See biography by M. Mead (1974).
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. After Boas, it was no longer possible to say that any given race was inferior, incapable of the highest culture humanity had to offer, and still be taken seriously. Ruth Benedict was affected by the passionate egalitarianism of Boas, her mentor, and continued it in her research and writing.
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 "model 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 world is shrinking" begin Benedict and Weltfish. "Thirty-seven nations are now united in a common cause—victory over Axis aggression, the military destruction of fascism" (p. 1).
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."
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" and described it as "considered shallow and overtly racist", 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, in contradistinction to America's 'guilt' culture.