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Summary Article: Benedict, Ruth Fulton from American Women of Science since 1900

1887–1948

Anthropologist

Education: A.B., English, Vassar College, 1909; Ph.D., anthropology, Columbia University, 1923

Professional Experience: lecturer, anthropology, Columbia University, 1924–1930, assistant professor to professor, 1930–1948

Ruth Benedict originated the controversial concept of patterns of culture, which combined anthropology with sociology, psychology, and philosophy. At mid-century, she was recognized along with Frank Boas as one of the country's leading anthropologists. After receiving her undergraduate degree at Vassar (her mother was also a Vassar graduate and school teacher), she taught school for a few years and then married. Becoming bored with charitable work, in 1919, she enrolled in The New School for Social Research at Columbia University, where she received her doctorate in anthropology in 1923, and where she met and worked with Boas as well as with Margaret Mead, with whom she had an intimate relationship. Benedict made her first field trip in 1922 to the Serrano Indians and spent subsequent summers studying other tribes, such as the Zuni Pueblo, Apache, and Blackfoot.

In her 1934 book Patterns of Culture, Benedict proposed her holistic theory of culture to explain why certain personalities and types were valued in one society while discouraged in another. In an era of fascism, racism, and ethnic stereotyping for political purposes, Benedict's theory was controversial because it called for judging each culture only on its own merits and values, and argued that no culture should be forced to conform to the standards or values of another. The book was translated into 14 languages and became a standard anthropology text for many years to come. More controversy surrounded the publication of her 1940 book Race: Science and Politics, which took a strong activist tone against racism and was criticized by a politician of the U.S. South. During World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information studying cultures in Japan, Thailand, and New Guinea. This was a new departure for anthropologists, that of analyzing complex modern societies for purposes of politics and national intelligence. This work culminated in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946), a contribution to understanding America's enemy during the war without relying upon stereotypes and racism. The book brought her such renown that in 1947, the Office of Naval Research gave her a large grant to establish and direct a research program on Contemporary Cultures at Columbia, where she was promoted to full professor in what proved to be the last year of her life.

Benedict was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, president of the American Ethnological Society (1927–1929), vice president of the American Psychopathological Association, and president of the American Anthropological Association (1947); she resigned the latter position due to sexism within the Association at that time. She also served as editor of the Journal of American Folk-Lore from 1923 to 1940. Benedict has been the subject of several biographies, beginning with that written by her friend and colleague, Margaret Mead, who published Ruth Benedict: A Humanist in Anthropology in 1974.

Further Resources
  • Banner, Lois W. 2003. Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. Random House New York.
  • Lavender, Catherine J. 2006. Scientists and Storytellers: Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest. University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque.
  • Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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