Ruth Benedict


Ruth Benedict is an anthropologist whose theories had a profound influence on cultural anthropology, especially in the area of culture and personality. She can be viewed as a transitional figure in the field of anthropology. She studied the relationships between personality, art, language, and culture, insisting that no trait existed in isolation or self-sufficiency.

Being one of the first women to make major contributions to the study of anthropology, Benedict proved women had unique and fresh perspectives that enlarged the world of science. In a field dominated by men until the early 
20th century, Benedict left an unforgettable impact on her successors, leaving behind a body of work that is still widely read and studied by anthropologists, as well as the broader public.

Remembered as a world-class scientist, Benedict was a multifaceted woman with many interests that escaped the borders of science. She was celebrated, not only as an anthropologist, but also as a feminist and a poet. Benedict’s passion for writing and poetry, which she began to develop as an adolescent, helped her produce unique and complex works on the cultures she studied.

Benedict taught, at Columbia University as of 1923, first as a lecturer, achieving full professorship only a few months before her passing away in 1948. In 1937, a year after the passing away of her husband, Benedict became the acting executive director of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.

Since 1922, Benedict had also been engaged in the extensive fieldwork that would underpin her anthropological insights. Starting with a trip to Southern California to conduct ethnographic studies of the Shoshonean Serrano people in the Morongo Valley, Benedict went on to complete major anthropological studies of the Serrano in 1922, the Zuni in 1924, the Pima in 1926; and soon thereafter, the Apache of the Southwest, as well as various Plains Indian tribes.

Her unique contribution to the study of anthropology was the theory that culture is “Personality Writ Large”. Benedict’s strong belief in the applied study of cultural relativism—the theory that a culture or group of people can be studied only against the backdrop of itself—was the motivating force in Patterns of Culture (1934), which The New York Times hailed for its “expertly conceived and brilliantly developed” combination of “a quartet of sciences, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy”.

With the onset of World War II, Benedict became involved with the war effort, writing on European and Japanese cultures for the Office of War Information. From her studies in Japanese culture, she subsequently wrote the extremely well received book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), which offered readers a compassionate look at Japan, a country that had just lost a war to the United States.

After the War, Ruth Benedict returned again to Europe, to complete research for a large project sponsored by UNESCO that studied the occupation of Eastern European countries. She passed away from a coronary thrombosis, at the age of sixty-nine, on 17 September 1948, five days after her return from Europe.


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