quotes form Ruth Benedict (1932)

Ruth Benedict

"Configurations of culture in North America" American Anthropologist 34: 1-27. 1932.

Included here are some quotes from the work which I have found most relevant to the search for a way of talking about cultural patterning

(Note that the titles used to frame the quotes are my own)

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these cultures, though they are so overwhelmingly made up of disparate elements fortuitously assembled from all directions by diffusion, are none the less over and over again in different tribes integrated according to very different and individual patterns.

... to conclude [an] argument with pointing out in each context that each trait functions in the total cultural complex [...] seems increasingly the beginning of inquiry rather than its peroration. For it is a position that leads directly to the necessity of investigating in what sort of a whole these traits are functioning, and what reference they bear to the total culture. (p. 2)

The order is due rather to the circumstance that in these societies a principle has been set up according to which the assembled cultural material is made over into consistent patterns in accordance with certain inner necessities that have developed within the group. (p. 2)

Each great culture has taken a certain direction not taken by another, it has developed beliefs and institutions until they are the expression of this fundamental orientation, and the full working out of this unique and highly individualized attitude toward life is what is significant in that cultural epoch. [Spengler's] study makes a confused impression owing to its discursiveness and the unresolved complexities of the civilizations with which he deals. From an anthropological point of view the fundamental criticism of his work is that it involves treating modern stratified civilization as if it had the essential homogeneity of a primitive culture. (p. 3)

It is one of the philosophical justifications for the study of primitive peoples that ethnological data may make clear fundamental social facts that are otherwise confused and not opento demonstration. Of these none seem to me more important than this of fundamental and distinctive configurations in culture that so pattern existence and condition the emotional and cognitive reactions of its carriers that they become incommensurables, each specializing in certain selected types of behavior and each ruling out the behavior proper to its opposites. (p. 4)

Culture as the process of collective resistance

The fact therefore that they have a complex culture set off as strikingly as any in North America from that of their impinging neighbors makes the situation unmistakeable. The resistance that has kept out of the Pueblo such traits as that of the guardian spirit and the vision, the shaman, the torture, the orgy, the cultural use of intoxicants, the ideas of mystic danger associated with sex, initiative of the individual and personal authority in social affairs, is a cultural resistance, not the result of an isolation due to physical facts of the environment. (p. 5)

Such configurations of culture, built around certain selected human traits and working toward the obliteration of others are of first-rate importance in the understanding of culture. Traits objectively similar and genetically allied may be utilized in different configurations, it may be, without change in detail. (p. 6)

Culture as the patterning of emotion display

Such descriptions are characteristic of Plains mourning. They have in common fundamental social patternings of violent and uninhibited grief. This has nothing to do, of course, with the question of whether this is the emotion called up in all those who participate in the rites; the point at issue is only that in this region institutionalized behavior at this crisis is patterned upon free emotional indulgence. (p. 8)

Benedict is careful to distinguish between public displays in ritual and myth and the possible emotional experience.

Personality as metaphor for culture

Cultural configurations stand to the understanding of group behavior in the relation that personality types stand to the understanding of individual behavior. In the psychological field, behavior is no longer given the same interpretation, say, for the cycloid and the schizoid type. It is recognized that the orgaization of the total personality is crucial in the understanding or even in the mere description of individual behavior. If this is true in individual psychology where individual differentiation must be limited always by the cultural forms and by the short span of a human lifetime, it is even more imperative in social psychology where the limitations of time and of conformity are transcended. The degree of integration that may be attained is of course incomparably greater than can ever be found in individual psychology. Cultures from this point of view are individual psychology thrown large upon the screen, given gigantic proportions and a long time span.

This is a reading of cultural from individual psychology, but it is not open to the objections that always have to be pressed against such versions as Frazer's or Levy-Bruhl's. The difficulty with the reading of husband's prerogatives from jealousy, and secret societies from the exclusiveness of age- and sex-groups, is that it ignores the crucial point, which is not the occurrence of the trait but the social choice that elected its institutionalization in that culture. The formula is always helpless before the opposite situation. In the reading of cultural configurations as I have presented it in this discussion, it is this selective choice of the society which is the crux of the process. It is probable that there is potentially about the same range of individual temperaments and gifts, but from the point of view of the individual on the threshold of that society, each culture has already chosen certain of these traits to make its own and certain to ignore. The central fact is that the history of each trait is understandable exactly in terms of its having passed through the needle's eye of social acceptance. (p. 23-24)

There are of course aspects of culure, especially of material culture, which are independent of many of the aims and virtues a society may make for itself.

Actually, the case of the Chinese fleet and of guns in Japan suggest that even aspects of the history of material culture may have to be understood in terms of the cultural practices within which they were placed.

But the configuration of the culture nevertheless always transcends the individual elements that have gone to its making. The cultural configuration builds itself up over generations, discarding, as no individual may, the traits that are uncongenial to it. It takes to itself ritual and artistic and activational modes of expression that solidify its attitude and make it explicit. Many cultures have never achieved this thoroughgoing harmony. (p. 26)

Last revision: February 23, 1999