was her escape from reality; a place of fantasy and happiness. She hated the “real” world full of her mother’s weeping, confusion, and grief, and made up games to escape. In one instance she created an imaginary house with a family and playmate on the other side of the hill. She recalled, “This imaginary playmate and her family lived a warm, friendly, life without recriminations and brawls”.
Ruth also had a fascination with death as a young child. When she was four years old her grandmother took her to see an infant that had recently died. Upon seeing the dead child’s face, Ruth claimed that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. This attraction to death merely continued from there. By the time she was 6 years old, Ruth liked to go to the barn and, instead of jumping in the hay like most children, would lie in the dark and imagine it as her grave. According to biographer Margaret Caffrey, this fascination with death was most likely a typical response that many children have when a close family member dies. Her relationship with death was a way for her to stay connected to her father, and to cope with his passing. However, the attraction towards death continued even into Ruth’s adult life. As a mature woman, she felt that the face, in death, showed the real beauty or ugliness of a person. She felt cheated if she didn’t see the dead faces of those she loved. For instance, at the funeral of her husband’s father she noted, “but in his coffin I really saw him, and it was more than all the rest”. She felt that even death could not erase the ugliness of a person’s heart and so in seeing his beautiful face, she felt that she saw who he really was.
At age seven Ruth began to write short verses and read any book she could get her hands on. Her favorite author was Jean Ingelow and her favorite readings were A Legend of Bregenz and The Judas Tree, advanced literature for one so young. Through writing she was able to gain approval from her family. Writing was her outlet, and she wrote with an insightful perception about the realities of life. For example, in her senior year of high school she wrote a piece called, “Lulu’s Wedding (A True Story)” in which she recalled the wedding of a family serving girl. Instead of romanticizing the event, she revealed the true, unromantic, arranged marriage that Lulu went through because the man would take her, even though he was much older. Even at this young age, Ruth was perceptive about the realities of the world around her.
Although, Ruth Benedict’s fascination with death started at an early age, she continued to study how death affected people, throughout her career. In her book Patterns of Culture, Benedict studied the Pueblo culture and how they dealt with grieving and death. She describes in the book that individuals may deal with reactions to death, such as frustration and grief, differently. Societies all have social norms that they follow; some allow more expression when dealing with death, such as mourning, while other societies are not allowed to acknowledge it. The studies that Benedict conducted during her career relate directly to her experience with death that she encountered with her father early in her childhood.
After high school, Margery (her sister) and Ruth were able to enter St. Margaret’s School for Girls, a college preparatory school, with help from a full time scholarship. The girls were successful in school and entered Vassar College in September 1905. In college, Ruth had more freedom than many other women of the time, but college still had its difficulties. During this time period stories were circulating that going to college led girls to become childless and never be married. Nevertheless, Ruth explored her interests in college and found writing as her way of expressing herself as an “intellectual radical” as she was sometimes called by her classmates. Author Walter Pater was a large influence on her life during this time as she strove to be like him and live a well-lived life. She graduated with her sister in 1909 with a major in English Literature. Unsure of what to do after college, she received an invitation to go on an all-expense paid tour around Europe by a wealthy trustee of the college. Accompanied by two girls from California that she’d never met, Katherine Norton and Elizabeth Atsatt, she traveled through France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and England for one year, having the opportunity of various home stays throughout the trip.
Over the next few years, Ruth took up many different jobs trying to keep herself busy while searching for a purpose in her life. First she tried paid social work for the Charity Organization Society, but the work was too painful and sad. Soon after, she accepted a job as a teacher at the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles California. While working there she gained her interest in Asia that would later affect her choice of fieldwork as a working anthropologist. However, she was unhappy with this job as well and, after one year, left to teach English in Pasadena at the Orton School for Girls. These years were very difficult for Ruth as she suffered from depression and severe loneliness. “In spite of myself bitterness at having lived at all obsessed me; it seemed cruel that I had been born, cruel that, as my family taught me, I must go on living forever” She felt as if she were living behind a mask that hid the real her. “I am not afraid of pain, nor of sorrow. But this loneliness, this futility, this emptiness—I dare not face them”. She worried that she would never find a man to marry or find a career that she liked. However, through reading authors like Walt Whitman and Jeffries that stressed a worth, importance and enthusiasm for life she held onto hope for a better future.
The summer after her first year teaching at the Orton School she returned home to the Shattuck’s farm to spend some time in thought and peace. Eventually her prayers were heard and Stanley Benedict began to visit her at the farm. She had met him by chance in Buffalo, New York around 1910. That summer Ruth fell deeply in love with Stanley as he began to visit her more, and accepted his proposal for marriage. She was so happy it was as if she had become a different person. Her journal exclaimed, “How shall I say it? That I have attained to the zest for life? That I have looked in the face of God and had five days of magnificent comprehensions?—It is more than these, and better. It is the greatest thing in the world—and I have it. Is it not incredible?”. For the next few years Ruth Benedict no longer felt the incredible loneliness and sadness that had previously marked her life since childhood. She underwent several writing projects in order to keep busy besides the everyday housework chores in her new life with Stanley. She began to publish poems under different pseudonyms—Ruth Stanhope, Edgar Stanhope, and Anne Singleton. She also began work on writing a biography about Mary Wollstonecraft and other lesser known women that she felt deserved more acknowledgement for their work and contributions.
However by 1918, Ruth and Stanley began to drift away from each other and the loneliness and depression returned. In her search for a career, she decided to attend some lectures at the New School for Social Research while looking into the possibility of becoming an educational philosopher. While at the school she took a class called “Sex in Ethnology” taught by Elsie Clews Parsons. She enjoyed the class and took another anthropology course with Alexander Goldenweiser, a student of noted anthropologist Franz Boas. With Goldenweiser as her teacher, Ruth’s love for anthropology steadily grew. As close friend Margaret Mead explained, “Anthropology made the first ‘sense’ that any ordered approach to life had ever made to Ruth Benedict” After working with Goldenweiser for a year, he sent her to work as a graduate student with Franz Boas at Columbia University in 1921. Boas gave her graduate credit for the courses she’d completed at the New School for Social Research and Ruth wrote her dissertation “The Concept of the Guardian Spirit of North America”. Ruth continued on to teach at the university level and to write several ethnographies such as Patterns of Culture in 1934 and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patters of Japanese Culture in 1946. She was well known for her studies of how culture and social conditions related to culture.
The time period in which Ruth Benedict conducted most of her work was from the early 1930s to the mid 1940s. Benedict is most famous for her books, Patterns of Culture and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword; however, one thing that is important to keep in mind about these explorations is the time period in which they were conducted. As a young woman, Benedict received a very elite education for a woman during the early part of the 1900s. Though she came from a successful family, and this helped her attend these specific universities as a young woman, they were still regarded as academically superior in the country. This helped Benedict receive a building block for education and a jumping point in which she would be able to start her research around the world. Yet, there was a revolution during the early 1900s that gave Benedict the ability to be able to do her research: this was the women’s rights movement. Ruth Benedict worked during a time when women were still struggling to have equal rights as men, yet she published her book, Patterns of Culture, only 14 years after the women’s suffrage. It is interesting to look at how much power she had in the field of anthropology during a time when there weren’t many women scholars.
Throughout history women had been seen as being inferior to men, especially in an academic setting. Yet, this movement helped women be able to achieve their academic goals by being able to attend universities and learn what the men were learning. It is important to note that Ruth Benedict, among many other woman scholars of her time, was able to study in a prestigious university and be able to learn from highly regarded professors.
One professor that Benedict studied under at Columbia University was Franz Boas. He was known as an astounding professor for anthropology during his years working at Columbia and taught many classes related to various fields of anthropology. Franz Boas began teaching at Columbia, as a lecturer, in 1896; however, at the time there was no anthropology department at the university. Boas and another colleague, James McKean Cattell, were both involved in a committee entitled American Association for the Advancement of Science. Together on this committee, Boas and Cattell expressed the importance of having a course in anthropology at the university. In 1899, an anthropology department was added to the Columbia curriculum. After many years of teaching, Boas was looking for someone to help him with his teaching and fieldwork, and the classroom was the perfect place to look for his assistant. Boas had two main successors in mind: Edward Sapir and Alfred Kroeber; however, both of them rejected the thought of coming to Columbia University for different reasons. During this time, in 1932, Benedict was holding the position of administrative officer for the anthropology department.
After all of the successors that Boas had considered, the major turning point for Benedict’s career was when she and Boas received funding for Project #35, which was concerned with the cultures of the North and South American Indians. The relationship between Boas and Benedict was purely academic and grew as Boas got older. In his later years, Franz Boas focused on having someone to continue his work after he passed away.
Boas regarded Benedict as an asset to the anthropology department, and often introduced her to students throughout the years. One student who felt especially fond of Ruth Benedict was Ruth Schlossberg Landes. Letters that Landes sent to Benedict state that she was enthralled by the way in which Benedict taught her classes, and with the way she forced the students to think in an unconventional way. Landes also stated that she was never as happy studying anthropology as when she was studying with Benedict and Boas. Landes has recorded that the friendship between herself and Benedict was one of the most meaningful friendships of her life; it was a friendship that encouraged her to expand her thoughts about anthropology and question the social norms of society.
Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict are considered to be the two most influential and famous women anthropologists of their time; this is why their paths often crossed throughout their work. One of the reasons Mead and Benedict got along well was because they both shared a passion for their work and they each felt a sense of pride at being a successful working woman during a time when this was uncommon. They were known to critique each other’s work frequently; they created a companionship that began through their work. Both Benedict and Mead wanted to dislodge stereotypes about women during their time period and show that working women can be successful even though working society was seen as a man’s world.
The lives of Mead and Benedict were intertwined in various ways. They worked together in different fieldwork and they both conducted expeditions relating to various topics in anthropology. There is also speculation that the two were involved in a romantic relationship at some point in time. The many marriages that each had with men failed, and this is an indication that the two were romantically involved. After Benedict died of a heart attack in 1948, Mead kept the legacy of Benedict’s work going by supervising projects that Benedict would have looked after, and editing and publishing notes from studies that Benedict had collected throughout her life.
Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934) was translated into fourteen languages and was published in many editions as standard reading for anthropology courses in American universities for years.
The essential idea in Patterns of Culture is, according to the foreword by Margaret Mead, "her view of human cultures as 'personality writ large.'" Each culture, Benedict explains, chooses from "the great arc of human potentialities" only a few characteristics which become the leading personality traits of the persons living in that culture. These traits comprise an interdependent constellation of aesthetics and values in each culture which together add up to a unique gestalt. For example she described the emphasis on restraint in Pueblo cultures of the American southwest, and the emphasis on abandon in the Native American cultures of the Great Plains. She used the Nietzschean opposites of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as the stimulus for her thought about these Native American cultures. She describes how in ancient Greece, the worshipers of Apollo emphasized order and calm in their celebrations. In contrast, the worshipers of Dionysus, the god of wine, emphasized wildness, abandon, letting go. And so it was among Native Americans. She described in detail the contrasts between rituals, beliefs, personal preferences amongst people of diverse cultures to show how each culture had a "personality" that was encouraged in each individual.
Other anthropologists of the culture and personality school also developed these ideas—notably Margaret Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa (published before "Patterns of Culture") and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (published just after Benedict's book came out). Benedict was a senior student of Franz Boas when Mead began to study with them, and they had extensive and reciprocal influence on each other's work. Abram Kardiner was also affected by these ideas, and in time the concept of "modal personality" was born: the cluster of traits most commonly thought to be observed in people of any given culture.
Benedict, in Patterns of Culture, expresses her belief in cultural relativism. She desired to show that each culture has its own moral imperatives that can be understood only if one studies that culture as a whole. It was wrong, she felt, to disparage the customs or values of a culture different from one's own. Those customs had a meaning to the people who lived them which should not be dismissed or trivialized. We should not try to evaluate people by our standards alone. Morality, she argued, was relative to the values of the culture in which one operated.
As she described the Kwakiutls of the Northwest Coast (based on the fieldwork of her mentor Franz Boas), the Pueblos of New Mexico (among whom she had direct experience), the nations of the Great Plains, and the Dobu culture of New Guinea (regarding whom she relied upon Mead and Reo Fortune's fieldwork), she gave evidence that their values, even where they may seem strange, are intelligible in terms of their own coherent cultural systems and should be understood and respected.
Critics have objected to the degree of abstraction and generalization inherent in the "culture and personality" approach. Some have argued that particular patterns she found may only be a part or a subset of the whole cultures. For example, David Friend Aberle writes that the Pueblo people may be calm, gentle, and much given to ritual when in one mood or set of circumstances, but can be suspicious, retaliatory, and warlike in other circumstances. Nevertheless, Benedict's elegant descriptions are vivid, readable, and easy to relate to. New generations of students continue to find her arguments persuasive even after the culture and personality school has been abandoned by anthropologists generally.
In 1936 she was appointed an associate professor at Columbia University. However, by then Dr. Benedict had already assisted in the training and guidance of several Columbia students of anthropology including Margaret Mead and Ruth Landes.
One of her lesser known works was a pamphlet "The Races of Mankind" which she wrote with her colleague at the Columbia University Department of Anthropology, Gene Weltfish. This pamphlet was intended for American troops and set forth, in simple language with cartoon illustrations, the scientific case against racist beliefs.
The nations united against fascism, they continue, include "the most different physical types of men."
And the writers explicate, in section after section, the best evidence they knew for human equality. They want to encourage all these types of people to join together and not fight amongst themselves. "The peoples of the earth", they point out, are one family. We all have just so many teeth, so many molars, just so many little bones and muscles—so we can only have come from one set of ancestors no matter what our color, the shape of our head, the texture of our hair. "The races of mankind are what the Bible says they are—brothers. In their bodies is the record of their brotherhood."
Environment has to do with our physical traits. Dark skin affords some protection against strong tropical sunlight, for example.
But whatever our physical traits, regardless of the shape or size of our head, we are equally intelligent. "The best scientists cannot tell from examining a brain to what group of people its owner belonged....Some of the most brilliant men in the world have had very small brains. On the other hand, the world's largest brain belongs to an imbecile."
Environment has more to do with intelligence than birth does, including how much money is spent on schools. "Southern Whites", for example, scored below "Northern Negroes" in the IQ tests administered to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I. And the per capita expenditures on schools in the South were only "fractions" of those in northern states in 1917.
Not only is the intelligence of people the same, on the whole, but the blood has the same chemical composition. Different peoples don't have different blood—"all the races of man have all [the] blood types"—and can receive transfusions from one another to save lives.
And all people are of mixed race, produced by "the movements of peoples over the face of the earth...since before history began."
This knowledge, and more, was intended to work against superiority—the superiority "a man claims when he says, 'I was born a member of a superior race.'....Racial prejudice," write the authors, "makes people ruthless."
Benedict is known not only for her earlier Patterns of Culture but also for her later book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the study of the society and culture of Japan that she published in 1946, incorporating results of her war-time research.
This book is an instance of Anthropology at a Distance. Study of a culture through its literature, through newspaper clippings, through films and recordings, etc., was necessary when anthropologists aided the United States and its allies in World War II. Unable to visit Nazi Germany or Japan under Hirohito, anthropologists made use of the cultural materials to produce studies at a distance. They were attempting to understand the cultural patterns that might be driving their aggression, and hoped to find possible weaknesses, or means of persuasion that had been missed.
Benedict's war work included a major study, largely completed in 1944, aimed at understanding Japanese culture. Americans found themselves unable to comprehend matters in Japanese culture. For instance, Americans considered it quite natural for American prisoners of war to want their families to know they were alive, and to keep quiet when asked for information about troop movements, etc., while Japanese POWs, apparently, gave information freely and did not try to contact their families. Why was that? Why, too, did Asian peoples neither treat the Japanese as their liberators from Western colonialism, nor accept their own supposedly obviously just place in a hierarchy that had Japanese at the top?
Benedict played a major role in grasping the place of the Emperor of Japan in Japanese popular culture, and formulating the recommendation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that permitting continuation of the Emperor's reign had to be part of the eventual surrender offer.
While one critic has written that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is "long since... discredited since Benedict had no direct experience in Japan" , the Japanese ambassador to Pakistan stated this in a public address:
Other Japanese who have read this work, according to Margaret Mead, found it on the whole accurate but somewhat "moralistic". Sections of the book were mentioned in Takeo Doi's book, The Anatomy of Dependence, though Doi is highly critical of Benedict's concept that Japan has a 'shame' culture, whose emphasis is on how one's moral conduct appear to outsider in contradistinction to America's (Christian) 'guilt' culture, in which the emphasis is on individual's internal conscience. Doi stated that, this claim clearly implies the former value system is inferior to the latter one.
Before World War II began, Benedict was giving lectures at the Bryn Mawr College for the Anna Howard Shaw Memorial Lectureship. These lectures were focused around the idea of synergy. Yet, WWII made her focus on other areas of concentration of anthropology and the lectures were never presented in their entirety. After the war was over, she focused on finishing her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It is important to note that her original notes for the synergy lecture were never found after her death. She continued her teaching after the war, advancing to the rank of full professor only two months before her death, and died in New York on September 17, 1948.
A U.S. postage stamp in her honor was issued October 20, 1995.
Although Ruth Benedict is seen as a very influential anthropologist, she has many critiques against her. For example, many people thought Benedict to be the successor of Boas; however, she was never held as highly as Boas was. There were only a few students who gave good reviews about her teaching techniques. Many of her colleagues in the anthropology department at Columbia felt that she grew apart from the department as she grew older and became much more distant in her studies tied to the university.
Another criticism came from some veterans of the war who took classes with her. They criticized the hypothetical approach that she took in her teaching style.