Ruth Fulton Benedict

The American cultural anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1948) originated the configurational approach to culture. Her work has provided a bridge between the humanities and anthropology, as well as background for all later culture-personality studies.

Ruth Fulton was born in New York City, the daughter of a surgeon. She entered Vassar College in 1905 and specialized in English literature. After graduation she taught English in a girls' secondary school.

In 1914 she married the biochemist Stanley Benedict, and the next 5 years were spent waiting for the children who never came and experimenting with a variety of creative tasks, such as writing poetry (her pen name as a poet was Anne Singleton), studying dance, and exploring the lives of famous women of the past. In 1919 she began to study anthropology and received her doctorate from Columbia University in 1923.


Configurational Theory

Her first anthropological work was a study of the way in which the same themes, such as the "Vision Quest," were organized differently in different Native American cultures. During the next 9 years she was editor of the Journal of American Folk-Lore and did a substantial amount of fieldwork among the Native Americans of the South-west. In all of this early work she was impressed with the extraordinary diversity of human cultures, but she did not yet have any way of integrating this diversity.

In the summer of 1927, while doing fieldwork among the Pima, she developed her configurational theory of culture: each culture could be seen as "personality writ large"—a set of emphases derived from some of the innumerable potentialities of the human personality. Patterns of Culture (1934), her best-known book, develops this theme. This book contrasts the Native American cultures of the Southwest as Dionysian and Appolonian, borrowing terminology from Nietzsche; and Kwakiutl and Dobuan cultures as megalomaniac and paranoid, borrowing terms from psychiatry. This eclectic choice illustrated her open-ended approach to history and her lesser concern with universals. She is sometimes associated with a theory of cultural relativity which treats all values as relative; actually she was deeply committed to the relevance of anthropology to man's control of his own evolution.


Cross-Cultural Studies

During the 1940s she devoted her energies to dispelling myths about race (Race: Science and Politics, 1940) and to a discussion of how warfare, now outmoded, could be superseded. During World War II she worked on studies of countries to which the United States had no access: Romania, the Netherlands, Thailand, and Japan. After the war she published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946), which was the best received of all the anthropological studies of national character. In 1947 she was elected president of the American Anthropological Association, and in 1948, belatedly, she was designated full professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

In 1947 Benedict inaugurated a great cross-cultural study, the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures (France, Syria, China, Russia, Eastern European Jews, Czechoslovakia), in which 120 scholars from 14 disciplines and of 16 nationalities worked harmoniously together. In the summer of 1948 she visited Europe for the first time since 1926 and saw again at firsthand some of the cultures she had analyzed at a distance. She had gone to Europe against the advice of physicians, and she died a week after her return in September 1948, leaving a devoted group of younger collaborators to finish the work.


Further Reading on Ruth Fulton Benedict

Margaret Mead, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict (1959), is a study of Mrs. Benedict's life that includes many of her shorter papers and a selection of her poems. Erik H. Erikson wrote Ruth Fulton Benedict: A Memorial in 1949. Her life and career are recounted in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958), and Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (1961). Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968), discusses the importance of her work.

Additional Biography Sources

Benedict, Ruth, An anthropologist at work: writings of Ruth Benedict, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Caffrey, Margaret M. (Margaret Mary), Ruth Benedict: stranger in this land, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Dimitroff, Gail., Guiding spirits: an inquiry into the nature of the bond between Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, San Diego: G. Dimitroff, 1983.

Mead, Margaret, Ruth Benedict, New York, Columbia University Press, 1974.

Modell, Judith Schachter, Ruth Benedict, patterns of a life, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.