Ruth Benedict was a pioneering anthropologist who became America’s leading specialist in the field, best known for her “patterns of culture” theory. Her book by that name revolutionized anthropological study, igniting the work of the culture and personality movement within anthropology. She strengthened the bonds among the branches of social science: anthropology, sociology and psychology, and deepened public understanding of the impact of culture on human behavior and personality.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her PhD from Columbia University, where she was a student of Franz Boas and then was his assistant. She became the mentor of Margaret Mead. Ruth Benedict did her fieldwork in the American west among the Serrano, Zuni, Cochiti, Pima, and Mescalero Apache. Benedict’s academic career, 1923-1948, was at Columbia University, where she was appointed full professor in the Faculty of Political Science in 1948, the first woman to achieve that status. She acted as Chair of the Anthropology Department from 1936-1939, edited the Journal of American Folklore from 1925-1940, and worked for the United States” war effort in the Office of War Information, 1943-1945.
Regarded by many as America’s first woman anthropologist, author of six books: including the path-breaking Patterns of Culture (1934), deemed one of the major works of intellectual history of the 20th century, “It marked a turning point in American culture between what we think of today as 19th and 20th century ideas.” Benedict’s concept of cultural configuration, the idea that a culture is not a random collection of traits, but a unique patterning or organization of these traits, has been a major contribution to the world’s understanding of cultural diversity. Among her other works are: Tales of the Cochiti Indians (1931), Zuni Mythology (1935), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), Ruth Benedict also wrote and published poetry under the name Anne Singleton. Benedict was an active anti-racism voice during the 1940s. Her book Race: Science and Politics (1940), refuted then current theories of racial superiority. The book was used for a teaching unit on race and racism, and a public affairs pamphlet co-authored with Gene Weltfish, that was in turn used as the foundation for a children’s book, cartoon-movie and comic book.
Ruth Benedict met the challenges of her time: barriers and undercompensation of women in academe, obstacles to women doing fieldwork, racial and cultural superiority assumptions in the social sciences, with superior work, incisive observation, methodological analysis, and wide-ranging intellectual brilliance. She met personal challenges in her married life and in being a hearing impaired researcher, accomplishing her fieldwork with assistance from interpreters and extraordinary dedication and initiative. Benedict believed “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”