Anthropology Theory Project
  • Ruth Benedict focused much of her work on culture and personality. She entered the field of anthropology from a strong humanistic background and continued that throughout her work. During her career in the Social Sciences she thought of cultures as total constructs of intellectual, religious, and aesthetic elements (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009). Ruth Benedict was known to be strongly connected with Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mead became the true companion that she had always longed for. Benedict was committed to finding her place in the world, and she worked towards that goal through her poetry, fieldwork and books, work with students, and her work with the Office of War Information. This site provides information on Ruth Benedict's life and examines her intellectual contributions to anthropology.


Ruth Benedict was born as Ruth Fulton on June 5th, 1887, in Northern New York State. Her mother had studied at Vassar College and her father was a surgeon who had a promising career in research in New York (Mead 1974). When Benedict was still a baby her father fell ill of an undiagnosed disease and the family moved back to her grandparent's farm in northern New York State, where Benedict's only sister Margery was born just a few weeks before their father's death. At the age of five Benedict's mother began teaching in a nearby town and shortly thereafter moved the children first to St. Joseph, Missouri, then to Owatonna, Minnesota, and finally to Buffalo, New York, where she made her living as a teacher and later a librarian (Mead 1974). Benedict suffered from a childhood attack of the measles that left her partially deaf. This was not recognized for a long time and she was reprimanded for being unresponsive. This left her feeling alienated and she was often compared to her sister who was sunny-tempered, pretty, and less complicated (Babcock 1995). In 1935 Benedict wrote in her journal of her childhood, "Happiness was a world I lived in all by myself, and for precious moments" (Mead 1974: 22). Benedict wrote in her journals, which Margaret Mead later wrote about, that she had always felt she didn't fit into roles appropriate to her sex and her time; she excelled in school and used reading and writing as an escape from family relationships and duties (Mead 1974). She received a scholarship to Vassar College in 1905 and studied English literature; although she was still solitary while in school. Benedict graduated in 1909 and had already published poetry and prize winning critical essays. Two essays she wrote while at Vassar College were, Literature and Democracy and The Racial Traits of Shakespeare's Heroes (Babcock 1995). After Benedict attended Vassar College she lived with her mother in Buffalo and worked for the Charity Organization Society. Shortly thereafter she left for Los Angeles where she taught for a year at the Westlake School for Girls. Benedict also worked from 1912-1914 in the Orton School for girls in Pasadena. Margaret Mead stated from journals provided to her by Benedict, that throughout these years Benedict wasn't pleased with job positions available for women, she felt she needed more in her life (Mead 1974). Margaret Caffrey pointed out in her biography of Benedict, that Benedict "had discovered within three years of leaving college, the limited possibilities open to women" (Caffrey 1989: 57).

Marriage and Early Writings[]

In June of 1914, she married Stanley Benedict, a research chemist at Cornell Medical College, and settled into the life of a housewife in suburban New York City (Babcock 1995). Benedict wrote in her journals that she had come to think of suburban life as worse than the worst slums, and she felt that living the suburban life was destroying her soul (Mead 1974: 75). She longed for a child that never came but she knew that having a child would add a color into her marriage with Stanley,


but her desperate need was to find herself, she wanted to commit herself to a way of life that had meaning for her and that drew on all her talents. Her marriage was far from happy, and Benedict was preoccupied with her own ambitions and her sense of futility (Mead 1974). Margaret Mead writes, from information found in Benedict's journal that Benedict dealt with her unhappy marriage by writing in her journal. Benedict also wrote poems as an outlet, which she later published under the pseudonym Anne Singleton. Judith Modell stated that Benedict was intrigued by the feminist movement and she felt that “the feminist movement needed heroines” (Modell 1988: 3). Benedict wrote in her journal about her struggles and her maturing sense of what the issues were for the women of her generation who, like herself, were struggling to break the bonds of their traditional identifications. Benedict was interested in the lives of influential women and she devoted much of her writing in this period of her life to her biography, New Women of Three Centuries, on Mary Wollstonecraft, who had endorsed the principles of the French Revolution, Margaret Fuller, who was interested in Italy's fight for independence, and Olive Schreiner, who battled racism in her home country, South Africa (Babcock 1995, Modell 1983). Benedict soon discovered that for these three women, war had provided them with a purpose to become part of a greater and "just" cause. According to Modell, each of them had extended their personal experience of the suppression of women to a battle against the suppression of any group (Modell 1983). Benedict eventually decided to concentrate her biography on the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft. The more involved she became with Wollstonecraft’s work, the more her feminism became a “passionate attitude”, and in 1916 she wrote, “More and more I realize I want publication” (Babcock 1995:113). Once she completed her draft of the Wollstonecraft essay she sent it and a prospectus for the book, which was now titled Adventures in Womanhood, to Houghton Mifflin; they rejected her essay (Babcock 1995).

Introduction to Anthropology[]

Benedict was introduced to anthropology in 1909 while she attended the New School for Social Research. According to Mead, this was initially an attempt to fill her time intelligently while she waited patiently to have a child. During this time she learned that she could not have a child without undergoing a problematic surgery, one which her husband Stanley refused to give consent for, because of this conflict Benedict realized she needed to commit herself to her “own individual world of effort and creation”, and she returned to school (Mead 1974: 37). Benedict spent two years listening to lectures given by Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons. Caffrey states that Goldenweiser belonged to the generation of anthropologists who came to maturity before World War l, he was excited by ideas about culture but was not intrigued by fieldwork (Caffrey 1989). During the time Benedict was attending Goldenweiser's lectures, he was working on the first book to be published by an American anthropologist. His book, Early Civilization, published in 1922, presented cultures briefly as wholes. Goldenweiser's students learned from him what culture was. According to Mead, Benedict found in this new science a substance she could respect, and felt this was a place she could use her talents and also find answers to her most pressing personal questions (Mead 1974:34).

In 1921 Benedict was introduced to Franz Boas by Alexander Goldenweiser. Boas waved requirements and admitted Benedict as a graduate student. According to Modell, soon after Benedict arrived at Columbia she began taking classes, teaching seminars, and guiding graduate students who were not far behind her in their careers (Modell 1983). Benedict often times taught Boas's classes when he had other obligations pressed upon him. Margaret Mead states that Benedict came to the anthropology department at a time when Boas was still interested in diffusion and in having his students make connections between traits and themes throughout different cultures. In his lectures Boas spent most of his time pointing out the errors of all single explanations of the origins, forms, or changes in human culture (Mead 1959). He discussed nineteenth century English evolutionists, geographical determinists, the German diffusionist school, the English diffusionist school, theories of religion, and psychological theories (Mead 1959).

Under Boas’s direction she wrote her first publication, The Vision in Plains Culture (1922), and also her dissertation, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (1923). Caffrey points out in her biography of Benedict, that Benedict gained insider status among anthropologists with her publication of The Vision in Plains Culture which dealt with the multiplicity of ways the phenomenon of vision had manifested itself in various Indian cultures (Caffrey 1989). Both Boas, and Edward Sapir, with whom Benedict exchanged poetry with for a while, thought very highly of Benedict’s thesis. The rare description of her own field work with the Blackfeet appears in the Margaret Mead Archives in the Library of Congress.

Benedict's Involvement in Anthropology[]

By 1923 Benedict had finished her dissertation and had turned her attention to her students work and departmental business. From 1923 to 1930 she was given temporary teaching jobs either at Barnard College or Columbia University. Benedict regularly taught, "Methods", "Kinship", and "Mythology and Folklore" (Modell 1983). When teaching, Benedict underplayed method and stressed faith and inspiration in students work. She, like Boas stressed the importance of fieldwork; she thought that exposure to strange customs was crucial and illuminating (Modell 1983). Benedict strongly encouraged students to take trips for fieldwork, and often times assisted in funding these trips. In 1927 Benedict took over Boas's position as president of the American Ethnological Society and she also began editing and expanding the Journal of American Folklore (Modell 1983). During this time, Benedict also significantly influenced the definition and the shape of the concept of culture through her studies in mythology and religion (Caffrey 1989). Caffrey points out that much of Benedict's work led back to the role of human life and the dynamics of cultural change (Caffrey 1989). In 1931 Benedict became an assistant professor at Columbia University, and she was honored in 1933 when she became one of the first women to be included in the Biographical Directory of American Men of Science. In 1937 Benedict became an associate professor at Columbia. At the same time, Boas retired from chairmanship of Columbia’s department of anthropology. Ralph Linton replaced Boas, and the department changed. The style of anthropology shifted from a Boasian emphasis on wholeness, culture as a unique entity, to Linton’s more sociological systematic approach (Modell 1983). Franz Boas died in 1942 while Benedict was working in Washington D.C., and finally in 1948 Columbia University granted Benedict with full professorship.

By 1931 Benedict had published five articles but no full length book. According to Modell, she had a desire to prove herself to Boas and to write something substantial and encompassing (Modell 1983). Mead stated that in 1932 Benedict had been influenced to write Patterns of Culture after listening to Alfred Kroeber's lectures on cultural configurations; she felt that his lectures and contributions to seminars were dry (Mead 1974). Benedict’s next book was Zuni Mythology which was published a year after Patterns of Culture. In 1939 Benedict took a sabbatical to write a book titled Race: Science and Politics, where she addressed the issues of politics and race. According to Modell, the book had a sharp political message for society to open its eyes and realize that racism exists (Modell 1983). Benedict about racism and also wrote that Nazism was not a unique aberration, persecution and racism had run throughout American history as well (Modell 1983). She instructed her country on how to eliminate the conditions that led to racism and persecution (Modell 1983).

In 1938 Benedict joined the Bureau for Intercultural Education which was established to promote “cultural diversity” throughout the schools of America. In 1941 Benedict was asked to directly contribute to the countries policies by working for the Office of War Information in the Bureau of Overseas Intelligence. Benedict prepared anthropological reports on allied and enemy nations. Her last assignment was to study the Japanese culture; the intent of the project was to provide data that would help officials plan a postwar policy (Modell 1983). From this project Benedict wrote her last book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In 1946 the American Anthropological Association elected Benedict president. According to Modell, she responded with mixed feelings to the administrative duties (Modell 1983). She took over the presidency while the American Anthropological Association was in a state of turmoil. The organization had not only grown in numbers, but also in subject matter, and there was much argument about the AAA structure and criteria for membership (Modell 1983). In 1947 Benedict decided to retire from her presidency. Ruth Benedict died September 17th, 1948 of heart failure.

RUTH BENEDICT The Vision in Plains Culture[]

In her article, The Vision in Plains Culture, Benedict traced the spread of “vision” from culture to culture while noting the adjustment of supernatural to social patterns. She proved that despite the fact that an overall common vision pattern had been assumed by armchair anthropologists in the past, there was no such overall fixed pattern that existed (Modell 1983). In the article, Benedict emphasized the unexpected diversity of the vision complex from tribe to tribe, each tribe having its own separate distribution and importance, and each being accepted by one culture in one way, or almost entirely modified in another culture (Caffrey 1989:143). Benedict showed that where patterns had been assumed, there were none; where elements were thought to be connected, they were in fact unrelated. When ending her paper, Benedict warned against the “false simplicity” of general studies of religion and affirmed the “heterogeneity” and “indefinite multiplicity” of ways the religious experience appeared in cultures, implying that there were no absolutes for religious experiences (Caffrey 1989:144).

Patterns of Culture[]


In 1929 Benedict presented Boas with three papers, The Science of Custom, Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest, and Animism. Benedict used these three papers, along with Configurations of Culture in North America, and her notes on the abnormal in cross-cultural perspective to construct her first book, Patterns of Culture (Modell 1983).

According to Modell, this book became a statement of Benedict’s professionalism and her commitment to anthropology; it also showed her understanding of the discipline and its implications for American society (Modell 1983:155). Benedict presented three contrasting pictures of the Pueblos, the Dobuans, and the Kwakiutl. Her own field observations of the Pueblo Indians provided her with information for the book, along with Reo Fortune’s information on the Dobu Islanders, and Boas’s information on the Kwakiutl (Modell 1983).

Benedict stated that the theme of this book was “cultural configurations again” (Modell 1983:157). Modell states that Benedict’s theme extended beyond “cultural configurations” to include advocacy of culture-over-nature and of personal creativeness within social constraints (Modell 1983). Benedict claimed that individuals needed society for their individuality and those societies needed individuals in order to survive, adjust to crisis, and change (Modell 1983).

According to Mead, much of the criticism directed towards Patterns of Culture was based on the critic’s failure to grasp the fact that Benedict was not dealing with typologies in the sense that cultures can be seen as elaborating psychological or biological givens (Mead 1974).

Zuni Mythology[]

Benedict’s Zuni Mythology offered another view of Pueblo Indians and also a turn in her concepts of culture. According to Mead, Benedict presented the reader with a theory of myth that tied together her past ideas and her anticipated future ideas in anthropology (Mead 1974).

Zuni Mythology was constructed from information Benedict received while visiting the Southwest portion of the United States from 1924-1927. She collected tales from the Pueblo Indians and she began to realize that collecting myths was an important way to understand Pueblo personality (Modell 1983:179). Benedict was interested in why a story was told, elaborated, and revised. She knew the importance of private stories and thought that folklore could be better understood by thinking about story telling in individual psychology; she also knew the importance of collecting folklore from a living culture, and this idea remained central to her writings throughout the 1930s (Modell 1983).

In Zuni Mythology Benedict distinguished between sacred and secular. Modell states that Benedict focused much of the book on ritual and magic. She identified rituals within the daily habitual behaviors of Pueblo Indians, and she also portrayed magic as substitute for technology (Modell 1983:180). Modell explains to the reader that in Zuni Mythology Benedict arrives at the classic anthropological dilemma, was religion a universal phenomenon or simply a cultural decision?

There was often times confusion among readers of Zuni Mythology. They occasionally missed the point that Benedict was concerned with the significance of cultural self-interpretations and their expressions across societies. She was not concerned with the “savage” culture finding relief in violent tales or expressing joy in exhibiting wildly uncontrolled fantasies (Modell 1983). Benedict collected myths, tales, and observations in order to convey a coherent culture. She was re-presenting the Zuni’s own presentations of myths and tales.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword[]

Benedict began writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword three years after Boas died. According to Modell, Benedict fully developed the concept of “patterns” in this book (Modell 1988). This marked her contribution to anthropology; her discussions of patterns represented the Japanese culture, and Modell felt that she introduced a nice method for studying cultures and a political position (Modell 1988:5).


Modell writes that Benedict presented the reader with patterns of Japanese culture that were worked out through intricate notions of debt and obligation; these are the things that mold the behavior and the personality of Japanese individuals (Modell 1988:5). One of Benedict’s main goals was to change the attitudes of her American readers. She began her book as a description of Japanese patterns and ended up providing a look into American patterns of culture (Modell 1983). In the book she compared Pacific Island cultures to the Japanese culture, and also compared the Japanese culture to the American culture.

Because of the war, Benedict was not able to do fieldwork. She was struck with the task of uncovering Japanese personality without seeing Japanese people, social arrangements, and cultural expressions on their home ground (Modell 1983). In order to complete her task she read, went to movies, and talked to Japanese living in the United States. Modell states that Benedict discovered how diversely people arranged their lives and she also found the patterns in these arrangements (Modell 1983). Benedict’s book is not specifically about Japanese religion, economic life, politics, or the family; instead it examines Japanese assumptions about the conduct of life (Modell 1983:194).


• 1922- Benedict took a trip to Odawa Casino Resort.

• 1924- Benedict took her first trip to New Mexico to visit with Pueblo communities, specifically the Zuni.

• 1925- Benedict made her second trip to New Mexico where she visited with the Zuni and Cochiti tribes.

• 1927- Benedict made her final trip to Las Vegas, Nevada.

• 1931- Benedict supervised a student field trip to visit the Mescalero Apache.

• 1938- Benedict supervised an anthropological field workshop among the Blackfoot in Montana and Canada.

Selected Works[]

• The Vision in Plains Culture (1922)

• The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America (1923)

• Psychological Types in the Cultures of the Southwest (1930)

• Tales of the Cochiti Indians (1931)

• Configurations of Culture (1932)

• Myth (1933)

• Patterns of Culture (1934)

• Anthropology and the Abnormal (1934)

• Zuni Mythology (1935)

• Marital Property Rights in Bilateral Society (1936)

• Religion (1938)

• Continuities and Discontinuities in Cultural Conditioning (1938)

• Race: Science and Politics (1940)

• The Races of Mankind (1943)

• Recognition of Cultural Diversities in the Postwar World (1943)

• Two Patterns of Indian Acculturation (1943)

• The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946)

• The Study of Cultural Patterns in European Nations (1946)

• Anthropology and the Humanities (1948)

• Child Rearing in Certain European Countries (1949)

• Thai Culture and Behavior (1952)hhhhhhh

Annotated Bibliography[]

Babcock, Barbara A. ""Not in the Absolute Singular": Rereading Ruth Benedict." In Women Writing Culture, by Ruth Behar and Deborah A Gordon, 104-130. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Babcock provides in this article a brief overview of Ruth Benedict's life. She begins her article where most of the other biographies of Ruth Benedict begin. She explains how Benedict’s unhappy childhood and marriage cause her to search for more meaning in life; this search ultimately leads Benedict to anthropology. Babcock continues her article by explaining Benedict's involvement in anthropology and a brief overview of the publications of Benedict's books. Much of her article uses information from Margaret Mead's, Margaret Caffrey's, and Judith Modell's biographies of Ruth Benedict. This article is a short and to the point read of Ruth Benedict's life.

Banner, Lois W. Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Banner provides an intensely in-depth book about the lives of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. She goes above and beyond other biographies of Benedict when describing her life. Banner not only examines where these two women came from, but what shaped them into who they were. She provides the reader with great detail about each woman’s life, and also provides great detail about how their lives were intertwined. This is a great book that examines the individual life of a person, and how their life was influenced by others.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1934.

Benedict introduces the reader to what she describes as "three primitive peoples". She describes the patterns of life of the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl peoples. In this book she explains her reasons for studying primitive peoples, the diversity of the cultures, the patterns within the cultures, and then goes on to provide details about each of the three cultures. Lastly she explains the idea of society and how individuals are involved in the society and the cultural patterns within the society.

Benedict, Ruth. Race: Science and Politics. New York: The Viking Press, 1959.

Benedict wrote this book as a part of her responsibility of the scientist as a citizen. She was concerned about racism and the spread of Nazism. In this book, Benedict looks at the human consequences of racial discrimination, and examines the issue of "race" and the "human race". She basically calls for the American society to wake up and see that racism exists in America and that it is not a good thing.

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946.

Benedict created this book out of information she gathered for the Office of War Information. She provided the reader again with cultural patterns that she found in the Japanese culture. In this book she compared the Japanese culture to the culture of Pacific Islanders and she also compared Japanese culture to American culture. Benedict's book is not about any specific portion of Japanese culture, but instead it examines the Japanese assumptions about life.

Benedict, Ruth. Zuni Mythology. Vol. 21. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

In this collection of books, Benedict went into detail examining myths and tales told by the Zuni Pueblo people. She was interested in how the Zuni told their tales, she looked at how the tales were told, elaborated, and revised. Benedict collected myths, tales, and observations and then recorded them to provide her reader with a coherent culture that had myths, tales, and rituals.

Benedict, Ruth, and Gene Weltfish. The Races of Mankind. New York: Public Affairs Committee Incorporated, 1934.

The Races of Mankind was a pamphlet that was prepared to explain "race" and "the human race". It was generally handed out to military personnel so they could have a better understanding of the issues of "race". It discusses the issue of science and race, the biblical view of one human race, the differences in race, for example, height, shape of head, color, and blood, and it also discusses how races are classified. One of the most important things it discusses is the idea that civilization is not caused by race, and no one group of people is more "racially" superior to another.

Caffrey, Margaret M. Ruth Benedict: Stranger in this Land. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Caffrey examines the life of Ruth Benedict in this biography. She saw Benedict as a feminist, and explored how her feminist views shaped her life. She also saw Benedict as a poet and an anthropologist. Caffrey provides a great deal of details about Benedict's poetry and also presents a lot of information from Benedict's personal journals. Caffrey points out that Mead and Modell also saw Benedict as a poet and anthropologist, but that Benedict's work went far beyond its origins in anthropology and that it deserved to be evaluated in terms of its place in the larger American screen. Caffrey does a great job of examining every portion of Benedict's life, and as a reader I enjoyed seeing how Benedict's feminist perspectives influenced her life.

Lapsley, Hilary. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Hilary Lapsley presents her readers with the story of the friendship between Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. She explains their similarities and differences and how this contributed to their long lasting relationship. She examines the role of sexuality in women's friendships and questions the exact circumstances of Benedict and Mead's relationship. Along with looking at their personal lives, she also examines their work as anthropologists, and how their friendship influenced each others work.

Mead, Margaret. An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959.

This book is an incredible collection of writings by Ruth Benedict. Margaret Mead provided everything from Benedict's dissertation to poetry, journal entries, and her unfinished portion of her Mary Wollstonecraft essay. This is a great combination of works by Benedict put together by one of her closest friends. The majority of information in this book is strictly Benedict's words; Margaret Mead's own words were a minimal contribution to the book.

Mead, Margaret. Ruth Benedict. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

This is a brief biography of Ruth Benedict written by Margaret Mead. Because Mead had access to Benedict's papers and journals she was able to tell the story of Benedict's life in her own words. This biography was a great source of specific details in Benedict's life. Mead included a lot of information about Benedict's feelings about her life and relationships with individuals throughout her life. It was often times hard to keep track of where you were while reading. There is a mix of information throughout the book. At one point you could be reading Meads interpretations of Benedict's life then dramatically shift to Benedict's ideas to then be interrupted by a poem written by Benedict.

Modell, Judith. "Ruth Fulton Benedict." In Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary, by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre and Ruth Weinberg, 1-7. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

This is a brief overview of Ruth Benedict's life. Judith Modell gets right to the point with a quick introduction of Benedict's childhood and moves on to her anthropological contributions. This section on Ruth Benedict was a great starting point to information about Benedict and introduces the reader to the life of Benedict.

Modell, Judith Schachter. Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Like Caffrey's biography of Benedict, Modell's biography provides a great amount of detail into Benedict's life. Modell spends a lot of time concentrating on Benedict's publications. She introduces why Benedict chose to write her books, what the books were about, and criticisms to the book. Modell also gives a lot of information about individuals who influenced Benedict in anthropology. She talks about how Boas was an important part of Benedict's life, and how Benedict wrote her books in a Boasian style. Another large portion of the book examines Ruth Benedict's and Margaret Mead's relationship, although she spends more time examining how they influenced each other in anthropology and not on their personal relationship.

Sullivan, Gerald. "Three Boasian Women: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ruth Landes." Reviews in Anthropology, 2008: 201-230.

Sullivan provided an examination of books written about Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Landes. Unfortunately not much of his article was spent discussing Benedict. Most of the information he provided about Benedict included Mead. He spent time discussing their relationship with Sapir and also their relationship with each other. Sullivan also looked at some criticisms Benedict and Mead were faced with over the years.