What makes people do what they do and believe what they believe? In the following essay I will trace the differing explanations of why people do what they do of three influential anthropologists. The ideas of the relationship between beliefs and behaviors varies significantly among Ruth Benedict, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach. All three of them believed that meanings and values were contextual and historically produced. However, they differed in what they believed was the relationship between a person’s thoughts/beliefs and behaviors/actions.
It’s All In Your Head: Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009)
Both Ruth Benedict and Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that cultural ideas and values in people’s heads produced behaviors. Both anthropologists also subscribed to the Dukheimian belief that a society is like a living organism in that it seeks to perpetuate itself by enforcing its traditional values and social norms. To understand why people do what they do in a culture, one must only understand their values and ideals. Both Benedict and Lévi-Strauss believed that meanings and values were contextual and historically produced.
However, Benedict and Lévi-Strauss had different perspectives on how values and behaviors originated within each culture.
It’s in your head: culture is “like a personality writ large” –Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)
Benedict believed that cultural values and beliefs were unique for each culture and historically produced through invention, diffusion or migration.
Benedict believed that a culture’s unique pattern of values, beliefs and norms influenced their members’ personalities, and as such, a culture, is “essentially like a personality writ large” (Mead 1949; Vassar Encyclopedia 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 Patterns of Culture (1934) (Benedict1934:254). As long as an individual conformed to their culture’s values, customs and normative behaviors they would be successful. If they didn’t, their society would pressure them to conform through social sanctions (Benedict 1934:232; 273). Benedict herself was unable to conform to the norms of her culture in the United States in the early 1900s. This was due to her employment as a professor before it was acceptable for women of her class to work professionally and her inability to have children. Benedict compared the different values and normative behaviors of three non-Western cultures – Zuñi pueblo Indians, the Kwakuitl Indians of Vancouver Island and the Dobu islanders of New Guinea– to demonstrate how values and normal behaviors are relative. Through cross-cultural analysis she showed how the values and traditional practices in one culture are often denigrated in another in Patterns of Culture (Benedict 1934). Benedict believed that if people understood other cultures, there would be less conflict and a better chance for peace. She published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a review of Japanese cultural practices and beliefs, to increase American understanding of Japanese culture during the mid-1940s as well as other cross-cultural analyses to further the global post-World War II peace effort. From her own life experiences and her ethnographic research of other cultures, Benedict demonstrated how each culture was relative–no culture was superior or inferior to any other.
Benedict insisted that each culture’s complexities were not due to progressive levels of social evolution. She rejected the beliefs of 19th century evolutionists such as Morgan and Tylor because they were ethnocentric and were used to justify for Western colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism in later years. It was for this reason that she also rejected the materialist perspectives of neo-evolutionists such as Julien Steward and Leslie White.
It’s in your head: universal cognitive structures called “binary oppositions” – Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)
Claud Lévi-Strauss is known as the “Father of Structuralism” due to his ground-breaking interpretive theory of binary oppositions–the abstract universal categories of meaning such as “male/female,” “us/them,” and “good/bad”– which he believed defined kinship systems and social structure in every society (Gordon 2011). In The Savage Mind Lévi-Strauss describes his universal scheme of how humans order and categorize things and their social relationships with examples of linguistic terms, totems, myths and kinship categories from “primitive” non-Western cultures. Lévi-Strauss took a great philosophical leap forward when he proposes that all cultural categories are fundamentally constructed as “binary oppositions” and culture itself is based on the need for all humans to create meaning (Lévi-Strauss 1966:175).
Lévi-Strauss believed that cultural values and beliefs were also historically produced but were based on pan-human (universal) cognitive categories. These cognitive categories, called “binary oppositions” by Lévi-Strauss, defined things by their opposites. For example, the concept “male” is defined by it’s opposite “female”, “culture” is defined by its opposite which is “nature”, “sacred” is defined by it’s opposite “profane”. Together these terms are binary oppositions: male/female, culture/nature, sacred/profane.
Cultural differences are due to environmental differences of the local natural and social environment. However, the oppositional nature of the categories are the same: in all cultures people think the same way: in binary oppositions. Lévi-Strauss used the analogy of a bricoleur (“handyman” in French) to show that each culture is a like a bricolage: taking disparate and available materials to get the job done. The basic jobs are the same in every culture, it is only the materials, or bricolage, which are different.
It’s not in your head, it’s the economic and social environment: Edmund Leach (1910-1989)
Leach differed from Benedict and Lévi-Strauss in that he emphasized the importance of the environment in shaping people’s beliefs, behaviors and even the social structure. However, like them he believed that cultural meanings were contextual and historically produced. Even though Leach, at heart was a materialist, he believed that the symbolic meanings and associations of words, myths, rituals and material culture played a social function in maintaining each individual’s social status and identity.
Sir Edmund Leach was a British anthropologist who was influenced by British Structural-Functionalists Raymond Firth and Bronislaw Malinowski. For example, he shows in his field work in Burma that the status and identity and values of the relatively wealthy and land-owning Shan people were due to their privileged economic and social position in their environment. “The ecological situation is a limiting factor not a determinant of the social order” (Leach 2004:28). The determining factors are the agency and choices of the individual. However, Leach at heart is a materialist: the economic and political environment drives beliefs, values and behaviors. The ideals of cultures were “fictions” to motivate ideal behaviors (Leach 2004: 63). According to Leach, even social structure doesn’t exist except as ideas based on linguistic categories (Leach 2004: 281).
Leach believed that there were no cultural universals. He makes a clear distinction between culture (what he called “frills”) and society (Leach 2004: 12). He believed that you could not explain culture except in contextual and historical terms–like Benedict and Levi-Strauss.
He disputed the British Structural-Functionalist perspective that society exists in equilibrium and coheres and behaves like a living organism. He believed that societies were dynamic and based on the economic and political interests of individual relationships
In his book Political Systems of Highland Burma he describes the diverse cultural ideals and dynamic societies of the Kachin hill tribes in northeast Burma from his fieldwork in 1940-41. Leach believed that the inherent self-interest of individuals seeking power collectively creates a social structure. Social structure only appears to be organized systematically when the “facts fit [linguistic] categories” of ideal values and political organization (p.xii). The ideals change according to the material circumstances of the individual. For example, the difference in the term “trade” to a wealthy Shan landowner and a tenant farmer Kachin communicates different values associated with commodities: the former as a source of profit, the later as a source of status. According to Leach, there is linguistic uniformity in socially stable communities but not in unstable ones where “some Kachin groups change their language very readily” in order to gain social status, power (p.288). Leach was a materialist who attributed cultural ideas and behaviors to the material circumstances and self-interests of the individuals. However, he interpreted those ideas as contextual and historically produced.
Benedict, Ruth 1934 Patterns of Culture, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Gordan, Robert, et al Editors 2011 Fifty Key Anthropologists, New York: Routledge Group, Inc.
Leach, E.R. 2004  Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. Oxford: BERG.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1966 The Savage Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Mead, Margaret 2011 “Ruth Fulton Benedict 1887-1948,” American Anthropologist, July – September 1949, New Series 51(3):457-468, Electronic document, http://www.americanethnography.com/article.php?id=7, accessed September 4, 2011.
Vassar Encyclopedia 2009 Ruth Benedict, Vassar Encyclopedia, Electronic document, http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/ruth-benedict.html, accessed September 5, 2011.