An Anthropology Made Safe for Culture: Patterns of Practice and the Politics of Difference in Ruth Benedict



In this article I focus on the problem of reconciling analytic and descriptive attention to cultural distinctiveness with the problems posed for it by contemporary globalization and our desire not to efface the agency of those we study. Boasians generally saw no contradiction between cultural contact and cultural integration. Ruth Benedict especially understood our tendency to link agency and individuality as ethnocentric—people made their cultural worlds even as they were profoundly shaped by them. Current discomfort with the culture concept has its roots in a Hegelian mistrust of particularism that pervades even self-consciously antifoundational thought. Drawing on Johann Gottfried Herder, Benedict offers an alternative way of thinking about agency and society, and, thus, a distinctively anthropological contribution to critical thought. Because we cannot understand people's political practice without understanding where they are coming from, cultural description must remain on the agenda of any politically engaged anthropology.