Individual and Society: The contrasting views of Benedict, Geertz and Wilson

What is the relationship between the individual and his or her society/culture? Does a person’s culture and society determine his beliefs and behavior? Or do the individual beliefs and behaviors based on self-interest, collectively comprise a culture and determine the cohesion of a society? In this paper I will compare and contrast the views of Ruth Benedict, Clifford Geetz and David Sloan Wilson on the relationship between people and their culture and society.

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

Ruth Benedict

Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1948)

Benedict approached studying culture and society from the perspective of Cultural Relativism. Cultural relativism came from the work of Benedict’s mentor Franz Boaz who believed that each culture had its own particular pattern of customs, values and beliefs based on its unique history. As such, each culture could only be evaluated based upon values and rules it set for itself. Hence all cultures are of equal value, none being superior or inferior to another. This was a radical idea during a time when 19th Century evolutionism and racist beliefs about non-Western societies and cultures dominated intellectual circles.

Benedict was a key member of the Culture and Personality School of anthropology (others included Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir) (Gordon 2011:268). Benedict believed that each culture’s pattern of values, symbols and sanctioned behaviors was created an integrated pattern, much like a personality. As such, each culture influenced the personalities and behaviors of its members. She refuted the dominant beliefs in her day in social Darwinism and eugenics.

Benedict’s theory of cultural relativism held that a culture is not only relative and patterned like a personality, it also influences an individual’s personality. Or, as Benedict said, Culture is  “essentially like a personality writ large” (Mead 1949; Vassar 2011). “The vast proportion of all individuals who are born into any society always and whatever the idiosyncrasies of its institutions, assumed, as we have seen, the behavior dictated by that society” Benedict says in the book (Benedict1934:254)

Benedicts views contrasted with those of Sigmund Freud whose work profoundly influenced the Culture and Personality School and who claimed that the individual was dominated by a selfish ego and would always be in conflict with the rules and values of society/culture (Freud 1930:2). Benedict believed that the individual’s personality was formed by his or her culture (Erickson 2006:93).  As long as individual conformed to their culture’s values, customs and ideal behaviors they would be successful. Society would pressure the individual to conform with its rules, expectations, values and traditions (Benedict 1934:232; 273). However, there would always be a minority who did not conform– or who could not conform because of circumstances beyond their control. Benedict herself as well as her mother were those who could not conform to societal ideals due to, in Benedict’s case, her inability to have children and un-married status, and in her mother’s case, her widowhood without adequate family financial support. People who didn’t fit in with rules and ideals of their culture/society would be treated with contempt, feared and either discriminated against or cast out from society. Benedict insisted in the uniqueness of each culture as being historically produced, her advocacy for equality for all people as well as respect for all cultures, and her rejection of neo-evolutionism as a justification for Western colonialism and social Darwinism.

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz had a similar interpretive style to Ruth Benedict in studying cultures minus her use of the “personality” metaphor to characterize them (Gordon 2011:73).  Also like Benedict, Geertz believed that the relationship between the individual and his or her culture was one of integration and reproduction and symbolic meanings, values, beliefs and behaviors. Public elements of culture such as religious rituals, festivals, even cock fights “created an integrated system” of meanings that were reproduced in people’s heads to produce the values, beliefs and behaviors that seemed normal to them.

Geertz believed that role of an anthropologist was to be a cultural translator, translating the cultural meanings of public events and material culture much as a regular translator would translate a document written in another language.  He believed that the practice of “ethnography is thick description” where a written detailed description was made of a public event which was then interpreted by the anthropologist in the fashion of literary interpretation or hermeneutic analysis (Geertz 1973:8). Geertz proposed that anthropology was not “an experimental science in search of law” like the neo-evolutionists and materialists of his time, but instead was “an interpretive one in search of meanings” (Erickson 2006:232). From that phrase and his profound impact on anthropological theory, he is known as the “guru of interpretive anthropology”(Erickson 2006:232).

David Sloan Wilson (1948–)

David Sloan Wilson (1949–)

David Sloan Wilson (1949–)

Wilson, a biological evolutionist, believed that social groups, and religious groups in particular, were culturally transmitted holisms that evolved much like living organisms. Societies and religious groups that persisted were, from an evolutionary perspective, most fit for their environment or best able to evolve and adapt in a changing environment. Social groups persisted as long as the majority of  their members benefited from membership.

How Wilson differed from Geertz and Benedict is with how he viewed the individual’s role in cultural evolution or cultural creation. According to Wilson, the “individual is no longer a privileged unit of selection, it is no longer a privileged unit of cognition” (Wilson 2002:33). To make an analogy, the individual is “given the status of a neuron” and the group he or she belongs to “is given the status of a brain” (Wilson 2002:33). As such, the social group as a whole is a group-level adaptations to the environment based on group selection. Wilson believes that evolution is “not restricted to genetic evolution” and that successful religious systems have a fitness advantage for their members over non-religious systems in certain environments (Wilson 2002:11).

Wilson attributes the success of Calvinism during the Renaissance and Protestant Christian beliefs that came from it in his book Darwin’s Cathedral to the social benefits of membership in these religious groups for their members. However, rational choice theory cannot explain membership in religious groups as people are generally not aware of the “functionally important features of their cultures” (Wilson 2002:78). Individuals were less motivated by “factual knowledge” of benefits of belonging in the group than by the group’s “symbolic belief system” (Wilson 2002:229). Wilson believes that religious beliefs (even magical ones) that motivate prosocial behaviors are reinforced by their “delivering practical benefits” to their members (Wilson 2002:52). These beliefs, even if implausible to non-believers, are more likely to endure due to their social, political and economic advantages than ideas based on “factual knowledge” (Wilson 2002:230).

Cited Works

Benedict, Ruth 2005 (2005 [1934]) Patterns of Culture, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Durkheim, Émile (2008[1912]) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy, Editors (2006) Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory,  Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press.

Freud, Sigmund 1961 (1930) Civilization and Its Discontents, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Gordon, Robert, Andrew P. Lyons, and Harriet D. Lyons (2011)  Fifty Key Anthropologists, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Wilson, David Sloan (2002) Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.