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Benedict, Ruth

culture columbia study fulton

née Fulton (1887–1948) US anthropologist.

Ruth Fulton was born in New York City, the eldest daughter of a surgeon. She was 2 years old when her father died and her mother’s grief was hysterical, and ritually repeated on every anniversary. Her childhood was spent with her maternal grandparents on their farm near Norwich, NY and later with her aunt.

Fulton graduated at Vassar in 1909, studying philosophy and English literature, moved to California to teach and in 1914 married Stanley Rossiter Benedict. The marriage was not a success; looking for occupation, Ruth Benedict chanced upon anthropology. In 1921 she went to Columbia to study for a doctorate under Franz Boas (1858–1942). From 1923, as lecturer in anthropology at Columbia, despite her partial deafness and acute shyness, she undertook fieldwork among several southwestern tribes of native Americans: the Zuñí, the Cochiti and the Pima.

Her views were presented in Patterns of Culture (1934). Benedict saw cultures as ‘personality writ large’ and psychological normality as culturally defined, so that the misfit becomes one whose disposition is not contained by his culture. She made a plea for tolerance of all ‘the co-existing and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself’. Sharply criticized by some, nevertheless Patterns of Culture was a most influential work, translated into 14 languages and frequently reprinted.

Benedict was made associate professor at Columbia in 1936 and served 3 years as head of the department. About this time she joined the protest against racism and intolerance, and published Race: Science and Politics (1940).

During the Second World War she moved to Washington as head of the Basic Analysis Section, Bureau of Overseas Intelligence, Office of War Information. With and others, she applied anthropological methods to the study of complex societies and culture, working from documentary materials to make a number of national character studies. From her study of the Japanese she produced The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), regarded as one of the best accounts of Japanese culture written by a westerner.

In 1947 Ruth Benedict became president of the American Anthropological Association and in 1948 was made a full professor at Columbia shortly before her death.

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