Ruth Benedict: Anthropology and the Humanities

I’ve decided to move this reading circle to Monday, post the reading and my comments on it immediately, and then let discussion run the whole week. I think this will be a bit better because it involves less moving parts.

The reading for this week is Ruth Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Humanities“, her presidential address from 1947 and one of the last things she was to write before she passed away less than a year later. It originally appears in American Anthropologist 50(4).

One of the reasons I chose this piece was to point readers in the direction of one of the most valuable sources of open access anthropology: the Wiley website itself! When the AAA went over to the dark side, Wiley crunched some numbers and decided that the big money was in recent publications by the AAA. As a result, it allowed the AAA to open up access to all material prior to 1964 and place it in the public domain. As a result essays like Benedict’s are now free for all to access. It’s a classic example of the politics of open source in anthropology: the actual anthropologists push the publisher to go OA. The publisher crunches the numbers and tries to accommodate them while still making a profit. Then the professional bureaucrats at AAA write letters to congress trying to shut the whole thing down while the executive board passes resolutions saying that they don’t want to shut everything down but are going to have to and can’t we please realize what nice people they are on the inside.

Luckily, academics can be trusted to advocate for their ideals and publishers can be trusted to act in their best interests, and so now we can read Ruth Benedict for free.

Writing at the end of her life in the 1940s, I see Benedict as looking back over anthropology as it transitioned from a humanistic, philological, very german-emigre discipline to one increasingly dominated by anglo-protestants and focused on becoming ‘scientific’. Partially this is the result of the rapidly rising cold war, but also the generational shift away from the original Boasians: just about the time of this writing Benedict was pushed aside for the chair of the department at Columbia for Ralph Linton, despite Boas’s insistence that she be his successor. So despite her claim to be committed to a ‘scientific’ view of anthropology, my feeling is that she is very attractive to the idea of anthropology as a humanistic discipline.

Her arguments here are well-worn ones from the early days of Boas: that humanists focus on the particular rather than the general (following Windelband), and that they focus on the mind and spirit (following Dilthey). The piece also insists that, historically, most of what has been considered positive knowledge has been in the humanities. Modern technoscience is a relatively recent interloper in that regard.

I think this argument is important to remember as anthropology goes through future iterations of the ‘art or science’ debate. For many writing today have forgotten Benedict’s message. For them, in order for anthropology’s findings to count as knowledge it must be ‘science’ or else it is nothing or, even worse, ‘postmodernism’. Somehow history, literature, philology and other rigorous humanistic disciplines seem to have fallen off of our radar. They were very much present to Benedict, however.

Another thing that has fallen of our radar is concision and elegance in prose. When I read this Benedict piece, I feel like blogging is in our disciplinary DNA. Benedict’s prose is clean, forthright, argument driven, and easy to understand — just like a blogger’s is (or should be). True, this was a speech written to be read, but anyone familiar with her work knows Benedict wrote like this for all occasions. And she is not the only one — Mead and Linton also produced prose like this. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to this sort of style?

Other than that, I don’t have too much to say about the piece — to people who are familiar with Benedict and her era it will be a nice short dip into the past. But for people who aren’t familiar with this era I’d highly recommend reading this piece and poking around in the back issues of these journals. These guys were pretty smart, and it takes only a small leap of imagination to put ourselves back into a period of anthropology in which some of our most enduring problematics were being laid out.

I’ll open it up for comments — what did you think of this week’s piece?


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

22 thoughts on “Ruth Benedict: Anthropology and the Humanities

  1. Should be required reading, absolutely canonical. Reminds me of the interview with Clifford Geertz in Alan MacFarlane’s series on anthropological ancestors and some of Keith Hart’s remarks about how he, trained as a classicist, felt about his anthropology professors’ slipshod use of evidence. Like Benedict, both Geertz and Hart point to traditional forms of serious scholarship that involve deep and detailed knowledge as well as empathetic and critical judgment.

  2. Thanks for bringing up Benedict. We just discussed her in the undergrad theory class.

    I think we do this generation of anthropologists a disservice to gloss them as “german-emigre.” Boas was Jewish, and trained in the hard sciences. Sapir was Jewish, as well.

    Boasian humanism was born in the liberal European Jewish tradition of his period (the late 19th century)–and profoundly affected the humanistic advocacy strain in advocacy that persists to this day. To now gloss that as “german” when Boas had lived in a time of profound anti-semitism both in Europe and the US is to do Benedict’s teacher a great disservice.

    Benedict’s willingness to engage with the public, to provide service outside of the academy came from our Jewish founding father.

    Let’s embrace that “19th century liberal Jewish” otherness at the heart of our tradition. We owe that to Boas, his courage and his tenacity.

    Elite institutions in our tradition were at the heart of supporting evolutionism and racism when Boas fought for egalitarian treatment of African Americans and immigrants and reached out to the public.

    If our anthropological leadership is as exclusionary as our elite forebears, I would enjoy learning how the present context shapes this. Thanks.

  3. Reminds me of […] some of Keith Hart’s remarks about how he, trained as a classicist, felt about his anthropology professors’ slipshod use of evidence.

    FWIW, excavations lead by classicists have a reputation as being far less systematic than those lead by anthropological archaeologists. Not to go too far off on a tangent, but it would never have occurred to me that anthropology has anything to envy of Classics.

  4. I hope that this is the start of renaissance of returning to 1940’s anthropological inspiration. The greats got a bad rap in the 1970’s. with its emphasis on agency, alterity, and the subaltern. We like to pretend that our foremothers didn’t know that autobiography, narrative, and deep history held fundamental truths about the human condition. Thanks for bringing this essay back into conversation,

  5. @ Linda Dwyer

    Are we to overlook the fact that Boas was educated in Germany and was also a reader of the German intellectual tradition? Here I am not contesting your claim that certain aspects of Boas’ social, intellectual, and political positions are part and parcial of “liberal European Jewish tradition of his period”, simply because this is a matter best examined by historical experts of that time period, which I am not. I do however, detect in my readings of Boas, strains of thought that are certainly consonant, if not derivitative of, the German intellectual tradition.

  6. On the one hand, I want to put “Let’s Embrace The 19th Century Liberal Jewish Otherness That Is At The Heart Of Our Tradition” on a tshirt and wear it around all day. On the other hand, I do feel that most researchers who have worked on Boas point out that his thought owes more to German liberal thought than any sort of immersion in talmud torah. The guy was not Mordecai Kaplan or Ahad Ha’am:

    “Franz Boas and the Humboldtian Tradition: From Volksgeist and Nationalcharakter to an Anthropological Concept of Culture.” Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition. Ed. George Stocking. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 17-78.

    This is true for the other early Boasians who, with the exception of Sapir, had no training in Jewish traditions of learning iirc.

    That said, I do think that Benedict’s broad-mindedness that Linda rightly traces back to Boas was obscured very early in the history of our discipline, or perhaps has run like an underground river beneath it, erupting periodically. It feels like we have kept the political and cultural orientation but lost the epistemological grounding.

  7. I did not say that Boas was not a man of his period, and he certainly had his personal flaws as well. As are we all thus enmeshed in our periods and beset with flaws.

    However, to gloss him as “german,” when he was a stigmatized and perhaps racialized by the dominant elite in Germany, is indeed a disservice to the liberal ideas he embraced and transmitted to his students—all of whom became pre-eminent in establishing American anthropology.

    What is ironic is that we seem today to be echoing Boas’s basic liberal stances: the equality of all humans (vs racio-cultural inferiority that permeated the elite academies of England and the US); the obligation of anthropologists to be publicly engaged and to deal with the public in a respectful manner; the obligation to engage in service to others though applied realms (as he pioneered in his efforts on behalf of US immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were treated as physically inferior types of human); and the need to ground all research on carefully constructed and detailed empiricism.

    Today, we often ignore the source of these important and enduring veins of anthropological praxis in our contemporary rhetoric—as if they are brand new–our own creations arising from post-colonial purification of thought. Why?

  8. @Rex, Linda, anyone else who might know.

    If we lost the epistemological grounding, how did that happen? My own curmudgeonly hypothesis is that what used to be called sound scholarship was too much work, involving as it did a solid grounding in the classics and intimate, deeply detailed knowledge of languages, texts, or works of art. As anthropology sprawled, embracing an endless array of topics scattered through history and prehistory, both training and effective knowledge grew thinner and thinner. A Malinowski stuck on a tropical island had the intellectual resources to observe and think profoundly. Graduate students since my generation in the sixties—not so much.

  9. T’arhe:

    “I do however, detect in my readings of Boas, strains of thought that are certainly consonant, if not derivitative of, the German intellectual tradition.”

    Yep, you’re right about that. Boas was educated in Germany, and what came to be known as Boasian anthropology was heavily shaped by his training in German cultural geography.

    Additionally, Boas clearly identified himself as a German-American once he was in the states…his 1916 New York Times op-ed “Why German Americans Blame America” is one example.

    So…I find Linda’s comment a little puzzling. I’m unclear as to why it’s a disservice to Boas to note his German cultural and intellectual heritage. He seemed to embrace it, after all.

    Anyway, great idea for a reading Alex. I’m checking it out right now…

  10. @Linda:

    “However, to gloss him as “german,” when he was a stigmatized and perhaps racialized by the dominant elite in Germany, is indeed a disservice to the liberal ideas he embraced and transmitted to his students…”

    Why would it be a disservice to account for Boas’s German roots? I don’t get it. Boas self-identified as a German-American. He clearly had strong intellectual and cultural ties to Germany, to the extent that he spoke out publicly against US intentions at the outset of World War I. I don’t understand why this is so problematic in your view.

  11. @John you suggest that we lost our way because we stopped paying attention to details (this is similar to the narrative that the HAU people paint). There is a lot of truth to this, but want to spin an alternate theory: anthropology of Benedict’s generation was profoundly amateurish and anecdotal, as was a lot of other work done in that period (check out the Santayana she refers to). People received Ph.D.s without doing fieldwork and, let’s face it, not everyone was Boas and Sapir.

    Some ‘scientists’ argue that anthropology is a ‘pre-paradigmatic’ science but someone (Stephen Murray?) has argued that it is actually a post-paradigmatic one. We have seen what rigor in science and decided against it. I feel like we are constantly in the process of ratcheting up the quality of claims and analysis and then realizing we don’t want to do that sort of scholarship and falling back into amateurism. Not that I have anything against it. But I think one of the things that appeals to use about Benedict’s piece is it’s lack of scholarly focus or analysis — it’s “you know, the humanities. Like, Santayana and stuff” quality.

  12. It’s about Boasian Jewish liberalism and our interest in ignoring that contribution to the enduring values of an assertion of the equality of humans, the sophistication of all human cultures, the need to advocate for those experiencing oppression and inequality, and the demand to justify positions on the basis of careful, empirically based work that I raised as what we “forget to remember” about how we got here.

    The other aspects of his legacy are not unimportant…but that we forget to remember these aspects based in Jewish liberalism as they are becoming important in this thread was amazing.

    Rex, Boas got into a great deal of trouble for his pacifism—-; it’s also good to remember that he asserted his German heritage when German immigrants were working in the horrific conditions of the steel mills in Pittsburgh and the coal mines of Appalachia (my own great grandad from Germany died of TB in the textile mills of Connecticut, then) —and as Boas advocated for equality for immigrants and African Americans. My comments hadn’t been meant as a general discussion of Boas, but a reflection that we choose to selectively forget our ancestors’ past humanism in taking on the academic elites and the price paid for it well as a means to ask how today’s attempts to engage in public anthropology are against the interests of elites. We understand now that the elites of Boas’s times were developing “science” in attempting to justify social inequality—-what’s going on today that serves the academic elites? Just asking for light…and noting a continuity…

  13. @Rex Interesting perspective. As an independent scholar, I find it particularly attractive. Some years ago on Anthro-L I suggested that scholars fall into three broad categories. The emperors are theorists who pursue big, ideally universal, ideas. The peasants know a lot about the corner of reality in which they specialize. Then, there are, I suggested, folks like me. We are merchants traveling to distant fields in search of something that might be useful elsewhere. We will never be as totally committed to one big idea as an emperor. Neither will we know as much about the new stuff we discover as the peasants who know it in depth and detail. We can still, I would argue, perform a useful function by challenging received wisdom and pointing to angles that neither emperor nor peasant, each focused on their own vision, has seen.

    P.S. When I use the term “peasant” I am not putting down people who acquire deep expertise in narrow fields. I think of Candide at the end of his journey cultivating his own garden. I think of someone like my dad, an avid horticulturist who knew all the plants in every inch of the gardens he made and in which he spent much of his life—common and scientific names, seeds, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruit, growth patterns, preferred climates and soils. He was, among other things, responsible for introducing bamboo cultivation to York County, Virginia.

  14. @Rex

    Rethinking your remark this morning, I recalled where I had heard a similar proposition. I was interviewing Sekizawa Hidehiko, then the Director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living as part of the research for my book on Japanese consumers. I had noted that all of the institute’s researchers were employees of Hakuhodo, the advertising agency that created the institute. Some were from creative divisions (Sekizawa himself had been a copywriter), some from the marketing or R&D division, one, who would later be in charge of the R&D division and then promoted to the agency’s board of directors, a systems engineer. When I asked if the institute ever employed academics, Sekizawa grinned and said, No, academics only see the world as their discipline sees it. Hire a sociologist and all you get is sociology. Hire an economist and all you get is economics. The institute’s members preferred to think of the institute as like the British intelligence service, MI5, “high amateurs” (a Japanese-English term) who know a lot of different stuff and are all intensely interested in what is going on around them. “Sounds like anthropologists to me,” I thought to myself.

  15. I think it’s ironic that we still have these tensions in anthropology between science and the humanities. What I like about Benedict (beside the fact that she was always a clear writer) is that she isn’t making it an either/or choice between science and the humanities. Maybe this makes her a fence sitter to some, I don’t know. But the argument has been around for a long time that we don’t necessarily have to choose between team A and team B to do anthropology. Besides, depending on the particular research project, any given anthropologist can tack back and forth between more scientific or humanities-based approaches. Some folks act as if you simple sign up to be one type of anthropologist, and that’s just the way it is.

    I also appreciate the fact that Benedict highlights the value of life histories. I think that’s a good example of a research approach that benefits more from a humanities perspective. I mean, I guess you could analyze life histories through some rigorous scientific framework, but I’m not sure what purpose that would serve.

    In the original post Rex asks: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to this sort of style?”

    It would be great. I used to wonder why so many intro courses assigned Benedict’s Patterns of Culture–the book is pretty old, after all. But I do think that part of the reason is the way that it’s written. It is undoubtedly readable, and sometimes I wonder when and why the communication style of anthropology went in a completely different direction. Anyway, I think that finding ways to rethink the overall style of communication and writing is a pretty good idea.

  16. Serendipitously, I will, just two weeks from now, be at the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA)’s annual Sunbelt conference contributing a presentation titled “Knowing What We Know: An Ethnographer Looks at SNA.” The first half will describe in some detail how I stumbled onto a procedure that extracted a subnetwork of 45 individuals who have frequently worked together from a network that began as 27,314 ties between 7018 creators and 3634 prize-winning ads. It leads to my surprise when, examining the subnetwork, I realized that I already knew quite a lot about most of the individuals in it. They are, in brief, the super stars of Japanese advertising. I have seen their work, read essays, books and interviews by and about them, and, in a few cases, already interviewed them as part of my research. The second half of the presentation will be devoted to how what I already know as an observing participant ethnographer of Japan’s advertising industry shapes my understanding of the network analysis. I.e., how an ethnographer’s thick descriptions inform the results generated by analysis of the thin but copious and precise data used in the network analysis. I will be assembling the presentation over the next two weeks and expect to post it on Slideshare. Anyone who would like a PDF or to ask questions about it is welcome to email me at jlm [at]

  17. I don’t want to prolong this, but I don’t understand what is ‘jewish’ about Boas’s liberalism. He was completely assimilated. He considered himself to be ‘german’ and not ‘jewish’. His liberalism stems entirely from a German tradition. He had no background in Jewish learning and I think was ignorant of most of it. At times he was discriminated against because he some people considered him Jewish, but if you think this makes him ‘Jewish’ then by this same logic you should think that Barack Obama’s focus on health care reform is rooted in Sharia law.

  18. This discussion makes me think of a forthcoming book that addresses the issue of integrating the humanities and sciences: Creating Consilience: Reconciling Science and the Humanities, edited by E. Slingerland and Mark Collard, Oxford University Press, New York (in press). Pascal Boyer’s chapter on anthropology seems especially relevant to Benedict and this discussion: “From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes Of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology.” He identifies three modes of scholarship that are found within anthropology: science, erudition, and connections. Science is science (that is, most of us know it when we see it). Erudition is the detailed-oriented mode some comments have mentioned. Advances in knowledge come from assembling information on every example of a phenomenon, sometimes after a lifetime of scholarship (one can be the world’s expert on something that only 14 people in the world care about). Connections is Boyer’s term for postmodern scholarship, where making novel and surprising connections among diverse phenomena is the goal.

    There is a video of Boyer’s talk at the original UBC conference online, but I can’t find the URL now. But his chapter is posted on his website:

    @MTBradley: Your statement, “excavations lead by classicists have a reputation as being far less systematic than those lead by anthropological archaeologists” is way off base. Classicists do fieldwork and analysis that is far more meticulous, exacting, and precise (Boyer’s erudition mode) than anthropological archaeologists. As a member of the latter group, I am sometimes ashamed at the sloppiness or our empirical work compared to classical archaeologists. We used to be able to claim superiority on social theory, comparison, and big-picture issues, but now the best classicists are as good as, or better than, anthropological archaeologists at this level, too.

  19. Regarding the question of Boas as Jewish, German, etc. I haven’t read this in a while, but I seem to recall that Julia Liss has a more nuanced take on some of these questions in her “Patterns of Strangeness” – a chapter in Prehistories of the Future (1995, edited by Barkan & Bush).

  20. Regarding all things Boasian, there is a recent paper by James Boon on the subject: “On Alternating Boasians: Generational Connections”

    I always think it is worth remembering that the German Intellectual Tradition (the Git?) was not a monolith and Boas, in particular, is difficult to stuff in one box or another.

  21. Long before anthropology began to fission into hyphens, I enjoyed the benefits of reading Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” while in Tokyo on MacArthur’s information and education staff. Her use of patterns, life histories, history, film and literary imagination inspired me to study later with Mead, Kroeber and Levi-Strauss. To them I dedicated my book, “Gifts and Nations” with no thought about whether they represented science or the humanities. Anthropology required both orientations in my epoch. Benedict’s 1947 presidential speech inspires me with each re-reading, as does “The Education of Henry Adams.”

    Did the “national character” or religion of my teachers influence their writings? To try to answer, I will follow Mead’s practice of “using yourself as data.” She joined Einstein in her awareness of the interplay between the observer and the observed.

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