Ruth Benedict was one of the most influential American anthropologists of the 20th century. A colleague of Franz Boas, she mentored Margaret Mead while teaching at Columbia University. She is remembered for her groundbreaking theories that developed anthropological concepts like cultural relativism.
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CHRYSANTHEMUM AND THE SWORD During World War II, the United States Office of War Information commissioned Benedict to write an anthropological study of Japan. As Benedict could not visit Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a study of culture from a distance. Benedict described Japan as a shame culture, meaning a culture in which honor and pride are valued highly. She contrasted shame cultures with guilt cultures, which emphasizes the individual conscience.
ZUNI MYTHOLOGY In Zuni Mythology Benedict studied the culture of the Zuni, a tribe of Pueblo people in the Southwestern US. Benedict contrasts the sacred and the secular in Zuni culture, and explores how ritual and magic serve the same role as technology in these cultures.
PATTERNS OF CULTURE Benedict’s most famous work, Patterns of Culture compares the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl cultures. Patterns of Culture argues that each culture selects a set of specific behaviors from the entire range of possible human behaviors. These behaviors define the culture’s personality and led to Benedict’s famous quote that “culture is personality writ large.” Benedict adopted Nietzschean terms to describe the Zuni as Apollonian in contrast with the Dionysian Dobu and Kwakiutl.
THE RACES OF MANKIND Benedict wrote The Races of Mankind with fellow anthropologist Gene Weltfish during World War II. The book critiques Nazi race theories by arguing that all races are biologically the same. The US Army ordered 55,000 copies to distribute to its soldiers, but Congress then banned the book as “communistic.”
TALES OF THE COCHITI INDIANS Tales of the Cochiti Indians is an in-depth study of the folklore of the Cochiti Puebloan peoples collected over 11 years. Benedict learned many stories from one informant in particular, a Cochiti elder known as Santiago Quintana.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
● Although Chrysanthemum and the Sword was published in 1946, its lessons are still being applied. This New York Times article from 2003 attempts to apply Benedict’s theories to Iraq, but it’s most interesting for its commentary on Benedict’s approach to Japan.
● Let’s face it--you can never know enough cool mythology stuff. If you want to find out more about Zuni Mythology, start here!
● The Races of Mankind generated controversy from its first publication. Read this article to find out why.
● The ideas of guilt and shame culture have not been universally accepted, but they remain highly influential. To learn more about shame culture, watch this video:
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