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Configurations of Culture in North America

This edition of “Configurations of Culture in North America” is the openest, freest, and shortest summary of Ruth Benedict’s 1934 classic Patterns of Culture available. In it, Benedict rehearses the same arguments — often with the same data — that we see in Patterns. I hope that it will introduce these arguments to readers who do not have the time (or money) to read Patterns, which is still under copyright (at least in the United States).

Savage Minds Occasional Papers No. 8: Configurations of Culture in North America By Ruth Benedict, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

All scholars agree that “Configurations” is an important part of Benedict’s opus, but readers will recognize that it is not as carefully crafted as Patterns. The piece has a clear structure, but Benedict does not always do a good job leaving signposts for the reader. At points she engages in point-last writing, or drifts off into discussions whose role in her argument can be difficult to discern. For this reason, it is worth rehearsing her argument here.

Benedict begins the essay with a central question: now that anthropology has the solid ethnographic data that Boas insisted on (rather than the anecdote that Victorian anthropology relied on), what are we to do with it? Malinowski suggested the importance of studying culture in context, but seems merely to assert that all culture traits have a function — a point, Benedict archly notes, that is about as insightful as the claim that eyes see or hands grasp. Instead, Benedict draws on Dilthey and Spengler for inspiration, claiming  that cultures have patterns or configurations which shape the way culture traits are integrated into them.

Benedict then contrasts the Pueblo of the southwest United States with the cultures of the great plains. The Pubelo, she argues, is ‘Apollonian’ in its disdain for emotional excess, while the Plains are ‘Dionysian’ in their love of strong emotion. She demonstrates the differences in these patterns by examining how the same trait — bereavement (mourning for the dead) is different in these two places.

Benedict then makes her analysis more complicated. She tells us that bereavement is just one example of the more general phenomenon called the “danger situation”: moments of extreme risk and intensity that inevitably occur in human life such as birth, death, and adolescence. Then she introduces another dichotomy that cross-cuts the Apollonian and Dionysian distinction: that between realistic and non-realistic cultures, which she also calls the tough-minded and tender-minded distinction. Benedict uses ‘tough’ and ‘realist’ (and their opposite, ‘tender’ and ‘non-realistic’) interchangeably, and only explains these terms fully at the end of the section in which she discusses them. I have chosen to consistently use the terms ‘tough’ and ‘tender’ for simplicity here. According to Benedict, tough-minded cultures look reality squarely in the eye and attempt to deal with it, while tender-minded cultures see magic and supernatural powers at work in ‘danger situations’.

The result is a two-way contrast that Benedict uses to classify various groups in North America:

Tough-minded (realist) Tender-minded (realist)
Apollonian Zuñi (Pueblo)
Dionysian Cheyenne, Shosone (Plains) Pima, Mohave, Northwest Coast

Benedict then describes how this model can be used to make sense of homicides (people who have killed other people) and their treatment in different cultures. Cheyenne (tough-minded realists) do not see supernatural forces at work in death. The Pima and Mohave (tender-minded Dionysians) do. In a separate section, Benedict examines her two types of danger situations, bereavement and homicide, in the Pacific Northwest, amongst “Kwakiutl” (Kwakwaka’wakw) and Haida people.

In the end of the paper, Benedict draws a number of conclusions from her discussion. First, she points out that more data are needed to take her analysis further. Second, she insists that because each culture has its own configuration, we can not generalize from one of them and assume that all other ‘primitive societies’ function in a similar manner. Neither can we assume that all cultures respond the same way to the same event — just because everyone dies, that does not mean that there is one universal, cross-cultural style of bereavement. In closing, Benedict suggests that the study of cultural configurations is similar to the study of individual psychology, and also similar to the study of art history. Both these approaches (‘humanistic’ ones in her eyes) offer proof of the validity of her approach.

This version of “Configurations” is around 9,000 words, roughly 3,000 words shorter than the original. This piece is not as clearly written as some of Benedict’s other work, and I have cut some words and phrases for clarity. In a few cases, I have cut paragraphs where digressions took away from the main thrust of the paper. I have removed footnotes (readers interested in her sources can consult the original text), which I believe are not necessary for an introductory reader. I have also divided the text into sections and named them to help make the organization of the text clearer.

Throughout, I have attempted to keep Benedict’s qualifications and clarifications about her claims, because I believe these are important for giving a sense of her worldview and project, which is often unfairly oversimplified by some authors. I have also kept as much as possible of the ethnography — this text is a classic because it shows us an early anthropologist working with ethnographic materials. The ‘how’ of Benedict’s analysis is as important as its ‘what’. Overall, my goal has been to create a document that can be taught in a single session alongside SMOPS 7 “Anthropology and the Humanities”. These two documents together provide, I believe, an excellent short overview of Benedict’s thought that readers seeking a quick review or orientation  to her work will consider valuable. And, of course, most importantly I hope it will spur people to a deeper and more thorough reading of this important thinker.

In sum, then, I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early 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.

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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