1992-10-02: Patterns of Culture

Patterns of Culture (1958)

by Ruth Benedict (1897-1948)

This book, which was mentioned in Pirsig’s Lila, is an important source of ideas related to culture and cultural evolution.

In the introductory chapters, Benedict displays a thorough understanding of the nature of culture and its diversity, the importance of history in creating it, and the arbitrariness of many of its manifestations. Her entire work could well be cast into the terminology of memetics, with great effect.

The three case-study chapters, on Zuni, Dobu and Kwakiutl, are fascinating in their extremity (i.e., their distance from what we regard as ‘normal’). Dobu particularly would be a tremendous challenge to explain in terms of memetic evolution; perhaps more information about Oceania’s cultures would help, but it is hard to imagine a more bizarre culture.

Benedict’s greatest contribution, which I fear is too little appreciated even after sixty years, is her emphasis on the total relatedness of all aspects of a culture, rather than focusing on just marriage or economics, for example. She explains the importance of examinig a culture’s basic values, and the forms in which they are expressed. Of course, she did not have many of the concepts needed to make a thorough analysis of these basic values and forms. The ideas of memes and their multi-dimensional complexes should, in principle, make it possible to explain and understand the source of even such unusual cultures as her case-studies. Similarly, they should enable explanation of our own culture and allow more objective evaluation of its traits and values.

In her last chapter, The Individual and the Pattern of Culture, she makes the statement:

There is no proper antagonism between the role of society and that of the individual. One of the most misleading misconceptions due to this nineteenth-century dualism was the idea that what was subtracted from society was added to the individual and what was subtracted from the individual was added to society. Philosophies of freedom, political creeds of laissez faire, revolutions that have unseated dynasties, have been built on this dualism. The quarrel in anthropological theory between the importance of the culture pattern and of the individual is only a small ripple from this fundamental conception of the nature of society.

In reality, society and the individual are not antagonists. His culture provides the raw material of which the individual makes his life. If it is meagre, the individual suffers; if it is rich, the individual has the chance to rise to his opportunity. Every private interest of every man and woman is served by the enrichment of the traditional stores of his civilization.

She goes on to compare the expressions of a culture’s values with the congenial expression of an individual’s nature. When these are consonant, the individual is considered well-adjusted by his society; otherwise maladjusted or abnormal. She gives case-histories of individuals who were ‘beyond the pale’ in their societies, but who would have fit naturally in another culture. She also describes persons who fit so extremely well with their culture that they would be considered abnormal in another.

Her final words are an appeal for recognition and acceptance of social or cultural relativity. Current American society is certainly in need of this acceptance, as the boundaries between subsocieties and subcultures are becoming wider, and creating greater contention than ever.

It is easy to see why Pirsig feels this to be an important book. Its illustrations are very pertinent to his theses about Quality and Values, and the cultural differences that reflect them in different ways. Even more, they exemplify the kind of cultural description that a good memetic analysis should be able to enable. Descriptions in plain English are good as far as they go, but they are difficult to keep in mind for comparison purposes. Good memetic tools, displaying and comparing multi-dimensional memetic complexes should be able to show areas of match and mismatch between cultures, and between cultures and individuals.


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