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.
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series features Ruth Benedict’s “anthropology and the humanities.” This piece is the published version of the lecture Benedict delivered for her presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological association in 1947. In this piece, one of the last she wrote before she passed away, she argues that anthropologists can benefit from drawing on the methods of the humanities in addition to scientific methods. Benedict’s argument is worth examining in its own terms, but it is also worth reading between the lines of her essay. In making her case for the humanities, Benedict implicitly describes anthropology’s core values. This piece is valuable, then, not only for its argument about the humanities, but because it gives us a summary of what one of our foundational figures considered the essence of anthropology to be.
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Edward Sapir’s essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” is worth reading for several reasons: it demonstrates the way anthropological theory can be applied to ethical issues; it exemplifies the way Boasians founded public anthropology by weighing in on the great issues of their day alongside cultural critics like Randolph Bourne or George Seldes; it gives us insights into the opinions of Boasians on cultural imperialism and the exploitation of labor; and above all, it presents us with a set of questions — and answers — that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.
This week’s SMOPS paper is Robert Lowie’s book Culture and Ethnology, which I have cut down to 19 pages. Robert Lowie was one of the most polemical of the Boasians — the phrase ‘attack dog’ has been used, I believe — and is remembered today for many things: his role in creating the Berkeley department of anthropology, his ethnography of the Crow, and his work on the nascent field of kinship studies. Undoubtedly, however, it Lowie’s defense of Boasian orthodoxy that stands out. In his book Primitive Society he forcefully repudiated the Victorian evolutionary theorists that Boas opposed, and towards the end of his life he sparred with Leslie White in the pages of American Anthropologist over the prospects of a revised evolutionary perspective. His undeservedly under-read The History of Ethnological Theory has moments that resemble some sort of Victorian Twitter flipout…
This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.
This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.