Mead and Benedict on Culture (Anthropology Essay)

Margaret Mead was one of the first influential female anthropologists. In Coming of Age in Samoa she studied Samoan female adolescents to better understand the adolescent years cross-culturally and found that adolescents in different cultures behave differently based on their values and traditions. Ruth Benedict agreed, with her assertion that different patterns of life exist across the world and each copes with life differently, in The Individual and the Pattern of Culture.

Mead wanted to study Samoan girls because, as a woman herself, she could more easily bond with them and study a demographic often overlooked by other ethnologists (Mead 144). By studying a non-Western society, an anthropologist can look at how different cultures make use of the different materials and values they are given. Mead said that studying another culture is very intensive because everything must be taken into context by its history. To study a French family, she said, “you would involve a preliminary study of French history, of French law, of the Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward sex and personal relations” (Mead 143).
Mead found that girls in Samoa react to adolescence differently than in America, where adolescence is categorized by rebellion and conflict (Mead 141). Because girls in Samoa had a completely different trajectory of history -not to mention a jungle environment- they experienced a different life. In the end, Mead said that learning about another culture helps make sense of one’s own culture. “A knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own,” she said (Mead 145).
Ruth Benedict has much the same perspective on studying other cultures as Margaret Mead does. Benedict studied how different cultures cope with grief and found a variety of responses: “Ignoring it, indulging it by uninhibited expression, getting even, punishing a victim and seeking restitution of the original situation” (Benedict 149). Benedict asserts that the differences in responses to grief lie in the different societies’ cultures. She said that individuals are “plastic to the moulding force of the society into which they are born” (Benedict 148). That is, individuals are a product of their culture which has a distinct way of looking at a specific situation. In fact, some cultures cast out certain members who have unconventional beliefs, where other cultures accept the same beliefs as valid (Benedict 150). The difference in values between two cultures, Mead would say, is based on the different materials and histories of the two cultures.
Because ethnologists study different cultures, cultural relativism is an essential tool to make sense of the world. “We shall arrive then,” said Benedict, “at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases of tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence” (Benedict 159).
Mead and Benedict, both cultural anthropologists living in the twentieth century, were influenced by Boas and Kroeber in thinking that culture is a mental phenomenon (Erickson 102). They were both interested in studying cultures cross-culturally to find cultural patterns as well as differences. Benedict went so far as to say each culture had its own personality, which she called its gestalt (Erickson 106). Their psychological anthropology was concerned about cultural and mental interaction, shows an influence of Boas and Kroeber, the latter describing culture as above the realm of the natural world (Erickson 99).
Margaret Mead said that Samoan girls do not face the pressures of adolescence because of Samoa’s different culture. Ruth Benedict said that different cultures cope with grief differently and have their own characteristic way of dealing with it. Both would say that culture is a complex phenomenon that is worthy to be studied; in fact, one could get a better appreciation of the world by looking at how another culture looks at an issue or a problem.
References
Benedict, Ruth
2010 [1934]. “The Individual and the Pattern of Culture,” in Erickson, Paul andLiam Murphy, eds., Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rdedition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Erickson, Paul and Liam Murphy
2008. A History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd edition. Toronto: University ofToronto Press.
Mead, Margaret
2010 [1928]. “Coming of Age in Samoa,” in Erickson, Paul and Liam Murphy,eds., Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. Edition.Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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