The Science of Culture: SMOPS 10

In this SMOPS I’m very pleased to present “The Science of Culture,” an essay that Ruth Benedict published in 1929 and has languished unread since then. “Science of Culture” was significantly revised to become the first chapter of Patterns of Culture, so readers will be familiar with the ideas expressed in it. However, this original version is significantly different from that chapter, and works better as a standalone essay. It seems that every decade or so, anthropologists feel the need to write an essay to tell a general audience what our discipline’s main findings and beliefs are. This article, like Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” published 12 years earlier, is Benedict’s version of a popular account of the anthropological credo.

The Science of Culture: The Bearing of Anthropology on Contemporary Thought, by Ruth Benedict, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

In this essay Benedict lays out the main arguments of anthropology: It is the study of ‘custom’ (or culture, as we might say today), not the study of ‘primitives.’ It is necessary because we are too socialized into our own customs to recognize them at work, and also because the spread of Western culture has made it harder and harder for Americans (and others) to encounter cultural difference. Humans are unique because our customs are learned rather than biologically inherited. There are no natural stages of evolution that all societies pass through, and it is not useful to argue that a custom exists in society because it fulfills a utilitarian need that society has.  this is true in a trivial sense, but the specific features culture traits are shaped by cultural patterns which shape behavior. There is no one true religion or spirituality, and cultures all explore different facets of a species-wide spiritual experience. The results of these realizations is a greater ability to view one’s culture objectively, a more tolerance for other ways of life, and a greater ability to appreciate the lives we build together as humans. Anthropology, then, helps humans live flourishing lives because it educates our faculties and gives us the ability to live emotional and mental lives that are flexible and have wide horizons.

Eighty five years later, most of Benedict’s conclusions stand intact. Of course, additional research has led us to revise some of her conclusions: we now know humans are much more like other animals, and that other animals are lot more like us. We are less confident that there is a universal experience of ‘the divine’ or ‘spirituality’ than Benedict was. And we know there is no necessary relationship between recognition between liberal values of tolerance and recognition of the arbitrary and conventional nature of our cultures. We are also less willing to pain indigenous people as caught in the grip of an unknown cultural pattern, obsessively elaborating it. Benedict overstates her case here (and also provides no scholarly references to back up her ethnographic claims!) and in doing so, makes indigenous people sound almost mentally ill.

These quibbles aside, however, it is striking how contemporary Benedict’s work feels. It is for this reason that I hope a contemporary readership will enjoy it.

This version of “The Science of Culture” is presented unaltered from the original article, which is reproduced in full. The bracketed numbers in the text indicate the pages of the original article. This is the first paper in the SMOPS which has reprinted a work that was originally under copyright but whose copyright has elapsed and was not renewed. These works, produced between 1923 and 1963, are central to the history of anthropology and I am excited to present more of them to you. I thank the special collection division of the Hamilton Library at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for help in locating the original version of “The Science of Culture” and Project Gutenberg for providing the fell text of the U.S. Copyright Office’s copyright renewal records which were used to confirm the copyright status of this work.

I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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