This academic year, I'm using the AIP book review series, On My Shelf, to revisit the books in my personal library. Over the course of the next ten months, I rereading my collection of ethnographies and popular science books and to share some thoughts with you.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Houghton Mifflin Company: 1959

My copy of Patterns of Culture was purchased used from a bookstore where I found it unceremoniously dumped in a bin. I think I paid less than $10 for it--possibly $7. It’s the seventh printing of the book which some Googling reveals is a 1959 edition. It’s cover and binding is made of paper-cloth composition, which gives the book a feeling of age that adds to the experience of holding and reading a classic. Part of the reason I was excited to pull this book off my shelf was because I was interested in seeing how well it would hold up in today’s climate of blurred technological boundaries and veiled racial rhetoric. And some minor critical points aside, it really does.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict opens with the statement that “anthropology is the study of human beings as creatures of society. She makes the point early that she does not mean a single society, but to each their individual societies. Their behavior in those societies, the ways in which they approach and solve for everyday, common life events which is specific to them, gives us culture. And culture is distinct and meaningful to each group. It is not the case, as early anthropologists had supposed, that culture progresses on a linear evolutionary course but each stands as a wholly developed and meaningful experience. There are no “primitive” or “proto-typical” cultures; to maintain this argument would be speculative. And while this may not seem so radical a thought to us now, this was a strong contrarian stance.

In this regard, she carries the banner of her teacher, Franz Boas, who also strongly maintained that cultures held independent significance. Benedict weaves three thorough case studies on the Pueblos of New Mexico, the Dobu of New Guinea, and members of the First Nations in the Pacific Northwest where she demonstrates clear management of everything from courtship to marriage to infidelity to death. Through this exercise we see that society is the sum of the relationships contained within. While it seems an unusual metaphor, gunpowder is not simply the combination of sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter but how they are combined and the variations that they can produce. The individual histories of each of these items matters little in this context. It is how they work together. So it is also with culture—the accepted responses will vary in combination from society to another, but within that society those responses will be entirely normative. The greater narratives and histories of those responses may offer some insights into their present combination but that combination is new and important by itself.

There are currently conflicts as to what the “American culture” is and who can participate in it, Benedict’s books presented a strong reminder that culture belongs to the people who must live it. Culture differ not just because of the traits we emphasize or combine but also because as a whole they are oriented toward specific goals. Cultures travel along different roads to reach different objectives. They are shared by the people who live these paths, and so even they cannot exclude those who are already embedded in these experiences. The conflict created by groups that assert they know the “true” cultural practices that society should maintain overlook a key point: culture is not a timeless, unchanging thing. It is malleable. It can be influenced by outside forces. Benedict referred to this as integration, and while there is no single formula for integration—some cultures may demonstrate strong instances of integration while others may show strong signs of resistance—it is a possible agent of change that must be acknowledged. 

That said, for all of Benedict’s forward thinking, she cannot entirely escape the racial undertones of her time. She maintains that individual cultures are independent and significant, but still speaks of the white patterns” that African Americans were allegedly adopting.The discussion here hints at the complexity of culture within a society and teases the idea of a subculture, but I felt we didn’t quite get there. Nevertheless it remains an important read for any cultural student.

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Also in this series:


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Blue Jeans—The Art of the Ordinary

The Illegal Trade of Twine