Lawrence Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Shirley Lawrence

Books You Should Know ...

Patterns of Culture

(12 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 32, 12 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Patterns of Culture
by Ruth Benedict
Penguin. 25 Cents

This book, a classic of American anthropology, is an analysis of three strongly contrasting civilizations – the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, the Dobu tribe of Melanesia and the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island. When she wrote the book about ten years ago, Ruth Benedict deliberately chose these obscure primitive peoples because she felt that she would have less prejudice or passion toward them than toward peoples she knew well. She proceeds to contrast these three peoples as a means of discovering different “patterns” of social life.

The Zuni Indians are a ceremonious people who value sobriety and mildness above everything else. They believe in moderation and the self-effacement of the individual for the sake of society and they place a high value on peaceful cooperation. The ideal man among the Zuni Indians is a person of dignity and affability who has never tried to lead or to seek personal power. Pleasant relations between the sexes is merely one aspect of pleasant relations among human beings. Their lives lack intensity or conflict; they evade danger.

The Kwakiutl Indians, on the other hand; exalt rivalry, self-glorification and excessive individualism. Among these people each individual constantly vies with all others to acquire more property. On top of economic power, the Kwakiutl Indians construct a series of non-economic relationships: nobility, titles, crests, special privileges. Their life is oriented about the idea of participating in competitions in which they could shame their rivals. So the object of all Kwakiutl enterprise is to show oneself superior to one’s rivals. For them, triumph is an uninhibited indulgence of delusions of grandeur, and defeat a cause for shame which may even lead to death.

The Dobu people have points of similarity to the Kwakiutl Indians. Their values involve not so much triumph over others, but rather a constant ill-will and treachery, a jealousy and fierce exclusiveness of ownership, as well as an inability to construct a binding system of law for themselves.

What can we learn from the study of these three tribes?

Origins of Culture

Our “pattern of culture” – the product of a capitalist economy – is not universal and God-given, something which can never be disturbed or changed. While reading this book, we are jostled out of some of our dearly cherished notions about the superiority of our ways, and we are thereby made to question some of our basic institutions. More than that: we are made to see that it is absurd to pass judgment, to feel superior towards other societies and peoples; we lose some of the provincialism which is the curse of his country.

Another conclusion we may draw from Patterns of Culture is that the idea that there exists certain universal traits of human nature is folly. Each society tends to inculcate certain patterns of behavior in the people who live in it. Thus what is “norma!” for one society is not for another. For instance, many of the traits of the Kwakiutl Indians bear strong resemblance to what we would call a queer kind of frenzy, or what psychologists would call psychotic behavior; yet they, the Kwakiutl Indians, consider those traits perfectly normal.

Still another illuminating idea is suggested by Benedict’s study. Some of the traits which are considered normal in our society – competition, extreme individualism – are so exaggerated in the Kwakiutl society that we gain a clearer picture of their character because of the extremes to which the Kwakiutl people bring them.

Though Patterns of Culture is a valuable book, there are a few shortcomings that should briefly be noted. Most important, the author lacks an historical method, which results in an enormous amassing of facts she does not properly utilize. She does not attempt to question why these primitive peoples have different cultures; she does not. seek in their history or economic situation any reasons which might help to explain their varying “patterns of culture.” She merely describes without explaining.

Another difficulty is in her application to society of terms usually reserved for the psychological study of individuals. But it is questionable if the terms of individual psychology can be transferred so readily to entire societies.

In short, Benedict’s book suffers from some of the usual faults of present day American scholarship – an absence of the Marxist historical method. But that should not obscure the great value which it has.

Lawrence Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 July 2019