Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reading :: Patterns of Culture

Patterns of Culture
By Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict's 1934 classic Patterns of Culture deserves a more detailed review than this one, but unfortunately I don't have that review in me right now. It's an interesting book, strongly taking the side of culture in the nature-vs.-culture debate that raged throughout the 1930s: "Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex," she argues (p.14), particularly for human beings, who are marvelously plastic. But cultures do have larger tendencies, larger patterns, that show up in individual actions and gestures (p.79).

Indeed, Benedict argues, we can think of cultures as broadly Dionysian (seeking to annihilate bounds and limits and "break through into another order of experience" through excess, pp.78-79) and Apollonian (seeking to reinforce and follow bounds, p.79). She illustrates these two sorts of cultures with extended discussions of the Pueblos of New Mexico, the Dobu of New Guinea, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. All of these accounts are fascinating.

"The three cultures ... are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs," she asserts in Chapter VII. "They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further" (p.223). She adds that these cultures are essentially incommensurable (p.223).

But, she adds, "it would be absurd to cut every culture down to the Procrustean bed of some catchword characterization" (p.228). "Facile generalizations about the integration of culture are most dangerous in field-work. ... None of the people we have discussed in this volume were studied in the field with any preconception of a consistent type of behaviour which that culture illustrated" (p.229). Indeed, the discussed characterizations are not types, she says, but rather "each one is an empirical characterization, and probably is not duplicated in its entirety anywhere else in the world" (p.238).

Benedict goes on at some length in this vein in Ch. VII. That's a relief, since that's what I took her project to be up to this point in the book. But the number of times she goes over this point makes me wonder if that's the reaction she originally received when she shopped around the manuscript. I would have liked it better if she had been able to integrate this clear point much more thoroughly earlier in the book, especially in pp.78-79 and throughout the three cases, so that we didn't receive this impression at the outset.

In any case, the book is certainly worth reading as an anthropological classic. But in terms of careful explication and analysis, I was not entirely impressed.

No comments: