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chapter 5
Ruth Benedict

"The happiest excitement in life is to be convinced that one is fighting for all one is worth on behalf of some clearly seen and deeply felt good. "

— Ruth Benedict (1887 - 1948)
American Anthropologist

The leading anthropologist of her day, Benedict is probably best known for her study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). However, her most important contribution to anthropology was her book Patterns of Culture (1934), in which she promoted the concept of cultural relativity: the idea that normality and success are defined differently by different cultures. This book, like much of her work, was based on comparing and contrasting different American Indian tribes. In Zuni Mythology (1935) and Race: Science and Politics (1940), she attacked the idea of racial superiority.

Benedict was born in New York City. There was a ten-year gap between the time she graduated from Vassar College in 1909 and 1919, when she began to study anthropology, first at the New School for Social Research and then under Franz Boas at Columbia University. Despite her deafness, Benedict did extensive fieldwork and research. She began teaching anthropology at Columbia in 1924, but also continued to write poetry under the pseudonym Anne Singleton until the early 1930s. From 1924 – 1940 she edited the Journal of American Folklore. During World War II, Benedict worked for the Office of War Information, helping the government deal with cultural issues in occupied and enemy territories. In this position she developed the idea of “national character studies”, which led to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In 1947, she became president of the American Anthropological Association. Her friend and fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an important study of Benedict, An Anthropologist at Work (1959).

Chapter 5 of 75