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Ruth Benedict: Culture and the Baha'i Faith


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In 1919 Ruth Benedict(1887-1948) began taking courses, first at Columbia University with American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey(1859-1952) and then at the New School for Social Research with American anthropologist, sociologist, folklorist, and feminist Elsie Clews Parsons(1875-1941) whose course in the ethnology of the sexes kindled Benedict's interest in anthropology.(1) At the time, far back in 1919, my father was 29 and my mother 15. They would not meet for nearly a quarter of a century in Hamilton Ontario at the Otis Elevator Company where they both worked in the late 1930s and early 1940s.


Under the guidance of Franz Boas, Benedict went on to receive her doctorate in 1923 from Columbia, where she remained for the next quarter century until her death at the age of 61 in 1948. In 1948 she was promoted to full professor in the Faculty of Political Science, the first woman to achieve such status at Columbia and one of the first women in the USA.


In 1919 too Abdu’l-Baha, the Son of the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, arranged for the unveiling in New York--before the North American Baha’i community--of His Tablets of the Divine Plan, written during the Great War. During the years 1923 to 1948 the then embryonic international Baha’i community was transformed from an informal network of groups around the world into a series of national units of a world society.(2) The numbers of Baha’is increased in this same period from about 100,000 to 200,000.(3)


Benedict's fieldwork during this time was done in California among the Serrano and with the Zuñi, Cochiti, and Pima in the Southwest. Student training trips took her to the Mescalero Apache in Arizona and Blackfoot in the Northwest. From her work in the field, several of her books were developed: Tales of the Cochiti Indians(1931); Zuñi Mythology(1935); and Patterns of Culture(1934) which became a best seller, influenced American life and explained the idea of "culture" to the layperson, arguably, for the first time in western anthropological circles.


During World War II, Benedict worked for the Office of War Information, applying anthropological methods to the study of contemporary cultures. A study of Japan was her final assignment. The outgrowth of her work on Japan for the OWI was her book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture(1946), which became a bestseller at the time and, ultimately, a classic work in the study of Japanese culture. At Benedict’s death in 1948 I was four years old.-Ron Price with thanks to (1)Guide to the Ruth Fulton Benedict Papers: 1905-1948, in the Vassar College Library; (2)Loni Bramson-Lerche, Some Aspects of the Development of the Baha’i Administrative Order in America, 1922-1936, Studies in Babi & Baha’i History, Vol.1, ed. Moojan Momen, Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1982, pp. 255-300; and (3) these numbers are my personal approximations.


I first heard of you in 1963 when

I was reading sociology at uni in

Canada long ago at the age of 19!

The course was a tortuous story

with Talcott Parsons’ theories at

the centre and my psycho-bio---

emotional state all over the place.


But sociology remained in my life-

narrative & it still is in the evening

of my life as is this new world Faith

for our embryonic global society with

its patterns of planetary "culture" a

word which you, Ruth, helped us to

begin to understand at the very start

of that Plan far back in those years, those

entre deux guerres years of 1936/7 as the

world was about to explode yet again in

that tempest, in another tragic-terror-war.


Ron Price

24 July 2010

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